A horse opera with an unusual perspective, Maggie Greenwald's The Ballad of Little Jo  combines a gritty visual realism with a contemporary feminist sensibility to tell the tale of a woman who survived on the frontier by masquerading as a man.
We first see Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis ) as a pretty young woman trudging the back roads of the post-Civil War West. Shunned by her well-to-do family after having a child out of wedlock, Josephine has left her baby with a sister and headed for parts unknown.
But it's a rough life for a woman. Befriended by a seemingly benevolent tinker (Rene Auberjonois ), Josephine barely escapes rape or worse when the fellow tries to sell her to a couple of ruffians.
Terrified of further depredations, she disguises herself in men's clothes, scarring her face with a straight razor to keep the predators away.
Thus transformed, he/she drifts into the rugged mining town of Ruby City, Montana, and begins her new life as a man. She quickly realizes that as a woman her options are to be a wife or a whore; as a man, however, "Little Jo" soon becomes a respected if admittedly peculiar member of the community.
Jo rooms with the local ore assayist (Ian McKellen ), a relatively sophisticated fellow whose sexual violence is revealed in a bloody encounter with a prostitute. Then there's Frank Badger (Bo Hopkins ), a backwoods entrepreneur who balances a wife and huge family with the sort of tomcatting that many men man back then thought was their due.
Although she poses as one of the fellows, Jo really can't identify with them and their unfailingly brutish lives. Nor can she openly commiserate with women such as Badger's stoic wife (Carrie Snodgress ) and the daughter of the local saloonkeeper (Heather Graham ), whose main goal is to marry the most promising fellow to pass through.
Small wonder that Jo adopts the life of a hermit, staking out a remote spread on which to raise sheep and only coming to town for the essentials. The less she is subjected to male-dominated civilization, the less likely her secret will be exposed.
Roughly basing her screenplay on the life of a Montana rancher who was found to be a woman only after her death, writer/director Greenwald  came up with a variety of adventures for her heroine, ranging from participation in a cattlemen vs. sheepmen range war to a romance with a Chinese immigrant (David Chung ) whom Jo rescues from lynching.
But despite its Wild West setting, The Ballad of Little Jo is a low-keyed affair with an unhurried, cautious approach.
Amis is very fine as Jo – so much so that by the end of the film we start viewing her as neither man nor woman but as a curious amalgam of both sexes. Hopkins, who hasn't been seen much in the last few years, is wonderful as the boorish but essentially decent Frank, and McKellen (better known to most of us as Gandalf the Wizard) presents a truly unsettling portrait of malignant sexuality.
Other films in the series “Women of the West”
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.