Wednesday, September 18, 2013

Westward the Women (1951) - Directed by William Wellman

This William Wellman classic defies genre expectations and has a unique tone throughout. Written by Frank Capra, it has the inherent sentiment and good-hearted nature that much of his work is founded upon. But because Capra didn’t have time to direct and instead got William Wellman to helm the film, it is distinctively stark and gritty to the core, exemplifying the kind of toughness found in his other classics like Yellow Sky and The Ox-Bow Incident. It’s also one of the best westerns as far as portraying women in non-stereotypical roles. But ultimately, it’s just a darn great western in its own right, portraying the hardship, toughness and resolve required to get a wagon train to California….except this one is a wagon train full of women.

Set in 1851, Capra’s script centers on a newly settled valley in California, that just so happens to only have men there at the moment. A man named Roy Whitman (John McIntire) who founded the settlement wants to have women arrive to marry the men and start families to populate the area. He hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to go to Chicago and recruit women for the trip. Through a screening and interview process, he finds 138 women who decide to take the trip….many of them for different reasons of course. They each pick out a picture of the man they want to marry and soon they’re off on the California Trail. These women can do a variety of jobs….some can shoot, some can ride horses, some can drive the wagons. Buck also has with him a small handful of men to help guide the trip, and tells the men to stay away from the women. One man doesn’t listen, and gets himself shot. Slowly some of the other men and some of the women leave the trail and turn back. But for 3 men Buck, Roy, and Ito (Henry Nakamura….a Japanese cowboy who at first seems like a Hollywood cliché but in the end defies stereotypes), they’re in it for the long haul with the women as they travel to California.

Part of the success of this movie lies in the fact that it is tough as nails. Wellman does not pull any punches in this film about women and rarely lets sentiment become overbearing. There are Native American attacks, rattlesnakes, flash floods and storms, stampedes, accidental deaths, fisticuffs….it’s a long and brutal wagon train, in fact one of the toughest, maybe the toughest portrayal of a wagon train on film that I’ve personally seen. There’s also no music in the film except for the opening credits and at the very end. This keeps the emotions from swelling artificially, and gives an element of realism to the whole thing. I particularly love the camera work and the location shooting, apparently filmed a great deal in Utah. William Mellor’s camerawork and framing in the traditional academy ratio is some of the best framing and scenery shots you’ll ever see. He also photographed a few other renowned classics of the genre like The Naked Spur, Giant, Bad Day at Black Rock. What’s so fantastic is the way he employs the low angle shot of groups of women as they look toward the horizon. This effect gives the women a larger-than-life heroism, allowing for a stoic characterization to come forward, almost a bit like traditional Russian cinema, when there is often low angled shots that emphasize a certain powerful, architectural dynamic. So too here, the power of these women are given a respect throughout the film, both from the script and the camera work.

Ultimately it is the women that are most memorable about this film. So many parts are well acted: Denise Darcel as the French woman Fifi; Julie Bishop as Laurie, the girl who is expecting a child out of wedlock; Renata Vanni as Mrs. Maroni, the grieving Italian mother, and maybe especially Hope Emerson as the hard driving Patience Hawley. There are many other parts here though too, and the vignette-like nature of the film allows for a variety of scenes. There is deep sadness here, and action, and comedy relief, but it’s tied together so well by the grittiness and the toughness that Wellman insists upon. The toughness and female perspective of the wagon train experience would be examined 60 years later, in Kelly Reichardt’s magnificent Meek’s Cutoff. But of course the key difference there, is that the infallible, hard-driving male at the lead of the wagon train in Westward the Women is replaced in Meek’s Cutoff by a foolish, lazy, untrustworthy man. There are images and themes shared by both films, but the degree to which the female story here can be told, and who they are led by is different. This certainly doesn’t take anything away from Wellman’s masterpiece, which of course was directed, written, and produced by men and would be subject to points of view as such. It stands today as a stepping-stone type work leading to more feminist leaning works in the future. It should be noted that the women here not only embody roles that are traditionally male dominated, it is THEY who pick their mates, and it is THEY who stand their ground and refuse to enter the town at the end of the film until they receive new clothes (an unpopular decision among the men of course, as the women command full control). Though they embody traditionally male roles in western films, they are in fact allowed to be women through it all, such that the film's perspective is that women can be women. They don't have to be "men" to get through this. This is a memorable film that needs to be seen by more people. 


Judy said...

Headed over from Wonders to read this, Jon. It's interesting to speculate over how different this would have been if Capra had made it... as it is, I definitely agree that it doesn't pull its punches and is tough and unsentimental. It really feels quite a bit like Wellman's war films, except that the comradeship here is between women rather than men. Great stuff here!

Sam Juliano said...

Definitely one of the most surprising films of the recent Wellmann Festival at the Film Forum, and one of the earliest of the sound feminist westerns. You wrote this with a deep and abiding understand and reverence Jon!