The Last Sunset

Posted on April 29th, 2010 in 1960s, Westerns, Kirk Douglas, Robert Aldrich, Rock Hudson, Joseph Cotten by Colin

Poster

The Last Sunset (1961) is a film that seems to have all the credentials, all the ingredients that go towards making a top flight production: a highly talented director, a fine cast, and a script by a top writer. In spite of all this the final result is a movie that doesn’t quite gel and one that delivers a lot less than it initially promises. As is usually the case when a film proves disappointing, the fault lies with the script. There are some interesting elements which are introduced and then disposed of before they’ve had a chance to play out fully. Generally, this leads to both clutter and a lack of focus. In the end, we’re left with a film that’s not exactly bad but one that could and should have been a whole lot better.  

The opening credits play over a dogged pursuit across a southwestern landscape, down into Mexico where the bulk of the action will unfold. O’Malley (Kirk Douglas) is the black clad fugitive, a killer who carries a derringer instead of a six-shooter. Hot on his trail is Dana Stribling (Rock Hudson), a lawman with a personal interest in seeing his quarry brought back to Texas to hang. O’Malley is heading for a ranch run by a faded Virginia gentleman with a fondness for the bottle. The rancher, Breckenridge (Joseph Cotten), happens to be married to O’Malley’s old sweetheart Belle (Dorothy Malone) and it’s soon evident that he’s continued carrying a torch for her for years. The two men strike a deal whereby O’Malley will help Breckenridge drive his herd up to Texas, but he also claims he’s going to take his new partner’s wife off him. That in itself could have provided an interesting scenario, but the script has no intention of remaining so simple. Stribling’s arrival leads to an uneasy truce with hunter and hunted agreeing to pool their talents in order to ensure the success of the cattle drive before settling their own scores. With both newcomers being clearly interested in the charms of Belle the scene looks set for a juicy three-way contest for her affections. However, that’s not to be for Breckenridge soon departs the scene after being gunned down in a cheap cantina. What’s even more frustrating is the fact that moments before his death the audience is treated to revelations about Breckenridge’s shameful past. So, two potentially rich plot veins are left unmined. Instead we’re treated to the seemingly interminable drive to Texas with too much talk and too few sparks. It seems that the producers were aware that they were in danger of bogging the plot down, so three shifty and unscrupulous cowboys, who plan to get in on the white slavery racket, are introduced (Jack Elam, Neville Brand and James Westmoreland) to try to spice up proceedings. Again the opportunity is lost as these characters are killed off before they have the chance to make an impression. The script still has one hole card in reserve though, and it’s a real stinger. Nevertheless, in keeping with the rest of the picture, this gets handled poorly too. The problem is not with the nature of this final reveal, it’s suitably shocking, but the fact that we learn about it too soon. I won’t go into details here lest I spoil things for anybody, but the timing really draws all the tension and drama out of the climactic duel and leaves us with a flat and predictable ending.

Kirk Douglas

With a combination of Robert Aldrich directing and Dalton Trumbo writing, I don’t think it’s unfair to have high expectations. For whatever reason, neither man was at the top of his game on The Last Sunset. Trumbo’s script meanders all over the place and flatters to deceive, with too many plot turns and too many undeveloped ideas. Aldrich allowed the momentum to flag after the first half hour or so and he never really recovered it after that. There are some nice shots, a well filmed sequence during a dust storm, and an attempt to claw back some tension in the climax through quick cutting but none of it adds up to enough to save the film. On top of all this the performances of the two leads are nothing to write home about either. Douglas seemed to be trying for the kind of deadly rascal that Burt Lancaster pulled off in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz but it doesn’t really work for him. Hudson just didn’t convince at all as the driven lawman and he comes across as merely bland. Dorothy Malone and Joseph Cotten were altogether more successful as the Breckenridges; the former exuding a worldly sexuality that made the attention of her various suiters highly credible, while the latter provided a fine portrait of a broken and guilty man. Maybe if Hudson’s character had been the one to snuff it in the cantina we would have got a more compelling film. It’s also a shame that Jack Elam and Neville Brand had to disappear so soon since such character actors were capable of raising the quality of any production.

