Westward the Women

Trailblazing epics depicting the dangers and hardships that went hand in hand with the expansion of the frontier are far from uncommon among westerns. Westward the Women (1951) fits comfortably into that category, but there’s one important difference that sets it apart from others of that ilk: this movie tells its tale from an almost exclusively female perspective. This fact alone means that the film is pretty much unique; there have, of course, been other examples of westerns that focused on women, but they tended to be more of the exploitation or novelty variety. Westward the Women is certainly no exploitation picture, instead it’s a gritty attempt to celebrate the courage and the trials experienced by those early pioneer women, without whom the west could not have advanced.

The plot is a fairly simple one, essentially being a chronicle of a pre-Civil War overland trek. It’s 1851 and California landowner and visionary Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has realised that, despite having overcome a hostile land and prospered, his dreams will amount to nothing if there are no women to pair off with his settlers. In order to address this problem he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to assist him in first recruiting 140 mail order brides, and then escorting them on the gruelling trip from Chicago all the way back to California. The women who make up this matrimonial caravan are a disparate and, in some cases, a desperate bunch. The film doesn’t fully analyse the reasons why these women would readily agree to subject themselves to the harshest of conditions and potentially fatal circumstances just to marry a man they’d never so much as laid eyes on. For the most part, they are looking for a change in their lives and a new beginning (one has gotten herself pregnant out of wedlock, another is a widow, and there a couple of former good-time girls), and that’s about as deep as it goes. The full extent of the task ahead of them doesn’t really become apparent until the dozen or so men Whitman has hired decide to desert after Wyatt’s brand of iron discipline leaves two of their number dead. From this point on there are only four men left (Wyatt, Whitman, a comedic Japanese cook and a green youth) and the women must put aside their femininity and work harder than any man in their efforts to overcome the myriad obstacles the wilderness throws at them. Before they reach their promised land their numbers will be whittled down by accidents, nature and hostile Indians. However, this pruning simply stiffens their resolve and, by the time they reach the end of the trail, those who have survived emerge stronger than ever. In fact, it’s only at the very end that any concession to sentimentality is made – the surviving women meeting their selected partners to the accompaniment of the first notes of music heard since the opening credits rolled.

William Wellman was one of the hardest driving, most demanding and macho directors working in Hollywood. This was a guy who quit acting because he felt it was too soft and no fit profession for a man. Bearing all this in mind, it may seem surprising that he was able to produce a film that was so celebratory of the achievements of women. Of course his hard-bitten outlook is stamped all over the movie, and he has absolutely no qualms about killing off just about any of the characters. While the death toll is fairly high there isn’t an enormous amount of onscreen violence – the big Indian attack takes place while Wyatt is away chasing after the runaway, firebrand Frenchwoman that he finally falls for – and it’s frequently the tragic aftermath that the viewer gets to see. At times the film becomes seriously grim and there are one or two moments that are actually quite shocking, though I don’t intend to spoil it for anyone by identifying them. Nevertheless, Wellman knew his trade well enough to realise that he had to toss in the odd moment of comedy to avoid proceedings becoming relentlessly dour. The least successful of those lighter moments were provided by Henry Nakamura’s Japanese hash slinger and general dogsbody. Much more effective was the imposing Hope Emerson, in a role that was in complete contrast to the kind of threatening ones she was frequently associated with.

Robert Taylor also did some excellent work as the hard as nails trail boss who knows that he must push everyone to the limits of their endurance if they are to have even a slim chance of survival. The character of Wyatt grows along the way though, going from a kind of contemptuous dismissal of the green females he has to look out for to deep admiration for the courage and determination these same charges display time and again. There is a romance along the way between Taylor and Denise Darcel, though it’s a hard edged affair too – he even gives her a crack of the bullwhip at one point! All the women in the supporting parts were quite satisfactory, although the majority of their characters were only developed very slightly. I don’t believe that needs to be too heavily criticised though as the scale of the story and the constraints of the running time (just a little shy of two hours) meant deeper analysis was impractical.

Westward the Women is currently only available on DVD in R2, and there are two choices. There are editions out in both France and Spain from Warner Brothers. I have the French disc (chances are the Spanish release is from the same master) and the transfer is mostly pretty good, academy ratio and not much in the way of damage. There are moments when the image looks a little soft but nothing too distracting. There’s no extra content whatsoever and you get a choice of English or French audio – subtitles are optional with the English track. This is a good western from a director with a respectable pedigree in the genre (Wellman was of course proficient in many types of film, and you can browse an excellent series of articles on his early work at Judy’s blog here) and a star who got better with the years. If you think you’ve seen all the trail western has to offer then this is a film worth checking out. John Ford, another extremely macho director, never shied away from highlighting the vital role played by women in the settling and ultimate conquest of the frontier, and Wellman added his own song of praise to feminine grit with this unusual and very rewarding western.

7 thoughts on “Westward the Women

  1. “Westward The Women (“Convoi de Femmes” as your poster says) is a very good western, of course (the only Wellman’s western I dislike is “Track of The Cat”) But I’d personally favor “Yellow Sky” or “Across The Wide Missouri” by the same director. Anyway, there’s not much to add to what you write here. I just wanted to say that, as a Frenchman, I never had the opportunity to see Denise Darcel apart from her american movies, such as this one or Robert Aldrich’s “Vera Cruz”. I suppose she felt quite at home in your country, just like Corinne Calvet did. Remember Freckle Face in A. Mann’s “The Far Country”?


    • You know Samuel, I really like Track of the Cat for its attempts to do something different within the western genre. However, having said that, I can quite understand how it’s not to everyone’s taste.

      And yes, Corinne Calvet was very memorable in The Far Country. By the way Samuel, and I have to say you’re not the first to have this idea, I’m not from the US. I was born and raised in Northern Ireland and have been living in Greece for over 15 years now.


  2. I could have sworn you were an american citizen. However… I wonder : do people from the US appreciate western movies as much as some foreigners? After all, it has to do with their own history, which is not always very attractive to many people. At least, not as attractive as it can be to (some) Europeans, for instance. I also have to say that, just like you, I’m a huge fan of films noirs too (have been watching Fritz Lang’s “The Big Heat” lately).


    • Good question Samuel. I think the western has an important place in US film history; whether it’s always given its due is difficult to say. I guess, with the explosion of the TV variant, it reached saturation point during the 60s and its critical standing slipped. Since then, however, I think there has been a reappraisal, especially among film scholars.

      Generally though, the western seems to have always had a stronger critical reputation among Europeans, and particularly the French. My own view is that, as foreigners watching these archetypically American stories, we Europeans tend to look beyond the cliches of the genre and maybe appreciate the films more. The positivism at the heart of the western is very attractive and the genre, with its blending of narrative, character and landscape, is perhaps the most inherently cinematic of all – at its best, it approaches what I’d call pure cinema.

      Interesting that you’re a fan of noir too. This came up in another post the other day – the number of times western lovers also enjoy noir.


  3. “At its best, it approaches pure cinema”. This is exactly what every western lover must feel after watching, say… “The Searchers”, “She Wore a Yellow Ribbon”, “The Big Sky” or “Bend of The River”, for instance, without being able to express it as accurately as you do. I don’t think any sentence could ever match yours when it comes to giving a satisfactory definition of the Western movies. If I ever get the opportunity to use that sentence of yours (“With its blending…. pure cinema.”), I won’t hesitate but don’t worry, I never forget to give back to Caesar what belongs to Caesar.


  4. Pingback: Scene of the Crime | Riding the High Country

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