Sunday, January 20, 2013

Westward the Women

Time and again in Westward the Women we're reminded that for few directors does death visit as swiftly and brutally as it does in the films of William Wellman. (think: Maria Elena Marques in Across the Wide Missouri; Mitchum in Track of the Cat; multiple examples in The Ox-Bow Incident.) The open-ended hesitancy built into the title grows in significance with every corpse left on the trail  - westward may be the movement but the destination for each is far from certain.

Wellman's severe approach to capturing a body giving up its ghost may be a hangover from the pre-code era where the conditions of production practically guaranteed that such fleet and fateful depictions reigned supreme, but the most devastating passage in Westward occurs in the aftermath of an offscreen Indian massacre and draws its force from something far more sombre, while looking forward, in miniature, to the work of Roberto Bolaño, specifically "The Part about the Crimes" from 2666: "How many did we lose?" Robert Taylor's trail boss inquires as he surveys the carnage, and the sequence unfolds at some length as a rigorous account of each individual female casualty, a breathing woman beside the slain one chanting the dead's first and last name into the echoing desert air, the camera then shifting to a full visual of the victim, no unique details of her murder spared.

It's worth noting that despite the grim portrait I'm painting, Westward the Women is not only Wellman's finest western, but also one of his most purely humorous films - the bit with the "sting bat" is the hardest I've laughed at anything in some time (it's all about the silence), and the film's view of sexual attraction as something unaccountably idiosyncratic is a frequent source of amusement, such as the early scene where the women choose prospective husbands from photographs pinned to a board: "Face like a mackerel" mutters Hope Emerson's Patience to one photo with more than a hint of disdain, before claiming it for herself with a smirk.

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