The Last Sunset was given a release a few years back by Universal in R1 in the Rock Hudson - Screen Legend set. The transfer is a fine anamorphic one and, apart from the odd speckle, there’s not much wrong with it. Colour and sharpness are both strong with good detail. There’s a trailer for the film provided but that’s it as far as extras go. This movie couldn’t be classed as anyone’s finest hour but it’s not a complete dud. There are a handful of worthy performances and the adult theme that becomes apparent as it draws to a close mean that it deserves a look. Let’s just say that it wouldn’t be an ideal introduction to the work of any of the principals.

The Big Country

Posted on April 23rd, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, William Wyler, Gregory Peck, Charlton Heston, Jean Simmons by Colin

Poster

The Big Country (1958) has been described as a Cold War allegory, and I guess the reasons for that are fairly clear for anyone who wants to see them. It’s also been referred to as a traditional “stranger in a strange land” style tale, which is once again obvious enough. Whilst the latter is a theme that’s been visited too many times to mention, the former tends to date movies badly if that’s all there is on offer; one has only to compare a one-note diatribe like Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue to multi-layered works such as Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, Richard Brooks’ The Professionals, or Aldrich’s Ulzana’s Raid to see the difference. What raises The Big Country above a trite critique of contemporary politics and lends it a timeless relevance is the fact that it’s also an examination of man (or should I say men) and what he’s made of. The hero continuously has his masculinity questioned and challenged, and it’s his refusal to play others’ games and conform to preconceived ideas of how he should or should not act that builds up his stature in the viewer’s eyes while, conversely, it is diminished in the eyes of his fellow characters.

Jim McKay (Gregory Peck) is the archetypal easterner come west. His arrival is enough to literally stop the locals in their tracks, gazing in wonder at this alien figure with his trim suit and odd hat. McKay is a seaman who’s come to this new land to wed Pat Terrill (Carroll Baker), daughter of a wealthy rancher. Within a very short time McKay has a run in with Buck Hannassey (Chuck Connors) and his brothers, and so gets his first taste of the situation he’s landed himself in. The Hannassey’s are a rough and ready clan of ranchers engaged in an off and on vendetta with McKay’s future father-in-law Major Terrill (Charles Bickford). The cause of the feud is a piece of land that both families covet due to its providing that most valuable of commodities in the parched prairies of the old west, water. Having said that, the bitterness and venom that both Pat and the Major express when speaking of their not so welcome neighbours hints at some deeper source for the rivalry. Right away you can sense McKay’s unease at the raw hatred he’s exposed to, and the fact that he refuses to share in it and even backs off confronting the Hannassey’s shocks his bride-to-be. In fact, McKay seems to do nothing but disappoint his betrothed; he avoids taking a ride on the unbroken horse that’s traditionally wheeled out to give all newcomers a rough welcome, and worst of all turns his back on a fight that the Major’s foreman Steve Leech (Charlton Heston) goads him into. As far as Pat is concerned, these all amount to calculated insults and his shunning of such public displays of machismo cast doubts on his manhood and, by extension, on her pride and judgement. However, the viewer gets to see what Pat and her father don’t: that McKay is no coward, he’s merely a man with a deep sense of personal honour who’s offended by the act of showing off to others and proving to them that which he’s very sure of himself. When Pat rides off in a huff, and the Major and Steve go hunting vengeance, McKay quietly takes out that unbroken horse and sets about taming it. Time and again the animal hurls him into the dust of the corral, and time and again McKay gets back in the saddle until he finally bends it to his will.

The thing about McKay is he’s spent years sailing the oceans of the world and knows full well what hardships he’s capable of enduring. He feels no obligation to show the Major what a big man he is for the simple reason that he’s already proven that to himself. To McKay, that’s all that matters: that a man should know his own abilities and that his woman should believe in him just because she is his woman. For Pat, however, that’s not the case and she comes to feel shame for having chosen a man who regards acts of bravado as beneath him. If further evidence were needed of McKay’s physical courage then it comes in a remarkable night time scene. Having begged off a public brawl with Steve, McKay pays him a nocturnal visit to “say goodbye”. The two men walk out onto the moonlit prairie and engage in a brutal fist fight that was marvellously filmed and choreographed. Director William Wyler shot the whole scene without music and the only sounds heard throughout are the grunts and gasps of the two men punctuated by the thud of bone striking flesh. Wyler also made excellent use of the camera in that scene, alternating between close-up, medium and ever widening long shots that point up not only the isolation of McKay and Steve but also their insect-like insignificance (and indeed the insignificance of their struggle) in that vast landscape. By the end of their bout, as both men stand bruised and bleeding, McKay asks Steve what he thinks that has proved. In addition, there’s also the standoff with Buck late on, when he rides into the Hannassey’s place to try and rescue Julie Maragon (Jean Simmons) and head off a bloodbath in the making. As Rufus (Burl Ives), the patriarch of the Hannassey’s, does the honours the two men take the requisite number of paces and turn to face each other down the barrels of McKay’s antique duelling pistols.

