The names are legendary: James Stewart. Henry Fonda. Gregory Peck. John Wayne. They each bring their distinctive talents to the bold, sweeping western classic How The West Was Won, but the film owes its very existence to yet another Hollywood superstar. This world-famous entertainer, who read the original seven-part series in Life magazine, bought the rights and sold the concept to MGM, is an unsung hero in the film’s journey to the big screen. Even many of the most ardent admirers of How The West Was Won are unaware that this timeless masterpiece was none other than…. Bing Crosby.

Crosby had originally bought the Life magazine articles to serve as the basis of a record album of pioneer-era songs that would be unified by the series’ title. He recorded and distributed the album, "How The West Was Won" through his own record label, but he also saw the potential for a large-scale motion picture that would capture the sweep and spectacle of America’s westward expansion. MGM agreed, and after Crosby sold the rights, he charitably assigned his share of the potential profits to St. John’s Hospital in Santa Monica, California.

It was an unusual beginning for a motion picture that would continue to defy filmmaking conventions in almost every stage of its three-year development. Like the adventurous pioneers it celebrates, How The West Was Won blazed new trails in pursuit of its lofty ambitions, triumphing as a motion picture classic that has gloriously stood the test of time.

The film pushed the boundaries of motion picture technology when the Cinerama Corporation partnered with MGM to make How The West Was Won one of the first narrative films produced in the large-screen Cinerama format. For this process, the action was recorded on three 35mm strips of film, then projected side-by-side to create a seamless panoramic view with startling depth and clarity. The format had been used primarily for documentaries and travelogues, but How The West Was Won, with its awesome vistas and epic scope, was seen as the ideal project to capitalize on Cinerama’s heretofore untapped potential for feature-length fictional films.

James R. Webb was hired to write the sprawling saga, and he imbued the story with his trademark warmth, humor, and breathtaking spirit of adventure. But before the screenplay was even completed, producer Bernard Smith realized that its scope was so vast that the production could take two full years to complete. In yet another radical departure from standard Hollywood practice, a bold plan was formulated: three of the industry’s most brilliant directors would work simultaneously on the film, sharing responsibility – and screen credit – for weaving this grand tapestry spanning several generations of the American experience. The story’s episodic structure easily lent itself to the revolutionary approach, and three master filmmakers signed on for this unusual collaboration: Henry Hathaway, John Ford, and George Marshall.

Hathaway was assigned to direct the largest part of the movie, the segments that became known as "The Rivers", "The Plains", and "The Outlaws". The director brought 53 years of experience to the production, having working in the motion picture business in various capacities since the age of 10. Hathaway had directed the first color film to be filmed outdoors, Trail of the Lonesome Pine (1936), and he established his ability to deftly balance action and emotionally charged drama in such films as The Lives of a Bengal Lancer (1935), Kiss of Death (1947) and the Desert Fox (1951).

Marshall, who had directed over 400 movies dating back to 1916, took the reins of the segment known as "The Railroad." Marshall was acclaimed for the quality as well as quality as well as the quantity of his films, having directed one of the all-time classic westerns, Destry Rides Again (1939), starring James Stewart and Marlene Dietrich. Demonstrating an unusual versatility throughout his career, Marshall was equally adept at mysteries (The Blue Dalia, 1946), comedies (Scared Stiff, 1953) and biographies (Houdini, 1953).

Ford was already regarded as a legendary director of westerns when he signed on to create the "Civil War" segment. He began his career in the early silent era by writing, directing, and acting in several short films, and he went on to make the classic western Stagecoach (1939), My Darling Clementine (1946), Fort Apache (1948), Rio Grande (1950), The Searchers (1956) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). His long list of classics also includes How Green Was My Valley (1941), The Quiet Man (1952) and Mister Roberts (1955).

With his team of directors in place, Smith proceeded to assemble one of the most amazing casts in motion picture history: In addition to Stewart, Peck, Fonda and Wayne, he signed Debbie Reynolds, Robert Preston, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden, Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, George Peppard, Richard Widmark and Walter Brennan, among others, to star in what was rapidly shaping up to be a landmark Hollywood spectacle.

How The West Was Won began shooting May 28, 1961, quickly distinguishing itself with the sheer size of its production. At one time, 71 vehicles were on the move, dispatched to ferry the actors, crew, and equipment to locations all over the country. Key filming sites included the Colorado Rockies, the Black Hills of South Dakota, the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers in Kentucky, and the breathtaking Monument Valley on the Arizona/Utah border. The production vehicles accumulated an amazing 793,261 miles during the course of the project!

After the premiere in November 1962, critics heralded How The West Was Won as a stunning breakthrough in motion picture entertainment, not only for its technical achievements, but also for its textured writing, skilled direction and larger-than-life performances. Film Daily hailed as a "stupendous, action-crammed and dramatic panorama with incredible entertainment impact" (11/7/62). Variety was equally enthusiastic when it deemed the film "the blockbuster supreme" and "a magnificent and exciting spectacle" (11/7/62). The Hollywood Reporter called it a "a cornucopia spilling over with romance, history, comedy, music and action" and singled out the breathtaking train wreck as a thrilling component of "one of the greatest movie adventures ever filmed" (11/7/62). And this spellbinding epic went on to win three 1963 Academy Awards: one for Webb (Story and Screenplay Written Directly for the Screen), one for Franklin E. Milton (Sound) and one for Harold E. Kress (Film Editing).

