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Histoire, légende, imaginaire : nouvelles études sur le western

Jean-Loup Bourget
Anne-Marie Paquet-Deyris
Françoise Zamour

Brides in red, white and blue: the politics of marriage in classical and revisionist westerns

Emmanuelle Delanoë-Brun

Texte intégral

  • 1 A handful of comedies also come to mind, David Butler’s 1954 Calamity Jane, featuring Doris Day and (...)
  • 2 John Ford, 1924; Henry King, 1941; George Stevens, 1953.

1Westerns are all about men, the definition of manhood, the making or unmaking of the American hero. And yet they are also very much about women. Not directly so, or at least very rarely: outside of William Wellman’s 1951 Westward the Women, Nicholas Ray’s 1954 Johnny Guitar, or a a handful of Barbara Stanwyck vehicles obsessed with the fear of virile, willful women in the conservative 50s,1 women seldom occupy center stage in classical westerns, where they are generally relegated to the pride position of love interest – Miriam in The Iron Horse, Z in Jesse James, all the way to Sunshine in Little Big Man.2 Yet though their narrative role may be minimal, their symbolic function, and their implication in the emotional and moral makeup of the hero are constantly highlighted. In the male universe of the western, predicated on violence and the show of force, women feature as the pacifying voices of community building, the rewards of peaceful intimacy and the quiet pleasures of family life—the role Marian Starret so luminously exemplifies in Shane. Women, in other words, represent the forces of civilization brought to tame the Wild West, the benign, seductive counterpart to the aggressive forces of progress and industry that the iron horse stands for, or the imperialistic forces that the cavalry represent.

2Or do they only? The idea for this paper sprung from a scene in The Iron Horse which takes place in one of the boomtowns that flourish around the railroad’s construction site. In between gambling sessions, self-appointed judge Haller marries a couple in North Platte. Five minutes later in film time, ten hours later in story time, as the construction town has moved up to Cheyenne, the dissatisfied new bride requires an immediate divorce. Together with Ruby, the fiery star of the Arabian Nights, the woman of this scene suggests to 1920s audiences a new template for women as fully independent citizens, raising the question of the frontier not solely as a forger of masculine identity, in classic Frederick Jackson Turner fashion, but also as a blank script for new female identities to blossom on. Fifty years later in Little Big Man (1970), Arthur Penn surrounds Jack Crabb, whose identity has become utterly unfixed, with a whole gallery of women who experience the West as a liberation from the constraints of a rigid social script, be it his sister Caroline, a religious freak turned manly frontier woman, Mrs Pendrake, the sex-craved reverend’s wife turned prostitute, or his first wife Olga, the homely shopkeeper turned bossy Cheyenne shrew. And yet, when Crabb finds his true love, it is in the person of Sunshine, a beautiful Cheyenne girl who produces children to the male anti-hero and generously offers him her sisters to impregnate. The Indian bride in the film is thus stereotyped as defining non comedic womanhood as motherhood and sexual liberalness, in a move that underscores the not so subtle sexist script the film follows, despite (or may be on top of) the narrative of sexual liberation that it projects, in true 1970s fashion. And Sunshine does not make it to the end of the film, just like Sonseeahray, the Apache princess bride of Broken Arrow, whose sacrifice cements the peace between the white and Apache populations, or Ella, the prostitute bride whose murder terminates the western democratic dream in Michael Cimino’s 1980’s Heaven’s Gate. Clearly, these new scripts for women idealized in the figure of the western bride, be they white or Native American, are also tragic scripts that consolidate women in the figure of the ultimate symbol, a disembodied signifier which erases female experience from western scripts by sacrificing and idolizing them, in films massively written and directed by men. A paradigm that needs to be explored in the light of the constant rewriting that westerns are subjected to.

