The Anti-Damsel Blogathon: WESTWARD THE WOMEN (1952)

This post is part of the Anti-Damsel Blogathon hosted by Fritzi of Movies Silently and Jo of The Last Drive-In.  Be sure to check out the other entries here!

When I first heard of this blogathon I was beyond excited to take part.  I loved the idea of celebrating some truly tough and empowered women  in film.  As I go along I am finding that more and more classic films had some very fine examples of women doing what they want when they want and not giving a hoot what other people think.  Real kick-bottom-take-names type behavior.  Don’t get me wrong, I definitely think that there are some good examples of empowered women in television and film today, but often I feel that many modern “empowered women” in media are not as tough as we might like to believe.  Often it seems like a woman is meant to exude confidence and independence simply because she can fit into a leather catsuit without showing any cellulite or because she can punch and kick people in vaguely sexual ways while tossing witticisms over her shoulder.  To me being an empowered female is more about being treated, not as a man’s equal, but as a person.  Not wanting gender to come into the equation at all and not allowing my gender to affect either other people’s treatment of me nor my expectations of my own limits.  Being empowered is doing anything and everything that I want to, no matter how tough, not because I am a woman and I want to prove something but because I want to do it and why should my gender have any thing to do with anything.  If I want to go out and rebuild an engine I can, if I want to wear a tutu and dance in the ballet I can, and if I want to write a classic film blog I can.  To me being empowered is about respect and what I look like in a catsuit should have nothing to do with it.  There are no catsuits in WESTWARD THE WOMEN.  There are, however, about two hundred highly empowered, tough, and determined WOMEN (not girls).

In 1851 Roy Whitman (John McIntre) is running a prosperous ranching community in his valley in California.  There is one problem however.  There are no women around and the men are getting antsy.  The men want to lay down roots and start families of their own, which means that they need wives.  Roy turns to his friend Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), who is an experienced trail blazer, and recruits him to travel to Chicago with Roy in the hopes of finding enough women willing to come west and marry the hundred men of Whitman Valley.  Buck is resistant at first as he believes the journey would be too difficult for women to endure, but he finally agrees once Roy offers to double his usual salary.

Once in the city Buck and Roy set up a “casting call” of sorts for any eligible women willing to come out and marry some tough California ranchers, sight unseen.  Many women turn up, all seeking a new life, and Roy soon has one hundred and forty-eight women signed up.  The last two are Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) and Laurie Smith (Julie Bishop).  Fifi and Laurie are prostitutes who, after seeing their other prostitute friends turned away, went off and changed their usual clothes for something more modest.  Roy seems fooled by the change but Buck sizes both women up immediately and silently registers his disgust.  The party is now full at one hundred and fifty women.  Among those chosen are Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson), the aging widow of a New England sea-captain and mother of two lost sons; Maggie O’Malley (Leonore Lonergan), farm girl and an expert with a gun; Rose Meyers (Beverly Daniels), who is pregnant with an illegitimate child; Mrs. Maroni (Renata Vanni), an Italian widow traveling with her nine-year-old son Tony (Guido Martufi).  Why fifty extra women you might be wondering?  Due to the toughness of the trek ahead, Roy and Buck expect fifty of the women to either die or abandon the journey.  Buck then goes off to recruit his own crew of men while Roy invites the women up to each choose the picture of the man she would like to marry.

Buck gathers his crew of hopefuls, among them a small Japanese man called Ito (Henry Nakamura) who becomes the cook for the team, and gives them all the rundown of what will be expected of them.  The men seem fairly eager to join up, especially when they hear so many women will be around.  Buck soon puts a stop to that and warns them to “stay away from the women” promising to shoot anyone who disobeys.  Over the next week some of the women who are versed in shooting guns, riding horses, and controlling mules teams teach the rest of the ladies how to perform these skills on the trail.  Buck arrives with his men, doubtful that the women will be able to carry their own weight.  He tells the women to prepare for a long and difficult journey and warns them to “stay away from the men”.  Buck then calls for the wagon train to move out which, much to his surprise, it does without any issues.

After a few days of travel things seem to be going well.  That is until Buck catches one of his men heading into a wagon with one of the women for some “quality time”.  True to his word, and much to the surprise of all the men, Buck shoots the offender in the shoulder promising to kill the next man who tries anything like that.  He has seen too many wagon trains descend into chaos when men and women start canoodling.  The men grudgingly accept this and things go one peacefully for a time.  One day the wagon train finds itself under threat from a band of raiding Indians.  As the women circle the wagons the men ready themselves for a fight.  The Indians admit that their arrows are no match for the guns of the wagon train but promise to come back when the odds are in their favor.  Buck decides to not push the train forward any farther that day and they make camp.  The women are enjoying a game of “Have you ever seen a sting bat?” when Fifi comes up asking if anyone has seen Laurie.  No one has and she rushes off, promptly running into one of the men coming back from the desert looking disheveled.  Fearing the worst, Fifi hurries off and finds her friend raped and beaten.  She yells for Buck, who comes running.  After taking in the scene Buck returns and confronts the man, who reasons that he didn’t kill Laurie but only “roughed her up a little bit” and gave her nothing more than she got a thousand times before in her profession.  Buck is unmoved and makes good on his promise, shooting the man dead.  The other men are shocked and one attempts to shoot Buck, before being shot dead himself by Maggie.  Buck thanks Maggie and then advises everyone to go to bed for the night, but he takes a few moments to voice his concerns for the wagon train to Roy.

