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13 Essential Female-Led Westerns

13 Essential Female-Led Westerns

This week shall be marked in the annals as the one when Jane finally got a gun. After what seems like years of squabbles, director changes, acrimony and delay, the Natalie Portman-produced “Jane Got A Gun” is saddling up and trotting into theaters. How much the film will bear the scars of its notoriously troubled production is yet to be seen. Although its tempting to speculate about “what ifs” regarding the original, Lynne Ramsay-directed version, at the very least it should be interesting to see what replacement director Gavin O’Connor, along with stars Portman, Joel Edgerton, Noah Emmerich and Ewan MacGregor, have managed to make of this curate’s egg. Whether the fact that it opens tomorrow and is not screening for press is telling or not is for you to decide. 

In the meantime: considering it’s a genre so deeply associated with men, manliness and man’s-gotta-do, classic westerns display a fairly healthy tradition of the female-fronted variety. We’ve selected 13 of the most notable below, and should ‘Jane’ disappoint, we can recommend any of them (some more than others) to restore your faith. 

“The Furies” (1950)
A masterpiece from genre giant Anthony Mann, “The Furies” gives the great Barbara Stanwyck a role that categorically no other actress could have done similar justice to. As Vance, the willful and adored daughter of mythic rancher TC (a barnstorming Walter Huston), their close, conspiratorial and mutually admiring/abrasive relationship has the passion of a romance. But it turns violently sour when a jealous Vance disfigures TC’s gold-digging girlfriend (Judith Anderson) — a novel could be written about the interaction between these two women and the different modes of “strong” womanhood they represent. Mann’s beautiful film is astonishingly complex, working in love stories, territorial disputes and racial tensions as well as women’s issues and generational rivalry, but it mostly becomes a portrait of the monolithic Old West, represented by TC’s godlike behavior (he even prints his own money) giving way to the new. And this is the Western heroine done right — Vance is complicated and rarely “good,” but she’s as much made of fire and determination as any male counterpart, and unafraid to use her every resource to get what she wants. Which is: everything.

“Meek’s Cutoff” (2011)
Kelly Reichardt‘s exceptionally graceful, considered Western is polarizing: there are those who judge it as simply too slow to fully invest in. But Reichardt’s specialty is a slightly hyperreal, slowed-down atmosphere, heavy with uneasy mood and portent, and that’s what ‘Meek’s Cutoff” delivers, despite her almost procedural focus on the rough, unglamorous business of living, especially traveling, in the Old West. Michelle Williams plays Emily, the most outspoken (yet frequently ignored) woman in a wagon train of three settler families who have hired mountain man (and possible self-mythologizing fabulist) Steven Meek (a brilliant Bruce Greenwood) to guide them through the treacherous Midwest. It’s Meek’s hubris that gets them stranded, but Reichardt’s subtle focus on the bonnet-wearing women (including Zoe Kazan and Shirley Henderson) gives the movie its novel perspective. Rich and allusive (the divides the film slowly reveals are not just along gender lines, but political and ideological ones too), this is a movie to experience rather than simply consume — baking in the heat, shivering in the cold and aching at the frustration of being lost in an environment that’s hostile in every conceivable way.

“Hannie Caulder” (1971)
That this British-made, Raquel Welch-starring western is an avowed influence on Quentin Tarantino‘s “Kill Bill” speaks volumes about “Hannie Caulder,” both good and bad. Similarly placing a widowed woman at the heart of a story of revenge, ‘Caulder’ unfolds along very familiar lines, as after being gang raped following the murder of her husband, Hannie is taken under the wing of a legendary bounty hunter (Robert Culp, the film’s MVP) and taught how to shoot. Never the strongest actor, Welch is a bland if beautiful presence, self-conscious with her pithy putdowns —like the calfskin britches she wears, the role feels shrunk to fit her. It’s also tonally awkward, with the raping, murdering, stealing trio of brothers who are the film’s villains (led by Ernest Borgnine) uncomfortably and unaccountably played for laughs whenever they’re not raping, murdering or stealing. Yet the film is an easy watch (Christopher Lee and Diana Dors pop up in small roles), and deserves consideration, if only as an artifact of a muddled cinematic “feminism” that existed prior to the semi-revolutionary developments of the 1970s. 

