Tuesday, February 8, 2011


Since we've talked about mail-order brides and wagon trains, I remembered the 1951 movie Westward the Women. I've watched it numerous times over the years, and would probably watch it again if TCM featured it. While it might be a little hokey and simplistic compared to today's movies, this one was a real groundbreaker.

The idea for Westward the Women came from Frank Capra, who in the 1940s read a magazine article about South American women crossing the Isthmus to become brides for a colony of male settlers. What if he moved this event to the American West, the director wondered. Capra had always wanted to make a western, but Columbia wasn't making them at the time and so he put the idea aside.

Then one day he and a friend took the idea to MGM. The company gave it the green light. Venerable MGM leading man Robert Taylor was cast as the scout. He escorts a wagon train of 150 women from Chicago to John McIntire's ranch in California, where there are no women for the male workers in a valley McIntire wants populated with familes. Along the way, the women must fend off Indian attacks, rough weather, forbidding landscapes, and men hired to accompany the group who are unable to control their lust.
Before production started on Westward the Women, all the actresses were gathered together to learn what they were getting themselves into—much like Taylor does in the movie. They were told that there would be no room for prima donnas, for the 11-week schedule in the Utah Mountains and California desert would prove to be long, dirty, and tiring. He offered everyone a last chance to back out, but no one did. The women began a three-week period of basic training which involved calisthenics, rope skipping, softball, bullwhip cracking, horseback riding, mule team handling, firing frontier firearms, blacksmithing, and assembling (and disassembling) covered wagons.

While "feminizing" the male western was nothing new, Westward the Women went a step deeper than most, one of the few films to present positive, overt Sisterhood. It is almost a casebook of traditional attitudes toward women to be refuted. In other words, while the female characters may be spoken to or treated derisively, the audience sees them in a positive light, and even heroically.

For instance, there are images of the women growing comfortable facing tough tasks, working together to fix a wagon and fight off Indians. Their bravery could not be clearer, as the audience sees dramatic images of individual women against an open and stark landscape and sky—a deliberate filming technique.

When a woman's version of a male genre is created, the woman's world—primarily love and romance, marriage, sex, rape, and childbirth—must be reconciled in some manner with the male movie.

By the end of this film, the women "have been told they can't cope, can't shoot, can't rope, can't ride, can't fight, and can't endure, and they have proved this to be wrong every time. These 'masculine' things are now absorbed into them.

This movie touched me because it was a female-driven tale—that of women banding together to form a sisterhood against harsh odds.

Celia Yeary-Romance...and a little bit 'o Texas  



  1. Celia, I loved this movie because of the very things you brought out here. It made such an impression on me about the oft hidden strengths of women. How we can overcome almost anything when the circumstances call for it. And why did these women put themselves through this? All because they were searching for a home, family, but most of all, LOVE.

  2. Celia, thanks for this blog--I've never seen this movie but it sounds like a great one to rent if video stores still carry it. I'll have to check it out!

  3. Frank Capra, who in the 1940s read a magazine article about South American women crossing the Isthmus to become brides for a colony of male settlers. This Male colony was none other than early Seattle, Washington. Asa Mercer was sent from Seattle to New England to engage women in the idea of moving west. He spoke before Congress about the need to settle and held meetings all around New England. Researching Mr. Mercer you'll find many references to this movie and other great TV shows based on the principle. The movie moved them over land, Asa took his "brides" around the horn and up to the great Northwest.

  4. I, too, have watched this movie several times. It's one of my old faves, possibly because I sort of grew up under the influence of a woman like these movie characters. ..... My grandmother became a widow in her fifties. She owned a small dryland farm (and in West Texas, a dryland farm is DRY), a few head of cattle and lived in what was almost an outpost with nothing for water except a gyp water well and a concrete cistern. Hand-wringing relatives pondered "what will she do, what will she do?" .... What she did was buck up and take the bull by the horns. She never remarried and never left her place. She did it all and she did it until she became unable to at the age of 92. She never asked for help from the relatives, mostly didn't want to be interfered with. She could ride a horse, pull a stubborn calf, plow a field, kill a snake, shoot a varmint if she needed to, repair the tractor, and on and on and on. She could throw a delicious meal on the table to feed 20 people if need be. She baked, she gardened and canned. Once when I went to visit her, she was making jelly on a propane stove in the middle of July. She was wearing jeans, cowboy boots and a frilly apron. She played cards, drank wine and danced if she got the opportunity. So you see, there were real women like those in this movie. ..... I should add that it was the Almighty's blessing that He put my Granny Bettie in my life. Everyone should be so lucky.

