DirectorWilliam A. Wellman
Release Date(s)1951 (September 26, 2023)
Studio(s)Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer (Warner Archive Collection)
- Film/Program Grade: A
- Video Grade: A
- Audio Grade: B
- Extras Grade: A
As time passes, many films that deserve attention slip into relative obscurity. Such a picture is Westward the Women, an unusual Western. An early cinematic example of female empowerment and independence with a largely female cast, the film portrays women as tough, resilient, and strong.
We begin in Whitman Valley, California in 1851. Wealthy rancher Roy Whitman (John McIntire, Psycho) hires trail guide Buck (Robert Taylor, Quo Vadis) to travel to Chicago to convince 150 women to head west as brides for his 100 ranch hands. Why 150 women for only 100 men? It’s likely that a third of the women won’t survive the rigors of the long journey. Buck is reluctant, so Whitman sweetens the deal by offering Buck a huge fee, more than he’s ever received for a trail drive. That offer is too good to refuse. Buck chooses fifteen men and warns them to treat the women with respect or they will answer to him personally.
In Chicago, the likenesses of the prospective bridegrooms are posted on a bulletin board for each interested woman to select the one she wants. As single men are scarce in the big city, it’s not long before Buck collects 150 signatures. Before they can depart, however, the women must learn how to handle a team of mules, shoot a gun, and pitch in with the hard labor on the dangerous trip. The wagon train starts out from Independence, Missouri and heads through the wilderness crossing the Rockies, the Great Salt Lake, and the desert. Hardships and tragedies occur en route. The women persevere through many daunting challenges, but it’s never clear whether they will ultimately succeed.
Director William Wellman (Wings) went far from Hollywood to find the conditions that would make a covered wagon trek through the wilderness look believable. The location is essential in telling the story. He chose a remote part of Utah and used virtually no studio pick-up shots, giving the film a sense of authenticity that couldn’t be captured within the walls or on the back lots of a studio. At the time, location filming was not all that common, and MGM went to great expense to truck cast, crew, tons of equipment, wagons, trailers, livestock, props, and catering facilities to this remote site.
With mountains, deserts, and prairies as backdrops, the film visually emphasizes the scope and peril of trekking across a vast distance with mechanical difficulties, hostile Indians, harsh weather, and disgruntled hands all conspiring to undermine the journey. Violence occurs unexpectedly, as do sudden deaths and natural disasters. Wellman creates suspense by setting up scenes in which the characters fear for their lives yet forge ahead. This establishes the resolve and grit of the women, portraying them as far more than docile passengers to a new life.
Taylor plays Buck as hard-boiled and self-assured. He pushes the women to gain expertise and strength because he knows what it takes to make it across an often inhospitable landscape. When one of the women, Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel, Vera Cruz), has eyes for him, Buck puts his job first, demanding of her the same as the other women. No special favors. It’s a breath of fresh air that Wellman doesn’t slow the momentum with a lengthy romantic sub-plot, though he does bow to certain conventions concerning Buck’s relationship with Fifi.
Second-billed Darcel has more dialogue than the other women. Later in the film, she has greater screen time with Taylor, establishing her character as a match for his Buck. Managing to look attractive without heavy make-up or elaborate hair styling, she’s good as Fifi. Though the script by Charles Schnee can’t help but have her attracted to Buck, her performance makes clear that it’s more for his handsome appearance and civilized behavior than his macho quality. In later scenes, she delivers some strong dialogue and does a good job expressing pent-up frustration and anger.
The supporting cast is strong. Hope Emerson (Caged) plays the resolute, big-boned Patience, eager for a husband and willing to go through hell to get one. Emerson is wonderful at offering comic relief as she towers over the other women and many of the men, with a look that dares anyone to mess with her. Lenore Lonergan (The Lady Says No) plays Maggie O’Malley, better with a six shooter than a frying pan. Henry Nakamura (Unchained) is Ito, a trail hand hired to cook who turns out to be Buck’s sometime conscience. Renata Vanni (A Patch of Blue) plays Mrs. Moroni, an Italian immigrant who suffers a terrible tragedy on the trail.
Though some regard Westward the Women as a comedy, it’s far from that. It’s graphic in depicting violence, betrayal, accidents, trail hazards, death, injury, and back-breaking labor. Though dramatic, it never seems as if any of these elements are included merely to pep up the tale. If anything, the events seem like the bare minimum of obstacles such a wagon train would face.
In actuality, “mail-order brides” were essential to expanding civilization across America. During the initial settling of the west, it was primarily men who traveled there. They went to search for gold, start homestead farms and ranches, and begin new lives where resources were plentiful, wide-open spaces were abundant, and there was a lot more freedom than back east. Eventually, needing female companionship, men would advertise in eastern newspapers for wives. Interested women who met the qualifications of a particular advertiser would write back. If their correspondence went well, the man would pay the woman’s fare to join him out west to marry. In Westward the Women, the women do the choosing and brave the odds, with only a small likeness of the men they set out to marry.
