He led 200 women on an adventure that most men feared to face!
As long as there have been movies, there have been exceptions to every rule and every genre. One of those is William Wellman’s 1951 western Westward the Woman, starring Robert Taylor and a bunch of ladies.
The plot is pretty straightforward, albeit unbelievable at its most basic level. Taylor is hired to escort a caravan of women to a newly founded settlement where there are apparently no women. If you buy into that factoid, the rest comes easy. For the record, I suspended my own sense of logic and bought into it, and am much the better for it.
During their trip west, the women experience all the trials and tribulations you’d expect along a journey of this magnitude. And, yes, not everyone survives the journey. That in itself is part of the allure of this picture, along with its gritty reality.
William “Wild Bill” Wellman directs this rather non-traditional western in his usual fashion. It is very well done and the stark black and white cinematography is an additional highlight of the picture. The content alone- fixated on a group of women- is somewhat atypical for the time, but Wellman’s predilection for the women’s perspective comes through by the film’s end.
The women, all of whom are portrayed extremely well though by lesser stars, have all the quirks and personality of the finer gender. They are not only conniving and scheming, but also soft and tender. Note their need for clothes and “looking good” once they get to their destination. By the end of the picture you’re rooting for them.
The acting is quite good throughout and (even though I am not a tremendous fan) even Robert Taylor does quite well with his work. Even I bought into Taylor’s portrayal as it trends from justified dubiousness to equally justified respect.
Long has Westward the Women only been available on VHS and a rather rare foreign import. Now our friends at the Warner Archive have released it. (And thanks to them for the review copy.) The quality of the release – video and audiowise, is pretty much the norm for releases from the Archive. A slight improvement over what you’ll see on TCM, but no dramatic improvements.
What WOWs us here is the supplemental material. Yes, supplemental material on a Warner Archive disc, which hopefully is the start of a trend. A few discs have featured trailers, but this is the first (at least that I have) that features what one would consider actual supplemental content.
We get two items here beyond the feature. First is a short promotional film MGM released to promote the film entitled Challenge the Wilderness, which today would perhaps be termed a “making of” experience. It focuses primarily on the challenges of location shooting in Utah.
Also, as an even better treat, we get an extremely good commentary track from author and historian Scott Eyman, whose Print the Legend: The Life and Times of John Ford we’ve looked at previously and recommend highly. The commentary is insightful and although not perhaps in the league of Roger Ebert, is better than most by far. Someone, take the hint…..
If you like to break the mold a bit, I highly suggest you take a look at this. Wellman presents a powerful and realistic (again except for the underlying assumption) depiction of an extremely arduous journey and how in impacts those on it. And the extras are worth the price of admission alone. As unlikely as it seems, I hope this becomes some sort of trend.