Men Without Women: tales of manhood and frontier penury

3The frontier, historically, or so Frederick Jackson Turner had it, was a male universe, and a white universe to boot. Classical westerns don’t dispute the notion. Evoking the good old days of the conquest of the West, Rufus Ryker in Shane recalls how he cleared the land of Indian presence and made the range available to herding:

We had rough times, me and other men that are mostly dead. […] We made this country. We found it and we made it. With blood and empty bellies. The cattle we brought in were hazed off by Indians and rustlers. They don’t bother you much any more because we handled them. We made a safe range out of this. Some of us died doing it. We made it.

4The tribute to the early pioneers is delivered by a white bearded patriarch sitting atop a horse, silhouetted against a clear sky in the moonlight, in a glorifying high angle shot that solidifies his status as a godly figure—only a godly figure gone sour, as the night context of the scene suggests. Ryker’s “we” is a masculine pronoun, as earlier scenes have established clearly, separating the original pioneers from the homesteaders along gender as much as occupational and social lines: on the one hand the manly rangers, regular patrons to such masculine spaces as the saloon, where they get to exercise their “natural” violence in exhilarating fights; on the other hand the family homesteaders, whose social space of election is the supply store, or the community ground of the homestead, and whose mode of social interaction is the bonding rituals of congregating, dancing and celebrating national unity via such derivatives to violence as fireworks. On the one hand we have a world of conquest as voracious appropriation, anchored in dated, patriarchal social models. On the other hand, we have a world of well-ordered husbandry and family making, with Marian as guardian angel, and Joe as rightful heir—a testimony to the model’s vitality and capacity to produce a viable future, associated to the democratic practices of common decision-making. The breathtaking filmography of Loyal Griggs secures the ideological background from the start, raising the Starret family and homestead to Edenic perfection.

5Clearly, the opening sequence presents 1953’s suburban America with its idealized version of its pastoral past. As orchestrator of this pioneer paradise, Marian features the sweet home goddess whose considerate touch is essential to the domestication of the Wild West. And yet, as the opening sequence also establishes, such domestication comes at a cost—the taming of male energy and virility, as Starret is left with an unloaded toy gun to protect his family and claim against Ryker’s aggression. Which is where Shane comes in as the figure of an ideal American Adam in buckskin but subdued muscular buildup whom the audience is left to pine after, together with Joe, in the final images of the film—a dreamlike gunslinger with a heart of gold. The highly dramatic finale leaves us with a legacy of nostalgia for such glamorized manhood rendered palatable by the casting of bland Alan Ladd as the perfect counterpart to Jack Palance’s suave sadism, to tell yet once again the tragedy of the western hero’s eternal wandering on the outskirst of desired civilization.

6When Michael Cimino retells the story of the Johnson County cattle wars of 1892 that inspired Shane, the cattle empire is no longer the birth child of a self-proclaimed original pioneer but the capitalistic dream of an association of cattle barons cast as the ultimate products of a culturally refined but morally bankrupt civilization of progress. Gathering in cosy clubs to draw killing lists, hiring a gang of thugs to do their dirty work, they present to Cimino’s eyes all the trappings of a sadistic economic regime masquerading as Manifest Destiny while the homesteaders are rewritten into deprived families precipitated in an unfriendly valley far removed from Shane’s pastoral pristineness. And yet once again the pastoral magic operates, rooted no longer in the family unit but in the communal space of the titular town building where the immigrant community gathers to try and decide of its own fate, despite economic and linguistic disparities. And once again, it is a woman who cements the community, no longer the perfect motherly figure Marian represents but bordello madam Ella, whose little whorehouse on the prairie stands as the unlikely pastoral palace for lonely men to find some solace in—Ella who plays modern Eve to James Averill’s would be Adam, in a western that bears witness to the 1970’s legacy of the idealized narrative of sexual liberation. Heaven’s Gate may shatter the mythical narrative of rightful pioneer appropriation and replace it by a narrative of proto-capitalistic greed, in a politically rebooted version of American western history, still just as Shane it rejects models of self-serving hegemonic masculinity against community based pastoral ideas, anchored either in the family or in a form of class solidarity, but both predicated around women as civilizing vectors who either channel or arouse the energies necessary to vanquish the cattlers’ violent ways.

