Two nights ago I was watching another old movie on TCM – Turner Classic Movies, repository of old movies, hosted by charming group headed by Ben Mankiewicz, aspiring not only to entertain, but to educate to the culture and history of film. Every film gets an introduction, putting it in perspective, what to watch for, the back story. What a wonderful idea it has turned out to be! Why others haven't imitated, why movies just come up and you watch it or not and they aren't introduced or commented upon, why the personal connection isn't established, is a mystery to me.
But whatever. The other night, with nothing better to do that wouldn't cost me effort, I tuned into TCM and watched 1951's Westward The Women, directed by William Wellman. I think in 1951 television hadn't completely taken over and people just planned to go to the movies no matter what was playing. the TCM recent theme –they wisely have developed themes for various times, special actors, music directors, fashion, lots of themes – has been westerns that get the west with a different take. Westerns were venerable money makers, I guess ushered in by 1939's Stagecoach, often on TCM and which I like a lot, but by the late forties early fifties, they were getting old. The genre was very familiar by this time. The themes were traditional, the plots predictable, recurrent stars and directors, John Ford's Monument Valley every time he filmed, it seemed – so what are you going to do to break out of the mold?
Westward the Women seems to have been the brainchild of Billy Wilder, who was listed as the writer, and when it was brought to Wellman, a venerable western director, he said, sure, why not? It's a new theme on the recognizable genre. And indeed, when I watched, it did seem new, for a western. But it also seemed, somehow, familiar. I wondered what that was.
So here's the story, summarized by IMDB:
“A trail guide escorts a group of women from Chicago to California to marry men that have recently begun settling there.”
Or, more extended:
“In a time when 'The West' pretty much ends in Texas and only California is slowly being populated by the white men, there's a severe lack of women among the workers on Roy Whitman's (John McIntyre) farm in the California Valley. So he goes back east to Chicago to recruit 150 women willing to become wives for his employees. From the candidates, he selects 138 who seem able to survive a months long journey across 'The Great American Desert' and the Rocky Mountains.”
So, that's descriptive, but as I thought about it, other things stood out. First, the setup. Roy is not just “an employer.” Somewhere quite remote but in the area of San Diego, I think, he has identified a valley where nothing grew before, but where he thought he could bring the lifeless to life. They said it couldn’t be done, but he did it. It's now a thriving and beautiful valley. “My valley,” he calls it. Proprietary. He couldn't have done it alone, of course, so he had men, a lot of men who built it, then worked it. A lot of men, in his valley. Not the brightest of men, but not the worst; ordinary men, kept in line and led by Roy. Yes, he's their employer, but he's also their leader, their brains, their guardian and their ideal. It's his valley.
So Roy reflects on his success, takes pride and pleasure in it, but then he thinks, something is missing. Brilliant as Roy is, he figures it out. It's women who are missing. We don't know what the men were thinking before this – pretty amazing that when the subject comes up, it seems new. Imagine that, women! The men are excited when the prospect is raised. Amazing – a new thought that hadn't occurred to any of them, as though they didn't know that women existed.
Roy figures there are women who would want to come out of the squalor of the East to come to a wholesome life in a paradise of a valley and marry the men waiting there. Sounds like a plan. He finds a hard-bitten foreman, Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor), who will go back East with him, find some women who want to go west, and lead a wagon train back with him. Buck says he'll do it, but only for the money. The TCM commentators wry observe that it takes a western to find a name like “Buck Wyatt.”
So they go back and Roy has recruited the women, of all types, with all types of troubles that make the prospect of going west attractive. He signs them up at what looks like a hiring hall, as the women present themselves to be chosen, and the pictures of the men are posted individually on a board. The women take down the pictures, and each one has her intended mate – no need to match personalities, it's simply foreordained. They take more women than they need because they figure that they will lose about a third of them along the hazardous trail. The women hear that, but they'll take their chances.
The trail proves to be indeed hazardous, with Indians and weather hazards, some of the men who Roy has hired to go on the trail – good men, he assures Buck – get frisky with the women, and Buck has to send one back and kill one or two. In a latter stage of the trip some of the men and the women disappear overnight together – they won't make it to the heavenly valley, but in bailing out, they jeopardize the entire trip for the others. Roy wants to go back, but Buck objects that if he can't be successful, he'll never work again – at least, that's the excuse he gives for going forward – and the women follow his lead, refusing to go back, and Roy is satisfied with the way it is being completed. Then something happens and Roy dies – I'm not sure exactly what happened, because right then a friend from next door came by and I stopped watching for a little. But I got back in time to see him die.
They do get there, and the women insist that they have a day before they arrive to get themselves prettied up; they've been very masculine until then in what they wore, although the audience sees enough to be interested. Where do they get the materials to make themselves pretty, when they have had to jettison all their clothes along the way, to make the wagons light enough? Why, the wagon train men who are left go ahead to the valley and get the men to donate material that when the women come, they will be beautiful the way women are supposed to be.
So they arrive, the women tell the men of the valley to line up, that they will do the choosing, and they match to men to the pictures they have been carrying with them. The next day there is a mass marriage, one by one, as the new couples do it proper before bedding town with each other. Hardbitten Buck is about to ride away when the prettiest of the woman comes over and stops him from mounting up on the horse. Where are you going, she says. I was just waiting for you to come and stop me, he answers. Happy ending as the two of them get in line themselves.
One thing I left out is one of the men who sign on with the wagon train. That man is a very short Japanese guy, who acts as Buck's Sancho Panza, helping all the time, cooking, and being sexless. Maybe he was gay, or maybe just a little foreigner. Oh, Cisco – Oh, Pancho! Laugh laugh laugh.
As with many movies, I really don't know why, but I liked it. They made a decent job of it, and even if the characters were stock, they were well enough played so that I liked it.
And then the theme gnawed at me. What was it? What was the familiarity? A perfect valley that Roy made, but he forgot about women? It hit me – sounds like the Bible to me. Now, if Roy had been God, he would just have taken some ribs from the men and made women, but given the western setting, going back East would have to do.
I wondered if the perfidious men to attack the women and the ones who take off were fallen angels.
I wondered if Roy's not making it all the way back, after all those arduous days in the wilderness, but taking satisfaction in the knowledge that the mission would be fulfilled has some Moses in it.
I wondered if the women carrying men's pictures had some predestination in it, and some idea that in the end it's the women who choose, was an idea of popular culture that maybe the scriptwriters shared.
The hostile Indians – I wonder why they were hostile and didn't just welcome this alien culture to their land that was being stolen? – that's pretty standard fare for westerns.
The lining up two by two. Isn't that Noah's Ark?
And as I said, the little Japanese companion, Ito Kentaro, as Sancho Panza.
And then the handsome hard-bitten man gets the prettiest girl – that's movie culture for sure.
Anyway, who knows what was in the writers' minds – besides Frank Capra being responsible for the story, Charles Schnee was the responsible for the screenplay – but maybe mixing up genres is what the clever ones seem to do. Like familiar flavors in new wrappings. Or familiar wrappings with new flavors.
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