Wednesday, March 07, 2012

Dilemmas of Leadership

The dilemma of leadership in “Westward the Women” for the trail boss, Buck, is that he’s had to turn his personality into a harsh, unforgiving one in order to accomplish his job of getting wagon trains to the west. Which includes dominating a contingent of tough men.

As the wagon train sets out from St. Louis, his usual challenges have multiplied. He and the hired men are escorting 140 single women. Disallowing fraternization between the hired men and the women appears impossible—yet the women are promised for the Whitman community 1500 miles or more away. An added problem is that Buck himself has been wandering the west to get away from women. As the Robert Vaughn character says in a different western movie, “The Magnificent Seven,” he is “trying to hide—in the middle of a battlefield.”

Forget the idea that a strong leader isn’t required—that naive idea. Until the community finds its legs, order is maintained, in this circumstance, only through Buck, who has to be an alpha-male to maintain it.

We see quickly into the St. Louis meeting-with-the-cowboys scene that there’s a rival alpha male around. He’s a bad alpha male. He couldn’t care less about community, about anything but his own selfish desires. We know instinctively that Buck will have to eventually deal with him.

There also turns out to be three alphas among the females. Two of them fully support Buck and the mission. One, of course, is gigantic and world-wise Patience, widow of a sea captain. The other is the sharpshooter, who does indeed save Buck’s ass at crunch time. The third is Fifi, who has the strongest personality of anyone on the wagon train—at least the most charismatic-- and as the journey progresses shows evident physical strength as well. Buck doesn’t know where she stands. He assumes, because of her background, that she’s a troublemaker. This provides a major strand of uncertainty and conflict within the story.

In other words, the major plot complications are numerous (there are also subplots, like Mrs. Moroni, and Rose, the schoolteacher-with-a-secret). The plot threads and dynamics are so well integrated into the fast-moving story we don’t even see them, but they’re there. The movie is a master class at plot, especially when you consider that by the end of the journey, and the end of the film, the plot complications will all be resolved. The movie is in perfect balance from start to finish.

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