Saturday, July 05, 2014

Westward the Women

Naiskaravaani / Donne verso l'ignoto. US 1951. D: William Wellman. Story: Frank Capra. SC: Charles Schnee. DP: William Mellor. ED: James E. Newcom. AD: Daniel B. Cathcart, Cedric Gibbons. M: Jeff Alexander. C: Robert Taylor (Buck Wyatt), Denise Darcel (Fifi Danon), Hope Emerson (Patience), John McIntire (Roy Whitlock), Renata Vanni (Mrs. Maron), Julie Bishop (Laurie [Smith]). P: Dore Schary per Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Corp. 35 mm. 116'. From: Filmoteca Española per concessione di Park Circus
    Viewed with e-subtitles in Italian by Sub-Ti at Cinema Jolly (Bologna, Il Cinema Ritrovato), 5 July 2014

Peter von Bagh (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website): "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 the 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 (Il Cinema Ritrovato, 2014, catalogue and website)

AA: A great western from the second golden age of the genre.

Wild Boys of the Road took us from California to the East Coast during the Depression in the 1930s. Westward the Women takes us from Chicago to California during the Gold Rush in the 1850s (one of the men is a veteran of the Donner Party).

There is only one big star in the movie, Robert Taylor, as Buck Wyatt, in charge of the wagon train of 200 women out to get married with California pioneers. It is a perilous journey over mountains and deserts and through Indian lands. Among the biggest perils are the men themselves. When a rape takes place, Buck kills the rapist instantly. When another man tries to shoot Buck, he is killed by a woman sharpshooter.

MGM, the studio of glamour, excelled every now and then with a film of anti-glamour such as Freaks in the 1930s. In Westward the Women the women wear plain clothes, have to throw all their fine things away, and appear seemingly without makeup. They look beautiful.

It is a story of a grim journey, directed with conviction by Wellman. The Indians retreat as they have no guns. When most of the men quit after Buck's violent act of discipline Buck declares he'll "make men of the women". In a shooting exercise the Italian mother accidentally kills her beloved son. This is a story about facing supreme loss. The French Fifi, a lady with a past, keeps teasing Buck, and wants to escape but he does not let her get lost in the wilderness. The owner of the promised valley, Roy Whitlock (John McIntire), dies during the voyage. The running joke about "the grave of Jim Quackenbush", actually a stash of rum, reminds me of Veikko Huovinen's short story "Viinankätkijä". A baby is born during the voyage, conceived before the journey started. Of the ethnic composition, the Italian one is highlighted. Buck's right hand man is Japanese. Finally they reach the orange groves of California, and a big dance is arranged. "This is no time to be bashful". The concluding sequence is a serial wedding.

Excellent, harsh cinematography by William Mellor, shot impressively on location, catching the physical feeling of the journey, with the dust, the fog, and the smoke.

A print with the fine texture intact but the blackest levels missing. The first 15 minutes were screened out of focus.

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