Since writing about Heroes for Sale last month, I’ve been revisiting—and in some cases, discovering—various films by director William A. Wellman, an eccentric (and, by his own admission, inconsistent) filmmaker who helmed at least a few dozen worthwhile films in the studio era. Today Wellman may be best known for his stories of macho types in conflict—Wings (1927), The Public Enemy (1931), The Ox-Bow Incident (1943), The Story of G.I. Joe (1945)—but he also excelled in stories about women, bringing to them the same toughness and skepticism he displayed in all his work. Movies like Night Nurse (which provided Barbara Stanwyck with a star-making role in 1931), Frisco Jenny (1932), and The Great Man’s Lady (1942) still feel invigorating in their portraits of hard-working, independent women, precisely because Wellman doesn’t present the subjects as novel. Of course Howard Hawks did this in many of his movies, and to much greater recognition among film scholars. Yet Wellman foregrounded his sexual politics more often than Hawks did—his body of work, though not as remarkable as Hawks’s on the whole, deserves a more central position in discussions of gender roles in classic Hollywood cinema.
The 1951 western Westward the Women (which I recently found in the Chicago Public Library’s film collection) could fuel plenty of discussions on its own. Set in the 1850s, it depicts the migration of 200 mail-order brides from Chicago to a California mining town. Robert Taylor, who plays the no-nonsense wagon master, gets top billing, though the film is an ensemble piece, shifting between stories of different travelers. As in numerous John Ford westerns, the women come from a range of backgrounds—there are farmers, small-town spinsters, former showgirls, a few immigrants (a surprising amount of dialogue is not in English)—and the arduous journey forces them to overcome their differences and work together.
There’s a fascinating sexual component to this community building. When the challenges of the journey become too much for the 15 men on the team, Taylor resolves to “turn the women into men” so they might help repair broken wagons, hunt for food, and fight off Indian raids. At the same time, Taylor obsesses over the women’s feminine virtue—having promised to deliver his charges in marriageable condition, he swears to shoot any man on the team who tries to take advantage of them. Taylor comes to follow through with that threat, though it doesn’t feel cathartic when he does. The loss of a male worker means the loss of so many man-hours of work each day—and seeing as the characters are in the middle of the Rocky Mountains at this point, running low on food and water, that loss is not negligible. As Wellman presents it, the domestication of the American west was as brutal a struggle as any armed conflict. (Indeed the film’s matter-of-fact depictions of death on the frontier are some of the bleakest I’ve seen in any studio-era western.)
This gives rise to the central irony of Westward the Women: only masculinized women could succeed in transporting femininity across the frontier. Wellman seems sensitive to this irony, presenting the women’s masculinization as a necessary survival tactic, forgoing an illustration of the superiority of masculine traits. One might argue that the film upends traditional assumptions about male superiority and the western hero by showing the female-driven collective achieving everything we’d expect solitary male characters to do in a western. That’s a fairly simple argument, though I want to stress that it’s a provisional one. I’m still wrapping my head around this complex film, which on first viewing strikes me as a neglected major work.