|'); document.write(''); //-->|
I'm very happily pursuing William Wellman movies whenever they turn up, as easily 4/5th of them turn out to be extremely entertaining, always with some element that goes against expectations for a genre, or a subject.
1951's Westward the Women comes late in a series of MGM movie assignments, mostly winners for Wellman: Across the Wide Missouri, The Next Voice You Hear..., Battleground. Personally produced by Dore Schary, it's about a wagon train, a subject one would think had pretty much been tapped out. Yet Westward the Women is one of those pictures that makes us think, well, this is how it might have been. An unexpected plus is the film's feminist angle. With very little in the way of fussing and no cheap jokes about female weakness, the script by Charles Schnee (from a story by Frank Capra, no less) gives us 138 women who prove completely capable of taking care of themselves.
Rancher-farmer Roy E. Whitman (John McIntire) has succeeded in carving out a successful living in his own California valley, but to make it permanent he needs "good" women, a rare item out West. So he hires wagon master Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to bring 150 ladies from Chicago. He gets plenty of takers, women wanting freedom or just a "change of scenery" ... some are widows, two disguise their background as showgirls, one is secretly pregnant and looking for a new life for her baby. Knowing that they have husbands waiting in California, the women start out in a long wagon train. The hands hired to transport them soon tangle with Wyatt over the non-fraternization rules. After he shoots one of them for raping Laurie (Julie Bishop), they desert, taking some of the women with them. Buck wants to quit more than once as the hardships of the trail take their toll - his charges are killed by accidents and by Indians. But led by Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson), they refuse to quit.
Dore Schary wanted to bring film art to MGM, and William Wellman was perfectly happy to help. Most of Westward the Women has no musical soundtrack, which makes the trip seem all the more real; although night scenes are filmed back in the studio, the actresses are really out there exposed to the elements, walking all under the sun all day in every kind of terrain. Whitman is a noble gentleman, and Buck Wyatt the kind of guy who accepts responsibility by becoming almost unreasonably demanding. As a socially-conscious nod in the direction of the future Bad Day at Black Rock, Schary gives Buck Wyatt a Japanese sidekick named Ito (Henry Nakamura). Ito handles some comedy relief, but after a remark or two about his small stature he's allowed his fair share of respect. In contrast, the typical smart-talking jokers in Buck's male crew are seen as irresponsible guys out for money and maybe a roll in the hay.
Speaking of rolls and hay, showgirl Fifi Danon (the late Denise Darcel) sets her cap for the confirmed bachelor Buck Wyatt almost immediately. It's to the film's credit that their flirtation is subdued enough that it doesn't seem that Buck is breaking his own rules. There are no oo-la-la bathing scenes or other generic nonsense to overcome; in fact, Fifi's best friend dies in a rainstorm while their protector Buck is getting himself drunk. I've always wondered if that grave marker for "Hackenbush" that Buck is looking for, was the inspiration for the mystery grave in Sergio Leone's The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. Three years later Denise Darcel would play Robert Aldrich's French femme fatale in his radical western adventure Vera Cruz.
Westward the Women goes entirely against the grain when it comes to feminine portrayals. There are no perfumed schoolmarms, shrinking violets or crybabies in what becomes a female community with a purpose. The one schoolteacher keeps a log but walks and works with the rest. The enormous Patience has a slightly sarcastic attitude, but also a strong sense of fair play and the courage to match her seafaring vocabulary. Two of the women are crack shots, and several more know how to work pack animals and drive wagons; they teach the rest. Out in the wilderness, the women take charge in emergencies and stick together. Shy and retreating? Women have traditionally had to deal with the worst of situations; it's men that prefer to think of them as helpless.
The show is also very tough-minded. Wyatt tells the applicants that 1 in 3 of them may perish, a prediction that turns out to be correct. Women are shot, drowned, crushed and roughed up pretty badly; one almost goes crazy after a terrible accident claims a loved one. Wyatt says that "stupid accidents" will occur. He himself leaves his post when one disaster strikes, decimating the wagon train. But the trek goes on.
We've read about mail-order brides, and apparently shortages of women were so bad in some parts of the West that groups of females did indeed sign up and agree to marry men they'd never met. In Westward the Women we see the women claim photos of their intended spouses. I guess we have to take on faith Whitman's claim that they're all good men. For the survivors, the joy of the finale is something we can feel and share ... the meeting is like a big "getting to know you" party, with a man holding a Bible waiting to marry a line of applicants. As impossible as it might seem, this is apparently how some communities were formed overnight, even if many of the unions had to fail. Wellman gets some humor out of the situation -- poor Patience is paired up with a "funny" mate -- but the tone is more serious than that. A terribly unhappy Italian widow (Renata Vanni) has been miserable for most of the trip, but gets an almost miraculous surprise when she meets the stranger whom she will marry.
Westward the Women carries a strong emotional kick. My only complaint is that only a few actresses are identified in the cast wrap-up at the conclusion: Lenore Lonergan, Marilyn Erskine, Beverly Dennis. I spotted Mary Alan Hokanson (Them!, Guys and Dolls) in dozens of shots.
The Warner Archive Collection DVD-R of Westward the Women looks great in a spotless B&W transfer that shows off the clean lines of William Wellman's compositions and the no-fuss lighting of William Mellor. Despite having only one big star, the show wasn't cheap. Locations ranged from California's Mojave Desert, to Kanab & Paria in Utah, to Tucson, Arizona.
The disc may have been prepared for normal DVD release, for it contains desirable extras in addition to an original trailer. A featurette about the filming (Challenge the Wilderness) is actually quite good. It was directed by Jack Atlas, a pioneer trailer maker who rented out the building to the last trailer boutique I worked for, twenty years ago. A full commentary by Scott Eyman is packed with information about Dore Schary, but doesn't tell us much more about the likeable faces of the unfamiliar female supporting players. I'm thankful to reader R. Alan Bryan for tipping me off to this release just in time to review it.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
Westward the Women rates:
1. I'd have to bet that Dore Schary was just as excited about the Italian neo-realists as were his New York film society friends -- Westward the Women has a bathing scene where the women hike up their skirts exactly like the soggy workers in Bitter Rice. The Italian woman even has a small kid with a dog, both of which behave like adorable refugees from Bicycle Thieves.
Reviews on the Savant main site have additional credits information and are often updated and annotated with reader input and graphics.
Also, don't forget the 2011 Savant Wish List.
T'was Ever Thus.