  • 3 William A. Wellman, 1943.

7Because the masculine energies of the frontier need to be controlled, and radically tempered. That much The Ox-Bow Incident3 makes clear. A western shot and released two years into American involvement on the European front, The Ox-Bow Incident resonates with the anxieties of a society engaged in a conflict that has rounded up its male elements. Set in a city which seems mysteriously to have driven off all of its women folks, the film opens on a sequence which curiously observes the consequence of male isolation in the deserted town, as Gil Carter (Henry Fonda) and Art Croft (Henry Morgan) enter the saloon and immediately lock up on a picture above the bar that shows a woman reclining on a bed awaiting the approach of a man visible in the back. Against the man’s apparent precautions, Gil suggests a much more direct approach, which together with his riveted stare speaks of the character’s sense of sexual frustration, and of the primal drives it awakens. Men without women the film suggests, which is the quintessential situation of the western frontier, are abandoned to their own passions and fighting spirit. What is true for one individual unfortunately proves true for the whole male community, goaded on by Ma Grier (Jane Darwell) as the grotesque, monstrous, and very masculine mother figure of a world that has renounced womanhood. Together with women, it is civilization, in the form of institutions, that have deserted the frontier town, now simply governed by the rule of gut disguised as military discipline when the town’s men rally up behind Major Tetley to avenge the reported murder of prominent rancher Larry Kinkaid. Because he is found with some of Kinkaid’s cattle he cannot prove he has legally bought, Donald Martin and his two aids are expeditiously charged and sentenced for the murder. Violence is returned to its chore function in the definition of manhood, as Tetley orders his son to take part in the execution of the suspected hustlers, in what amounts to a rite of passage. Yet on their way back, the posse learn that Kinkaid is in fact very much alive. And it is significant in the end that it is in a letter to his widowed wife, read to the now chastised men assembled round the bar, that Martin’s poignant plea to the centrality of institutions is written. Institutions may be designed by men, and governed by men, the civilization that they secure only exists in the presence of women whose business it is to channel male aggressiveness towards productive family raising, or so the strict gender politics of the film makes clear.

  • 4 See Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann’s 1950s The Furies, Rudolph Maté’s 1955 The Violent Men, Samue (...)

8Because women fail men in The Ox-Bow Incident, and are being rebuffed for doing so. It is spectacularly true of Ma Grier, one of the monstrous shemen westerns loved to loathe4. But it is just as true of Rose Mapen, who has deserted Carter to make a more profitable marriage. And in a sense, Carter’s inability to curb the tragic course of events is traced back to this original betrayal, made evident in the scene of the stagecoach, which sees Carter lose the confrontation to his more sophisticated rival, Rose Mapen’s new husband. The sparring match between former cowboy lover and priggish eastern groom foreshadows Carter’s symbolic impotence and moral failure. Yet the rivalry, however short, encapsulates a recurrent tension at the heart of the western gender politics, pitting idealized western manhood (a form of natural authority anchored in one’s command of one’s physical force and moral principles), in the flattering shape of Henry Fonda, against sophisticated eastern masculinity (a form of acquired authority engineered through the mastery of the social codes and solidified by status), in the shape of his rival. If western brides embody the process of civilization against the forces of aggressive, unrestrained manhood, the brutal boy’s club that the West constantly threatens to become again, their preferences go to men whose manhood their election makes paradoxically questionable. A tension that never ceases to fuel westerns as they raise the specter of female agency.

For who then is the American, this new woman?

9Indeed, if women are associated with the civilizing process in westerns, there remains to be seen what kind of ideal woman—what bride—is vindicated by classical westerns as the perfect American heroin. For when women only carry West the eastern codes of social conduct, they end up vilipended and chastised. Such is the lot of snobby Mrs. Mallory in Stagecoach, whose pregnancy is her only redeeming feature, and who learns the hard way, through the pain of labor, to recognize the value of all-American Dallas, the spirit of true resistance and resilience in the face of old world moral constrictions clearly out of place in the Arizona desert. If women represent civilization, they also represent its potential shortcomings in the form of the desire to curb personal liberties in the name not so much of the greater good than that of vested social and religious interests.