East meets West - Gregory Peck and Charlton Heston in The Big Country.

I’ve already mentioned William Wyler’s masterful use of the wide lens, but it’s to be seen all the way through the film. The whole thing is a visual delight that takes in both the sprawling prairie vistas and the blanched rocks of the canyon between Terrill’s ranch and the Hannassey’s place. Blanco Canyon is the setting for the scene that, for me at least, is just about the finest in the picture. The Major has decided that a showdown with the Hannassey’s is unavoidable and sets off to finish things for good. When it becomes apparent that he and his men will be riding into an ambush, the Major turns to Steve for support. However, this man has had his bellyful of mindless violence and says so. The Major rides off alone to meet whatever fate awaits him. Steve has looked on this man as a surrogate father all his life and you can see the anguish etched into his features as he watches him depart. He mounts up, and the camera moves to the mouth of the canyon and the lone figure of the Major. As Jerome Moross’ spine-tingling score slowly builds the angle shifts slightly and Steve gallops into view, drawing level with the Major he looks back to see the rest of the ranch hands come one by one round the rim of the canyon. There’s not a word exchanged between Heston or Bickford but the flickering glances and quickly concealed smiles speak volumes. To me this is cinema at its purest, where visuals, score and subtle expression tell the viewers all they need to know about the nature of a relationship, and in this case what masculinity is about - the importance of loyalty, affection and sheer guts even when good sense should dictate otherwise.

I honestly couldn’t criticise any of the performances and just about every major character felt fully rounded. Peck’s hero is maybe too straight down the line but that’s a minor complaint when you consider that such a role was necessary amid all the complexity elsewhere. Charles Bickford should be the guy to hiss at, but the raw courage and determination he invests in the Major tempers the less savoury aspects. There aren’t really any absolute villains in The Big Country, Chuck Connors comes the closest but even he is more to be pitied than anything. He shows himself to be only a step or two above an animal towards the end but it’s hard not to see him as something of a victim of circumstance in some respects too. I thought Charlton Heston gave one of his best performances in a role that ensured he got to act in a restrained and measured way, his lower billing probably contributing to that. Burl Ives picked up a Best Supporting Actor Oscar for his part and I’d say he deserved it on the basis of a couple of memorable scenes alone - his gatecrashing of Major Terrill’s party and the climax, where he is forced to do the unthinkable, immediately spring to mind. Both Jean Simmons and Carroll Baker did well portraying two opposite sides of the female character and made the most of their screen time.   

MGM’s R2 DVD of The Big Country is slightly disappointing. The anamorphic scope image is generally clean and sharp with good colours but there are some really irritating instances of shimmer, especially when any of the wooden buildings are on view. What’s maybe more annoying is the fact that the disc is practically barebones. This is an important film, and not simply because it’s an epic production; it’s a movie that’s both visually and thematically rich and deserves better. Anyway, despite some reservations about the DVD the film itself is a genuine classic that ought to have a place on the shelf of those who consider themselves western fans, or even just fans of quality cinema.

The Tin Star

Posted on April 16th, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Anthony Mann, Henry Fonda by Colin

Poster

The westerns of Anthony Mann are generally among the highest regarded in the canon. It’s therefore a little odd that one of the movies he made during his purple patch in the 50s is frequently overlooked when his work is discussed. However, this certainly seems to be the case with The Tin Star (1957). I think this may be partly due to one of the casting decisions and, to a lesser extent, to the ending that is just too upbeat and out of touch with the events that preceded it.

