WESTWARD THE WOMEN—-class-A 1951 western from director William Wellman. Charles Schnee (Red River, The Furies) wrote the script, from “Pioneer Women”, a story by Frank Capra. Fondly recalled, with justification: it’s an Americana gem.
1851. ‘Whitman’s Valley’ in California is prime country, but for one thing: there are no women, and the men are lonely. Valley founder ‘Roy Whitman’ (John McIntire) hires ‘Buck Wyatt’ (Robert Taylor) to guide a wagon train of carefully-screened applicants from Chicago to St. Joseph Missouri and then across the unforgiving expanse of prairie, mountain and desert to the Promised Land–and the waiting would-be-husbands. Rough-but-fair Wyatt is skeptical, yet the determined ladies show themselves more than equal to the challenges and perils, triumphs and tragedies of the journey.
Unlike Wellman’s other western that came out two months before, MGM didn’t apply the edit-by-lawnmower mangler they used on Across The Wide Missouri. This offbeat frontier-facing saga flows smoothly through naturalistic scenes of toil, action, humor and heartbreak to a deeply satisfying conclusion; the $2,203,000 was a solid hit, 19th place for the year with a gross of $7,500,000. Excellently photographed by William C. Mellor on locations in Utah (around Kanab) and California (Death Valley), with the expert cameraman refraining from using filters whenever possible to accentuate the parched and rugged landscapes.
The hardy trekking is bolstered by Wellman letting the cast know before shooting that “There will be no prima donnas on my picture.” As a result, the ladies aren’t “gussied up” in the typical phony makeup malarkey of the era; they look the part, and the director used the battle plan he’d employed with male actors on The Story Of G.I. Joe and Battleground, putting the girls through a two-week training course that gave them credibility in riding, shooting, using bullwhips and handling teams of mules and horses pulling wagons.
“You can look us over, but don’t think you’re going to do the choosing! All the way from Independence, I’ve been staring at two things: one was this picture and the other was the rump of a mule… and don’t ask me which was prettier!”
Fine ensemble performances from Taylor as the hard-bitten, believably flawed ramrod, Darcel (Wellman’s Battleground bombshell) as ‘Fifi Danon’, a reputation-in-recovery gal who sets her cap for Taylor, McIntire as the kindly organizer who wants to grow a community, towering Hope Emerson as practical-minded widow ‘Patience Hawley’, Henry Nakamura as ‘Ito Kentaro’, cook and all-round handyman and Beverly Dennis as ‘Rose Meyers’, whose unwed pregnancy adds a poignant dimension to her evolving story. Dramatic and funny, sad and stirring, mature and unflinching, this is one of the best westerns of the 1950s.
With Julie Bishop, Lenore Lonergan, Marilyn Erskine, Renata Vanni, Pat Conway (debut), Bruce Cowling, George Chandler, Chubby Johnson. The first movie bit part for 24-year-old future heavy Roy Jenson. 118 minutes.
* Was Wellman’s handling of Capra’s idea the first big movie to deal with the travails of average women who made up their share of the Great Western Migration? Spunky pioneerettes had been showcased via Annie Oakley, Belle Starr and a scant offering of infamous scamps, and certainly as key Good or Bad gals in numerous pictures (Destry Rides Again, The Outlaw, Duel In The Sun, The Furies, to cite a few), but this may be the plowshare-breaker for the likes of such variable items as Seven Brides For Seven Brothers, The Guns Of Fort Petticoat, Heller In Pink Tights, Heartland and The Homesman.
He also hired every available stuntwoman in Hollywood, showcasing the skills of expert riders like Polly Bunson, Opal Ernie, Edith Happy, Donna Hall, Evelyn Finley, Sharon & Shirley Lucas, Ann Roberts and Stevie Myers.