Westward the Women is available on DVD in the United States.
If there was ever a masculine film genre, it is the Western. A typical Western hero is a man in a hat on a horse, with a smoking gun, fighting for his freedom in the Wild West’s lawless lands. Women in these stories are mainly pushed to the sidelines, often only as love interests or damsels in distress. Female-led Westerns started appearing in the early 1950s; the most popular and successful of these were musicals like Annie Get Your Gun (1950) and Calamity Jane (1953). The decade’s most well-known and influential feminist Western is undoubtedly Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), often regarded as a forerunner of the genre’s modernisation with its unconventional and theatrical stylistic choices, ambiguous subtexts and poetic dialogue.
Within the same period, William A. Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951) is arguably the first female-focused Western. Interestingly, the film has never fully achieved classic status and rarely comes up in the critical discourse on the history of the Western; this is likely because the film is relatively hard to find. Unlike other Westerns of the era that put a single female character in the lead role – often played by Barbara Stanwyck in films like The Furies (1950), Forty Guns (1957) and The Cattle Queen of Montana (1954) – Westward the Women does not have a singular woman protagonist but many.
Set precisely 100 years before its release; it depicts the journey of 140 women who voluntarily travel from Chicago to the California Valley to become brides for the lonely male settlers already there. The wagon train of women is led by two experienced wagon masters, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) and Roy Whitman (John McIntire) and a dozen hired trail hands. The women travelling with them are forewarned about the dangers and the fact that a third likely won’t survive the journey. Compared to other Westerns of the era, the real heroes and main characters are the women in the group, whose transformation and adaptation to the rough and often dangerous surroundings drive the plot forward. Even Buck, initially condescending towards the opposite sex, changes his tune once he realises he is not accompanying a group of distressed damsels but confident, strong, resilient women.
During the journey, a small group of women within the caravan develop their character arcs. The film portrays various “female stereotypes”, such as Patience (Hope Emerson), an older, formidable widow who intimidates men; Rose (Beverly Dennis), an unmarried pregnant woman seeking a better future; and Fifi (Denise Darcel) and Laurie (Julie Bishop), two showgirls taken on by Buck’s “mercy” as he believes they want to change. The film does a great job of embracing these female archetypes and in no way wishes to subvert or reform them. They are portrayed as capable people without being forced to “become” masculine to reach their destination.
Throughout the journey, several conflicts and tragedies occur within the group, including a man raping Laurie before Buck kills him, a mother who doesn’t speak English, losing her young son during firearm practice, and Rose giving birth in the desert. The group faces various hardships and dangers during the journey, offering us a series of action-packed and suspenseful sequences. Wellman makes use of the topographical elements and includes multiple adventures, including a stampede, a descent down a steep trail, a wagon plunging into the water following a heavy rainstorm and an Indian raid. These sequences are portrayed realistically and harshly, with shots that often elevate the women’s heroism.
While Westward the Women feels refreshing and innovative in its portrayal of diverse women, the film’s core values still revolve around marriage. However, the film makes it a significant plot point that the women will choose their husbands as they pair off in the finale with the men they picked back in Chicago. Furthermore, the film also sheds light on women’s rarely depicted and vital role in America’s westward expansion.
The film started its journey in the mind of Frank Capra (who receives story credit), but his studio, Paramount, wasn’t interested, so he pitched the project to his friend Wellman. Wellman then pitched the idea to MGM, who gave the go-ahead for production. Westward the Women’s long-lasting influence on the Western genre deserves far more attention as it inspires new work today, including Kelly Reichardt’s highly acclaimed Meek’s Cutoff from 2010.