The dominant theme in The Tin Star is justice: the definition, mechanics and importance of justice in a frontier environment where civilization was still in its infancy. Parallel to this is the theme of maturity; the need for a man to learn judgement from those who have gone before, and by extension the need for a new society to learn from the past and thus achieve maturity. Ben Owens (Anthony Perkins) is a young sheriff who’s so green he’s unlikely to hold the position - or indeed stay in one piece - for long if someone doesn’t come to his aid fast. His saviour turns up in the unlikely guise of a professional bounty hunter called Morgan Hickman (Henry Fonda). When Hickman rides into town to deliver a corpse and collect the bounty he finds the sheriff in the back of his office practising his draw, looking for all the world like an overgrown schoolboy playing at being a grown-up. The truth is Owens isn’t much more than a juvenile when it comes to law enforcement and has only got his job because no one else wanted it. That’s not strictly true, there was one other candidate - local loudmouth and rabble-rouser Bart Bogardus (Neville Brand). Sooner or later a confrontation between Bogardus and Owens will have to take place, and it falls to Hickman to tutor the young lawman in the art of reading men and facing down threatening situations. Along the way we learn more about the enigmatic Hickman; he too was once a sheriff before the callousness and hypocrisy of his employers drove him out of the job. Owens is danger not only of becoming the victim of Bogardus’ desire for his badge but also of suffering the same fate Hickman once did. The murder of one of the town’s prominent citizens leads to the capture of two outlaw brothers and the organisation of a lynch mob by Bogardus. It’s at this point that the townsmen show their true colours and, reminiscent of High Noon, turn tail and abdicate all responsibility for justice or law. There’s also a nasty undercurrent of racism running through this settlement, personified by the bullying and hate-filled Bogardus but tacitly accepted by the so-called pillars of society too. The two prisoners are stated to be half breeds (and almost damned for that reason alone) and the woman who Hickman’s been lodging with is an outcast due to her having married an Indian and borne his child. The fact that the movie ends on such a positive, optimistic note after Owens has had to prove himself to the craven and distasteful inhabitants of his town strikes a false note.

Henry Fonda

Anthony Mann mixed up the location and studio work to good effect and produced a western that’s full of important ideas punctuated with the occasional burst of violent action. There are some nice stylistic touches too, such as the climactic duel with the loser falling back into the camera. At the beginning I mentioned what I felt were the two biggest flaws with the film; I’ve already alluded to the unsatisfactory ending, but the casting of Anthony Perkins in the central role of the naive young sheriff didn’t work for me. It’s understandable that an actor was required who could be convincing as a nervy greenhorn lacking in self-confidence, but Perkins does that so well that his later development into a competent town tamer just jars too much. Neville Brand played Bogardus as some kind of malign force of nature, bellowing and bullying his way to the head of a bloodthirsty mob. Again he nailed this perfectly, so much so that it’s really stretching credibility to have the slight figure of Perkins striding across a night time street to slap him into galled submission. Henry Fonda was always at home in western roles and Morgan Hickman is another of his top class performances. He manages to invest some genuine sadness and melancholy into the role of a man who’s lost his family and seen his ideals bruised. There’s tenderness on view too, especially in the scenes where he interacts with the half Indian son of his landlady, and to round it all off he has the necessary mettle to be believable as a bounty killer. It’s also worth noting that while the bounty hunter came to be seen as a staple of the genre (particularly with the rise of the spaghetti western), that certainly wasn’t the case in 1957 and Fonda’s role was something of an exception.

The Tin Star is a Paramount property, and their R1 DVD provides a handsome 1.78:1 anamorphic presentation of the movie. The image is strong and clean with good contrast but the disc itself is totally barebones. Anthony Mann made better known, and indeed better, films than this but it’s still a remarkably strong western that’s only let down by the softened climax and less than convincing character arc of Perkins’ sheriff. It could have offered a scathing critique of a society that would rather pass on the dirty work of law enforcement to those it can then despise (and it does flirt with the notion) but bottled out in the end. Still, Mann’s direction of the material can’t be criticised and Fonda’s powerful performance anchors everything firmly. All things considered, there are more positives than negatives on show and this is a film I would definitely recommend.

The River’s Edge

Posted on April 10th, 2010 in 1950s, Mystery/Thriller, Allan Dwan, Ray Milland, Anthony Quinn by Colin

Poster

Some movies are especially difficult to define or categorize. Allan Dwan’s The River’s Edge (1957) is certainly such a film; it’s a blend of modern western, noirish thriller, and lush and lusty 50s melodrama. While it’s possible to argue over which one of those labels comes closest to summing it up, it’s clear enough that this is a B movie which was given the glossy treatment. As such, this is an impressive piece of budget film production, dealing with those classic themes of money, greed, jealousy, love, and there’s a level of casual brutality not usually found in films of the period.

