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.