10Thankfully though, the West offers a blank page on which to re-write the script of civilization and womanhood, a script probably more surprising and ideologically challenging than the new version of heroic manhood that the western added to an already rich masculine repertoire. Take Miriam for instance, the sweet eastern girl precipitated into the hell on wheels environment of the transcontinental railroad construction site in John Ford’s Iron Horse. Introduced in the film narrative as a potential Eve to new American-Adam-to-be-Davy (albeit, an Eve restored to her true place as recipient, rather than provider, of the fruit of the knowledge of the difference between good and evil), Miriam is a character whose evolution is one of gradual improvement through the experience of the rowdy frontier, as opposed to Davy’s tragic but radical conversion to herohood through the murder of his father. Left as an orphan in the western woods, Davy dramatically reemerges as full blown frontier hero, complete with buckskin and Indian chase, in the next scene. Miriam’s progression on the other hand is much less dramatic. The sweet, emotional girl of the opening sequence first reemerges as a sophisticated socialite whose tastes in men however have taken a dramatic dump from adventurous Davy to entrepreneurial Jessom. Miriam’s volatile affections are not her strong point, and her loyalty to devious Jessom long disqualifies her as worthy heroin, unless one considers the role she plays within the epic narrative of technological prowess, via her address to the teams of dissatisfied workers whom she manages to convince not to defect the construction project. Torn between the stereotypical sentimental script of romance and a novel script of female entrepreneurship and agency, though her position there comes from privilege, it is she more than her father who is made to represent the figure of leadership on the construction site. In Miriam, eastern masculine deficiency and effeteness are reborn into feisty feminine persuasiveness—a tribute a young Ford pays to the new independent women of the 1920s.

11Yet even more so, it is Ruby of the Arabian Nights who stands out as the true female heroin of the film, a character whose script is entirely novel and free of sentimental scoria. A fiery personality, literally, who takes very personally to rebuffs, Ruby the prostitute represents the female equivalent to the male hero in terms of independence and agency: a sharp shooter, she is on a par with the judge, with whom she reads the book of the law to extricate herself out of the tight spot she has shot herself into, and mistress of her own destiny. An active participator into the town life, it is she who presses Miriam to take action when Davy is forced into confronting Jessom, while she rushes to the help of workers ambushed by Indians at the end of the train line, bringing with her the other saloon girls, who prove to be fearless fighters (unlike Miriam). In introducing Ruby as a regular, undisputed member of the pioneer community, and affording her with a glorified death as community fighter, Ford discards constricted social moralities and throws his female character in with the rest of the frontier crew as representative of a new American spirit predicated on the quality of one’s character with respect to the community, one’s moral fiber in action, rather than matters of social reputation and class distinction—all in the spirit of an exalted American democracy. Together with Dallas, in Stagecoach, or Ella, in Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate, the prostitute bride encapsulates the qualities of independence, resistance, business acumen and strength of will forged and tested in the hyper masculine world of the West, yet tempered by consideration and the ability to turn the West into the semblance of a home—a rare cocktail that soon turns her into a highly efficient stereotype. In Heaven’s Gate, Ella’s bordello cabin features the pastoral emotional chore of the film, the antithesis of the cattle-barons’ all-male club. Where McCabe would wean a drab mining town of its hard-earned money in Robert Altman’s McCabe & Mrs. Miller (1971), Mrs. Miller brings in civilization, complete with hygiene and music, providing a resting place for the body as much as for the soul, where the church, also in construction, fails to do so. And McCabe’s fate is sealed when he fails to listen to his partner turned paid mistress and tries his hand at handling things the western way, through gun violence. In the final close-ups of the film Altman’s allegiances clearly go with the entrepreneurial—though ultimately lonely—madam, as his hero is abandoned to a meaningless, pathetic shoot out that no one cares for, while the church is going up into flames.

