This week, two very different movies that must be seen on big screens: Avatar (2009) and How the West Was Won (1962). Of the films I’ve seen at the cinema in the last couple of years, these have left the biggest impression.
I saw James Cameron’s Avatar the night it opened in the UK, in a full house, in 3D. Avatar was a highly anticipated release and thanks to the 3D specs, it felt like sitting in a cinema audience in the 1950s. The film lived up to expectations – and the hype. The plot and script were okay (Dances with Smurfs some critics called it) and the message sometimes heavy-handed, but the visuals won out.
Avatar depicts a mission by the Research Development Administration (RDA) to kick the indigenous Na’vi out of their paradise on Planet Pandora, because their home sits on a massive deposit of valuable silver-grey mineral ‘Unobtanium’. There are parallels with American history and current US foreign policy, but the film’s real power lies in Avatar’s look and sound. The cinematography by Mauro Fiore renders Pandora in all its 3D glory, from the Fungimonium Giganteum (that’s giant neon toxic mushrooms to you and me) to the fluttering, jellyfish-like wood spirits, and the Bioluninescence that imbues the planet’s flora with its lush, pulsating glow. Cameron succeeds in creating this believable world, populated by beasts of wonder, such as the rhino-like charging Hammerhead Titanotherre, the winged Mountain Banshees and the Giant Leonopteryx, and the Na’vis’ land steeds, the Direhorses. On the opening night, these sights and sounds engrossed the audience and the 155 minutes flew by. Avatar was also released in the immense IMAX format, as well as ‘flat’ 2D in 2.35:1 widescreen, and has gone on to become the most successful film of all time.
Before Avatar began, I was sitting in the cinema thinking: ‘Wouldn’t it be great if old movies could draw audiences in these numbers, with this much enthusiasm?’
Fast forward to April 2011, at the Widescreen Weekend at the Pictureville Cinema in Bradford, for a showing of How the West Was Won in three-strip Cinerama on a giant curved screen. It was a full, enthusiastic house for this too. The audience were soon blasted out of their seats by Alfred Newman’s theme music, in booming 7-track stereo, as the titles unveiled the roster of star names – some screen legends – involved. These include James Stewart, Henry Fonda, John Wayne, Gregory Peck, Debbie Reynolds, Carroll Baker, George Peppard, Eli Wallach, Karl Malden and Lee J. Cobb, with epic narration from Spencer Tracey. On its first release, How the West was the most successful western of all time, until the release of Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid seven years later.
When it‘s shown pan-and-scanned or cropped on TV, How the West Was Won must survive on its story and as stories go, it has the complexity of Avatar. It recounts the frontier exploits of a familial dynasty of pioneers, farmers, speculators and lawmen, tracing the history and taming of the old ‘wild west’ and resulting in the USA of ‘today’ (well, of 1962 at least). The plot feels a bit like it’s been tailored around the locations and settings, but fortunately these are impressive, ranging from lakes, rivers and mountains, to desert plains. The film is in five parts: ‘The Rivers’, ‘The Plains’ and ‘The Outlaws’ (all directed by Henry Hathaway), ‘The Railroad’ (George Marshall) and ‘The Civil War’ (John Ford) – and each foregrounds the landscape and action sequences. These include an Indian attack on a wagon train, a shootout with river pirates, a buffalo stampede, a train robbery and Civil War battle scenes (actually footage lifted from Raintree County) on a screen so large, amid landscapes so vast, that you have to turn your head from side to side to fully see what’s going on. Even background details that are reduced to flyspecks on TV – for example horsemen on the far horizon, or the distant stone stacks of Monument Valley – are clearly visible. Like Avatar, this is visual cinema in its purest form – action, drama, intimacy, tragedy, on an epic scale.
I’ve seen both films on DVD since. While the IMAX release of Avatar is immersive and akin to Cinerama – the screen is so large you have to look to the action, missing the peripheral ‘bigger picture’ – the 3D release, with its 1.78:1 screen ratio, works fine on TV: its exceptional visuals largely survive. Not so How the West Was Won, which without the giant curved screen and mind-blowing sound – the ‘Cinerama’ experience – is an entirely different, inferior, proposition. For home screenings of How the West Was Won you need a very big screen.
To buy a bigger television.