In the morning Buck’s worst fears are concerned.  All the men, save Ito and a man named Jim Bailey (who has fallen in love with Rose), has left taking with them eight women and any hope of safely finishing the trail or so Buck believes.  When he tells this to the women, offering them an option of turning back and going home, everyone one of them responds “Not me!”.  Buck smiles and tells them to ready the wagons, the trail was tough before but it will be even worse now…and the Indians have not forgotten their promise.

This was an amazing movie.  Based on an original story idea from Frank Capra, which he then sold to his friend William Wellman, WESTWARD THE WOMEN is definitely going into my top ten list.  Often toted as a western that turned the genre on its head, I don’t feel like Wellman made this film for that reason.  I think he found this idea exciting and wanted to see it come to life, and if it riled a few things up in the world of westerns all the better.  After reading Wellman’s biography I got the sense that William Wellman was a man who didn’t care if you were a man or a woman.  He cared about what sort of person you were.  If you were a hard worker, tough and able to roll with the punches, then it didn’t matter if you were a woman or not.  I think he had great respect for strong women, women who didn’t put other people down to make themselves feel better, women who didn’t complain and want special treatment, women who meant what they said, said what they meant, and did what they said they would do.  And that attitude really comes out in this film.

In another director’s film, Ford, Hawkes, even Capra, there would have been a come to the light moment where Fifi and Laurie repent for their wicked former ways.  Wellman does not do this, nor does he make Rose regret her unmarried dalliance, nor Patience forswear love to any man but her lost husband.  Rather he allows each of these women to be human and to have a past that is less than perfect but one that remains with them and shapes who they are.  These women are seeking marriage not for love or the fairy tale ending, but for safety in a world which had very few options available to unmarried females.  The fact that he allows the women to choose their own husbands, to step up and pick rather than showing up and standing like a meat auction before the men, shows too that he is valuing these women and their choices as adults.  He is allowing them to have free will and independence, trusting them to know what is best for themselves.

Buck never sugar coats things for the women on account of their sex.  He tells them upfront how dangerous the journey will be and offers them a chance out at the beginning.  Not one women leaves.  He registers some surprise at this and Buck’s journey to respecting the women is part of the story of WESTWARD THE WOMEN.  And again, where other directors would have made a big show about it, would have had one great sudden realization on Buck’s part, Wellman does not do this.  Rather he allows Buck to realize through the continued observation of the strength and determination of these women, that he was judging them too quickly before.  He never says “I was wrong” but then he doesn’t need to because we see it and realize it too.

Do you know how sometimes you watch a movie and the characters set out on a terrible journey but the terrible things that face them are really about ten minutes worth of only moderately annoying events at best?  Like someone loses a shoe or their favorite locket, someone goes out in the rain to pout and gets pneumonia for a week, and someone falls and sprains their ankle (a classic) before finally reaching their chosen destination?  Yeah, not so much with WESTWARD THE WOMEN.  The wagon train faces some pretty terrible stuff like desert heat, wagon crashes, insanity, Indian raids, the aforementioned rape, and death.  Lots of death.  In fact the female body count is at least four times that of the male body county by the time the film is over.  These women face terrible odds and do so without ever asking for special treatment or consideration.  There is not one scene in which a woman whines about being tired, hot, or hungry.  Not once does a woman collapse and say “I can’t go on!  Just leave me behind!”.  No women is gathered up into the arms of a man and carried because she is too exhausted to go on. And any time a woman starts to lose her cool, another woman is right there ready to slap her across the face and tell her to get on with it.  There are so many great scenes that tell of the strength of women.  I won’t spoil them for you here (go watch this movie!), but for those who have seen it…Mrs. Maroni, Rose and the wagon wheel, Laurie’s look to Fifi after she comes back, and the women’s refusal.

Of note, after the 1930s there were fewer and fewer stuntwomen working in Hollywood.  Many filmmakers would use men in wigs to substitute as women during stunts so it was quite something when Wellman decided to use all women in his production of WESTWARD THE WOMEN.  In fact he hired every stuntwoman working in Hollywood at the time and even cast a few in minor roles.  Stuntwomen like Opal Ernie, Evelyn Finely, Ann Roberts, Edith Happy, Polly Burson, Lucille House, Stevie Myers, Sharon and Shirley Lucas, and Donna Hall.  Polly Burson, who was a rodeo trick rider and had stunted for Betty Hutton, Dale Evans, and Barbara Stanwyck (among others), became the first female stunt coordinator on WESTWARD THE WOMEN.  Despite facing sexism and prejudice at the local town near where the film was shooting, there is a story Wellman told about the stuntwomen being harassed in a local bar which they soon put a stop to by putting a very tight grip on the men’s testicles (one stuntwomen broke a nail), the production crew seems to have never had an issue working alongside the two hundred women.  William Wellman certainly didn’t.

WESTWARD THE WOMEN is absolutely one of the most empowering movies that I have ever seen.  After watching it I had a feeling of the awesome power of just being a woman can be.  The assuredness that we can do anything we put our minds to.  The strength of those two hundred women is magnetic and leaps off the screen.  This is what empowerment truly is.