“Annie Get Your Gun” (1950)
It’s gaudy, garish, and will always come affixed with historical footnotes (Judy Garland was fired from the lead role after months of shooting had already occurred, precipitating her departure from MGM and marking the beginning of her professional and personal decline), but Betty Hutton is a game, rootin’ tootin’ replacement, and Irving Berlin’s songs are shown off to their fullest in this lavish adaptation of the Broadway hit. Director George Sidney, along with musical impresario Busby Berkeley, is at the helm of this highly fictionalized life story of sharpshooter Annie Oakley, and he keeps things moving swiftly enough to breeze past the story’s awkward passages —the bit where Annie is inducted into the Sioux tribe, for example— leaving us to focus on her soppy romance/rivalry with Howard Keel‘s strapping baritone. Hutton is super-peppy, as was the style of the day, and it can feel a little grating, but underneath the goshdurnit stage accents and slapstick moments is a gentle investigation of just how much of herself a woman should give up in order to get her man, topped off with some inarguably great songs.

“The Belle Starr Story” (1968)
More evocative in direct translation from its Italian title (“Il Mio Corpo Per Un Poker”/”My Body For A Hand Of Poker”), especially considering its story bears no relation to that of the historical outlaw Starr, this trashy spaghetti western/melodrama is remarkable for being the only one ever directed by a woman. Lina Wertmuller, who would later become the first woman ever nominated for an directing Oscar (for “Seven Beauties“), crafts a silly but highly enjoyable western melodrama in which the gorgeous Elsa Martinelli plays the high-rolling, cigar-chomping, straight-shooting Belle, who falls into a tempestuous relationship with George Eastman‘s caddish Larry Blackie. Full of anachronisms (Martinelli’s ’60s eye-make) and cronky details that make little sense (her painted-on freckles), there’s still a tremendous verve to the filmmaking as the story rollicks through backroom poker games, wide open vistas, bank robberies, plush saloons and daring rescue missions. That it uses the standard-issue background of abuse and rape to “explain” Belle’s mannish dress and initial frigidity is a drag, but mostly it’s so OTT Italian in its “I love you! I hate you!” excesses that it’s a lot of fun.

“The Quick and the Dead” (1995)
Perhaps we’re stretching the term “essential” a little bit here, but Sam Raimi‘s Sharon Stone-starring western is probably, Lord help us, the first title that occurs to many of us when we hear the term “female-led Western.” Of course, that might not be for the best of reasons: “The Quick and the Dead” was something of a punchline at the time of release, and if the passage of 20 years has given us some fondness for it, it’s mainly for nostalgia and camp value. Stone feels horribly miscast in a role that asks her to emulate a Sergio Leone hero, right down to gimlet-eyes-beneath-hat-brim shots — indeed Raimi’s emulation of Leone here is so total that the film almost feels like a pastiche. That said, the premise — a gunslinging contest — gives room for plenty of outside color like two pre-superstardom performances from Leonardo DiCaprio and Russell Crowe and a deep bench of supporting talent including Keith David, Lance Henrikson and especially Gene Hackman who somehow feels like the only one to quite get into the rhythm of this experiment in gender-reversing homage. It’s never actually good, but it is also never dull.

