Judge Gordon Sullivan led a wagon train cross-country last year. Interstates make it more, not less, frightening.
He led 200 women on an adventure that most men feared to face!
The Western is typically associated with manly men doing manly things. Names like John Wayne and Clint Eastwood are paragons of masculinity, and they're the obvious heroes (or occasionally anti-heroes) of Western tales. However, for all the focus on men, women play an important role in the genre. Often, it is their love that rehabilitates soldiers and cowboys or their frequent endangerment that provides the impetus for the story. I don't want to claim that Westerns are by nature feminist or anything like that. Rather, my point is that women really are central to many Western stories, so it's no surprise that there are a few Westerns where the main characters are women. Westward the Women is one such anomaly, and it's a solid little genre effort that belongs in the collections of Western fans.
Facts of the Case
It's pioneer days, and the men of California are finally willing to settle down with good women to tame the Wild West. The only problem is that there are no women to be found (at least none of the marrying kind). Rancher Whitman (John MacIntire, Psycho) gets the bright idea of hiring Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor, Quo Vadis) to run a group of mail-order brides from the East Coast to their new husbands in the West. With a whole group of willing ladies, Wyatt sets off. The only problem is that the group of cowhands he's hired to help the wagon train cross don't take kindly to the fact that the ladies on the train are spoken for. When Wyatt punishes an overzealous cowboy, the men desert him. The women, however, want to continue West. It's an epic journey that lives up to the title Westward the Women.
The most fascinating thing about Westward the Women is the way it plays with stereotypes about women, especially women in the Western. Of course there are schoolteachers and showgirls (i.e., suspected prostitutes), and some women are more attractive than others, but the sheer scope of the different kinds of women in the film puts the lie to the idea that the Western only depicts two kinds of female characters (the virtuous woman and the prostitute with a heart of gold).
However, if the film were just an essay on women's roles in the West, it would be a sad little film. Instead, it's an emotionally affecting journey across the country. Like any good wagon-train Western (think something like Lonesome Dove), we want to see the women succeed, and the cast is large enough that there's always the tension lurking that some of the characters are not going to make it.
At the center of this is Buck Wyatt, played by Robert Taylor (and it's a sign that this Western isn't travelling too far from its roots, because the women still need a man to lead them). Taylor was fresh off the success of Quo Vadis, and he's by far the biggest name here. He's solid and believable as Wyatt. He's not of the caliber of the greatest Western actors, but he brings a workingman's attitude to the role that serves his character well. He's well-matched with the actresses in the wagon train. His love interest, Fifi Danon (can you guess what her occupation was back East?) is played with aplomb by Denis Darcel (herself no stranger to the Western).
I don't know what corporate alchemy led to the decision to make Westward the Women an Archive Collection release. Though it's still a manufactured-on-demand DVD-R, Westward the Women has a lot more going for it than the usual minimally cleaned up archival release. Things start off well with a well-preserved source print that doesn't appear to have much damage or other difficulties (or it was cleaned up more than most MOD discs). The 1.37:1 transfer is bright and clean, with solid black levels and good contrast. Grain is appropriate and there are no compression artifacts to speak of. The film's mono soundtrack does fine with the dialogue and the film's minimal music, though it's not a dynamic track by today's standards.
Where this disc really shines, though, is in the extras. First up is a commentary from film historian Scott Eyman. He does a great job contextualizing the film in the genre, as well as providing information about the film's production and reception and info on the stars as well. There's also a featurette on the film's use of locations. All the daytime scenes were filmed on location throughout the United States, including Arizona, Utah, and California, and this featurette gives us a nice peek at what went into filming in those locations was like sixty years ago.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
Westward the Women is the kind of Western that got made before Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah reinvented the genre for the Civil Rights generation. This is not generally a story of gunfighters and cowboys, but a tale of survival in the West. It definitely fits into the mythic tradition of the West, but it does so with a story of a group of women, rather than focusing on the lone gunfighter figure. Those looking for lots of action and gunplay will certainly be disappointed by this film, no matter its strengths.
Though I have no problems with archival releases, I almost wish this disc was getting a bigger push. It's got the tech specs and supplements to be a solid regular release, and perhaps the exposure from that kind of DVD would get the film a wider audience. Still, it's a minor quibble. Having the film available at this level of quality is what's important.
Westward the Women isn't a classic of the Western genre, but it is a solid story that genre fans will appreciate. It's different enough from the usual Western fare to be interesting, but not so different to feel alienating. The audiovisual treatment of the film combined with the excellent supplements make this an easy disc to recommend for rental or purchase to fans of the Western.
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Scales of Justice
Studio: Warner Bros.
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