THE PRODUCTION OF "HOW THE WEST WAS WON"
(as told in the 1963 MGM-Random House souvenir book of the movie)
Filming the fully definitive story of the winning of the American West was one of the most demanding projects ever undertaken. This was never attempted before. The story encompasses fifty years in the westward expansion of the American nation-from 1839 to 1889. It includes momentous historic events of that era related to the personal stories of three generations of a typical pioneer family. Long before this heroic drama was placed before the Cinerama cameras, the project demanded and utilized the vast resources of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer, the world's largest studios, and the Cinerama Corporation. Before filming, the collaboration took four directions-historical research, scientific research to refine and improve Cinerama techniques, production planning, including script writing and casting, and selection of locations for shooting. Bernard Smith received the assignment of producer, and it was he who guided the four aspects. James R. Webb, noted writer and authority on the history of America, won the assignment of writing the original screenplay. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer and Cinerama united to meet the challenge of filming a full-length drama in the remarkable Cinerama medium - a challenge that tested the ingenuity of artists and artisans and the full resources of both corporations. Every phase of production was geared to the remarkable capacity of the Cinerama camera to capture for the screen a motion picture with absolute reality. HOW THE WEST WAS WON concerns itself with the rich human stories of our pioneers. The search for locations for the filming was one of the most extensive ever inaugurated by a film company. Over 75 per cent of the film was filmed on locations far from the studios in Culver City, California. Each locale had to be devoid of any signs of civilization.
Director Henry Hathaway (back to camera) and Cinerama's Tom Conroy (peering through lens) plan an Erie Canal scene setup.
The entire Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer staff of location experts searched for locations which would recall the America of the 1800s. These men traveled through the historic Ohio River Valley, once a water highway to the West, and into the heart of the proud Rocky Mountains. They rode over unused paths and roads as long as four-wheeled vehicles would carry them, and by foot along trails where there were no roads. They took thousands of photographs and sent them back to the studio as often as they could get to a post office. From these efforts came eleven key locations.
Among the locations selected were the Black Hills of South Dakota, sacred land of the Sioux Indians, and home of the largest remaining herd of buffalo in the United States; the Uncompaghre National Forest in the Rockies of Colorado which has an average elevation of 11,500 feet and where there are 52 peaks towering above 14,000 feet. In addition, the area bordering the Ohio and Cumberland Rivers in Kentucky were selected, where pioneers had sailed rafts and mountain men had paddled their pelt-laden canoes. Monument Valley on the Arizona-Utah border, one of nature's spectacular wonders also was an important location.
Miss Reynolds brought safely ashore after being tossed into the ice cold Gunnison River in Colorado. Director Hathaway (back to camera) supervising the action.
Behind-the-camera view of the hazardous wagon train river crossing 11,000 feet in the Rocky Mountains.
The production brought together Hollywood's most experienced creators, craftsmen and technicians, utilizing each of thirty-eight specialized MGM departments representing 117 arts and professions and 253 skilled technical crafts. The screenplay focused on five closely related yet distinct periods - the early days of the Ohio River Valley, the covered wagon and gold rush, the Civil War, the building of the transcontinental railroad and the Southwest. With the most careful scheduling, the film could not conceivably be completed in less than ten months. If one director and cinematographer were to have carried the entire burden, it would have required years to complete the motion picture.
To solve the problem of time, three of Hollywood's most renowned directors and four veteran camera-men worked closely and combined their special talents. The directors were John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall, and the cinematographers were William Daniels, Milton Krasner, Charles Lang, Jr., and Joseph La Shelle. These men were vastly stimulated by the storytelling potential of Cinerama and they adapted themselves to this new medium. They made many contributions to the art and craft of Cinerama to provide more exciting dramatic action.
This was equally true of everyone connected with HOW THE WEST WAS WON. Hollywood's unusual interest in the picture made it possible to assemble the splendid cast starring Carroll Baker, Lee J. Cobb, Henry Fonda, Carolyn Jones, Karl Malden, Gregory Peck, George Peppard, Robert Preston, Debbie Reynolds, James Stewart, Eli Wallach, John Wayne, Richard Widmark and co-starring Brigid Bazlen, Walter Brennan, David Brian, Andy Devine, Raymond Massey, Agnes Moorehead, Henry (Harry) Morgan, Thelma Ritter, Mickey Shaughnessy and Russ Tamblyn. Spencer Tracy became the twenty-fourth star of the cast, and although he is not seen in the picture, he serves in the vital role of narrator. His rich and dramatic voice weaves together the threads of history's tapestry as the West is won.
Director John Ford rehearses a scene with Eve and Zeb.
In total, a year of meticulous preparation was spent preceding the actual start of camera work. The research alone filled 87 volumes which were cross indexed for easier reference. These included more than 10,000 photographs, paintings and sketches which became the source of authentic background information. It was a library for the directors, the set designers, the costumers, the makeup and hairdressing craftsmen. The material provided information on how the pioneer built his crude rafts, his tools and cooking equipment, and the types of weapons he and his Indian adversaries used. The Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer research department purchased 195 books which were added to an already outstanding collection of early Americana.
A steady stream of color drawings and sketches came from the studio's art department. Visualizations depicting all of the action from river crossing by covered wagons to Indian battles were made. Seventyseven individual sets were designed. Sets were built higher, wider and more complete than before because the Cinerama camera magnifies each detail tremendously.
