The West has always offered a draw for Americans, going back to the pioneer days where trappers would trade with the native Indians and families would strike out seeking farmland to make their living on. One such trapper was Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who would go for weeks, maybe months without seeing another white face and that's the way he liked it, but there were two families he would encounter in a fateful meeting that he would never forget as they changed his life, or at least one of the daughters did, Eve Prescott (Carroll Baker), who had accompanied her father Zebulon (Karl Malden) and her closest relatives once they had met up with a man and his three sons who were heading in the same direction...
This was a prestige picture in 1962, and that doubtlessly paid off when it attracted enough punters to become that year's biggest hit. There were a few reasons for that, one being placing a star in practically every role to give the audiences the impression if these important celebs were taking this very seriously indeed then a history lesson torn from the pages of Life magazine related by the likes of John Wayne, Henry Fonda and Gregory Peck was something worth handing over cash for tickets. To add to that, MGM hired three major directors of the form in John Ford, Henry Hathaway and George Marshall to offer the impression that this was under the guidance of people who really knew what they were talking about when it came to Westerns.
However, the big selling point and perhaps the reason it's not the highest profile of the genre these days was the long ago obselete format in which it was shot: Cinerama. This was a process projected on an enormous, curved screen and created with three cameras to leave the viewer with a wholly immersive experience, as if they were truly within the action thanks to its overwhelming quality, and watching it at home on your television, no matter how big it is, is not going to convey precisely what that was like. It brought problems at the time, too: the cast and crew never got used to working with it, with Hathaway particularly vocal about his dislike as was his wont, and the actors pitching their performances loud and broad as if to match the gargantuan nature of what they were involved with.
Therefore it wasn't so surprising that for narrative movies, Cinerama was not a popular choice and it quickly reverted to show-off documentary spectacles, and eventually even they stopped being made, thus the process was relegated to history, unlike 3D which would make periodic comebacks since the nineteen-fifties of its initial heyday. One element which can be distracting watching this and its fellow efforts in the same vein, was the join noticeable between the three images making up the screen, which meant once noticed you tended to find yourself trying to discern the methods the filmmakers used to disguise those two lines, leaving an artificial experience even if you had gotten used to the odd perspective such a deep focus visual can offer: when the cast are as close to the camera as they can get and gesticulate, even dainty Debbie Reynolds (the closest we have to a leading character) has hands like shovels.
But enough of the technicalities, how was it to watch as a story? It was more of an education with often fictional characters, though skewed towards a very WASP-ish take on America's history in a fashion that dropped in on Baker and Reynolds throughout a long stretch of history for an impression of what it would have been like to live through such events as the Gold Rush or the Civil War. Certainly all those stars brought something to the table, if only a "Hey, isn't that...?" tone to oddly regretful yet fairly simple plots as ordered by the fact we were unable to examine any one section in any great detail. Every so often there would be an action sequence such as an attack on a wagon train by Indians or the climactic locomotive setpiece where the camera was strapped to the front of a train for an immediacy which just about translates to the home environment, and the sheer scale and majesty left one impressed even if it was more elephantine than expansive. More relic than classic, it was a case of "You really had to be there" - in the Cinerama theatre, not the Wild West. Music by Alfred Newman.