Challenge Week 41: Westward the Women

What a super-interesting and unusual Western! And surprisingly under the radar. I’m a big fan of Westerns but had barely heard of this one before Laura assigned it to me, and I’m so glad she did.

The premise is that a rancher in the newly developing California decides to bring a bunch of women west to marry the men working on his ranch, so he hires an experienced wagon master (Robert Taylor) to escort them, goes east to find a bunch of women to volunteer to make the dangerous journey, and then they all head west on a wagon train. Anybody who’s seen a wagon train movie knows what’s coming, and it’s pretty much all here – circling the wagons to defend against Indian attacks, trying to get wagons over steep or rocky terrain, dealing with starvation/thirst/exhaustion after weeks without relief, etc. High drama.

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But the gender aspect really adds a whole other dimension to it. Most of the men escorting the train abandon it after several days because Robert Taylor won’t let them, like, rape the women. Imagine that. After that, he recommends they turn back and go home, but they insist on pressing on against all odds, and at great hardship to themselves. These women learn to shoot, ride, drive, fight, and survive in a very inhospitable location – and yet even as they toughen up and take on roles and responsibilities that were wholly the province of men at the time, they retain their femininity and perspective. It’s pretty amazing and empowering to watch.

There are some pretty harsh moments in the film, especially when one woman’s son dies on the way and her palpable heartbreak fills the screen for a while – it’s definitely not sentimental, despite its feminine aspect. There are other interesting oddities, like the Japanese cowboy who sticks with the wagon train after most of the other men have left, or the French woman who becomes a hot-headed match for Taylor’s wagon master. The most memorable of all the women, though, is the large older woman played by Hope Emerson, who is simply a seismic force in the film. She holds everything together when no one else can but is always ready with a shoulder to cry on when that’s what’s needed.

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In a genre filled with men’s men and loners, egos and machismo, Westward the Women is an anomaly – a 1950s Western that gives women the lion’s share not only of the screentime and focus, but also agency, individuality, grit, power, and capability. It’s quite refreshing, and the women’s perspective brings new life even to some of the common plot elements that might otherwise seem cliched.

Stats and stuff…

1951, USA
directed by William A. Wellman, written by Charles Schnee, from a story by Frank Capra
starring Robert Taylor, Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson, Henry Nakamura, Julie Bishop

I’m ranking all my Challenge films on Flickchart (as I do all the films I see), a movie-ranking website that asks you to choose your favorite between two movies until it builds a ranked list of your favorites. Just for fun, I will average out the rankings and keep a running tally of whose recommendations rank the highest. When you add a film to Flickchart, it pits it against films already on your chart to see where it should fall. Here’s how Westward the Women entered my chart:

Westward the Women > Rhythm on the River
Westward the Women > Mr. Sardonicus
Westward the Women > Frozen
Westward the Women < Wings of Desire
Westward the Women < She Wore a Yellow Ribbon
Westward the Women < The Trouble with Harry
Westward the Women > Clueless
Westward the Women < Jesus Christ Superstar
Westward the Women > Gun Crazy
Westward the Women < The Mummy (1999)
Westward the Women > House of Flying Daggers
Westward the Women < The Mummy

Final #425 out of 3712 films on my chart (89%)

It is now my #3 William A. Wellman film, my #1 Robert Taylor film, my #5 Traditional Western, my #22 Western, and my #8 film of 1951.

Westward the Women was recommended by Laura G., a film blogger friend.

A few more screenshots…

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