How the West Was Won


As the story opens an otherwise happy family led by Zebulon Prescott (Karl Malden) is introduced as having abandoned a comfortable life in the rural, small town, setting of upstate New York; for the alleged greater opportunity awaiting all, in the as yet unsettled west; via the Erie Canal. The “west” of this time is the Illinois country. In the unnaturally peaceful and safe opening of the Prescott’s long journey they come to meet a Mountain man Linus Rawlings (James Stewart) who is traveling east to Pittsburgh to trade his furs. His daughter Eve (Carroll Baker) and Linus are attracted to each other, but he isn’t ready to settle down.

Linus stops at an isolated trading post run by a murderous clan of “river pirates” headed by “Colonel” Hawkins (Walter Brennan). Linus is betrayed when he accompanies pretty Dora Hawkins (Brigid Bazlen) into a cave to see a “varmint”. She stabs him in the back and pushes him into a deep hole. Fortunately, Linus is not seriously wounded, and is able to rescue the Prescott party from a similar fate. The bushwhacking thieves (Lee Van Cleef plays one), including Dora, are dispatched with rough frontier justice.

The settlers continue down the river, but their raft is caught in rapids and Zebulon and his wife Rebecca (Agnes Moorehead) drown. Linus, finding that he cannot live without Eve, reappears and marries her, even though she insists on homesteading at the spot where her parents died.

Eve’s sister Lily (Debbie Reynolds) chooses to go to St. Louis, where she finds work performing in a dance hall. She attracts the attention of professional gambler Cleve Van Valen (Gregory Peck). After overhearing that she has just inherited a California gold mine, and to avoid paying his debts to another gambler (John Larch), Cleve joins the wagon train taking her there. He and wagonmaster Roger Morgan (Robert Preston) court her along the way, but she turns them both down, much to the dismay of her new friend and fellow traveler Agatha Clegg (Thelma Ritter), who is searching for a husband.

Surviving an attack by Cheyenne Indians, Lily and Cleve arrive at the mine, only to find that it is now worthless. Cleve leaves. Lily returns to work in a dance hall in a literal “Camp Town,” living out of a covered wagon. Morgan finds her and again proposes marriage in a rather unromantic way. She tells him, “No, not ever.”

Later, Lily is singing in the music salon of a riverboat. By chance, Cleve is a passenger. When he hears Lily’s voice, he leaves the poker table (and a winning hand) to propose to her, telling her of the opportunities waiting in the rapidly growing city of San Francisco. She accepts.

Linus joins the Union army as a captain in the American Civil War. Despite Eve’s wishes, their son Zeb (George Peppard) eagerly enlists as well, looking for glory and an escape from farming. Corporal Peterson (Andy Devine) assures them the conflict won’t last very long. The bloody Battle of Shiloh shows Zeb that war is nothing like he imagined and, unknown to him, his father Linus dies there. He encounters a similarly disillusioned Confederate (Russ Tamblyn) who suggests deserting, to which Zeb agrees.

However, by chance, they overhear a private conversation between Generals Ulysses S. Grant (Harry Morgan) and William Tecumseh Sherman (John Wayne). The rebel realizes he has the opportunity to rid the South of two of its greatest enemies and tries to shoot them, leaving Zeb no choice but to kill him. Afterwards, Zeb rejoins the army.

When the war finally ends, he returns home, only to find his mother has died. She had lost the will to live after learning that Linus had been killed. Zeb gives his share of the family farm to his brother, who is more tied to the land, and leaves in search of a more interesting life.

Following the daring riders from the Pony Express and the construction of the transcontinental telegraph line in the early 1860s, two ferociously competing railroad lines, the Central Pacific Railroad and the Union Pacific Railroad, one building west and the other east, open up new territory to eager settlers.

Zeb becomes a lieutenant in the U.S. cavalry, trying to maintain peace with the Indians with the help of grizzled buffalo hunter Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda), an old friend of Linus. When ruthless railroad man Mike King (Richard Widmark) violates a treaty by building on Indian territory, the Arapaho Indians retaliate by stampeding buffalo through his camp, killing many, including women and children. Disgusted, Zeb resigns and heads to Arizona.

In San Francisco, widowed Lily auctions off her possessions (she and Cleve had made and spent several fortunes) to pay her debts. She travels to Arizona, inviting Zeb and his family to oversee her remaining asset, a ranch.

