If any movie brought to this month's Potluck Film Fest sounded like a chore, it was William A. Wellman's 1951 western Westward the Women. Its general obscurity compounded my usual (and often unfounded) resistance to old westerns, a period of a genre that I consider to be oversaturated with completely disposable serials, formulaic TV shows and simplistic B-movies aimed at undiscerning grandpa-aged cowboy fetishists. Of course, when forced to actually watch the classics, I often regret the errors in my knee-jerk prejudice; but Westward the Women is not even popular. It's on less than 20 Flickcharts, has just over 2000 votes on IMDb and a few more than 200 Letterboxd members who have seen it. On Flickchart's list of the Best Westerns of the 1950s, it comes in at #78. Wellman isn't exactly a marginalized director, whose entire body of work is overlooked. His 1927 war film Wings is famous for winning the inaugural Academy Award for Best Picture and he helmed several high profile classics from the 1920s through the 1950s. Westward the Women doesn't make the Top 20 of Wellman's movies on either Flickchart or Letterboxd. Wellman's 1943 western The Ox-Bow Incident, which I have seen and liked quite a bit, is, by comparison, ranked as Flickchart's #3 Western of the 1940s and is on 853 charts, with over 3000 Letterboxd users and 17000 IMDb users having watched it. WESTWARD THE WOMEN seems to be, nearly, a discarded movie in discussions of Wellman's career; more of a curiosity than a must-see. However, within the first 15 minutes, this unusual, quietly ambitious and richly realized variation on a common formula had me emotionally hooked in a way that rarely happens with movies of any era, and especially with westerns.
A California rancher (John McIntire), sensing discontent among the 100 men in his employ, endeavors to recruit 150 women to wagon train across the country so that his men can marry, start families and settle permanently, turning their work enterprise into a lasting community. He enlists his top man, Buck (Robert Taylor), to assemble and lead a small crew of cattle drivers capable of escorting this precious cargo through thousands of miles of treacherous territory. Buck accepts the mission out of loyalty, but doubts the sanity of the project, and suspects that weak character in the women — as well as in the men hired to guide them — will present a bigger obstacle to success as any hardship typical of this type of journey.
From that premise, courtesy of Frank Capra, Westward the Women should seem hopelessly regressive today — which would not necessarily disqualify it; Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is a favorite despite its questionable assumptions — and it certainly has its share of attitudes which are no longer considered acceptable in today’s entertainment. There is no shortage of scenes in which hysterical women are slapped or punched to restore order, and one of the movie’s climactic sequences involves a whipping and a slap as a form of protracted-flirting-turned-foreplay. But these more melodramatic moments can easily distract from what is a deeply empathetic and richly realized tapestry of strong-willed characters who are gambling their lives for a new start, and there just might be some values worth appreciating in its old-fashioned point-of-view.
While all of the usual obstacles of wagon train movies are present in Westward the Women, I've never felt them with so much weight. Storms, attacks, accidents, and the weariness of months traversing challenging terrain, are uniquely charged here with a rare sense of defiantly stubborn hope and heartbreaking sacrifice. In the world of Westward the Women, there is no shortage of women anxious to leave the struggles of big city living behind in favor of the promise, on paper, of a completely different life with a husband they’ve never met — even with the expectation that at least a third of them are unlikely to survive the journey west. With a script by Charles Schnee — who wrote the somewhat similar Howard Hawks classic Red River a few years earlier — Wellman does a magnificent job of depicting an unwieldy amount of characters with realism and sensitivity that reveals the humans inside the stereotypes that are used to make them immediately discernible. Rather than milking the epic scale of the women's migration, Wellman keeps that looming potently in the background while focusing on the personal struggles of a handful of characters; yet, although only a few of the women are depicted in detail, the enormity of the collective effort infuses every moment. It's a delicate balance to maintain, but Wellman does it so gracefully that it's almost unnoticeable, and when someone has occasion to read out the names of several theretofore anonymous background characters, it is surprisingly and devastatingly powerful.
From the opening 15 minutes, Westward the Women had me in a state of peculiar emotional thrall. McIntire's early speech to his ranchers about their duty to the women — then only speculative — who would be coming to join them is simple but profound, outlining a sense of moral responsibility that is especially resonant in the current social climate of 2017, where the manner in which men treat women is a subject of constant examination. For a movie made in 1951 and set 100 years earlier, times when gender roles were more strictly defined than now, there is an authentically stirring duality to its portrayal of women as strong-willed achievers who endure incredible circumstances with an ideal of domesticity as their reward. Surely this notion might seem like an outrage to 21st century activists, but the sense of genuine expectation and sacrifice permeating all of Westward the Women deserves appreciation on its own terms, as a pursuit of life and the persistent promise of a future waiting to be fulfilled.
There are no stars in WESTWARD THE WOMEN, aside from Taylor; it's a true ensemble piece, which may be one of the reasons it's never garnered a bigger audience. Denise Darcel, Hope Emerson, Julie Bishop, Lenore Lonergan, Marilyn Erskine, Beverly Dennis, and Renata Vanni are most prominent among the actresses, and each is perfectly cast. William C. Mellor's cinematography is not ostentatious, like that of many major westerns from this period, but in its smaller frame is still brimming with fantastic compositions which Wellman uses to emphasize his characters' weariness, uncertainty, resilience and joy. A few notable shots and moments in Westward the Women's were clearly influential on Kelly Reichardt's haunting 2010 western Meek's Cutoff, which offers a more fatalist, but no less lingering, view of women on the frontier.
Westward the Women was brought to the Potluck Film Fest by Jandy Hardesty. She ranks it on her Flickchart at #433 / 3979 (89%), where it's her 22nd favorite Western out of 127. It ranked on my Flickchart at #235 (94%), making it #8 out of the 73 Westerns on my Flickchart, and the third highest-ranking movie of the entire Potluck Film Fest so far.