16 June 2008
The Five W's
Director William Wellman's Westward the Women is wonderful.
According to TCM host Robert Osborne this film has been called the best example in a Hollywood production of "overt sisterhood." It concerns 140 women being taken west to California by wagon train in the early 1850s to serve as wives for the all male residents of a recently settled valley. Such goings on did go on in the old west and Westward the Women does a remarkable job of imaging such a journey.
The leader of the wagon train is played by Robert Taylor, perhaps Hollywood's prototypical handsome leading men of filmdom's golden age. Here he exercises his acting chops a bit more than usual and comes through with flying colors. He is as a hard-bitten, tough and unflinching as much of the land that must be traversed. It is a relatively anonymous group playing the women but they are nonetheless an exemplary ensemble cast.
Though director Wellman was nearing the end of his great career with this 1951 film, Westward the Women belongs on any list of his best films. There is here, as with many great westerns, a wonderful melding of character study set against the backdrop of a harsh conditions and hostile natives. Of course in this case we have the novelty of women, lots of them. This truly must be the feminists' dream. Strong, independent women, as tough as any man, banding together successfully. Sisterhood is powerful and it's a shame American films haven't explored that theme enough.
As a bonus attraction there is a Japanese character, played by Henry Nakamura, where one was not necessarily called for. While Nakamura is in the sidekick role, he is not presented as an unflattering stereotype.
Westward the Women is not only one of Wellman's best but ranks among the best westerns ever made.