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A brief history of women in Westerns

BY James Oliver

23rd Nov 2021 Film & TV

A brief history of women in Westerns

Contrary to popular belief, there's been cowgirls in Westerns. We take a look at the great many films they've featured in

Artists have to go where their muse takes them, and for Jane Campion that's straight out into the old west, for her new film Power of the Dog Campion is not necessarily the first person you'd think of who might direct a western: she, you will recall, is more usually a director of sensitive, introspective dramas like The Piano and Bright Star.

What's more surprising still is that this avowed feminist has made a film with men upfront; she's cast that grizzled frontiersman Benedict Cumberbatch as her hero. Why not a woman? Did she think that westerns were for boys alone?

If only she'd read our handy guide to female-fronted westerns! She would find a veritable plethora of cowgirls and western women, as indeed will you once you cast your eyes downwards. Turns out there's a lot more for women to do out west than make coffee and get tied to railway tracks...

In the early 1930s, there was no performer less suited to a life on the range than Marlene Dietrich. Her image was that of the sophisticate, bedecked in furs and jewels, at home in upmarket salons with nary a spittoon in sight.

But in 1939, someone had the bright idea of putting her in Destry Rides Again as a cynical singer who falls for a quick-on-the-draw innocent played by James Stewart, and audiences approved of the relocation. She would make a couple more trips out west, one perfunctory (The Spoilers) and one essential: Rancho Notorious. Here she's the toughest broad this side of the Rockies, who cheats the law and curls men around her fingers. Unfortunately she makes the mistake of falling for revenge- hunting Arthur Kennedy. Ah, and it was all going so well.

One of the great baroque westerns, or “camp”, if you want to be uncharitable. Joan Crawford stars as Vienna, a tough broad who finds herself torn between outlaws, gunslingers and the local puritans who want her run out of town. Director Nicholas Ray intended it as an allegory for the anti- communist paranoia of the early 1950s but most people were too blinded by the lush/ lurid visuals to notice.

It was a significant influence on Sergio Leone and Once Upon a Time in the West; not quite a female-fronted western, that, but by the end Claudia Cardinale's Jill is resolved as the main character, a matriarch who ultimately tames the west.

Calamity Jane/ Annie Get Your Gun

Purists will sneer, but then purists always do. These here are musicals, the pair of them about the most famous (real) women of the old west. Martha “Calamity Jane” Cannery hung around the town of Deadwood when it was at its most violent and gave as good as she got. History does not, however, record her spontaneously bursting into song, as she is shown to do here.

Annie Get Your Gun is light on realism too; Betty Hutton—a replacement for an invalided Judy Garland—plays Annie Oakley, the surest shot in the wild west who joins Buffalo Bill's touring  show and falls for hunky Howard Keel. A much beloved film, it makes no mention of the time Oakley helped clear out the notorious and crime-ridden “Stodge City”. For the most thorough depiction of that incident, you are directed to the drama-documentary Carry On Cowboy.

The Furies / Cattle Queen of Montana/ Forty Guns

A Barbara Stanwyck triple bill, this, with three films about her assorted empires on the prairie. The Furies is a western inspired by King Lear, with Walter Huston as an imperious cattle baron and Stanwyck as his equally headstrong daughter. It establishes that Babs is not one to mess with, something the villains of Cattle Queen of Montana realise only belatedly. She's not going to be run off her land by the likes of them, even if one of them is played by Ronald Reagan.

She's back for more in Forty Guns. She's got another ranch, employs 40 men, per the title, and falls for Barry Sullivan who is playing a thinly-disguised version of Wyatt Earp. Best of all there's a theme song that describes her character as “a high ridin' woman with a whip”. And it is true! She does have a whip! And she's not afraid to use it!

The Ballad of Little Joe

A film worthy of revival, this. Suzy Amis stars as “Josephine” who swaps sexes to reinvent herself as tough dude “Joe” the better to navigate the crude sexual politics of 19th-century frontier America. While the films above were essentially fantasies about “the west”, Maggie Greenwald's film stresses the realism, which is to say the violence. And there is a lot of it about.

Bad Girls

A bit of a cause célèbre, this one. After the success of Young Guns (the Brat Pack play cowboys), Hollywood got the bright idea of doing the same sort of thing... but with women! The casting round-up netted the likes of Madeleine Stowe, Drew Barrymore, Mary Stuart Masterson and Andie McDowell, who were then sent to the set with, unusually, an actual female director, Tamra Davies.

So far, so “empowering”.

But all was not well. The circumstances are somewhat cloudy—the story most commonly told is that the studio was “unhappy” with the fact that Davis was turning this story of strong women taking charge of their destiny into something feminist (the very idea!)—but the upshot was that the director was replaced by Jonathan Kaplan, a—er—man.

The film sucked, everyone hated it and it sank like a stone. There's probably a moral there somewhere.

We're firmly back to fantasy now, with this underrated Sharon Stone flick. She's an ace gunslinger who bowls up in the town of Redemption to take part in the fast draw tournament arranged by local badman John Herod (Gene Hackman). He's favourite to win the contest, but our Shaz is no slouch with a six-shooter and, what's more, is nursing something of a “beef” with Herod...

Directed by Sam Raimi (Spiderman) at his most excessive—the camera flies about all over the shop—it's notable for the appearance of Russell Crowe in his first Hollywood flick and a baby-faced Leonardo DiCaprio, back before anyone had heard of him.

The western is basically a dead form now; when they do get made, they're usually intended as tributes to earlier iterations of the genre. A happy exception is Kelly Reichart's wonderful Meek's Cutoff. Again, a more realist film, it follows a wagon train into the heart of America, a scary place in ye olden dayes, especially if, as happens here, you get lost. As the men fall to pieces under the pressure, the women—led by Michelle Williams—emerge as the leaders by default.

Reichart returned to the west for her more recent film First Cow (which is even better but not so female-centric). As the setting for her finest work, it's very much she returns there soon.

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