During the film industry's first 50 years or so, most movies were shown in a square-ish format. But to compete with television's four-corner box, they gradually became elongated, quickly settling into the widescreen formats that are standard today.

It's true that occasional wider-screen films showed up in the silent and early sound eras — most famously the 1930 John Wayne western "The Big Trail." But they didn't click.

We tend to think of Fox's CinemaScope process as ushering in the modern widescreen era with "The Robe" in 1953 — and in a mainstream sense, that's true. But perhaps more credit should go to Cinerama, which popularized the big screen at its biggest a year earlier.

As demonstrated in its first effort, "This Is Cinerama" (1952), the process used a bulky three-camera system to shoot the film and a three-projector system to show it on a giant curved screen.

This was not a narrative movie but a travelog, which put moviegoers right into the action as never before (most famously in a roller coaster). And over the next decade, a half-dozen more followed. (Today's IMAX is sort of Cinerama: The Next Generation.)

Inevitably, Cinerama ventured into the narrative-film arena — but only two were released in the three-camera process: "How the West Was Won," followed by "The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm." (Later Cinerama films, such as "It's a Mad Mad Mad Mad World," were filmed in a more conventional 70mm process.)

Gimmicks aside, "How the West Was Won" was hailed as a great Western epic, but it definitely suffered in later showings — and for many years could only be seen by the general public in a highly diluted pan-and-scan TV print.

With the advent of home video, a widescreen version eventually came to laser disc and VHS, then to DVD — but they were marred by the visible lines separating the three side-by-side images captured by those three cameras.

Now a new DVD reissue of "How the West Was Won" (Warner, 1962, G, three discs, $20.97) addresses that problem by digitally erasing those lines.

There are still some scenes, especially in the film's second half, where a light separation of the three images can be glimpsed, and during a couple of moments a fisheye-lens effect that distorts some of the action scenes is distracting. But then this is a movie made to be shown on a much larger (and curved) screen than you have at home — no matter how big your home theater may be.

Still, the film is so engrossing — the story, dialogue and narrative so well-crafted, the performances by the all-star cast so perfect, and the breathtaking scenery so, well, breathtaking — that such complaints feel like quibbles. It's a treat to see the film in this new unfettered DVD presentation.

The characters' romantic entanglements — primarily embodied by James Stewart and Carroll Baker, Gregory Peck and Debbie Reynolds, and George Peppard and Carolyn Jones — tie a family thread that holds together the various episodic stories, which are rich, stirring and laced with humor.

Among the eye-popping locations used are Kanab and Monument Valley, and in the final sequence we see the Kennecott copper mine.

There are also Utah connections in the best bonus feature, the feature-length documentary "Cinerama Adventure," a fascinating look at the history of Cinerama and its impact on the film industry.


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