  5. Obe, the story of the Mercer Girls is a fascinating tail of courage fueled by desperation. So many of the young men of the East were killed or maimed in the Civil War. Most of the young women left behind were doomed to a life of spinsterhood and poverty. What's amazing is that the original group (I think it was 200) reached San Francisco losing only one member. And once they made it to the Northwest, all but one found husbands and stayed. One of them and the man she married founded the newspaper in Seattle. I've researched this event in the past and have even considered writing a historical novel about it. I love the story. I'd love to dig deeper into who these women were.

  6. I don't think I've seen this movie, but I'm going to keep an eye out for it. I find it funny that it took a story about South American women to spark Capra's imagination. It seems he didn't look much into his own country's history...lol. A great book about western mail order brides is Hearts West by Chris Enss.

  7. Hi Celia:

    I’d love to see this movie but there seems to be a disconnect in my mind. How much is Hollywood?

    The term “Pioneer Woman’ is synonymous with ‘tough’, ‘capable’ and ‘devoted’. Pointing to the pioneer woman was argument enough to allow women voting rights.

    Louis L’Amour used to tell about Hollywood showing a cow town scared to death of cowboys who threatened to ‘tree’ the town. Almost all the men in those towns had fought in the Civil War. If cowboys really tried to ‘tree’ a town, they would be dead within minutes.


  8. Celia,
    Great post. I've seen that movie often enough to about memorize it because Robert Taylor was one of my favorite actors. I don't think I would have left my home to go west if I'd lived in the east, but my sister could have been a pioneer. It takes a certain fortitude.

    Obe, thanks for the info on the Seattle story.


  9. Celia, I had forgotten about that movie, but am going to see if it's available on Netflix. Great blog! I am also appreciative of the info in the comments.

  10. Rebecca--women have as much a strong spirit as men--if the need calls for it. And you're so right, the women do it in the name of love and that innate inner desire to create a home and fill it with a family. Thanks yo so much for commenting..Celia

  11. Marin--I'd love to see it again. But I think I have it memorized. Hope you find it--you can on Amazon if NetFlix doesn't have it. Celia

  12. Nancy! What wonderful information. Of course, I know about Asa Mercer taking with women around the Horn, but I did not connect that fact with the women Capra spoke of. I've read more than one story about Mercer.
    Settling the Seattle area, also, has been used in numerous novels. It makes such a great story. Thanks for this information--Celia

  13. ANNA--the story of your grandmother is fantastic--and true! Oh, I know what "dry land farming," is, too, not that I ever did it, but we grew up in an area that farmed or ranched the same way. I love the picture of your Granny Bettie in her cowboy boots, jeans, and frilly aprong. Wow, what wonderful memories you have and what a special role model, too. Thank you so much for sharing this story--love it! Celia

  14. Anna--thanks for adding to Nancy's information about Asa Mercer. I am ignorant of the northwest, except the little I've already addressed.It's purely amazing that only one out of 200 died on that journey.
    The Civil War really did leave many widows and girlfriends without a man in their lives. In those days--with some exceptions--a woman needed a man to make a home for her. Celia

  15. ANNA KATHRYN--I hope you find the movie. It should be on Amazon if all else fails, and I think everything that's every been filmed is on DVD. Yes, you might have thought Capra would know more about the settling of the West by the 1940s. Celia

  16. VINCE--how much is Hollywood? Mmm, all of it? I don't know exactly what you mean, but I suspect there's never been a movie made that didn't smack of unrealism!
    And what does "tree a town" mean? I've never heard this term. Thanks for your comment! Celia

  17. JEANMARIE--ME, either! Never would have left my front porch.
    I forgot to mention Denise Darcel who played the female lead. She was a prostitute who wanted out of the business. She and Taylor's character were the hero and heroine of this movie--the love interest.She was good in the part, with only a little overacting. Celia

  18. CAROLINE--surely it's on NetFlix! Good luck finding it. Celia

  19. I can remember this movie and was impressed by it as well. In my humble opinion, women can do just about anything they set their mind to. If they don't have the physical strength, they have the imagination to find away around it. I live in the Sierra Mountains and pride myself in being a mountain woman at times. One has to adjust to their environment and those pioneers did a darn good job of doing it.

