Every few years, there’s an inexplicable urge among some cinephilic pundits to declare the western a dead genre. But it carries on thriving and reinventing itself. In this year’s Venice competition alone, there are two westerns, Jacques Audiard’s The Sisters Brothers and Joel and Ethan Coen’s The Ballad of Buster Scruggs. Both cast men in the leads, but a series currently running at Anthology Film Archives in New York through September 16, Women of the West, reminds us that there’s also a rich tradition of westerns that puts female gunslingers front and center. In her survey of the program for Screen Slate, Rebecca Cleman calls it “a fantastically eclectic and well-considered array that features films with strong female protagonists alongside women-produced and/or scripted westerns, opening the genre up to significances beyond the well-trod tale of male white-settler fortitude.”
In an overview of the series written for the Village Voice and posted just hours before that icon of alternative journalism ceased publication last Friday, Erica Peplin admits that, as a young student, she was initially skeptical of westerns. “The genre didn’t seem worth sentimentalizing so much as critiquing for its apparent racism, sexism, and xenophobia,” she writes. Nicholas Ray’s Johnny Guitar (1954), a “vibrantly campy Technicolor with subtle indictments against mob psychology, McCarthyism, and sexual repression” starring Joan Crawford, changed her mind.
Peplin also admires Barbara Stanwyck, “a queen of the range if there ever was one.” Stanwyck stars in Anthony Mann’s The Furies (1950), “one of the most richly scripted and Shakespearean of screen westerns,” and Allan Dwan’s The Cattle Queen of Montana (1954), which “sees Stanwyck trading barbs with a young Ronald Reagan.” Stanwyck takes the lead again in Samuel Fuller’s Forty Guns (1975), and Cleman notes that both this film and Johnny Guitar “have an amped-up stylization and flagrance that flew in the face of America’s coded puritanism.”
The Anthology series, curated by Hannah Greenberg, calls to mind a special feature that ran in 2009 at Not Coming to a Theater Near You. From October 2001 to mid-May of 2014, Not Coming was one of the most vibrant and certainly one of the best designed online publications devoted to cinema. Fortunately, the full archive remains freely accessible, and that special feature, also entitled “Women of the West,” was a collection of essays on nineteen westerns made between 1917 and 1995. “American film noir of the 1940s and 1950s has been frequently credited with giving women the chance to destroy men through the role of the femme fatale,” wrote Jenny Jediny and Cullen Gallagher in their introduction, “but the western allowed them to be tough-as-nail broads and still be on the side of good and righteousness, if they so desired. (And not all of them did.)”
There is some overlap between Anthology’s and Not Coming’s selections. We can read Jediny on The Furies and Gallagher on Maggie Greenwald’s not-quite-revisionist The Ballad of Little Jo (1993) and on William A. Wellman’s Westward the Women (1951), in which 140 women trek halfway across the country; they “don’t wait for the men to do the lifting, the shooting, the riding, and they sure as hell don’t let them do the birthing.” That leaves sixteen more fine essays to revisit or to discover for the first time.
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