Robert Taylor leads over a hundred women from Missouri to California. It’s set in 1851, so California is the other side of world. I thought it was going to be cute from that description. Taylor’s films were often aware of being Robert Taylor films, but of those 100+ women, only one thinks Taylor’s good-looking, so Westward the Women isn’t one of those Taylor films. It’s a rough film. It has cute moments and funny moments, heart-warming moments too, I suppose–but it’s rough. It might even be mean. I’m not sure to what degree the filmmakers realized how mean the film was getting.
Some of Taylor’s work in the film is his best. At a certain point, the film runs out of things for him to do and concentrates on the romance, which is fine, but he ceases to be the focus. The rest of the performances are all right (except Taylor’s love interest, once the romance starts), but the script betrays the two best supporting ones. Hope Emerson is excellent in the role of a New Englander who talks exaggerated ship-speak for everything. There’s a poor Japanese guy–played by Henry Nakamura, who did little else–who’s got the worst stereotypical dialogue, but a rather important role in the film. Again, his character loses steam in the last part.
The romance shares the second half’s focus with the more interesting aspect of Westward the Women. At a certain point, the women are left alone with Taylor and have to toughen up for the journey. There’s a great scene–I can think of a good adjective for it–when a woman is in labor in a wagon and a wheel breaks off. A group of the other women hold up the wagon while she gives birth, which would not be an easy task, and then proceed to fawn over the newborn. There’s another great, similar scene at the end, but I can’t give that away.
When I said before the film was mean–it kills characters left and right. The only sympathetic character it doesn’t kill is the dog. In addition to showing the difficulty in crossing the country, it throws the audience off guard. You never know if a character is going to make it or not. Even with this tension, however, the film ambles a little too much. It’s got a long present action–at least four months, but it might be more like seven–and since only a handful of the women are realized, the film is mostly in summary. But it’s real pretty summary. Wellman’s direction of the desert landscape is wonderful. Not only is the scenery incorporated into the story (unlike the frequent Monument Valley backdrops) but his camera angles take full advantage of them.
However, the film doesn’t take place entirely in the desert, only thirty minutes of it does. So, you have those twenty or thirty minutes of great direction, an hour or so of a great Taylor performance, a half hour of the great relationship between Taylor and the Japanese guy, and Emerson only getting rid of the lame seafarer dialogue at the end. Still, it’s a good film–it might be the only widescreen academy ratio film I can think of.