It's a shame that Denise Darcel didn't make more movies. She had real charisma. "Westward the Women" may have been her only starring role. Because of her figure and accent, she was usually relegated to cartoonish parts. Yet she was one of those rare actors capable of conveying a Chaplin-like pathos. Why this was, I don't know. We don't know what experiences she went through as a teenaged girl in France during the war-- but she certainly brought her life experience to this particular role.
We see this pathos toward the end of the film. With her fellow bad girl friend Laurie dead, Fifi is more alone than ever. She hangs back at the celebration. After the arduous journey, all the things she's gone through to get to California, she still sees herself as different, outside the community. An outsider. We sense for a moment a prostitute's sadness, which Darcel conveys merely by standing there.
There are two crucial moments before this. First, the critical interview when the patriarch breaks through her embarrassing jokey-prostitute facade. She's just disgraced herself with a display of utter stupidity. It's how she goes through life, her adopted role. How she deals with men and with the world. The wise patriarch isn't having it.
The second moment is on the trail when Buck accidently/intentionally punches her while showing her how to shoot. This shocks us and it shocks her. It signals there's some dark under-the-surface sexual or at least psychological stuff going on between them. But there are two other points to note. One is that by her game-playing with him she's signalling she's after him. With the punch he's telling her, "Back off." His entire identity as loner trail boss is seriously threatened. On that score Fifi is as serious a threat as one could ever have! But also, Buck's backstory is that he had a past untold bad experience, likely with a prostitute, which has forever(?) soured him on women. The punch comes right after Fifi lapses back into her stupid-prostitute role, acting feebly incompetent and saying to him, "I'm not very bright."!! Which he knows A.) isn't true, B.) isn't what he'd want in a mate, if he wanted one. The only word for her expression after his display of cruelty is sad. The paradox is that they're both, on the surface, overpowering personalities, one ultra-male, the other ultra-female. Yet both are in fact seriously screwed up.
The movie works through alternating moods of joy and sadness. The oppositions are everywhere. For the characters of Buck and Fifi, the only way they'll survive the journey is to break from their self-created and restrictive roles, their overdone facades. They're both forced to change. Each one's change is dependent on the other's change. The impetus for that change and the impetus of the film is that subconsciously they both desperately need each other.
Or, this is a superbly written and acted film. (More to come.)