Cinerama is back on Blu-ray

Home theater buffs can resurrect a groundbreaking Cold War-era film format in their homes this week with the new Blu-ray Disc version of How the West Was Won, out today ($35).

The movie arrives on standard DVD, too (in a $21 standard edition and a $60 collector's edition), but only on Blu-ray can you watch the 1963 triple Oscar winner in Cinerama. Or as close to Cinerama as you will get these days. How the West Was Won was one of only two narrative full-length films made in the format's full expression, which used three cameras to film scenes and three projectors with a larger concave screen to surround audiences.

As part of the restoration process, Warner Home Video created a special "smilebox" Blu-ray version that replicates the Cinerama theatrical experience. Instead of the standard 16-by-9 format, the image is shaped like a bow tie, widening at the left and right sides of the screen. (It was dubbed "smilebox" because the top of the image is shaped like a smile.)

Restorers used 3-D rendering software to approximate what the film would look like on the actual Cinerama screen. "For the home theater enthusiast to be able to experience an approximation of Cinerama was the bees' knees — and we knew a true home theater enthusiast would want it," says George Feltenstein, Warner's senior vice president of theatrical catalog marketing.

Launched in theaters in 1952 with the documentary This is Cinerama, which included rollercoaster footage and flyovers of national landmarks, the technology was brought to market in part by King Kong producer Merian Cooper and Lowell Thomas to jumpstart movie attendance after the arrival of television.

While This is Cinerama and travelogues such as Seven Wonders of the World played in special Cinerama-compatible theaters into the 1990s, the format's excessive cost resulted in only one other narrative feature film, 1962's The Wonderful World of the Brothers Grimm being made. Other films such as It's a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World, The Battle of the Bulge and Grand Prix were filmed with single cameras and shown in a modified Cinerama mode.

How the West Was Won made optimum use of Cinerama's immersion. "When you are watching an Indian attack and there is a point of view shot, you are riding with those Indians as they are making their charge. And then the camera rises up," says film critic Leonard Maltin, one of many historians who appear in Cinerama Adventure, a 90-minute documentary that comes with the Blu-ray version and the ultimate collection DVD. "It's very exciting."

For other theatrical, TV and previous home video releases, How The West Was Won was converted into a single 35mm format. Restoration on the three-strip Cinerama version began in 1997 after the film was deemed worthy of preservation by the National Film Registry, overseen by the Library of Congress.

In addition to restoring the film elements, Warner Bros. Motion Picture Imaging designed a process to merge the three original Cinerama panels, smooth out the seams between each one and also make any optical corrections for home video. "It's really like restoring three films," Feltenstein says. "They were optically joined together to correct for different lighting conditions, diffusion and positioning of the camera and optics."

After seeing the final high-def videos – the Blu-ray Disc includes high-def versions in Cinerama and standard widescreen – Feltenstein watched the unrestored trailer. "It blew me away when I saw how horrible it used to look," he says.

The Cinerama version, to these eyes, provides additional dimension to the film, whether it be the many scenic vistas in the film – the Rockies, steamboats on a river, a buffalo stampede, a line of covered wagons across the Plains – or smaller settings, such as the burlesque theater where Debbie Reynolds performs or the behind the lines meeting of generals Sherman (John Wayne) and Grant (Harry Morgan). I found the smilebox-shaped video more enjoyable in the dark than in a moderately lit room. But some may find the concave reverse fish-eye effect unsettling. Never matter, the standard high-def version looks superb.

Warner preferred to "give consumers a choice" and let them see both versions, Feltenstein says. "If the creators of Cinerama were alive today, I think they would be pleased."