On International Women’s Day, I’d like to raise a toast to all the women I admire. My mother, my sister, sundry relatives, old school and college friends whom I haven’t seen in years, ex colleagues, and even some women I’ve only met in cyberspace but whom I nevertheless respect and admire (memsaab, bollyviewer, and Banno: this is for you). And to Sabrina Mathew, one of the most intelligent, well-read and amazing people I’ve ever met. Here’s to all of us!
Ahem. That sounds like a dedication on a book or an Oscar acceptance speech. And though I mean it sincerely, this perhaps isn’t the forum to get emotional and teary. So back on track, and this time with an unusual film: a Western in which though the star is Robert Taylor, the real heroes are all heroines. A good watch for Women’s Day.
In the California of 1851, a pioneering rancher called Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has created his own little empire—Whitman’s Valley. But Whitman realises that until good women arrive and set up homes, Whitman’s Valley won’t be complete. His men agree, and so a hundred of them sign up for Whitman to get them wives. The only problem is, Whitman’s Valley is all of 2,000 miles from civilisation, and getting the women out here is going to be a massive task. Whitman approaches a hard-bitten trail guide, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), and asks him to take on the job.
Wyatt is sceptical and initially turns down the offer. In any case, as he says, “I’m scared of only two things, and a good woman’s both of them”.
But Whitman offers Wyatt a mouth-watering sum as payment, and Wyatt finally agrees. With Whitman, he goes off to Chicago to `recruit’ the women. A motley crowd signs up—138 of them, since Wyatt warns Whitman that one third will almost certainly die on the way to Whitman’s Valley.
Wyatt gives the women a brief and bone-chilling lecture, warning them of the perils to come and encouraging them to quit while they can. None of the women budge, and Wyatt, by now somewhat surprised (and grudgingly impressed) goes on to find out if any of the women know how to handle a horse, control a team of four mules, and shoot a gun.
From Chicago, the women go the easy way—by river—to St Louis and then to Independence, where Whitman has the wagons all ready for the long drive to California. At Independence, Wyatt’s hired fifteen men to help out, including the seemingly diminutive Ito Yoshisuke Takeyoshi Gennesuke Kentaro `Ito’ (Henry Nakamura). The one instruction Wyatt dins into their heads again and again is to stay away from the women.
So they set off. By now, the women who do know how to handle a horse, a team of mules or a gun, have taught a handful of others, so it’s the women who actually drive the wagons.
The women themselves are an interesting lot. There is, for instance, the outspoken Patience Hawley (Hope Emerson), widow of a captain in the navy. Patience peppers her speech liberally with sailing cant, and is an endearing mix of warmth, practicality, wit and sheer bravery.
The girl who shares Patience’s wagon is a different kettle of fish altogether. Rose Myers (Beverly Dennis) is a timid schoolteacher. Patience soon discovers that part of Rose’s nervousness stems from the fact that she’s pregnant. She’s leaving Chicago in disgrace, going off west so she can begin a new life.
Also off to begin new lives are ex-hookers Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel) and her friend Laurie Smith (Julie Bishop). Whitman is convinced that these women really mean to turn over a new leaf and become the `good women’ his men back in California are waiting for. Buck Wyatt isn’t so sure, and is especially contemptuous of Fifi Danon, with whom he ends up having frequent quarrels (we know what that portends: love! So much like a Hindi film, here).
There are others too: the widowed Mrs Moroni (Renata Vanni) and her little son, both of whom speak nothing but Italian…
Margaret O’Malley (Lenore Lonergan), one of those who can shoot straight, handle a horse or a team of mules, and is ready to give up her skirts for a pair of pants…
And many others. Unfortunately, they’ve barely begun when Wyatt’s cardinal rule gets flouted. One night, he finds one of the men getting ready to have a tumble in the hay with a woman. Wyatt coolly shoots the man in the hand and orders him to leave—no matter if he has to take on the wilderness on his own. The other men are resentful, but Wyatt is firm: stay away from the women.
A couple of days later, an Indian war party appears, and though Wyatt’s wagon train gets into position for a fight, it doesn’t materialise. The Indian chief (John War Eagle) says his arrows are no match for their guns—but there will be another day.
And another night, when one of the men decides Laurie is ideal for some `roughing up’. This time, Wyatt doesn’t let off the offender with a bleeding hand: he shoots him dead. When another of the men tries to dry gulch Wyatt, Maggie kills him.
Mutiny brews during the night, and the next morning, they wake up to find that the party is diminished. The only men left are Wyatt, Whitman, Ito, and young, earnest Sid Cutler (Pat Conway). Cutler’s stayed behind because he’s in love with Rose Myers, and since she refused to leave the wagon train, he didn’t either. Eight other women, however, have realised they’re better off not going to California, and have decamped with the men.
Whitman knows that even though they’re halfway through, they’ve covered the easy half. Turn back, he says, but Wyatt puts his foot down. He knows that if (as it’s inevitable) people come to know he wasn’t able to take a wagon train through, he’ll never get any more work. When Whitman says “It can’t be done without men,” Wyatt’s answer is “Then I’ll make men out of your women, Roy.”
And that is really what the rest of this amazing film is all about: how a hundred women leave behind their frills and fragility, their 19th century views on what a woman can and cannot do, and set off into some of the most hellish terrain in the West. Ahead of them lie cliffs and rivers, vast stretches of alkaline sand so loose you can drown in it—and parched desert. There are hostile Indians (yes, yes, I know: Native Americans!), a seemingly unsympathetic trail guide, and the hope of a wedding ring at the end of it all.
What I liked about this film:
The story, by Frank Capra (though the film was directed by William Wellman). It’s an unforgettable one of pure grit, courage—literal and moral—and much more. The trials the women face as they trek through to California are of course the crux of the story, but the characters of the women themselves are beautifully alive. And there’s a little bit of everything—romance, wit, sorrow, anger, resignation—to make this a great tale.
There’s something very real about this film. When the women are learning how to harness a mule, I could almost feel the wind whipping around them, the dust getting in their hair and the grit caking their faces. And when they begin their long trudge through the desert, I felt right there—sweaty, grimy and bone-tired. I’m not easily taken in, by the way: this was just so obviously not on a set.
Hope Emerson. She is magnificent as Patience. This, incidentally, is one of the reasons I like Westward the Women so much: even though the big star here is Robert Taylor, there are plenty of others who have equally significant roles.
Robert Taylor. How could I not list him?! He’s one of my favourite actors, and he shines in this film as the tough, no-nonsense trail guide who’s willing to work the women till they’re skin and bone and muscle, no matter if they hate him for it. And Buck Wyatt is a far cry from the slightly effete Armand Duval of Camille, 15 years earlier, but he’s equally attractive, bearded, dirty and all!
What I didn’t like:
There are some scenes (a very few, I hasten to add) in which a close scrutiny will reveal that some of the `women’ hauling at the mules or rounding them up or doing otherwise bone-jarring tasks are a tad too broad-shouldered and narrow-hipped. Yes, I suppose it would’ve been a little difficult way back in 1951 to find female extras to do all that hard labour, but still… on the other hand, a lot of pretty tough work has obviously been done by actresses, so here’s to girl power all the same!