As a William A. Wellman fan Westward the Women had been on my to see list for awhile now, so I was very excited to note it airing on TCM as part of their salute to Star of the Month Robert Taylor (This originally posted in 2010). I knew nothing going in other than the clips on Wellman documentaries made it look like an exciting film set around an intriguing idea: As the title states, it is a Western focused on women.
First surprise came with the opening credits, Westward the Women was based on a story written by Frank Capra. Didn’t know that, but I can see it—the entire theme of a group coming together as a single force to accomplish a common goal definitely recalls the cooperative spirit in many of Capra’s own films, though in Westward the Women the focus is on the group, here the women, rising to the occasion for themselves instead of for or around a single hero. This time the star, Robert Taylor, mostly bears witness. The story was one of several Capra originals sold off after his release from Paramount, this one purchased by Dore Schary for MGM after Capra told the tale to his friend Wellman one night and Wellman, as Capra wrote in his autobiography, The Name Above The Title, “flipped.”
I’d expected Wellman to include tons of Indians on the warpath throughout Westward the Women, and while a group of Native Americans did show up twice, once on-screen and once off, this often maligned trait of the more general Western of the period was handled with care. In fact Wellman actually cast real Navajos, Utes, and Piutes as the Indians. About a half dozen of the natives show up to warn Robert Taylor’s Buck of their impending return once they can even the numbers some, but their return occurs off-screen during a moment between Taylor and co-star Denise Darcel who return to find chaos and a handful of their group slaughtered.
While Wellman isn't in line for modern day charges of racism, Taylor’s character does take actions towards Darcel’s that very well could raise the issue of misogyny. It’s all in the context however and I have every reason to believe that Buck would have reacted with his whip just as forcefully against any man as he did Darcel’s Fifi. And that’s what makes Westward the Women so interesting, the women are presented as the heroes overcoming Buck’s low expectations at every turn and basically earning their manhood in his eyes. Then again, the sexual tension between Buck and Fifi is pretty obvious by the time he delivers two hard smacks to her face, but while the same excuse could be invoked: he’d have done it to a man as well; it’s not really true. It’s a deep and twisted moment of Buck finally relating his attraction for Fifi and with man’s man director Wellman at the helm it’s no wonder that she likes it.
Now I mentioned context so it’d probably be a good time to actually get to what this fascinating story is about. It’s 1851 and Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has built himself up a pretty good town out west in California. Only problem is all of the townsfolk are men who having completed the chore of carving out a home in Whitman's Valley have naturally begun to crave female companionship. Roy’s current task is to import those women. He’s arranged to recruit 150 volunteers from back in civilized Chicago and has hired on Buck (Taylor) to lead the venture both back and forth.
Buck asks out of the job but when Roy offers him $1,000 on top of his usual fee he’s in. While I wouldn’t imagine Buck is unsupportive of the end goal, he is completely disgusted at the prospect of transporting 150 women across the rugged and dangerous terrain of the West. He brings his attitude with him into the meeting house where Roy interviews the prospective ladies of his town. Buck meanwhile sits quietly, feet up, arms folded, hat tipped down with mostly a stern look on display for the ladies, especially Darcel’s Fifi and her best friend Laurie (Julie Bishop). This pair are apparently two 1950’s movie-tamed prostitutes, in other words well-dressed working girls whose specific occupation remains nameless but are subjected to scorn and disrespect by the knowing men.
After Roy selects 138 women to make the trip across he hands the floor to Buck for a few words. He doesn’t paint a pretty picture:
“We jump off from Independence. Across the Big Blue River, the Little Blue, the Platte, the Sweetwater. South pass over the Rockies down to the big Salt lake, then the desert. It’s a long hard grind with no let-up. Rain, hail as big as eggs, breakdowns, prairie fires, sand storms. Dust storms, alkali water--no water. Cholera, Indians, drowning, stampedes, stupid accidents. You’ll pass graves everywhere. Milestones along the way. One out of every three of you will be dead before you get to his California Valley. So if you’re smart you’ll leave by that door. That’s my best advice. Follow it, now. All right. You asked for it, you’ll get it.”