  • 5 Scott Frank, 2017, Netflix, with Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever, Jack O’Connell.
  • 6 John Ford, 1947, Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell.
  • 7 Notwithstanding the sexist politics that has us remember the soldier’s last name and the teacher’s (...)

12The schoolmistress bride is another new model that the western script produces, on the opposite end of the female spectrum—although Godless, a recent TV show that offers an interesting, all-female perspective on the western town, conflates the two into a single character.5 Clementine, in My Darling Clementine,6 is everything Chihuahua is not: demure, modest in dress and gesture, quietly persistent. Still very persistent she is, chasing Doc Holiday from mining town to mining town armed solely with her plain duffle. Clementine arrives to Tombstone as civilization has already kicked in and the old West is fighting its last battle (the Clanton family of patriarch and four sons is yet another all-male version of the Ryker’s gang). Families pour in to attend the dance organized to raise the money necessary for the completion of the church, though there is yet no priest in town. The charabanc which stops to inform Henry Fonda’s Wyatt Earp of the event is driven by a woman while around, skirts outnumber the pants on their way to the gathering. And Clementine stays in Tombstone after the Clantons have been eliminated. Earp’s return on the other hand is much less certain. Purporting to become Tombstone’s first teacher, Clementine secures the transition of the town from the Wild West to civilization which Earp’s marshalling has made possible. Her independence of heart, mind and body singles her out as a new model of ideal American womanhood left to fend for herself in a town she professes her love for (“I love your town in the morning”, she tells a smitten and perfumed Earp, whose sentiment it is never clear whether she reciprocates or not), liberated from the sentimental script she was naturally assigned as bride-to-be. Deborah Wright, the Quaker schoolmistress of Cheyenne Autumn, shows similar spunk in the all-male world of the American cavalry camp, where her voice is that of consideration for the wronged reservation Cheyenne, despite the questionable racial politics of her schooling of Cheyenne children. Her move to accompany the Cheyenne tribe on its way back to its original land marks a rejection of the cruel treatment they are submitted to by a negligent and disrespectful government—a policy reverberated more largely on the whole West in the figure of James Stewart’s Wyatt Earp rewritten as a self-infatuated buffoon in a scene that is an obvious travesty of the earlier Clementine. Her union to Captain Archer at the end of the film suggests a recognition of her efforts, as much as Archer’s, and consideration for the upcoming generation of Cheyenne children returned to their native territory, which broadens the spectrum of what the meaning of American civilization ought to be about.7

13Which is where the figure of the Indian bride comes in, as intercessor between the two worlds. In Broken Arrow, Sonseeahray’s union to Tom Jeffords symbolically marks the alliance between former enemy nations, in the tradition of regal marriages, a symbol strengthened by the fact that the marriage is one of love, of true election. It is Sonseeahray who chooses Jeffords, whose old wounds she offers to heal. Cochise warns the lovers of the difficulties their marriage will generate as they will face constant suspicion wherever they go—the implication being it is Sonseeahray who will have to go—but the reservations are brushed aside as minimal in the face of true, pastoral love experienced on a beautiful river bank. Sonseeahray’s election of Jeffords solidifies the compromise struck between the two communities by validating his status as romantic hero in a film which paradoxically purports to tell the story of a “great man, Cochise” but makes Jefford’s life the symbolic center of the action—and the marriage in the film is in actual fact pure fiction, a romanticization of the hero. To Jeffords on the other hand, Sonseeahray is a white painted lady—another historical/ cultural creation that deprives the character of individuality to turn her into some form of fetishized primitive womanhood—in other terms womanhood glorified as sacred, pure and loving, which is what the character’s function in the film is limited to. The whole natural, pastoral environment contributes to shaping the character into a version of the good savage, exoticizing the Indian princess as the incarnation of natural purity.

  • 8 John Ford, 1948 and 1950 respectively.

