Warner's epic restoration shows how 'West' was done


Warner Home Video is gearing up for one of its most ambitious catalog releases ever.

"How the West Was Won," the sprawling 1962 MGM Western epic boasting an ensemble cast that includes Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck and James Stewart, will be released Aug. 26 in three newly restored and remastered versions.

What made the project a bit more cumbersome than others is the fact that "West" is one of just two narrative feature films produced in the original Cinerama three-panel widescreen process, a costly proposition abandoned after just one other simultaneously shot MGM feature, "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm."

During its initial theatrical run, "West" — winner of three Oscars, including best original screenplay — was shown in theaters specially equipped with three synchronized projectors on extra-wide, slightly curved screens. Later, it was presented on traditional screens, with the three separate panels optically joined to form a standard widescreen image, leaving two vertical "join lines" clearly visible on the screen.

The join lines also are noticeable on the original DVD edition of the film that Warner released in July 1998, barely a year into the format's life cycle.

The film has been a consistent seller for Warner, and George Feltenstein, the division's senior vp classic catalog marketing, has long wanted to produce a special edition. But he didn't want one with those nasty join lines, he said, so he went to the technicians at Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging.

That was about five years ago. Technicians did in fact develop a complicated software program to eliminate the lines, and about 18 months ago they began an exhaustive frame-by-frame restoration.

"The film has always been extraordinarily successful and popular with the cast being what it is and the story being so inspiring," Feltenstein said. "But we always felt that to really do it justice we had to find a way to bring the panels together and eliminate those join lines so it looks gorgeous. We tried and tried, and ultimately we found a way. The results are truly astounding."

The new and improved "West" will be presented on all three editions of the film: a special-edition DVD, an "ultimate collector's edition" DVD and a Blu-ray Disc edition. Additionally, the Blu-ray edition will come with a second version of the film that replicates the original Cinerama experience.

"Dave Strohmaier, considered the world's foremost expert on all things Cinerama, calls it the 'smile box' version because it uses the shape of the original Cinerama screen and expands out with a curve so it looks like a frown on the bottom and a smile on the top," Feltenstein said. "It's almost 3-D, and it allows anyone who has a home theater system to re-create the Cinerama experience."

Feltenstein said that Strohmaier, whose 90-minute docu "Cinerama Adventure" is featured on all three editions, has been intimately involved in the production of the packages. (partialdiff)

In addition to the documentary, other special features include a film historian commentary, a vintage making-of feature and the original theatrical trailer. The collector's edition comes with a 20-page theatrical press book reproduction, 10 behind-the-scenes photos and 10 postcards. The Blu-ray edition is packaged in a "Digi-book" that resembles a small hardcover book and includes 32 page of press materials and behind-the-scenes photos. (partialdiff)