“Cat Ballou” (1965)
Though it’s essentially a spoof, and was sniffily reviewed at the time, Elliott Silverstein‘s delightful “Cat Ballou” has stood the test of time far better than most pastiches, and boasts a surprisingly affecting warm core beneath all the zaniness. And a lot of that is derived from the performances — Jane Fonda‘s bambi-eyed schoolteacher-turned-ruthless-gangleader is just the right mix of sweet and feisty and Lee Marvin‘s celebrated Oscar-winning double turn as alcoholic gunslinger Kid Sheleen and the dastardly metal-nosed Tim Strawn is one for the ages (as is that of his horse, who plays drunk so well that Marvin mentioned him in his acceptance speech). And that’s not even getting to the insanely catchy musical interludes interspersed throughout in which Greek chorus-style troubadours Nat King Cole and Stubby Kaye bring us up to speed on where the story’s at. It’s not the deepest film on this list, and sometimes the cast and shooting style tip a little too far over into cartoonishness, but by and large “Cat Ballou” is an airhead charmer with a heart of gold. And a nose of silver. 

“The Missing” (2003)
If the curse of Ron Howard‘s directorial career seems to be the word “solid” “The Missing” is not a film that will redress that problem. It’s decidedly solid, but the stubborn assurance of the performances and the grand sweep of the photography are worth checking out. And it has its revisionist credentials intact, boasting a strong female lead and a slightly more nuanced portrayal of Native Americans (as in, there are good ones and bad ones!). Cate Blanchett in fine steely form, takes center stage here as the mother whose teenage daughter (Evan Rachel Wood) is kidnapped to be sold south of the border, and when no one else will help her, she enlists her estranged father (Tommy Lee Jones), who has been living with the tribes and learning their ways, to help her. Make no mistake, this is Hollywood-style revisionism, so even though some of the Indian characters are treated with respect, ultimately it’s the clever white man and his resourceful white daughter who are the heroes. But Howard’s brand of irresistible broad-strokes populism is as much in evidence here as anywhere, and he hits all the beats evenly, and hard. 

“Calamity Jane” (1953)
In an iteration so many light years away from Robin Weigert‘s portrayal in “Deadwood” it’s difficult to believe it could even remotely be based on the same person, the bright bouncy “Calamity Jane” musical starring Doris Day, came just 3 years after “Annie Get Your Gun” to round out the Western Musical Romance mini-genre. Featuring similarly great songs, similarly hammy acting and indeed the same romantic lead in Howard Keel, here playing a distinctly un-wild Wild Bill Hickok, what really elevates this David Butler-directed movie, is that as well as sappy romances left and right, this story puts a female friendship at its heart. Yes, Jane learns to be ladylike and pretty and to tend house in order to be worthy the man she loves, which is balls, but the sweetest tentative relationship in the whole film is actually that between Jane and aspiring showgirl Katie (Gale Robbins). In fact, if we think of it in modern romantic comedy terms, the climactic ride-to-the-airport here is actually Jane desperately riding after Katie’s stagecoach to make amends and try to coax her back. Other than that, it’s fizzy, tuneful, charming and totally insubstantial. 

“The Ballad of Little Jo” (1993)
Maggie Greenwald‘s fascinating, richly shot “Ballad of Little Jo” is as much a revisionist western as it’s possible to be, tackling issues of gender identity, misogyny, racism and classism against an Old West backdrop. Jo, played by Suzy Amis, heads west having been exiled from society for having a child out of wedlock. But after several unhappy incidents, to avoid being viewed as either a liability or a sexual object she disfigures her face, and dresses, and starts to live, as a man. It’s a big secret to keep, especially considering the latent but virulent misogyny that this world seems to foment: from Ian McKellen‘s exiled Englishman, who is a friend to Jo-the-man but cuts the faces of prostitutes who displease him, to Anthony Hopkins‘ Badger, an ally of many years whose bitterness at being “duped by a woman” trumps everything that came before, when the truth finally comes out. But ‘Ballad’ is also a low-key love story, between Jo and Chinese laborer Tinman (David Chang) who both have discovered the only way to survive out here is to hide their true natures.

