Film Chickette: Westward the Women, 1951

I’m a film geek.

I once mentioned to a colleague (keep in mind I work in the film industry) that I had finally bit the bullet and seen Casablanca, which I had the good sense to see (and have since loved) at an independent film house that ran in first-run in the Dirty ’30s. He asked me if I’d taken film appreciation in school and my retort was, “No, all my sentiments are my own.”

But I love movies. I just thought I was well-versed but I went out with another geek last year who more or less proved to me that I’ve seen 80 or 90% of all the “best movies ever made”. And a freakish amount of ’em on-screen, too.

So… it’s not that often that I a) don’t hear about a movie or/and b) get surprised by its content or performance. I’m pretty on the ball about flicks and there’s few I’m not at least a little aware of. Geek that I am and all.

But tonight, I got surprised. I have just discovered a terrific flick for both men and women. For women, it’ll be a “my time of the month” classic or something they watch to remind them of their ability to kick ass and take names. For men, it’ll be a reminder of all the reasons women are worth going through the annoyance of knowing. Or something.

It’s called Westward the Women, and it’s from 1951, written by Frank Capra, so of course I had to like it. Capra’s film gold. I mean, he has his own adjective! Capra-esque! Like Hitchcockian. Pretty rare air there.

Anyhow. A Californian town is in its birthing stage. Now it’s just a valley populated by Roy Whitman and his 100+ pioneering men. The only thing missing from this West Coast paradise in the 1800s is wimmin folk. Whitman, in all his “I staked me Utopia, then built it” moral superiority, decreed that these women would be treated like the saints they were to give up their lives and travel west on the promise of a good life in a good land on a good man’s good stretch.

It’s about how 150 women come to decide to make the wagon train trip some 1, 500 miles across the American landscape, and the really amazing tragedies and trials that befall them on their journey. They’re told in the outset that some third of them would die en route as the wagons crossed some of the toughest land any man — and definitely woman — had ever seen.

It’s smart, it’s funny, it’s historically accurate if not a little cheesy, yet witty, well-shot, well-cast, and very, very watchable.

Now, I’ll confess I like the occasional Western. Loved the remake of 3:10 to Yuma bust still can’t get over how well Christian Bale ran for a guy with a wooden leg. Well done, Christian.

This, however, didn’t feel like a Western. It’s just a crazy-assed look at what happened from time to time in the Old West, filled with tragedies and touching stories and funny humour, and very little pandering to women. Tough broads who were women throughout but encountered some great adversity.

I lived up in the Yukon and knew a great story I should rewrite for here, about Diamond Tooth Gertie, who made the death-defying voyage from Seattle to the Yukon for the Gold Rush, succeeded where some 90% of the men failed, in getting to the Gold Rush after all. It filled me with great admiration, just imagining some of the things women like that had to overcome when crossing a continent on foot and wagon.

To see that heroism depicted in a movie like that, where the fact is that dying en route to the West wasn’t entirely uncommon in the 1800s, a century and a bit before 4×4 would be invented. Two words: Wooden wheels.

For something entirely different, go for Westward the Women. Before butch knew what butch was.

And, hey, look at the coinkydink of reviewing a pioneering movie on American Thanksgiving. Happy Yankee Thankie Day, Americans. May all your turkeys be good turkeys. And god stuff us every one.

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