When Gunsmoke finally ended its unprecedented 20-year run in 1975, star James Arness did not have to look far to find his next role. It would be a character by the name of Zeb Macahan in a made-for-TV movie called The Macahans (1976). The movie/pilot was picked up by the ABC network, and turned into a series called How the West Was Won. In its first season, the show was presented as a mini-series. The story was told in the form of three 90-minute movies, airing in 1977. This first season, plus the two-and-a-half hour The Macahans movie have just been released by Warner Home Video as a double-DVD set. I am happy to report that it is as good as I remembered it all these years later — perhaps better.
The show is based on the 1962 film of the same name. Actually, the series would be more accurately described as being inspired by the theatrical film, since the title and the idea of chronicling a trip on the Oregon Trail in the 1860s are really all that the two have in common. In the pilot, the Macahan family decide to leave Virginia at the beginning of the Civil War. Zeb’s brother Timothy Macahan (Richard Kiley) and his wife Kate (Eva Marie-Saint) pack up their sons Seth (Bruce Boxleitner) and Josh (William Kirby Cullen) and daughters Laura (Katherine Holcomb) and Jessie (Vicki Schreck) for the journey. After traveling a few hundred miles, word comes that Zeb and Timothy’s parents are right in the middle of the war zone, and in grave danger. Hearing this, Timothy heads back, and leaves Zeb in charge. Timothy will never return.
In the pilot the eldest son is named Seth, but for the series he is called Luke. Teen heartthrob Bruce Boxleitner played him under both names. When Seth returns to Virginia to find out what happened with his father, he gets himself into a heap of trouble. He is drafted into the Army as a Union soldier and after watching his father die, deserts. He also kills a man in self-defense, though nobody believes his story.
In the mini-series, Luke/Seth is on the run as both a deserter and a murderer, with a deadly bounty-hunter hot on his trail. When Timothy left, Kate homesteaded the plot of land they stopped at, to wait for his return before heading further West. Even after his death, she will not leave it without Zeb and Luke. This proves to be just about impossible though, as Luke is being chased, and Zeb gets caught up in all sorts of dangerous situations.
For this DVD release, the original The Macahans movie is presented as the lone bonus feature. It makes sense to watch that first, although it is not necessary to do so in order to follow the story. How the West Was Won was designed to stand alone, and the previous events in the Macahan’s lives are often referenced through flashbacks and conversations. I actually watched the series first, then the pilot and was able to follow along perfectly. The only unanswered question I had was the name change with Boxlietner’s character.
Although Westerns had pretty much been replaced by cop shows in the ‘70s, How the West Was Won did a great job of carrying on the tradition. While I was fairly young in 1977, I remember it as a program that the whole family watched together. It has really held up well over the years, and Arness as the mountain man Zeb is particularly great. In doing a little online research for this review, I discovered that the show was much more popular in Europe than it was in the United States. It seems that James Arness is not remembered there for Gunsmoke, but for How the West Was Won.
In watching this first installment, I can see why. I won’t go so far as to say that one show is better than the other, because that is not really the point. I will say that How the West Was Won is just about as good as it got for TV Westerns. This is a fine show, and one that is definitely worth checking out for fans of the genre.