It’s been a good year for movies, hasn’t it? Not 1939, or 1959, or 1961, or 1967, but a good year. To celebrate Oscar weekend, yesterday I took a cheap bus up to NYC to see a great American movie at Film Forum, “Westward the Women.” (1951; William Wellman.) It’s not acknowledged as a great movie, so I’ve decided to make half-a-dozen or so posts over the next week to explain it. It might be the most pro-woman film ever made—yet there are reasons why it’s ignored, having to do, as with so much else in this culture, in not meeting the culture’s acceptable narratives.
Among the posts will be “The Forbidden Classic,” “Setting the Scene,” “Cleaning Up,” “The Dilemmas of Leadership,” “Community and Democracy,” “The Alter-Ego,” and “The Lovers,” and whatever else I come up with. Obviously, there’s more going on in the movie than first meets the eye.
What makes a great movie? For one thing, moments of surprise and awe. “Westward the Women” has such moments, beginning with the recruitment meeting in Chicago. I’ll explain the plot as i go along. Basically, in mid-19th century America, the founder of a community in California travels to Chicago with a trail boss to recruit 150 women for their 100 women-starved hard working men. (They figure on losing one-out-of-three on the journey. Events will show this is no exaggeration. This is the plot.)
The recruitment scene contains a few good moments—but an unexpected shooting exhibition stands out. If you rent the film, note the choice of target! One of a few surprises through the course of the movie.
At the showing I attended, the audience was mostly men. Understandable, since this was a western, and Film Forum had not given the lower part of a double bill much attention. There were three young college-aged women two rows ahead of me. After the film, a man asked them how they liked it. “It was great!” they said, and meant it. The film should be required viewing for women at colleges around the country. There was also an older woman sitting two rows behind me. When the lights went up I glanced her way. Her face was tear-streaked from crying. I’ll explain how the movie could have that effect, I hope, as I go along.