The movie opens with as the camera pans over the Rocky Mountains: "This land has a name today, and is marked on maps. But, the names and the marks and the maps all had to be won, won from nature and from primitive man."
The movie was filmed in the three-strip Cinerama process which loses something on TV. It opens with an overture and a painting of Indians chasing a stagecoach on one side and Indians hunting buffalo on the other. We get a pretty good idea from this of whom the West was won from.
The movie is directed by John Ford, Henry Hathaway, and George Marshall. Henry Hathaway had three sequences three sequences - "The River", "The Plains," and "The Outlaws". John Ford's sequence was on the Civil War and had John Wayne playing General Sherman. George Marshall directed the sequence entitled "The Railroads," about the railroad cutting through Indian territory.
The movie starts in 1839 With Zebulous Prescott (Karl Malden) who takes the Erie Canal to go west to Ohio. His daughters Eve (Carroll Baker) and Lily (Debbie Reynolds) marry a trapper (Jimmy Stewart) and a gambler (Gregory Peck)and the movie follows their children as they make their way west.
In the first scene we see mountain man Jimmy Stewart, who is one with nature, and was at peace with the Indians. We next see Indians (Cheyenne) as they attack a wagon train heading west. The attack scene had horses and Indians falling all over the screen. The wagon train leader (Robert Preston) then cuts some of the stock and horses loose and the attacking Cheyenne take the tribute and let the wagon train go on.
We next see Arapahos, who are putting on their war paint because the railroad has broke the treaty and is sending the railroad right through their hunting grounds. Zeb Rawlings (George Peppard) with the help of trapper Jethro Stuart (Henry Fonda) promise the Arapaho their treaty will be honored and war is avoided. But the treaty is quickly broken again and the Arapahos stampede a herd of buffalo through the camp.
A pretty good Western that shows us how the West was won and shows it was mostly by deceit and trickery. The movie shows the problems the Indians faced but it also presents the Manifest Destiny view of American history. The movie seems to favor the view that it was inevitable that the Americans would expand to the West coast. The Indians were just one more obstacle standing in their way.