14Sunshine in Little Big Man directly takes after her. The name itself suggests it, as though the fictional script for the Indian bride was anchored in her “natural” luminance. Sunshine enters the film as a figure of frail yet heroic maternity, as she is first seen giving birth hidden in tall grass while her whole village is being slaughtered by Custer’s cavalry. She leaves it as a figure of sacrificial motherhood, butchered with her child once again by Custer’s men. In Penn’s revisionist western, Sunshine features an ideal form of nostalgic, natural womanhood as easygoing, radiating beauty and sweetness, and sexually liberal, much less demanding than the devious or bossy types of white modern womanhood Jack has so far been associated with. The Indian bride, in other terms, is the version of American Eve as an exotic, oriental dream, a colonial fantasy of female availability that acts as validation of the greatness of the true American hero, or anti-hero. A hero whose all-American virility, tested on the frontier, apparently requested a refreshed, rejuvenated form of “natural” womanhood fantasized as a mixture of sexual liberalness and tender motherly care. The antithesis to the Indian bride, the cavalry bride of Ford’s trilogy, in the shape of such desexualized characters as Shirley Temple, the eternal child star, in Fort Apache, or coquettish Olivia Dandridge (Joanne Dru), in She Wore a Yellow Ribbon,8 are reserved for the boyish males that will, obviously much less formidably, replace the superb male heroes of the old Wild West’s foundation narratives. Once again, it appears, the western bride, just as she is idealized, is made to play second fiddle to the western hero’s dominant script, a constant supporter to his symbolic hegemony.

A good bride is a dead bride? The perks of being a symbolic wallflower

  • 9 Howard Hawks, 1950, with John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, John Ireland, Walter Brennant, Joanne Dru; F (...)

15Sonseeahray is remembered in Broken Arrow for her death, more than her nonexistent actions while alive. Her sacrifice glorifies her as mythified symbolic blood bond between the American and Apache communities. Sunshine’s death, just like Ella’s in Heaven’s Gate, testify to the brutality of the American cavalry or agents of capitalism, making their bodies, more than their actions, signify, once again. Ruby’s death, in The Iron Horse, elevates the feisty prostitute to the status of true sacrificial heroin that utterly cleans her moral slate in the eyes of the more conservative society—and Ford makes sure of that via the mater dolorosa shot of her body being returned on the wagon, together with one of the dead Irish musketeers. Chihuahua’s slate is cleared too in her brave, silent death under Doc Holiday’s care. Few are the brides to survive, in the universe of the western, unless one thinks of Tess Millay, the daring pioneer who providentially breaks the homoerotic paradise of the herding crew in Howard Hawk’s Red River, or Amy Fowler, in High Noon,9 who still owes her survival to the sacrifice of her most strongly held beliefs. Cresta Lee makes it to the end of Soldier Blue, Ralph Nelson’s revisionist 1970 western, but her survival as a white Indian bride promised to a cavalry sergeant and enamored with naïve Honus is paid for visually by the many scenes of violence against Cheyenne women that the horrendous recreation of the Sand Creek 1864 massacre sequence multiplies. Honus and Cresta separate in the end of the film, she led away with the very few surviving Cheyenne to a reservation, he shackled for insubordination for his attempt to stop the massacre of defenseless women and children.

  • 10 John Ford, 1956, with John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter.

