Sog.: Frank Capra. Scen.: Charles Schnee. F.: William Mellor. M.: James E. Newcom. Scgf.: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons. Mus.: Jeff Alexander. Int.: Robert Taylor (Buck Wyatt), Denise Darcel (Fifi Danon), Hope Emerson (Patience), John McIntire (Roy Whitlock), Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maron), Julie Bishop (Laurie [Smith]). Prod.: Dore Schary per Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. 35mm.
Thinking about how women made their way into the center of westerns in the Fifties (Joan Crawford in Johnny Guitar, Barbara Stanwyck in Forty Guns), it’s strange how seldom Wellman’s remarkable portrayal of a female group is mentioned in lists of the finest 1950s westerns, the greatest decade for that form. Both The Ox-Bow Incident and Yellow Sky might have bigger reputations and yet, poignantly, Westward Women is a strong candidate for Wellman’s finest western. A female trek, even though it is led by Robert Taylor, more or less re-enacts the story of Red River. The narrative is less deep than Hawks’ masterpiece, and in some sense it is harsher, more realistic about the difficulties and facts of loss. Another great contemporary film, Ford’s Wagonmaster, is somehow romantic by comparison. Wellman was a tough guy who could create an amazing combination of tenderness and cruelty. In Wild Boys on the Road, a boy loses his leg in an accident, and in Westward the Women an Italian lady is practicing with guns and kills her ten year old son, accidentally. This is a central element of Wellman’s charm: total unpredictability. As we know, and this film verifies it fully, Wellman’s true basic element was rain, here complemented with dust, storm, thunder, images of horses stuck in the sand, or more generally everything breathing the fight to survive. But there are contrary forces at work as well. The harsh circumstances – a vision of blood, sweat, tears – could easily make the perspective of the promised land look like a hallucinatory dream, bound to vanish – but it does not. That is why he gives us a scene of a baby being born, with the art to create the feeling of a collective birth event. Maybe this is why the film is less well-known than it should be: with no female stars pushed to the foreground, it is authentically about a collective. It’s about those who “died nameless but achieved immortality”.
Peter von Bagh