Zeb (now a marshal), his wife Julie (Carolyn Jones) and their children meet Lily at Gold City’s train station. However, Zeb also runs into an old enemy there, outlaw Charlie Gant (Eli Wallach). When Gant makes veiled threats against his family, Zeb turns to his friend and Gold City’s marshal, Lou Ramsey (Lee J. Cobb), but Gant is not wanted for anything in that territory, so there is little Ramsey can do.

Zeb decides he has to act rather than wait for Gant to make good his threat to show up someday. Suspecting Gant of planning to rob an unusually large gold shipment being transported by train, he prepares an ambush with Ramsey’s reluctant help. Gant and his gang (one member played by Harry Dean Stanton) are killed in a shootout. In the end, Lily and the Rawlings travel to their new home.

A short epilogue shows Los Angeles and San Francisco in the early 1960s, including the famous four-level downtown freeway interchange and Golden Gate Bridge, indicating the growth of the West in 80 years.


An epic tale of immense proportions, How the West Was Won follows four generations of the Prescott family as they tame the unsettles American western frontier.

This may be classified as a western, but with the exception of the shootout at the end, and some battles with the Arapaho Indians, there really isn’t much that you see in your traditional western. I think that this is the reason this is listed as one of the greatest films of all time, though. It was a groundbreaking epic masterpiece that pushed the genre to its limits.

As I was watching this evening, I couldn’t help but notice the all-star cast. I swear the only major stars from this era who do not appear are Steve McQueen and Yul Brenner.

There isn’t a bad performance to be found in this masterpiece, but the most impressive role has to be George Peppard. Most of us know him as Hannibal from The A-Team, but apparently, he was quite the competent actor before he took that role, as can be seen here where shines.

This epic tale is told in different parts, chronicling the life and times of the Prescott family. Starting in their humble beginning and ending with their great grandson’s life as a marshal.

While there is a bit of action to be had here, especially in the later parts of the flick, I tend to think this more of a drama. How is it that this can seem like two different flicks? Well, it was directed by 3 different directors, each taking on separate periods of time. When you watch this film and take that into consideration, you can barely tell.

At just under 3 hrs, this film was a little on the lengthy side for my taste, but that really is my only qualm with this film. If I could set aside 3 hrs in my schedule, you can guarantee that I would be watching this blueprint of excellence again. Often time in these reviews, I say that today’s films don’t stack up to those of yesteryear. If ever there was proof of that, this film is it. Check out what real filmmaking is!

4 1/2 out of 5 stars

11 Responses to “How the West Was Won”

  1. […] I am more than familiar with George Peppard as an action star, but until a few weeks ago when I saw How the West Was Won, and now this, I had no idea he was a dramatic actor, let alone had a career before that show. It […]

  2. […] reminiscent of such western gems as Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, High Noon, and to a lesser extent, How the West Was Won. Unfortunately, the film doesn’t stack up as a […]

  3. […] Wallach is in 2 other western I’ve seen, The Magnificent Seven and How the West Was Won, both of which he lit up the screen with his performance. This was no exception, though I think he […]

  4. […] really is a shame because this is one of the best crafted westerns I’ve seen. Now, it is no How the West was Won or The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, but it is apparent that the people behind the camera on this […]

  5. […] action. I’m not so sure it is the true highlight of the film. In the same vein as How the West Was Won, True Grit seems to focus more on the plot and drama, rather than the final shootout. Not a thing […]

  6. […] See, nothing fancy, but this is The Lone Ranger. Did you really expect something along the lines of How the West Was Won? If so, then you obviously are not familiar with 60s television […]

  7. […] us the illusion that is an epic cinematic masterpiece. There are subtle quotes from the them to How the West Was Won, which I liked, but question why it is that he felt he had to rip off that orchestral masterpiece, […]

  8. […] a bit spoiled with the epic scored of films like Lawrence of Arabia, Dances with Wolves, Gladiator, How the West was Won, etc, but this just left me feeling […]

  9. […] He also had a part in How the West Was Won […]

  10. […] not inherently familiar with Gregory Peck’s body of work. Before this, I had only seen him in How the West was Won and Roman Holiday, hardly enough to judge the man’s career. Watching him command the screen […]

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