Unforgiven (John Huston, 1960)

A Book Review by Tanja Bresan.

These extensive and reference-filled essays prove [that] the role of women in the Western was often as an additional accessory, dubious and regularly mistreated, but never not important or secondary.”

Director Anthony Mann famously said, “without a woman the Western wouldn’t work.” But how have themes of femininity on the frontier in women-led Westerns changed from the silent era to the streaming age of cinema? In Sue Matheson’s book Women in the Western, published by University of Edinburgh Press, the essential presence of women in America’s frontier mythology is explored in eighteen contributing essays divided into two main sections, one regarding the traditional period of the genre, from silents to the 1940s, and the second on post-Second World War years and the revisionist and post-modern Western. 

Historian David Blanke’s essay “When East Goes West: The Loss of Dramatic Agency in DeMille’s Western Women from the 1910s to the 1930s deals with the director’s establishment within the genre. From 1914 until 1917, DeMille made seven Western features and advanced from stage to film directing. Blanke establishes the women were there to legitimise and validate the growth of the male lead character. In 1937 and 1939 DeMille’s made his two strongest female-centric Westerns, The Plainsman (1937) and Union Pacific (1939). This period begins director’s long-lasting female collaboration with screenwriter Jeanie Macpherson, lifelong secretary Gladys Rosson, and editor Anne Bauchens. Despite the increased sophistication of the later films, DeMille’s women characters still validate the men, even when outshining them from a co-star position.

The book successfully addresses the issues of Western genre revisions and narratives loaded with myths, resistance, male power, and racial and sexual complexities.

Christopher Minz, in his essay Never Seen a Woman Who Was More of a Man: Saloon girls, Women Heroes and Female Masculinity in the Western,” emphasizes the term masculine, rather than the biological term “male,” stating that the Western has never been exclusively about men. In Nicholas Ray’s tortured and ecstatic Johnny Guitar (1954), Joan Crawford’s character Vienna crosses from masculine to feminine in behaviour and costumes she wears: from jeans and cowboy boots to her symbolic white gown. Here, for once, a woman’s desires drives the plot rather than impeding or complicating it. But to understand the division of power – psychological inheritances of both male and female protagonists – one has to look for Clytemnestra, Agamemnon, and Elektra in the West, as examined by professor Martin M. Winkler. Discussed in detail is The Furies from 1950, directed by Anthony Mann, a torrid story of a father-daughter struggle for the family cattle ranch. The film combines elements of the traditional and transitional Western, being both postwar and feminist-influenced, but leaning to the epic and spectacle of earlier films. In the centre is the female psyche containing elements of both matricide and patricide. Vance, played by Barbara Stanwyck, is the perfect example of a strong western woman, being presented as a chip off the old patriarch’s block, his equal in determination and audacity of action. She is by turns both Goddess and Monster. 

The book’s second section is the evolution of the genre with films concerning race-mixing and racial stereotypes, such as John Ford’s The Searchers (1956) and John Huston’s The Unforgiven (1960). Films examining the controversial position of our culture’s view of rape in a predominant white population are Sergeant Rutledge (1960), Man of the West (1958), and For a Few Dollars More (1965). Is it that the women are raped or that the men are then so bent on revenge that concerns the filmmaker? Issues of rape in post-war Westerns are visible as the societies on the whole are willing to come to its terms and treat the issue openly. Interestingly, for a “macho genre”, rape is present in the post-war Western more than in another symbolism-loaded and crime-obsessed genre, such as film noir. Also in focus are films made in the post-9/11 climate and its revisionist and feminist concerns, such as the television series Godless (2017) and Justified (2010-2015). Analysis of the post-modern Western points out two polarities: extreme deviations from the traditional genre as seen in Kelly Reinhardt’s Meek’s Cutoff (2010) and less extreme examples, films that combine both the traditional views and modern approach. The less extreme examples in dealing with Native American women in 1970s onwards are A Man Called Horse (1970) or Jeremiah Johnson (1972). Wind River (2017) is the most recent example set in the present contemporary times, but with the trappings of the genre. 

After the release of Meek’s Cutoff in 2011, Reichardt told Leonard Quart of Cineaste that

Westerns are so macho and masculine. They are collections of heightened moments. There are a lot of Westerns that I like, except the macho element gets so tiresome.” (293)

This is the predominant reductive criticism new filmmakers have in mind when working in the Western genre. If anything, these extensive and reference-filled essays prove the director’s statements to be both right and wrong – the role of women in the Western was often as an additional accessory, dubious and regularly mistreated, but never not important or secondary. Another prevailing thesis deals with the subversion of the gender roles in both the traditional and modern films, like the above-mentioned Johnny Guitar, Cat Ballou (1965), Heller in Pink Tights (1960) or Doris Day’s in Calamity Jane (1953) – the latter being accompanied by slapstick gags and subversive motives in the manner of Blake Edwards or Jerry Lewis. Western comedies are just one of the sub genres that deserves its own evaluation. Use of humour and comedy can be liberating when dealing with myths and traditional beliefs, and revealing when sensitive issues are presented as satire.

The final chapter is an alphabetical Western compendium of films which demonstrates the diversity of women’s roles in the American Western from 1919 to 2010s, with interesting results concerning which decade produced more female-centric fare. The main purpose of the closing chapter is to encourage further extensive research and discussions.

Overall, the book successfully addresses the issues of Western genre revisions and narratives loaded with myths, resistance, male power, and racial and sexual complexities. While the scope is vast, the academic approach sometimes leaves the reader wondering if the forest can’t be seen through all the trees. Still, there is plenty here to get the reader incensed about and more to satisfy one’s curiosity. There indeed is no Western without a woman, and you can’t always agree with why she’s there in the first place. A hundred years in, and still so far to go.

Tanja Bresan holds a masters degree in art and cultural studies from the University of Arts, Belgrade. Her writing on film had appeared in several online journals including Berlin Film Journal and IndieKino Berlin.

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