“Johnny Guitar” (1954)
Of all the women of the classic Western, there were really only two whose star personas suited the kind of a raw, man’s-world roles the genre could occasionally throw up, as relief from all the quivering damsels, saloon-bound prostitutes and wifeable good girls elsewhere. Barbara Stanwyck was one, and Joan Crawford, star of Nicholas Ray‘s excellent “Johnny Guitar” was another. More than a match for the title character, played by Sterling Hayden (though their love story subplot does send up sparks) Crawford’s Vienna is the undoubted star of this show, title be damned. A strong-willed saloon keeper with an almost frightening aura of sexual authority, Vienna is mistrusted by the townsfolk and almost paranoiacally disliked by local landowner Emma Small (Mercedes McCambridge). Famously, the two women loathed each other in real life too, and perhaps the verisimilitude of the vitriol between them is one reason that “Johnny Guitar” feels far more involved in female conflict and ideas of “proper” femininity,  than it does in the heterosexual romance. 

The Homesman” (2014)
A movie as ornery and gruff as its director/star Tommy Lee Jones’ “The Homesman” sadly continued a long run of box-office underperformance for the recent films of Hilary Swank. It’s really not fair, because though it’s oddly paced and uneven, it is superbly performed, and builds to a completely unexpected, and unexpectedly devastating climax. Swank plays the capable yet plain, unmarried (and as an early scene suggests, unmarriageable) Mary Bee Cuddy, who agrees to escort three “mad women” (Miranda Otto, Grace Gummer, Sonja Richter) whom their husbands have disowned, across dangerous territory to the woman who will shelter them (Meryl Streep in a small cameo). She hires/bribes drunken claims jumper Briggs (Jones) to accompany her and a grudgingly respectful bond forms between them, which all seems like par for the course until it abruptly is not. Narrative shocks and twists aside, Jones directs with real flair here (the filmmaking is more assured than his great “Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada” even if overall it is not as satisfying), and there’s something surprisingly sensitive and sympathetic in his portrayal of the male-coded West as a place that regularly drives its womenfolk insane.

“7 Women” (1966)
A reworking of classic Western archetypes on several fronts, John Ford‘s final film may lack subtlety but it packs a punch. Substituting a Mongolian warlord and his marauding gang for the usual “Red Indian” scare, the more dramatic reversal is that Ford brings his muscular style to an almost entirely female cast, even riffing on classic archetypes like the swaggering, cynical outsider who emerges as the reluctant hero (here played with gravelly cool by Anne Bancroft). Bancroft’s doctor comes to attend to the missionaries in a remote Mongolian outpost, but faces prejudice from the stiffly devout mission leader played by Margaret Leighton, who rules over her small, largely female, empire with an imperious piety that is strongly hinted to be rooted in sexual repression. Deconstructing the masculinity and the Americanness of the genre he pioneered, and also critiquing religious inflexibility despite his own devout Catholicism, “7 Women” is both a cracking story and a fascinating grace note for Ford’s career, that sees him approach his recurrent themes with a distinctly revisionist wisdom, and maybe even redress a few old mistakes.

A few other Westerns featuring female protagonists that almost made the cut are: the Coens’ “True Grit” although we just didn’t really feel like Hailee Steinfeld, good as she is, actually leads the movie; Samuel Fuller‘s “Forty Guns” which also stars Western superheroine Barbara Stanwyck; 1995 TV movie “Buffalo Girls” in which Anjelica Huston plays Calamity Jane; William Wellman’s “Westward the Women” in which a wagon train of “marriageable” females is brought out to supply a woman-starved town in the West; and straight to video title “The Desperate Trail,” just because this is a list about strong women leads and they don’t get much stronger than Linda Fiorentino (alongside Sam Elliott). There are also those who classify Anthony Minghella‘s “Cold Mountain” as a western, in which case it could qualify, but it feels more of a war film/epic journey/love story to us.

And then there’s the hall of dishonor, because this twist on the eternally malleable Western genre has thrown up its fair share of stinkers too, among them “Bandidas” “Duel in the Sun,” “Sweetwater” with January Jones, “Bad Girls” with Drew Barrymore and its black counterpart “Gang of Roses” with Li’l Kim and Stacey Dash.

Any others that you think we should check out? Let us know below.

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