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The idea for Westward the Women (1951) came from Frank Capra, who in the 1940s read a magazine article about South American women crossing the Isthmus to become brides for a colony of male settlers. What if this event was moved to the American west, the director wondered. Capra had always wanted to make a western, but Columbia wasn't making them at the time and so he put the idea aside. Then one day he mentioned it to his friend William Wellman, who was intrigued. ("He flipped," said Capra.) With Capra's blessing, Wellman took it to Dore Schary at MGM, who not only gave it the green light with Wellman directing, but decided to produce the picture personally. Venerable MGM leading man Robert Taylor was cast as the scout who escorts a wagon train of 150 women from Chicago to John McIntire's ranch in California, where there are no women for all the male workers in a valley which McIntire wants to populate with familes. Along the way, they must fend off Indian attacks, rough weather, forbidding landscapes, and men hired to accompany the group who are unable to control their lust.
Taylor had started his career playing photogenic romantic foils to stars like Greta Garbo, but by this time he had developed into a fine actor, and Westward the Women features one of his most striking and hard-bitten performances. Wellman loved working with him. "I was crazy about Bob Taylor," said the director. "I think he's one of the finest men I've ever known...He was probably handsomest of them all. And he did everything I asked him to."
Though usually remembered for action pictures like Wings, Public Enemy, The Story of G.I. Joe and Battleground, Wellman directed a wide variety of genres and many films with strong women at their centers (including five with Barbara Stanwyck). Before production started on Westward the Women, Wellman gathered all the women together to tell them in no uncertain terms what they were getting themselves into - much like Taylor does in the movie. Wellman biographer Frank Thompson later wrote, "he told them that there would be no room for prima donnas, for the 11-week schedule in the Utah Mountains and California desert would prove to be long, dirty and tiring. He offered everyone a last chance to back out. The women began a three-week period of basic training which involved calisthenics, rope skipping, softball, bullwhip cracking, horseback riding, mule team handling, firing frontier firearms, blacksmithing, and assembling (and disassembling) covered wagons."
While the "feminizing" of a male-oriented genre like the western was nothing new (there existed other women's westerns as well as women's gangster films, prison films, pirate films and combat films), Westward the Women went a step deeper than most. As film historian Jeanine Basinger has written, it is "one of the few films to present positive, overt sisterhood. It is almost a casebook of traditional attitudes toward women that will be refuted by the visual presentation." In other words, while the female characters may be spoken to or treated derisively, the audience is made to see them positively, even heroically. For instance, there are images of the women growing comfortable facing tough tasks, working together to fix a wagon and fight off Indians. Wellman often shoots the women from below, framing them prominently against the sky. His admiration for these characters and their bravery could not be clearer. As Basinger puts it, "dramatic images of individual women against an open and stark landscape are rare in American films, and they are memorable."
Basinger also observes provocatively that "when a woman's version of a male genre is created, things that are associated with the woman's world (primarily issues of love and romance, marriage, sex, rape, and childbirth) must be reconciled in some manner with the male movie." By the end of this film, the women "have been told they can't cope, can't shoot, can't rope, can't ride, can't fight, and can't endure, and they have proved this to be wrong. These 'masculine' things are now absorbed into them."
A final note: To stress the audience's feeling of the harshness and heat of the terrain, Wellman had his cinematographer, William Mellor, use filters as sparingly as possible. This gives the film an intentionally stark, sunbaked look.
Producer: Dore Schary
Director: William A. Wellman
Screenplay: Charles Schnee (based on a story by Frank Capra)
Cinematography: William C. Mellor
Film Editing: James E. Newcom
Music: Jeff Alexander, Henry Russell
Art Direction: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Cast: Robert Taylor (Buck Wyatt), Denise Darcel (Fifi Danon), Hope Emerson (Patience Hawley), John McIntire (Roy E. Whitman), Julie Bishop (Laurie Smith), Lenore Lonergan (Maggie O'Malley), Marilyn Erskine (Jean Johnson), Beverly Dennis (Rose Meyers), Henry Nakamura (Ito).
C-117m. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold