The Sons of Katie Elder

The Sons of Katie Elder
"First, we reunite, then find Ma and Pa's killer...then read some reviews."

Wednesday, June 16, 2010

Westward the Women

I'll be the first to admit it, I don't really like female characters in westerns.  Talk about a blanket statement to start a review, ouch.  There are exceptions of course, but too often they seem added on to appease a part of the audience or give the hero someone to talk to and fall in love with when he's not shooting it out with banditos or Indians.  Maybe I should qualify my statement.  It's not that I don't like female characters in westerns, I don't like poorly written, damsel in distress characters who are basically helpless/useless and they're to be saved.

Not the case with 1951's Westward the Women, a movie that plays on that idea. The story is one that's been used by several movies since including Savage Pampas and Blindman with the basic background being that there weren't many women in the west -- single, eligible women at least -- as Americans moved west to start new lives.  'Westward' differs from most westerns though because of its honesty in dealing with women in the west.  The American west was an incredibly unpleasant place, and the weak just didn't survive.  The women that went looking for husbands, new lives, a second chance were tough because they had to be.

Working to make a California valley a suitable place to live, owner Roy Whitman (John McIntire) wants the men working the valley to be able to start families, but the complete lack of women prevent that from happening.  With a trail driver, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), Whitman heads to Chicago where he recruits 138 women to travel west for husbands and a new life.  The women are from all cultures and walks of life, but the belief in Manifest Destiny is strong, and they decide to brave the incredibly dangerous trail to get to California.  Wyatt warns them of what is to come; Indians, horrific weather, low supplies of food and water, and even trailhands who might do anything to get with one of them.

What works best about this western from director William Wellman is its honesty in dealing with the subject matter.  Wyatt states that if they're lucky 1/3 of the women will actually make it all the way to California while the other 2/3 will turn around and go back or even die along the way.  And that's basically what happens.  Wyatt's trailhands end up leaving the wagon train because Wyatt kills one who raped one of the women.  Wyatt shoots him point blank three times in the chest without much warning.  And his estimation is pretty dead-on, many of the women don't make it.  So for honesty alone, this western gets points.

Taylor plays against his pretty-boy image as Buck Wyatt, a renowned trail driver who is going to do anything and everything to get this wagon train from Independence, Missouri to California.  This is a tough character who has to revel in being hated because that hatred from the women motivates them.  McIntire is all right in a smaller wasted part.  The treat here is the portrayal of the women.  We do meet a handful including Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel), a saloon girl with an eye on Buck, Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson), a rather large woman and widow who ends up becoming a second trail driver and mother to all the other women, and Rose Meyer (Beverly Dennis), a pregnant teenager shunned from her hometown looking for a second chance, among several others who get their chance to shine in a few scenes.

Out of necessity, these 138 women are forced to learn how to survive.  Only a handful know how to handle a wagon or shoot a gun so the others must improvise and learn how to on the fly.  They have to do this on the trail though so it's a bit of trial and error as they figure out what works and what doesn't work.  Throw in that Wyatt's cowboys basically try to rape them whenever they get a chance, and we've got a not so pleasant trip.  The cowboys eventually bail, forcing Wyatt, Whitman, one cowboy (Pat Conway) and Ito, the Japanese cook (Henry Nakamura) to protect the train, but when needed the women step up and shed their 'damsel in distress, please protect me' actions.  Refreshing to see in a western, women being treated as equals.

Of course, even with a movie trying to show the best of these women, there are still some odd moments.  Wellman often shows them bathing in creeks/rivers/waterholes with their dresses pulled up to their waists.  It seems like he's saying 'Okay, men, sorry you had to see this movie, but check out the scenery!'  There's also a fight late in the movie between two women -- that's right, a catfight! -- that doesn't fit the tone of the movie and seems tacked on.  The trials and tribulations do become a little repetitive in the second hour because really, what else can we throw at these women?

The build-up to the ending is handled well because in a nice twist, the women may be more excited to see their husbands to be than the other way around.  After four months on the trail, they insist Buck go into town and get them some nice things to wear so the men don't see them in their harried states (most still look pretty good to me all things considered).  It's an ending that surprised me in its sweetness, and in a way that doesn't come across as sappy or over-sentimentalized.  A western that has its flaws, but all things considered, it is different and for the better.

Westward the Women <----TCM trailer (1952): ***/****

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