From beginning to end, the making of How The West Was Won had been infused with the same frontier spirit and sense of adventure that characterized the trailblazing Americans it so thrillingly depicts. The result is a timeless masterpiece that presents the Old West with a passion, sweep and intelligence unlike any film before – or since.


As one of the first narrative films to be produced in the large-screen Cinerama process, How The West Was Won presented daunting challenges for the filmmakers. The camera weighed some 800 pounds, making smooth movements and complex tracking shots difficult, especially in the rough terrain where many of the action-packed scenes were set. For many actors, the massive Cinerama camera was unnerving. In a scene between Debbie Reynolds and Thelma Ritter, the large lens was just inches from their faces. Recalled Ritter: "Looking into a Cinerama camera only 18 inches away throws you. It’s frightening. It’s like looking into the back of a giant watch. You can see the wheels going around, you can see the darn thing shifting gears" (Los Angeles Mirror, 10/11/61).

Robert Preston was in good humor about the challenges of working in the Cinerama format. "Every time the camera is moved 10 feet, they have to dress another 200 acres," he told a journalist in the Colorado location. Preston joked that, in allowing for the 161-degree curvature of the screen, he had "been caught in this picture standing behind the camera" (Los Angeles Mirror, 10/11/61).

The amazing size and detail of the Cinerama images also presented challenges for the film’s wardrobe personnel and production designers. Early camera tests of the costumes plainly revealed the precision of machine stitching, forcing the studio to hand-sew every garment worn onscreen. Similarly, the 77 sets were built to withstand intense scrutiny, incorporating fine details not required in other productions.


In the months preceding principal photography, MGM mobilized its research department to create an exhaustive compendium of over 10,000 photographs, sketches and paintings that would assist the various departments in preparing for the film. The research filled 87 massive volumes, and included details on set design, costuming, make-up, weaponry, tools, and cooking utensils. In addition, the research department purchased 195 books detailing every aspect of the pioneer era.

Boasting one of the largest casts of animals in film history, How The West Was Won featured 875 horses, 500 steers, 200 sheep, 160 mules, 50 oxen, and 1,200 buffalo. 203 wranglers were hired to keep them all in line.

The locomotive seen in "The Railroad" segment was the 91-year-old "Pacific Express," which had once been the pride of Nevada’s Virginia-Truckee Railroad. Sold to MGM in the late 1930’s and used for many productions on its Culver City back lot, the locomotive was loaded onto railroad flatcars and shipped to the location in South Dakota.

The rough, homespun fabric worn by the cast was imported from India, one of the few countries that still widely practiced hand looming. A large percentage of the production’s 1,500 pairs of moccasins were purchased from Native American craftsmen.

Carroll Baker was so taken with her aprons in the film (designed by Walter Plunkett, who also created the unforgettable costumes for Gone With The Wind) that she took several to a dressmaker and had them copied in white and contemporary prints. She also had miniature duplicates made for her young daughter.


The spectacular attack on the covered wagons was filmed near Montrose, Colorado, on the very soil where Utes Indians battled pioneers in the 19th Century. The sequence featured 350 Native Americans, many of whom were direct descendents of the Utes warriors! 300 rifles and revolvers were used in the scene, along with 150 seats of bows and arrows and 100 lances.

While enacting the massive attack on the wagon train, one of the horses stumbled in a gopher hole and tossed its rider to the ground. 50 horses charged over the fallen rider, but the animals were so well-trained that only one hoof struck the man. The rider suffered a bruise on his right shoulder.

For the spectacular interior shot of the covered wagon tumbling down a steep hillside, Hathaway eschewed elaborate special effects in favor of a simpler yet more dangerous approach: an actual wagon was tipped down the hillside while an attached interior camera recorded both the spinning scenery and the jostled stuntmen.


In his early days in Hollywood, John Ford worked as an assistant propman and as a set laborer. He was also a part-time stuntman who often doubled for his actor brother, Francis.

How The West Was Won would not be the last great western directed by Hathaway. He also helmed The Sons of Katie Elder (1965) and True Grit (1969) starring John Wayne in a Best Actor Oscar-winning performance.

During his career, Marshall directed several of the screen’s great comedians, including Laurel & Hardy, W.C. Fields, Bob Hope, and Martin & Lewis. Although not an actor by trade, Marshall does appear in two Laurel & Hardy classics, Pack Up Your Troubles (1932) and Their First Mistake (1932).

Webb began his screenwriting career with Roy Rogers westerns and he continued in the genre for most of his life. Several of his taut, action-packed films have become classics, including The Big Country (1958), Pork Chop Hill (1959), Cape Fear (1962) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964). One of his final screenplays was They Call Me Mister Tibbs (1970), the sequel to In The Heat of the Night.

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