Westward the Women was shot by director of photography William Mellor on 35 mm black-and-white film with spherical lenses and presented in the aspect ratio of 1.37:1. The picture is sharp, with no age-related imperfections. Certain scenes have an almost documentary feel. From its opening shots of livestock being wrangled, the film contains many breathtaking compositions of mountainous terrain, salt flats, deserts, and prairies, emphasizing the scope of the land the wagon train must travel. There are spectacular high angle shots and tracking shots following the moving wagons and galloping horses. Actors wear little make-up and often look as if they’re covered with trail dust. The women’s hair is either tied back or wild, with no Hollywood hairdressers’ work visible. Taylor is bearded for most of the film, suggesting the long time on the trail and the lack of time to shave daily. Action sequences are staged excitingly and dramatically, and there’s a lot of impressive horse riding. Director William Wellman didn’t want filters used, so the film has a sun-drenched look, in keeping with the long trudge across the desert.
The soundtrack is English 2.0 Mono DTS-HD Master Audio. Optional English SDH subtitles are an available option. Dialogue is clear throughout, but it’s the sound effects that dominate. Mules braying, wagon wheels squeaking, Indians whooping during a chase, gun shots, a downpour, wind blowing off the plains, and screams dramatically underscore the dangers of a journey across the wilderness. The mono track sounds a bit flat in places and the gun shots could have used some “sweetening,” but other than that, the overall sound quality is fine.
Bonus materials of the Blu-ray release from Warner Archive include the following:
- Audio Commentary by Scott Wyman
- Challenge of the Wilderness (10:30)
- Lux Radio Theater Broadcast (49:14)
- Texas Tom (6:44)
- The Duck Doctor (7:03)
- Original Theatrical Trailer (3:36)
Audio Commentary – Author Scott Wyman is knowledgeable about director William Wellman, but doesn’t comment too much about the action on screen. He opens this commentary by noting that Westward the Women deserves to be better known. He speaks about various early films that may have pioneered themes of feminism. Westward the Women is about women’s choices and their determination. It’s noted that “the film was nearly strangled in the cradle,” and reasons for the film’s difficult genesis are described. A great deal of information is provided about William Wellman and his career. He worked as assistant director on many Westerns and got his big break directing Wings in 1927, which put him on the Hollywood directors A-list. Though Wings had a budget of $2 million, Wellman received a salary of only $250 a week. There’s an analysis of how Wellman’s films were shot. Wellman liked close-ups to show emotion and long shots to show grandeur. He employed few medium shots. Similarities between Westward the Women and John Ford’s Wagonmaster are pointed out. The rhythm of Westward the Women is occasionally interrupted by startling violence. Very little make-up was used on the actors, to give them the appearance they’d been on the trail for a long time. An early scene between Whitman and Buck establishes that the film will portray a rough trip. The Utah location used in the film was used often by film companies from the 1930s to the 1970s. A bit of MGM politics is related. Dore Schary returned to the studio in 1948 after MGM lost money for the first time in 1947. L.B. Mayer and Schary didn’t see eye-to-eye about productions. Mayer loved musicals and family pictures. Schary preferred pictures about social issues with messages. By 1951, Mayer was out, with Schary in charge of production.
Challenge of the Wilderness – This 1951 MGM short is about the mounting of the location production Westward the Women. The behind-the-scenes footage is shown through the eyes of a cast member, beginning with the airplane trip to Utah and the surface trek to the filming locale. Roads had to be built to accommodate the heavy trucks, buses, and equipment vans. The crew was up at 5 A.M. to ready equipment for 8 A.M. filming. The stunt riders hired for the picture were all championship horsewomen. Carpenters and painters created buildings right on location. In a sense, the actresses lived like the pioneer women they were portraying. Local Indians were hired for the Indian chase scene. The filming took eight weeks.
Lux Radio Theater Broadcast – This radio program of Westward the Women from December 29, 1952, hosted by director Irving Cummings, features the original stars of the film, Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel.
Texas Tom – In this 1950 MGM Tom and Jerry cartoon, Tom is a cowboy boot-wearing cat at a Texas dude ranch. When a beautiful female cat comes for a visit, Tom takes time from his regular torturing of Jerry to use the mouse as a way to impress her. But Jerry has other ideas and gives Tom a run for his money. Directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera.
The Duck Doctor – Also directed by William Hanna and Joseph Barbera, this 1952 MGM cartoon features hunter Tom shooting down a duckling flying south for the winter. Jerry protects the wounded bird before Tom can finish the job. Interestingly, Tom dies in this cartoon. He digs his own grave, smokes a final cigarette, and is then crushed by a falling anvil.
Westward the Women is an unheralded gem. The story is a good one, there’s plenty of action, and the women prove themselves to be equally up to the privations of a long journey through punishing land as men. The film is visually stunning, with beautiful landscapes dwarfing the wagon train as it pushes forward. Not your typical Western of the period, the fictional tale authentically portrays what pioneer women had to endure when crossing the harsh western United States wilderness.
- Dennis Seuling