Initially, William A. Wellman’s 1951 western Westward the Women looks poised to be a creaky, backwards product of its time. Roy Whitman (John McIntire) has a settlement in California, and the men are eager for wives, so he tasks no-nonsense trail boss Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) with bringing a wagon train of 200 women over from Chicago to help satiate the need. Here we go again: women are simply a product that needs to be transported — the men demand it!
But Wellman’s film, written by Charles Schnee from a story by Frank Capra, actually turns out to be kind of a feminist film. Eventually, it’s the women who choose their mates, not the other way around, and the survival of the expedition depends on the efforts of the extremely capable women who populate it. Add the fact that one of the primary supporting characters is a Japanese cowboy who isn’t reduced to a racial stereotype despite his position as comic relief, and you’ve got a film that’s downright progressive.
As the wagon train begins its treacherous, mountainous route from Chicago to California, Wyatt’s imperious leadership conflicts with the desires of the 15 men he hired to help escort the expedition, and soon he’s left with only Whitman and the eager-to-please Ito (Henry Nakamura) as guides. It looks like a lost cause, but the massive payday on the other side is enough motivation for Wyatt to persist, and soon, the women have proven themselves able to handle the tasks their male counterparts deserted.
The perpetually underrated Wellman marvelously crafts an ever-building sense of dread as the wagon train encounters increasingly difficult obstacles and the body count piles up. The stakes feel enormous, and Wellman’s constricting photography hems in his characters on all sides. One can see the DNA of this film in Kelly Reichardt’s great 2011 film Meek’s Cutoff — anyone who thought that was too revisionist a take on the western ought to compare the sense of tension and futility it shares with Westward the Women.
Naturally, this 1951 production never looks quite as bleak, but it’s a harrowing journey all the same. While none of the female characters are especially detailed (and Denise Darcel’s love for the abusive Wyatt is a little off-putting), the dignity and strength of the women is admirable, and Wellman’s direction is superb.
The Warner Archive burn-on-demand disc of the film must have been planned as an actual pressed DVD release at one time, as it comes equipped with a recently recorded audio commentary by historian Scott Eyman, who offers up a thorough, spirited defense of the film. A vintage promotional short Challenge the Wilderness and the film’s theatrical trailer are also included, making this a stacked disc by Warner Archive standards.