The Cinerama camera captures the grandeur of California's Sierra Nevada Mountains in epic scene.
Closeups of Debbie Reynolds, or of Gregory Peck, were filmed at two or three feet, and in pre-production tests, it was discovered that the camera glaringly revealed such minute things as machine stitching on the costumes. So, each garment had to be remade and sewn by hand in the studio's wardrobe department.
There could be no substitute for the rough, uneven homespun materials worn by the pioneers. Fifty yards of any particular fabric was the minimum order accepted by the few factories still specializing in these fabrics. A major source, oddly enough, was India, where the ancient art of handlooming has survived a mechanical age. Thousands of yards of this homespun were purchased for the costume department.
All the moccasins available in stores on Indian reservations around the nation were purchased for the production, but even these were not enough to supply the 1500 pairs used in this picture. Still more were handmade by Indian craftsmen on special order, and studio bootmakers turned out 2300 pairs of period shoes. Indian craftsmen made authentic headdresses, mostly of genuine eagle feathers and hundreds of yards of intricate beadwork.
John Wayne and Director John Ford, long time friends and co-workers, discuss a scene together.
The total number of wardrobe items ran into multiple thousands. It was the most exacting costume assignment ever attempted for a motion picture.
A few production statistics, selected at random, give a general idea of the problems faced. Bit players and extras appearing in the film totaled 12,617. There were 630 horses, 15o mules and 50 head of oxen which were tended by 203 wranglers. From reservations in South Dakota, Colorado and Utah, 350 Indians were recruited. There were 107 Conestoga and trail wagons.
Paradoxically, without modern transportation, it would have been impossible for the film crew to follow the trail of the pioneers across America. No mass movement in the history of filming on location comes close to matching HOW THE WEST WAS WON. The entire company was literally placed on wheels. It was completely self-contained, from portable dressing rooms for the stars to compact 7500 pound Leroi generators to furnish the millions of candlepower needed to light the various sets and locations.
At the height of production, the pool of studio vehicles, continually on the move over transcontinental highways for months on end, numbered 71, including 55 foot, 18 wheel semi-trailer trucks with 60,000 pound capacity, 50 foot vans, two-ton vans, four wheel drive equipment, caterpillars, buses, station wagons and passenger cars.
From the start of production on May 26, 1961, in the Ohio River Valley, with headquarters at Paducah, Kentucky, this group of vehicles accumulated almost a million miles of travel while shuttling between the studio and locations all over America.
Many of the locations selected for the film had never been photographed for a motion picture. Battery Rock in the Ohio River Valley, Courthouse Mountain, the Pinnacles and Chimney Rock in the Colorado Rockies were such areas. Locations were established in the high Sierras, the hills and plains of South Dakota and arid stretches of desert in the Southwest. To reach some of the more inaccessible locations, it was often necessary to bulldoze and maintain roads to accommodate the massive equipment needed at the sites. As the last vestiges of the Old West rapidly disappear, HOW THE WEST WAS WON recaptures both the stories and the land of the pioneers.
Henry Fonda chats with two members of the Arapahoe tribe while on location in the Black Hills of South Dakota.
The spirit of the Old West is relived in the songs it inspired. The tunes, tender and haunting, love ballads, and stirring marches which came from the hearts of the pioneers, have been woven into the score of HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
Heading a team of outstanding musical talent is Alfred Newman, an Academy Award winner five times. He won his first Oscar for "Alexander's Ragtime Band" and subsequently for "Song of Bernadette," "Mother Wore Tights," "Love Is A Many Splendored Thing" and "The King and I."
Associated with Newman are: Robert Emmett Dolan, music co-ordinator; Ken Darby, who wrote the lyrics to the film's title song, with music by Newman; and Sammy Cahn, Academy Award winner in collaboration for the song "Three Coins In The Fountain." Mr. Cahn wrote the lyrics for "Home In The Meadow," recurring theme of HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
Newman's score includes authentic songs of each historical period - the Rivers, the Plains, the Civil War, the Railroad and the Outlaws. His overture contains songs which will live as long as there is an America, among them "Shenandoah," and "Bound For the Promised Land."
In every aspect, HOW THE WEST WAS WON was a memorable project. The end result presents for the first time on a screen vast enough to capture its scope, the titanic story of the winning of the West.
It required more than two months for wranglers to corral the 2000 buffalo seen in the film's stampede scene, filmed in South Dakota.
More than 5000 pairs of period shoes and Indian moccasins were hand made to be worn by characters in HOW THE WEST WAS WON.
Thousands of yards of material had to be ordered from ancient looms in India for the special costumes. The Cinerama cameras are so critical they show up as false any attempts to substitute modern fabrics with machine stitching. So, all costumes had to be sewn by hand.
Five famous Indian tribes are represented among the Indian personnel of the film - the Brules, Oclallas and Minnecanjous of the Sioux nation, and the Arapahoes and Cheyennes.
Among the real Indians in the film are 81 year old Chief Weasel of the Oglalla tribe, a survivor of the Wounded Knee Massacre, who spent eight years with the Buffalo Bill Cody Show; and Red Cloud, who helped wipe out Custer's forces at Little Big Horn; and Ben Black Elk, so a a medicine man and the most photographed Indian in America today.
Twenty thousand pounds of hay and 1000 pounds of grain were needed daily to feed the 600 horses used in the production. Thousands more pounds of feed were needed for buffalo and other stock used in the film.
- END -
Click here if navigation bar is not visible on the left