A feminist film? In 1951?
The makers of Westward the Women may not have considered themselves feminists, but the movie they left behind says otherwise.
Taking a standard-issue Western movie premise – a wagon train makes its way from Independence, Missouri, to California through bad weather, hostile Indians, and a murderous landscape – director William Wellman and screenwriter Charles Schnee (working from a story created by no less an auteur than Frank Capra) fashioned an entertaining and moving yarn about female empowerment.
In 1851 California, entrepreneur Roy Whitman (John McIntire) recognizes that if his newly founded community is to succeed, it needs women. With crusty wagonmaster Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) he travels to Chicago, hoping to recruit mail-order brides for the lonely men Out West.
Though they are warned by Buck that a third of them will die on the trail, women off all sorts – widows, runaway daughters, dance hall floozies – sign up for the dangerous trek.
Taylor is the above-the-title star, but what you remember afterwards are the women. They rise to the occasion, learning to wrangle livestock, fire guns, and haul massive Conestoga wagons up and down treacherous mountainsides.
Director Wellman had a curious relationship to his female characters. Early in his career he became infamous for a sort of brutal chauvinism, epitomized by the scene in The Public Enemy in which gangster James Cagney contemptuously grinds half a grapefruit into the face of his irritating girlfriend (Mae Clarke).
But Wellman – whose silent aviation film Wings won the first Oscar for Best Picture – loved strong, capable, challenging women, both on the screen and off. And Westward the Women allowed him to indulge that appreciation within the context of an epic oater.
The film is surprisingly brutal – even for a Western. The first death in the movie is that of a trail hand who rapes one of the women and is gunned down by Taylor’s wagon master. The next death is that of an 8-year-old boy – the son of one of the immigrating women – who is accidentally shot during target practice.
The treatment of the grieving mother is typical of the movie’s lack of sentimentality.
When the mourning woman refuses to leave the boy’s grave, Buck suggests leaving her behind: “Seen a lot of ‘em go crazy on the trail ...”
Finally he punches her into unconsciousness and throws her into the back of a wagon.
After that the bodies start piling up. Women die in an Indian attack, in a stampede, in a flash flood, in a runaway wagon. The film is positively perverse in killing off characters we’ve come to like ... it’s like watching the final episodes of Breaking Bad.
The movie consistently defies audience expectations. Buck’s second-in-command is a Japanese man (Henry Nakamura) who initially seems to be here for comic relief but slowly evolves into a genuinely touching presence.
There’s a big Indian raid that decimates the group – but it happens off screen. We see only its bloody aftermath.
And at one point in the film the women physically hold upright a collapsing wagon in which one of their fellows is giving birth. Given Wellman’s conservative politics this was a remarkable visual depiction of collective strength and determination. (Remember, Westward the Women was shot at the height of the Joe McCarthy-fuelled Red Scare.)
Wellman – whose career spanned Westerns (The Ox-Bow Incident, 1943), gangster yarns (The Public Enemy, 1931), war movies (Battleground, 1949), social problem movies (Wild Boys of the Road, 1933), and screwball comedy (Nothing Sacred, 1937) – strove for a degree of realism that was unusual for its time.
Whenever possible he cast the film with stunt women who had the physical skills to ride, run, fall, and fight. These movie professionals had the added strength of not looking or behaving like actors, further upping the movie’s sense of realism.
Of course, there weren’t that many stunt women in Hollywood, so in the big shots the “women” in the background were actually men in drag.
One can pick apart Westward the Women for historical inaccuracies like metallic cartridge six-shooters, barbed wire fences, and photographs – which either hadn’t been invented or were extremely rare in 1851.
But the film’s spirit and tone – which moves from a gritty, even pitiless realism to a sort of transcendent beauty in the final reel – plays as well for audiences in 2013 as it did in 1951.
Heck, it’ll still be enjoyable in 2070.
Other films in the series “Western Women”
This film series complements the Big Read and sheds more light on the theme of women in the Old West.
Saturdays at 1:30 p.m.:
- October 5: Westward the Women (1951) Not Rated
- October 12: The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) Rated R
- October 19: Cat Ballou (1965) Not Rated
- October 26: Heartland (1979) Rated PG
Admission to these films is free.
About the Author
Robert W. Butler is a lifelong Kansas City area resident, a graduate of Shawnee Mission East High School and the William Allen White School of Journalism at the University of Kansas. For several decades he was the movie editor of the Kansas City Star; he now writes a movie-themed blog at butlerscinemascene.com. He joined the Library's Public Affairs team in 2012.