Phoenix once boasted two Cinerama movie houses: the Cine Capri and the Kachina in Scottsdale. Both were bulldozed. In Seattle, thanks to the stewardship of Paul Allen, the Cinerama theater downtown was saved and renovated. It just completed a three-week festival of movies originally filmed in 70 millimeter, which even with all the technology available to Hollywood today is something worth experiencing. Despite facing the terrible commute and traffic of going one block, I went anyway yesterday to see How the West Was Won, the 1962 epic.
At the risk of provoking readers, I must confess that I was deeply moved. Yes. The film has more than one historical inaccuracy. The cognoscenti will always condemn it as a celebration of genocidal Manifest Destiny, although for the era it shows a much more nuanced portrait of Western expansion. Still, with a grand old-time movie score, a battalion of big stars, surprisingly good dialogue and the scenery on that wide, curved screen, it was hard to resist. (An added treat: One of the card sharks was a dead ringer for JPMorgan Chase CEO Jamie Dimon). At the end, the packed house of Seattle lefties gave long applause.
I was moved partly because the story, which follows four generations of a family from 1839 to 1889, could have been about my family, too. The migration routes were somewhat different and my kin fought on both sides of the Civil War, literally brother against brother, but in both cases the family ended up in Arizona. Yes, in hindsight we were part of the problem, but I can't imagine any nation just walling off settlement beyond the Alleghenies. It wasn't going to happen. But this personal connection wasn't all that provoked strong emotions.
Arizona's population in 1960 was 1.3 million. Most movie-goers in 1962 had never even been to Arizona. The scenes made there are the real heartbreakers. Yeah, the wooden buildings in the desert are fake, but the desert itself is gloriously really empty. I remember how when I returned to Arizona in 2000 it was much more difficult to find a view with nothing man-made in it. Prescott Valley is only one spectacular example of profaning this magical land. This outcome was not inevitable, as evidenced by better land-use practices in Oregon and Washington, among others. But I just go back to: if you didn't see Arizona and Phoenix before 1970, I feel sorry for you.
The world's population is about to cross 7 billion. Arizona's is 6.5 million. Both are unsustainable and at the root of so many problems globally and locally.
The last scenes of How the West Was Won are panoramic shots of the "West today" (i.e., 1961-62), as Spencer Tracy intones:
The west was won by its pioneers, settlers, adventurers is long gone now. Yet it is theirs forever, for they left tracks in history that will never be eroded by wind or rain - never plowed under by tractors, never buried in compost of events. Out of the hard simplicity of their lives, out of their vitality, of their hopes and sorrows grew legends of courage and pride to inspire their children and their children's children. From soil enriched by their blood, out of their fever to explore and be, came lakes where once there were burning deserts - came the goods of the earth; mine and wheat fields, orchards and great lumber mills. All the sinews of a growing country. Out of their rude settlements, their trading posts came cities to rank among the great ones of the world. All the heritage of a people free to dream, free to act, free to mold their own destiny
We see Hoover Dam with a full Lake Mead and without that horrible freeway bridge, abundant fields where desert once stood, a San Francisco and Los Angeles with tiny skyscrapers...and a straight-down shot of an LA freeway interchange.