The story concerns three people: Ben Cameron (Anthony Quinn), his new wife Meg (Debra Paget), and Meg’s former lover Nardo Denning (Ray Milland). Right away we can see that Cameron’s relationship with his wife is not all it should be; she’s tottering around his ramshackle ranch house in high heeled slippers, struggling with the lack of modern conveniences, while he’s struggling with steers outside. The thing is Meg is a city girl, actually she’s con artist on the lam, while Cameron is a salt of the earth type whose greatest ambition is to make something out of his fledgling ranch. These two have hooked up together and are trying to make a go of it, but it’s starting to come unravelled. At the critical moment, who should turn up at Cameron’s door but his wife’s old flame Denning, apparently looking to hire a guide to take him on a hunting trip into Mexico. Meg takes off with Denning, at least as far as the nearest motel, and it’s unclear at this point whether she truly means to leave her husband for good. At any rate, she never gets to fully decide as a car ride results in Denning killing a border patrol man in a fairly shocking manner. With Meg now implicated in the crime, and with the knowledge that Denning is carrying a suitcase stuffed full of cash, Cameron has a change of heart and decides that he’ll take the two former partners over the border to safety. The rest of the film charts the shifting nature of the characters’ relationships and motives. At the begining none of them act out of anything but naked self interest: Denning just wants an out and doesn’t especially care who he has to buy or kill to achieve it, Meg wants to escape from the drudgery and dullness of the remote ranch, and Cameron has his hungry eyes on the cash. Everything is complicated by the fact that both men are still love with Meg, and she has no qualms about playing one off against the other and flitting back and forth between them. The real turning point, for her character at least, comes after she gets a serious infection from a cut arm. When Cameron hacks away the poisoned flesh in a storm ravaged cave it’s as though some of the poison also drains away from Meg’s heart. From then on, the positions are clearly defined and the only question remaining is who will survive the hazards of the wilderness and walk away with the money.

More dangerous than a rattlesnake? Milland, Quinn and Paget in The River's Edge

In the latter years of a very long career Allan Dwan specialised in churning out slick little B movies on a budget, and The River’s Edge is a good example of this work. He packs a whole lot of story into less than 90 minutes and makes it all look a good deal more expensive than it has any right to. The combination of location shooting and studio sets blends together well and the use of colour is stunning in places. He also displays what might be termed a more modern approach to violence and death than was normally the case at the time; the three killings which take place, although not graphic in the current sense, occur with an abruptness that retain the ability to shock. The three leads are very professional and do their level best to lift the movie above its pulp roots. Ray Milland was of course in his twilight years as a leading man but just about pulls it off, his charming sadist who may yet have a small grain of decency buried deep is effective enough to distract you from the fact that he was probably too old for the part. Debra Paget (with a flaming red hairdo) is a fine femme fatale who’s by turns calculating, ruthless and affectionate. Her character arguably goes through the greatest arc of the three, and she handles the move from a scheming bitch to a woman who’s regained some sense of honour quite capably. Anthony Quinn starts off as a basically weak loser who can’t even summon up the will to hang onto his woman, but by the end he comes good and redeems himself somewhat. I say somewhat because there’s still an element of doubt and a shadow of greed hanging over him.   

The River’s Edge came out on DVD in the US a few years ago from Fox in a very attractive edition. The transfer is anamorphic scope and the print used is very clean and colourful. The disc has a commentary track from James Ursini and Alain Silver, and a few trailers and a gallery. This is the kind of movie that probably wouldn’t stand a cat in hell’s chance of seeing a DVD release in the current climate, all the more reason to appreciate its availability. There is no way that The River’s Edge could ever be termed a classic movie, but it is a tight and entertaining little thriller given a highly professional polish. Everything moves along at a lick and there are far worse ways of spending an hour and a half. All in all, it serves as a pretty good introduction to the later works of Allan Dwan. 

