Whip-crack-away: The western from a female perspective

With Calamity Jane returning to screens nationwide, we celebrate the small but vital body of westerns where women take centre stage.

Nikki Baughan
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Calamity Jane (1953)

Calamity Jane (1953)

Perhaps more than any other, the western is a genre predominantly associated with masculinity. It is a place where men are old-fashioned heroes of the spit and sawdust variety, never breaking a sweat while spinning yarns, gunfighting in the saloon or taking on native marauders.

Sift through all that machismo, however, and there are a handful of filmmakers who have approached the genre from a more female vantage point. Rather than simply casting their women as distressed damsels, gold-hearted prostitutes or one-dimensional personifications of east-coast civilisation, they have allowed them to give a new spin to the Old West. One of the most iconic is, of course, the incomparable Calamity Jane.

A true stalwart of the west, Calamity Jane has appeared in many different guises, including as a hard-drinking, decidedly masculine, sexually ambiguous gunslinger in TV series Deadwood. In David Butler’s 1953 musical, however – Warner Bros’ response to MGM’s hugely successful Annie Get Your Gun three years earlier – she is, as played by America’s sweetheart Doris Day, a peppy, singing stagecoach gunner who is strong, uncompromising and feminine.

When the object of her affection, Lt Danny Gilmartin (Philip Carey) is kidnapped by Native Americans, she takes it upon herself to rescue him – an action that sparks resentment, rather than gratitude. The message is clear: Jane is nowhere near docile enough to be taken seriously as a love interest in the west, her strength of character and whip-crack-away physicality a terrifying concept for a man unable to match her in both wits and brawn.

After Danny leaves, James O’Hanlon’s narrative takes another surprising turn by focusing on the burgeoning friendship between Jane and newly-arrived maid-turned-performer Kate Brown (Allyn Ann McLerie). True, they spend much of their time attempting to feminise Jane and “catch her a man”; the idea being that women can only survive in this new landscape if they revert to their traditional domesticity, and given knowing voice in the song ‘A Woman’s Touch’ (just one of several outdated ditties which saw the film nominated for best score). But for a western to give so much time over to the bonds of friendship between two women is undeniably progressive.

Of course, this being Technicolor-era Hollywood, the possibility of romance is never far away and, while Kate may fail to completely turn the perpetually dirt-smudged Jane into the belle of the ball, she does enough to win the attentions of Wild Bill Hickok (Howard Keel). And, if by the film’s climax the sexist overtones of the genre (and, indeed, the 1950s) have dictated that Jane morph from gunslinger to housewife, she hasn’t completely lost sense of herself. Her energy and freedom of spirit just about manage to override the masculine bigotry of the west and it is suggested that, in Wild Bill, she has finally found a man not to tame her, but who is her equal.

Johnny Guitar (1954)

Johnny Guitar (1954)

A year before director Nicholas Ray turned James Dean into a star with Rebel without a Cause, his adaptation of Roy Chanslor’s novel saw the incomparable Joan Crawford in the role of  take-no-prisoners saloon owner Vienna. (“I’ve never met a woman who is more man,” is one reductive observation of her prowess.)

Although the film is (somewhat misleadingly) named after her character’s recently returned paramour, played by Sterling Hayden, the off-kilter narrative revolves around Vienna’s battle with cattle baron – never baroness – Emma (Mercedes McCambridge); a relationship fuelled by both hatred and thinly veiled attraction. The men are reduced to plot drivers and ill-fated love interests, while both Crawford and McCambridge turn in powerhouse performances, handling both the modern themes and screenwriter Philip Yordan’s crackling, cynical dialogue with ease. And by the time of the climactic gunfight between Vienna and Emma, during which the men cower in terror, there can be absolutely no doubt who is running the show.

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

The Quick and the Dead (1995)

While Sam Raimi’s stylised mid-90s western is by no means a classic of the genre, it gives Sharon Stone the opportunity to inhabit a strong woman holding her own in a man’s world. As gunslinger Ellen, who strolls into a dusty small town and demands to take part in the shootout competition, she is driven by a long-harboured desire for revenge against the town’s murderous mayor (Gene Hackman), who killed her father. Her performance may not have won much in the way of critical praise, but it remains refreshing to see a woman demonstrating behaviour usually reserved for the male overlords of the genre.

Meek’s Cutoff (2010)

Meek's Cutoff (2010)

Directing from a fact-based screenplay by Jon Raymond, Kelly Reichardt delivers a western fuelled by a trio of fascinating women. Emily (Michelle Williams), Millie (Zoe Kazan) and Glory (Shirley Henderson) are settlers travelling through the inhospitable wilds of the Oregon desert with their families, only to find themselves hopelessly lost. While their men are presented as the controlling force, Reichardt’s focus stays with the women, showcasing their inherent tenacity and strength despite their subservient status. Williams gives a tour de force as the outspoken, proactive Emily, who is determined to stand up to their incompetent guide Meek (Bruce Greenwood) and so save them all from a horrifying fate.

The Homesman (2014)

The Homesman (2014)

Directed (and co-written) by Tommy Lee Jones, The Homesman is a sensitive, effective critique of the overwhelming misogyny of the west, both as historical period and cinematic genre. While the story may revolve around three women who have been driven mad by the hardships of frontier life, along with the devout spinster (Hilary Swank) driving them back east, the narrative eschews clichéd female hysteria to instead examine the devastating psychological impact of such an existence. It also makes the powerful point that women are continually undermined by the men around them, no matter their strength, intelligence and courage even in the most extreme of circumstances.

The Keeping Room (2014)

The Keeping Room (2014)

Set in the south, during the desperate, dying days of the American civil war, Daniel Barber’s intimate drama may not be a western in terms of location but draws on – and expertly subverts – the genre’s tropes and traditions to weave a powerful feminist narrative. Julia Hart’s unflinching screenplay, which focuses on two sisters (Brit Marling and Hailee Steinfeld) and their African-American slave (Muna Otaru), forced to defend their isolated home from two marauding soldiers, certainly does not shy away from difficult topics like racism and rape, but is a story of survivors, not victims. Fundamentally, it doesn’t speak of the experiences of women as defined by history or geography, rather it is an urgent, universal story of the realities of the female experience, and the strength everyday women find to overcome such omnipresent adversity.

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