Buck then asks for those to stand who can handle a horse, a team of mules, and shoot a gun. The pickings are slim, but the talents of both Jean Johnson (Marilyn Erskine) and Maggie O’Malley (Lenore Lonergan) are off the charts as each of them impress Buck by firing a gun shot into a grinning candidate for Sheriff on a poster across the room.
Finally Buck concludes the meeting with a tersely put warning: “Stay away from my men.”
He offers the same warning to the men, and this command is enforced.
The group of women who are to make the trip are willing participants but all except Jean, Maggie and a small handful of others are very green. This is all new, so while the spirit is willing the hardships mount and are difficult to overcome.
About halfway through Westward the Women with Wellman expertly alternating between action scenes and dramatic moments of struggle against the elements I began to fear the obvious--the eventual romance between the Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel characters. Wild Bill doesn’t let me down though, while the moments are there and become every more important as the story progresses he never overwhelms us with romantic interludes.
Wellman doesn’t pander to the perceived wants of the female audience, instead he shows them, this is what it’s like for you to do the things men do. I’d imagine this non-commercial attitude horrified some MGM execs, but Wellman was reportedly much happier in this go around at the studio than during his brief stay in the 30’s (when he directed Small Town Girl, covered here last week) with Louis B. Mayer in the background by this time and a supportive Dore Schary producing.
Along the way the way there are disputes, including a whopper of a fist-fight between Maggie and Jean, and moments of bonding, moments which easily could be extracted and recast with men in, for example, a Wellman war picture.
Robert Taylor gives a gritty performance as Buck, never outwardly softening in his stance but plenty impressed by the way the women adapt along the trail. Henry Nakamura is Ito, who grows into being Buck’s sidekick, constantly muttering his worries in his native Japanese but always willingly translating these pearls of wisdom for Buck. Like the Native Americans, the character of Ito was handled with respect, and in fact he’s a more important ingredient to Westward the Women than even McIntire’s Roy, another surprise, though one which only unfolded for me as I watched.
Denise Darcel, who appeared previously for Wellman in the fantastic Battle of the Bulge based Battleground (1949), largely escapes notice as Fifi with the exception of her nostril flaring reactions to Taylor’s physical scenes with her when she’s quite effective. On the surface it seemed any actress could have been cast as Fifi though this is a case where casting an accented actress did add an extra layer to the already natural contrast between the women and Taylor’s Buck.
Hope Emerson stands out as the nautical widow Patience with her exclamations of “Smokin’ Okum” and tough, though often motherly, stance towards the mostly younger women. While typically cast as the heavy throughout her career, in Westward the Women Emerson brought to mind a bulkier Marjorie Main type character.
An eventual rallying point for the women comes in Beverly Dennis’ understated Rose, who’s hiding a pregnancy in order to make the trip to Whitman Valley for a new beginning. Despite Buck’s warnings she finds love on the way across with one of his hands, Sid Cutler (Pat Conway), but since this love is forbidden it’s no surprise when there’s no happy ending for the blossoming couple.
Renatta Vanni is also exceptional as the Italian widow Mrs. Moroni who speaks no English and departs with more extra baggage than the other women with her son, Antonio, who even elicits smiles from Taylor’s straight-laced Buck. Mrs. Moroni has much to overcome along the way beyond the language barrier and Wellman excels in translating her emotion to the screen despite my not having one idea of what she actually said throughout the picture.
Here’s my advice the next time TCM airs Westward the Women—don’t miss it, you’ve never seen anything else like it.
The subject matter is absolutely original, at least in my universe of movie watching, and the story is deployed with all the usual momentum of William A. Wellman’s top films. And by momentum I don’t strictly mean typical action sequences, yes there are plenty of them, but the more remarkable aspect of Westward the Women is Wellman’s depiction of the little things, now foreign ways of life to most of us. The lessons learned by the inexperienced women almost transfer to us as audience. He makes men out of them, and us too, nearly 60 years later.