The Black Windmill

Posted on April 7th, 2010 in 1970s, Mystery/Thriller, Don Siegel, Michael Caine by Colin

Poster

When a film gets panned by critics there can be a number of reasons why; it may just be a bad movie, or it may simply be a step down from the director’s/actor’s previous work. I’d say the latter is certainly the case with The Black Windmill (1974). Don Siegel had just come off a run of high quality films and this slow burning espionage thriller didn’t quite match up. In truth it’s not a bad film, it has moments of real style, but there is a flatness about it that’s hard to explain.

John Tarrant (Michael Caine) is a former army officer who’s now in the employ of MI6, and is shown to be involved in setting up a sting operation to net some international arms dealers. It’s clear that something else is taking shape in the background though - the opening sequence has just shown the kidnapping of two schoolboys by those allegedly involved in the gun running. One of these boys turns out to be the son of Tarrant, and it quickly becomes apparent that the abduction is being used as leverage to extort money from British Intelligence. It’s also clear that those behind the abduction have the kind of inside knowledge (the nature of the ransom demanded) that suggests the presence of a mole. Tarrant’s superior, Harper (Donald Pleasence), suspects that he may even have orchestrated the whole thing himself, while his estranged wife (Janet Suzman) blames him and his job. Thus Tarrant finds himself in the unenviable position of having to cope with both the suspicions of his bosses and the recriminations of his wife as he struggles to retain the composure and coolness needed to effect the release of his son. When it dawns on him that Harper has no intention of meeting the kidnappers’ demands Tarrant chooses the only option that remains open to him - going “rogue” and risking the wrath of his own people.

Fading into the shadows - Michael Caine and Janet Suzman.  

Don Siegel made a lot of different kinds of movies but the espionage thriller wasn’t really his strong suit and he struggled to leave his mark on The Black Windmill. A couple of years later he would return to the genre with greater success in the more action driven Telefon, which remains more consistently entertaining. It’s really in the latter half of this movie that you actually become aware of the fact that you’re watching a Siegel picture. The chase through the London Underground and the escape sequence in Paris are well filmed and add a much needed sense of urgency as events build towards the violent climax at the titular windmill. In contrast, the first half unfolds at a fairly leisurely pace as characters are introduced and the groundwork is laid. There’s also a tongue in cheek aspect to these earlier scenes; one inspired moment during an MI6 briefing has a room of stunned bigwigs informed that one of the enemy agents is Sean Connery! There’s another nod to Bond in a scene where Tarrant and Harper watch a demonstration of an exploding briefcase carried out by a Q clone. Much of the film’s humour derives from the performance of Donald Pleasence as the fussy and prissy head of MI6. Michael Caine, on the other hand, plays it straight all the way through and is good enough as the agent who has to keep his emotions under tight control. When he finally gives vent to his frustration at the bureaucratic caution that might lead to his son’s death it comes across as more powerful given the detached facade he’s been presenting up to that point. Janet Suzman is limited to bouts of anxiety and bitterness at the beginning but gets to show off her resourcefulness as the story progresses. The two main villains of the piece are John Vernon and Delphine Seyrig - they’re both suitably ruthless but their characters are ultimately one dimensional.

Universal’s UK DVD presents the film in anamorphic scope, and the transfer is very clean and smooth. This is another fairly basic disc, no extras offered at all, but the the image is pleasing enough and anyway it’s not one of Siegel’s or Caine’s better known movies. All told, The Black Windmill is a middling film; it’s not the best of the director, star or even the genre but it’s still reasonably entertaining. If you make it through the slightly plodding beginning it does pick up the pace and gets better as it goes along. I’d give it a cautious recommendation if you’re into spy thrillers, but those expecting a typical Don Siegel movie would likely be disappointed.

Westward the Women

Posted on April 2nd, 2010 in 1950s, Westerns, Robert Taylor, William Wellman by Colin

Poster

Trailblazing epics depicting the dangers and hardships that went hand in hand with the expansion of the frontier are far from uncommon among westerns. Westward the Women (1951) fits comfortably into that category, but there’s one important difference that sets it apart from others of that ilk: this movie tells its tale from an almost exclusively female perspective. This fact alone means that the film is pretty much unique; there have, of course, been other examples of westerns that focused on women, but they tended to be more of the exploitation or novelty variety. Westward the Women is certainly no exploitation picture, instead it’s a gritty attempt to celebrate the courage and the trials experienced by those early pioneer women, without whom the west could not have advanced.

