Film nostalgia (2)

In 1963, I was eleven years old. I had heard about a new concept in cinema, called ‘Cinerama’. I was keen to see this innovation, and read in the London papers that ‘How The West Was Won’ was due to be shown in this format, at the Casino Cinema in Soho, in the heart of London’s West End. The prospect of this had me dizzy with expectation. This was a huge film, with every known Hollywood star of the day, and the new idea of Cinerama also had me frantic with anticipation.

Even though I was only eleven, I had already had extensive experience of cinema going, as I wrote about in this post. I was used to the occasional special trip to cinemas in the West End, as we didn’t live too far away, just south of the River Thames. As soon as I heard that this film was to be premiered, I began to pester my parents to take me to see it.

This film was a western with a difference. It explored the founding of modern America, using a series of unconnected vignettes, spanning the period from the early wagon trains, through the Civil War, to the cattle wars and land grabs that followed. It covered a period of sixty years, in five different episodes, all coming together to make one complete film. I won’t list the whole cast, but this will give you a taste of the talent on show. Gregory Peck, John Wayne, George Peppard, James Stewart, Carroll Baker, Eli Wallach, Lee J. Cobb, Richard Widmark, to name but a few. Who would not have wanted to see a film starring all these luminaries? Let alone in a new concept of projection and filming that even the idea of took my breath away.

My Mum agreed, and got tickets to the film, which ran in this single cinema for no less than 123 weeks, until 1965. The evening was set, and I could hardly contain my excitement. The edited cut was due to run for two hours and forty-five minutes, and would include two intermissions. That was my idea of a night out! We arrived in good time, and I was bought a souvenir brochure on arrival. This included stills from the film, biographies of the stars and directors, (there were three!) as well as a detailed explanation of the Cinerama process. The cinema was comfortable and sophisticated, and everyone was dressed as if for an occasion, including the three of us.

I should explain the Cinerama experience. There were no green screens back then; no computer animation, CGI, or anything remotely resembling the special effects we take for granted now, even on TV. Using a dramatically curved screen, three different 35 MM film images were projected simultaneously, on a series of strips, rather than one screen. The images were expanded to 70 MM, giving an experience very similar to being inside the screen. Though not 3-D, it was almost as close as you could get, without the need for special glasses and dedicated projectors. The curved screen stretched almost 150 degrees, so three times the normal field of human vision. To make the most of this effect, special scenes were filmed. These included a buffalo stampede, logs falling from a derailed train, and horses running directly at the audience. Much of the rest of the film was shot in 70 MM Super Panavision, which did not replicate this effect, but suited the exaggerated widescreen projection.

For early 1960s cinema-goers, the impact of this had to be seen to be believed. Many of the audience members (including me) held their hands to their faces during some scenes, and when the buffalo stampede was shown, we almost ran from the cinema in panic. The whole film was an episodic delight, and the new style of special effects made it all the more memorable. The main drawback was that a cinema had to have a specially adapted screen to show these films, and they were expensive to make. Without a dedicated screen, they didn’t appear the same. In fact, if you see the film on TV today, it appears disjointed, almost un-watchable. But on that night, in that venue, it was a cinematic feast.

In that early spring evening, in 1963, I was enthralled, and held in the rapture of the magic of cinema. Is it any wonder that I love films as much as I do?

The former cinema is now the Prince Edward Theatre, its original name. It is in Old Compton Street.

Here’s the trailer. Unfortunately, you can see the lines!


6 thoughts on “Film nostalgia (2)

  1. I saw this as a young child as well. Earlier this year, I borrowed the DVD from the library. The film has been beautifully restored, and the lines have been fairly well eliminated, don’t you think? “How the West Was Won” is not on my list of favorite westerns, but it’s definitely one worth seeing. My favorites are “Once Upon a Time in the West,” “The Big Country,” and (this may surprise you) “Open Range.” I’m a big fan of John Wayne, James Stewart, and Clint Eastwood (I have a good selection of their films), but you’ll notice those three actors are not in my three faves.


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