BluRay/DVD Reviews

WESTWARD THE WOMEN

By • Apr 26th, 2012 •

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I had never seen this one, and am not sure I’d even heard of it. But Wellman is a director who just keeps growing in my estimation as the years go by, and his pre-code films, as well as late triumphs such as this surprising western, show up in the studios’ archive releases.

Released theatrically (1951) exactly one hundred years after the time the story allegedly takes place, and put into production, I would assume, partially because of the success of Howard Hawks’ RED RIVER a few years earlier, this is an utterly captivating subject. Instead of Hawks’ herd of cattle, we’re substituting almost a hundred and fifty women who’ve volunteered to make a brutal trek across two thousand miles of American wilderness to marry a hundred lonely male settlers in California.

It’s a tale in great part devoid of Western cliché-pitfalls, conceived and directed with hard-edged directness by tougher-than-leather Wellman, and I hope it’s based as much on fact as possible, because I was riveted to its sense of period and detail.

There’s this Japanese cowboy (Henry Nakamura) who signs on for the trip, and though he serves as comic relief (Robert Taylor as the trek’s guide is constantly asking him what he just said), he still manages to give a subtle, humanistic performance. Strongly reminiscent of Walter Brennan’s role in RED RIVER (he even tells Taylor, as Brennan told John Wayne, that Taylor has done wrong), Makamura serves as a balancing voice that the intransigent wagon train leader reluctantly listens to. I liked him a lot and easily tolerated the plot convention that he served, since it was inventively re-woven by Schnee’s screenplay.

Taylor, as Buck Wyatt, is a serious, focused trail boss who tolerates no breach of the rules by the small group of male horsemen he has hired – rule # 2 being no messing around with the women – and he has no compunction whatsoever about shooting them if they transgress. The sudden moments of violence, including both death by Taylor and death by natural causes, are shocking in the brittleness of their depiction. The story is attributed to Frank Capra, and you just know he wouldn’t have indulged in such unmitigated instances of man’s or nature’s brutality in the way Wellman does.

Denise Darcel, a failed Hollywood attempt at importing a foreign female star to trigger the box-office success of such predecessors as Garbo and Dietrich, is nonetheless excellent here. She is never false in her emotional choices, and I was drawn to her plight, to her romantic inclinations, and to her anger and resentments.

Scott Eyman, on the commentary track, calls WESTWARD THE WOMEN a feminist western. It is certainly about women. They outnumber the male actors by maybe ten to one, are given more fleshed-out characterizations than those of the male actors. At 118 minutes, the film has an epic stature, focusing on the multitude of details involved with the women’s encounters with the elements, as well as countless close-ups of the ladies as they endure difficulties and enjoy precious few delights.

After Darcel, the standout female performance is from humongous, 6′ 2″, 230 pound Hope Emerson, who we fondly remember as the sadistic prison guard in CAGED (1950), and as ‘Mother’ in the Peter Gunn TV series (1958). (IMDB informs us that she was also the voice of Elsie the Cow in a series of Bordens commercials.) She’s charming here, depicted as sort of an Eastern mariner, spouting sea-faring rhetoric. And while she helps keep the wagon train together, you can’t help but wonder how the bewildered soul who gets her as his mail-order bride at journey’s end is going to react. Serious and pro-active, but willing to smile, she reminds me of a female Finlay Currie.

Casting is crucial to a film’s success, and in this case must have involved a particularly lengthy and elaborate process. The results are wondrously successful, and the many fine female leads and supporting roles keep the narrative emotionally believable, and allow us to be empathetic. I give Wellman great credit for choosing such a cast. I don’t think he was ever known as a ‘woman’s director’ – quite the contrary, he was a jack of all genres, possibly not a wise assignation for a Hollywood career – but I couldn’t imagine another director doing better with the task at hand.

Eyman points out the harshness of the cinematography, and the paucity of glamour makeup used on the cast. These were clearly deliberate choices meant to reinforce the challenging nature of the environment.

He also claims that the Indian raid 40 or so minutes into the film is one of its few capitulations to genre conventions, and about that I have to disagree. Once the Indians arrive, contemplate the circle of wagons, and decide it’s in their best interest to withdraw and attack another day, I felt I was watching a conscious avoidance of cliché. And when, much later on, they finally do attack (and Eyman does concede that this sequence bypasses Hollywood convention), we the viewers are with Taylor a few miles away hearing the war whoops, and by the time he gets back they’ve already done their dirty work and skedaddled.

There are so few jarring slip-ups in the film’s plot elements, so few moments where the director goes for an obvious laugh or a false maudlin heart-pull, that you can’t resist being drawn into the veracity of the adventure.

This is a highly worthwhile film to view or own, and it probably could be effectively remade today, though perhaps the size of the cast would be prohibitive. But it surely would find an audience, seeing as women-driven films are as few and far between as ever.

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