The plot is a fairly simple one, essentially being a chronicle of a pre-Civil War overland trek. It’s 1851 and California landowner and visionary Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has realised that, despite having overcome a hostile land and prospered, his dreams will amount to nothing if there are no women to pair off with his settlers. In order to address this problem he hires Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) to assist him in first recruiting 140 mail order brides, and then escorting them on the gruelling trip from Chicago all the way back to California. The women who make up this matrimonial caravan are a disparate and, in some cases, a desperate bunch. The film doesn’t fully analyse the reasons why these women would readily agree to subject themselves to the harshest of conditions and potentially fatal circumstances just to marry a man they’d never so much as laid eyes on. For the most part, they are looking for a change in their lives and a new beginning( one has gotten herself pregnant out of wedlock, another is a widow, and there a couple of former good-time girls), and that’s about as deep as it goes. The full extent of the task ahead of them doesn’t really become apparent until the dozen or so men Whitman has hired decide to desert after Wyatt’s brand of iron discipline leaves two of their number dead. From this point on there are only four men left (Wyatt, Whitman, a comedic Japanese cook and a green youth) and the women must put aside their femininity and work harder than any man in their efforts to overcome the myriad obstacles the wilderness throws at them. Before they reach their promised land their numbers will be whittled down by accidents, nature and hostile Indians. However, this pruning simply stiffens their resolve and, by the time they reach the end of the trail, those who have survived emerge stronger than ever. In fact, it’s only at the very end that any concession to sentimentality is made - the surviving women meeting their selected partners to the accompaniment of the first notes of music heard since the opening credits rolled.

Robert Taylor, after handing out his own brand of frontier justice, in Westward the Women.   

William Wellman was one of the hardest driving, most demanding and macho directors working in Hollywood. This was a guy who quit acting because he felt it was too soft and no fit profession for a man. Bearing all this in mind, it may seem surprising that he was able to produce a film that was so celebratory of the achievements of women. Of course his hard-bitten outlook is stamped all over the movie, and he has absolutely no qualms about killing off just about any of the characters. While the death toll is fairly high there isn’t an enormous amount of onscreen violence - the big Indian attack takes place while Wyatt is away chasing after the runaway, firebrand Frenchwoman that he finally falls for - and it’s frequently the tragic aftermath that the viewer gets to see. At times the film becomes seriously grim and there are one or two moments that are actually quite shocking, though I don’t intend to spoil it for anyone by identifying them. Nevertheless, Wellman knew his trade well enough to realise that he had to toss in the odd moment of comedy to avoid proceedings becoming relentlessly dour. The least successful of those lighter moments were provided by Henry Nakamura’s Japanese hash slinger and general dogsbody. Much more effective was the imposing Hope Emerson, in a role that was in complete contrast to the kind of threatening ones she was frequently associated with. Robert Taylor also did some excellent work as the hard as nails trail boss who knows that he must push everyone to the limits of their endurance if they are to have even a slim chance of survival. The character of Wyatt grows along the way though, going from a kind of contemptuous dismissal of the green females he has to look out for to deep admiration for the courage and determination these same charges display time and again. There is a romance along the way between Taylor and Denise Darcel, though it’s a hard edged affair too - he even gives her a crack of the bullwhip at one point! All the women in the supporting parts were quite satisfactory, although the majority of their characters were only developed very slightly. I don’t believe that needs to be too heavily criticised though as the scale of the story and the constraints of the running time (just a little shy of two hours) meant deeper analysis was impractical.  

Westward the Women is currently only available on DVD in R2, and there are two choices. There are editions out in both France and Spain from Warner Brothers. I have the French disc (chances are the Spanish release is from the same master) and the transfer is mostly pretty good, academy ratio and not much in the way of damage. There are moments when the image looks a little soft but nothing too distracting. There’s no extra content whatsoever and you get a choice of English or French audio - subtitles are optional with the English track. This is a good western from a director with a respectable pedigree in the genre (Wellman was of course proficient in many types of film, and you can browse an excellent series of articles on his early work at Judy’s blog here) and a star who got better with the years. If you think you’ve seen all the trail western has to offer then this is a film worth checking out. John Ford, another extremely macho director, never shied away from highlighting the vital role played by women in the settling and ultimate conquest of the frontier, and Wellman added his own song of praise to feminine grit with this unusual and very rewarding western.