16All in all then, brides do not fare well in westerns, unless they manage to adjust to the script of respectable womanhood and motherhood they are offered as alternatives to the more challenging scripts the genre however multiplies—the script Marian, or Z, scrupulously adhere too in Shane and Jesse James. Brides embody some kind of restored pastoral innocence in a dreamed up past which the western narrative keeps longing for yet contesting, sometimes even crushing, and which the western hero keeps being deprived of. Which is precisely what makes him a romantic hero, left to reminisce over the past promises of his youth, trapped in the sterile richness of his yacht, at the end of Cimino’s Heaven’s Gate. Or wandering lonely as an overcast cloud in the end of The Searchers10 or Broken Arrow, ejected from the paradise he has helped secure. Brides’ destinies however are never the issue—whatever happens to Debbie, once returned to the Jorgensens, in The Searchers, is purely incidental, as the iconic final shot centers on Ethan’s heart-wrenching departure. The shot perfectly mirrors the opening sequence of Martha Edwards looking at him approaching his brother’s ranch. Martha in between the two shots has been butchered off screen, but Laurie Jorgensen, the film structure suggests, has come to replace her as the figure of motherly love and family maker—wives, like brides, are replaceable, and dispensable, mere functions, whose individual destinies mean little beyond providing the hero with a purpose and an ideal to fight for, a moral compass. What matters, though, is how the hero negotiates with this ideal— Ethan’s somber broodings and struggling with racism and frustrations, Shane’s failed attempt at career reformation in the midst of insoluble sexual tensions, which curiously never develop into an actual subplot, never to taint the pastoral ideal of the homestead as the foundation myth of 1950s suburban America.

17So that if westerns did indeed provide new scripts to female characters, seeking to present the all-American cowboy hero, however problematic his association with violence, with his ideal counterpart, their scope remained dramatically constrained. The novelty of the scripts in Ford’s 1924 Iron Horse rapidly wore thin, soon replaced by novel stereotypes speaking of male fantasies—the prostitute bride—or orientalist colonial fantasies—the Indian bride—while fears of emasculation were negotiated in the prominence given to the motherly figure of de-eroticized Marian, or Z, as founders of families left with a legacy of nostalgia for the Wild West. That the model should predominate in the late 1930s, still ridden by male anxieties over men’s value as providers in a context of economic depression, or that it should be idolized in the hyper conservative 50s, is hardly surprising. What is more so, however, is that it should still survive the vogue of the 70s revisionist westerns to continue affecting vehicles that have the hardest time shedding the template. In the 50s, westerns expressed their fascination for bossy female figures as antithesis to the conservative wifely model, exhibiting strong-willed female characters as the new version of the femme fatale, a monstrosity of economic and sexual independence, however seductive, that had to be exposed and destroyed— which is what happens to Altar in Fritz Lang’s Rancho Notorious (1952), or Martha, in Rudolph Maté’s The Violent Men (1954) —or chastised at best, as Jessica in Samuel Fuller’s 40 Guns (1957). Preoccupied with returning women to the comforts of the domestic sphere, the 50s obsessively reverted to the figure of the bossy female as mother of all social and psychological evils, but at least proposed an interesting alternative to the “bride” model, though a model that proved also to carry all kinds of romantic entanglements. Curiously though, the new bossy model barely survived the 50s, while the bride model did, and continues on, even as westerns continue to rewrite the history of the West with the view to accommodate contemporary preoccupations. And what is preoccupying there is to see how little the model has evolved, despite recent westerns attempting to write in more varied female characters and to feature in a female perspective on the whole experience of the West. Be it Ron Howard’s 2003 The Missing, or Tommy Lee Jones’s 2010 The Homesman, westerns continue to address questions of female experience of the West mostly through the prism of a male romanticized figure, be he long lost father or maverick wanderer. The mother figure survives, in The Missing, only to pardon her father who sacrifices himself in the search for his daughter’s abducted daughters and bring his body back to the home he had deserted long ago; but the would-be bride in The Homesman gives in to despair and hangs herself, madness being the only reasonable female response to the bareness of the prairie in Tommy Lee Jones’s film, and the two westerns ultimately fail to exit a heroic script that centers on the male. Even Godless, Netflix’s most recent attempt at the genre, eventually redirects attention to its male protagonist, frustratingly leaving the viewer to wonder about the fate of the female characters it had previously taken so much pain to introduce as innovators in the representation of a maleless West, a West of female experience and adaptation after an explosion in the town’s silver mine has claimed their husbands and sons.