  20. Hi Celia:

    To ‘tree a town’ would be to have a group of cowboys, probably with a trail drive, ride through a town firing into the buildings, pulling down the water tower, and even setting fire to the town. This would be a very angry or drunk outfit.

    A film critic wrote this about John Wayne’s reaction to “High Noon”.

    “It seems to me Wayne was precisely correct in taking High Noon as absurd considered as a "true" tale of the old west. That is The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid which was (more or less) historical (or the opening of The Wild Bunch if you prefer straight fiction) was the usual result when any group tried to tree a town.”

    By “Hollywood” I mean that clich├ęs rule instead of reality. Like having six-shooters that never run out of bullets. Also hitting someone over the head with a gun to knock them out without doing any real harm to them. And having women who are helpless and always twisting an ankle.

    I didn’t see the movie but I am going to see if I can’t find it on eBay. I wonder if the women were like the women really were back then or how Hollywood needed them to be to make the story work.

    By the way, I really like this post.


  21. Thinking about the Mercer brides reminded me of an old TV series, "Here Come The Brides" from late 70's or in the 80's. Probably the latter. Great series at the time. Probably dated now, but probably based on the Mercer brides.

  22. Celia, I love it! I love it! Women can be tough when necessary, but I'm glad be don't always have to. I'm happy we have strong masculine heroes to help carry us through.

    I enjoy the perks as the weaker vessel at times. I'm not talking about becoming a doormat. Just us allowing our men to treat us like ladies.

  23. PAISLEY--I've seen women do many difficult things, and read about them, too. I'm not sure I could be one of them. I'm pretty much of a wimp when it comes to physical strength. I do love stories about then, though, and Texas was built by women, in their own way, just as the men did. Every frontier woman could shoot a gun.
    I'd love to see the area in which you lives--it sound gorgeous. And I have no doubt you could do as well as any man! Celia

  24. VINCE--THANKS for the explanation of Treeing a town. I have never heard that.
    Oh, yes, now I know what you mean to "Hollywood" tactics. In those old Westerns, someone was always getting knocked out with the butt of a gun. We know, today, that would most likely result in brain injury--not just knocked unconscious.
    And as a child, watching the Saturday afternoon Westerns downtown at the Rose Theater with my little sister, we'd laugh at how many times a cowboy could shoot a gun--and never run out of bullets.
    Thanks for the great information--Celia

  25. CAROLINE--I'd forgotten about Here Comes the Brides. Probably so--taken from the tales of Asa Mercer and his brides. Celia

  26. Laurean, a girl after my own heart.I, too, would rather a man do his job and I'll do mine. (I said this to Paisley's comment!)
    I'm just not that gung ho on doing a man's job, but I think if I were faced with something similar, I'd work to accomplish it.
    When I think of women crossing America on a wagon train, all I can think of is my feet. Think of the blisters and calluses and whatever. Man, that would be tough.
    Thanks for your comment! Celia

  27. Westward the Women was one of a kind movie. I watch an even bought the DVD. It is classic in how women band together to survive. It also tells the tale of how desperate women were to marry and have families.

    Robert TAylor was a little rough on Denise Darcel in this movie, but it was still a good one.

    Loved this one and always will.

    Love and blessings

  28. RITA--I've just got to see this again, now that I found all the photos and wrote about it. Yes, Robert Taylor was rough on Denise Darcel. You remember she was a prostitute who brought her friend along when Taylor was interviewing women to take with him. Taylor's character and Darcel's clashed from the beginning.
    I remember Taylor being harsh on all the women, and tough, no-nonsense, give-no-quarter character. Thanks for stopping by! Celia

  29. Coming to the discussion a little late.... Sorry.

    I must have been a teen or in my early 20s when I saw this movie on TV. Although it kept my attention the whole time I was watching, my memories of it grew vague through the years -- except for one very stark scene, where the women are all staring at this huge, vast expanse of white desert they're about to cross... It was unforgettable.


Thank you for visiting Sweethearts of the West! We are very sad to require comment moderation now due to the actions of a few spam comments. Thank you for your patience.