The long take: The feminine West

Beyond Campion, women in film have had their eye on westerns for more than 100 years.

Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog (2021)
Benedict Cumberbatch as Phil Burbank in The Power of the Dog (2021)Courtesy of Netflix

When this issue rolls through the presses we won’t yet know whether Jane Campion will be holding either of the two most illustrious Academy Awards for her film The Power of the Dog on Oscar night. We do know, however, that her shelves are already sagging with the Best Film and Best Director prizes from Bafta, plus the heft of comparable awards from the Venice Film Festival, the Directors Guild of America, the Golden Globes and multiple critics’ circles, as well as the weight of expectation. If, as predicted, Campion has converted her second Best Director nomination into a win, she will be the third woman to win the prize and, arguably, the second to win for shooting a western.

Chloé Zhao’s Nomadland (2020), which won Best Picture and Best Director last year, is a western in the thinnest of disguises. Frances McDormand (who won Best Actress) and the rest of the film’s largely non-professional cast are modern-day wagon-trainers rolling westwards in their campervans, leaving urban living behind in search of fresh territory and new freedoms – reaching out for a scrap of the American Dream and travelling a tough road. In other words, exemplifying the more palatable side of what is called the pioneer spirit.

Zhao, born in China, educated in England and the US, knows the field. Her first two films, Songs My Brothers Taught Me (2015) and rodeo drama The Rider (2017), both have Indigenous casts and are set in the area known as Wazí Aháŋhaŋ Oyáŋke or the Pine Ridge Indian Reservation, land steeped in the violent history of the clashes between white settlers and Indigenous Americans, most famously the Wounded Knee Massacre of 1890. The western is a genre but also a historical landscape, of both cinema and the US.

Songs My Brother Taught Me (2015)

Campion’s Thomas Savage adaptation The Power of the Dog, which is set in 1920s Montana, was not shot in the States, but closer to the director’s home in New Zealand. Still, Campion’s eventual embrace of the western genre seemed inevitable. From The Piano (1993) to Top of the Lake (2013/ 2017), she has dramatised the stories of settlers and the Indigenous populations they displace.

The Power of the Dog spins out a domestic drama – the tensions between a ranch owner, his brother’s wife and her son – in a landscape that evokes the mythical world of westerns so intensely that it brings the film’s themes of masculinity and its malevolent performance crisply into focus. Campion credits the #MeToo movement for nudging her towards this material. “I was so grateful for all the people that brought down the patriarchy and exposed Harvey Weinstein and heaps of other men,” she told Sophie Monks Kaufman in this magazine last year. “It’s a brilliant thing and is behind the fact that I no longer feel like I can only tell women’s stories. Now a female eye on men is a good and interesting thing. Why not?”

For as long as there have been movies there have been westerns. Annie Oakley demonstrated her shooting prowess for Thomas Edison’s studio in New Jersey in the 1890s. So yes, the “female eye on men” in westerns was there from the genre’s early days too. Boosting a series of horse operas produced by and starring the gunslinging actress Texas Guinan (later to become a notorious nightclub hostess) in 1919, the Exhibitors Herald wrote breathlessly: “No prairie schooner ever traversed the plains, no miner’s shack ever harbored a prospector, no ‘rustler’ ever disturbed the serenity of a herd of cattle unless a woman guided the destinies of the man who formed the life of these events.” Guinan was to typify “this breathing, vital, dominant feminine factor of the West”.

Even earlier than Guinan saddled up in her leopard-print chaps, Alice Guy, the French-born film pioneer (an honour that seems even more quaint when you consider that her westerns were shot on the East Coast of the US), was using the genre to examine the themes of toxic masculinity, homosexuality and alcoholism that drive Campion’s drama to a lethal conclusion. Her one-reeler Algie, the Miner (1912) was advertised as “A real live western comedy, showing how a sissy boy won his sweetheart’s hand by going out west and making a man of himself.”

Watch the film, however (it is available on the BFI box-set Early Woman Filmmakers 1911-1940), and a different emphasis emerges. Algie, considered too effete by his putative father-in-law (the flower in his lapel as clear a marker of difference as Kodi Smit-McPhee’s pristine white tennis shoes in The Power of the Dog) is indeed sent west to a mining camp. There he shares a bunk with Big Jim, the toughest of the crew but also a helpless alcoholic. As Jim teaches Algie to shoot straight, Algie helps his friend to give up the booze, soften up and eventually brings him back east. As this is a comedy, the direction of travel is towards reconciliation rather than revenge – though a gun will be turned on the patriarch whose retrogressive gender policing has set the plot in motion.

It’s too late to wish Jane Campion luck at the Oscars, but never too late to understand how women have been steering, and queering, the western all its life.

The new issue of Sight and Sound

In this 21st-century cinema special: 25 critics choose an era-defining film from each year of the century, and J. Hoberman asks: what is a 21st-century film? Plus: ten talking points from Cannes – George Miller on Furiosa: A Mad Max Saga – remembering Roger Corman with a never-before-seen interview.

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