18Which makes Kelly Reichardt’s 2010 Meek’s Cutoff such an impressive gem, a western that manages to rewrite the West as an experience of domesticity, rather than singular heroism, divested of epic grandeur, exploding the generic and gender patterns the genre keeps comforting no matter how much revisionism it tries to bring in. A remarkable film that strips the genre down, Reichardt’s unlikely sober, action-deprived western in its very barrenness manages to address the ideological construct that the genre remains entangled in by simply leaving it aside. Can the West be told not as story, not as fabric of nation and character, not as legend, but as experience of terrain, and the unknown? Can it be addressed as uncertainty, as a mixture of expectations and obstacles, as a discordance of beauty and hardship—the West of personal experience, the modest West of private diaries and patchwork stories of deprivation and loss told outside of the fanciful dime novels or Wild West shows that so massively captured imaginations as the technology of circulating narratives and images fashioned the history of exploration and settlement into myth? Such are the questions Reichardt addresses as her film follows the erratic progression of a wagon train lost halfway into the West, observing the group’s groping with exactly what way to follow, and what help, or threat, an isolated Native-American, potentially just as lost in this blank script, may represent. Concentrating what remains of the narrative into the experience of the West as blank terrain to be deciphered rather than conquered, Reichardt liberates space for the exploration of the pragmatic nature of the frontier as a series of geological obstacles and confronts bodies and minds to the experience of the sheer unknown as pragmatic, physical and psychological experience. In such a context, the daily rituals of cooking, cleaning and washing take on remarkable proportions as patterns of basic and essential social structuration, while caring for a caged bird in the immensity of the prairie points to the touching paradoxes of the social group’s relation to a natural environment it wishes to embrace but can only take in small portions. Where Robert Altman’s Buffalo Bill and the Indians had exploded the legend of the West as grotesque show stranded on an empty prairie, complete with the token girl wonder— Geraldine Chaplin as the unnamed Annie Oakley, essentialised as “The Sure Shot” in the credit sequence—Kelly Reichardt investigates the frontier as the material experience of unchartered terrain as much as otherness, redirecting attention away from purpose towards practice, making the domestic central to the non-heroic narrative of the West as loss rather than gain, and female experience central to the representation of the West as communal rather than individual challenge. As a unique experience in the retelling of the West from the inside out, opening the way to other narratives of intimate experiences of uncertain progressions, Reichardt’s film radically rejuvenates a genre which limitations she subtly underscores, while ironically rewriting the frontier not so much as violent encounter and dubious regeneration but as tentative approach, uncertain progress, the fabric of self, and cultural and social interaction. A film well worth watching for the renewed script it offers, in anti-dramatic fashion, to a genre which has long made rather than told the narrative of the exploration and settling of the West.


1 A handful of comedies also come to mind, David Butler’s 1954 Calamity Jane, featuring Doris Day and Howard Keel, or George Cukor’s 1960 Heller in Pink Tights, with Sophia Loren and Anthony Quinn.

2 John Ford, 1924; Henry King, 1941; George Stevens, 1953.

3 William A. Wellman, 1943.

4 See Barbara Stanwyck in Anthony Mann’s 1950s The Furies, Rudolph Maté’s 1955 The Violent Men, Samuel Fuller’s 1957 40 Guns.

5 Scott Frank, 2017, Netflix, with Michelle Dockery, Merritt Wever, Jack O’Connell.

6 John Ford, 1947, Henry Fonda, Victor Mature, Linda Darnell.

7 Notwithstanding the sexist politics that has us remember the soldier’s last name and the teacher’s first, and the racial politics that has the scene obliterate Little Wolf’s passing of the sacred bundle to Dull Knife.

8 John Ford, 1948 and 1950 respectively.

9 Howard Hawks, 1950, with John Wayne, Montgomery Cliff, John Ireland, Walter Brennant, Joanne Dru; Fred Zinnemann, with Gary Cooper and Grace Kelly.

10 John Ford, 1956, with John Wayne, Natalie Wood, Jeffrey Hunter.

© Éditions Rue d’Ulm, 2018

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