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Westward the Women

Screening on Film
Directed by William Wellman.
With Beverly Dennis, Renata Vanni, John McIntire.
US, 1952, 35mm, black & white, 116 min.
Print source: Warner Bros.

A female trek, even though it is led by Robert Taylor, more or less reenacts the story of Red River. The narrative is less deep than Hawks’ masterpiece, and in some sense it is harsher, more realistic about the difficulties and facts of loss. Another great contemporary film, Ford’s Wagon Master, is somehow romantic by comparison. Wellman was a tough guy who could create an amazing combination of tenderness and cruelty. … This is a central element of Wellman’s charm: total unpredictability. As we know, and this film verifies it fully, Wellman’s true basic element was rain, here complemented with dust, storm, thunder, images of horses stuck in the sand, or more generally everything breathing the fight to survive. But there are contrary forces at work as well. The harsh circumstances—a vision of blood, sweat, tears—could easily make the perspective of the promised land look like a hallucinatory dream, bound to vanish—but it does not. That is why he gives us a scene of a baby being born, with the art to create the feeling of a collective birth event. Maybe this is why the film is less well known than it should be: with no female stars pushed to the foreground, it is authentically about a collective. It’s about those who “died nameless but achieved immortality.” – Peter von Bagh

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