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Blu-Ray : Highly Recommended
Ranking:
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Release Date: September 26th, 2023 Movie Release Year: 1951

Westward the Women - Warner Archive Collection

Overview -

An underrated western from director William Wellman that charts the arduous journey of a tribe of mail-order brides across treacherous terrain, Westward the Women delivers thrills, romance, and plenty of memorable sequences. A brusque, cynical Robert Taylor leads a strong cast as a ruthless wagon master and Warner Archive provides another stellar Blu-ray presentation, thanks to a brand new 4K scan of preservation elements, solid audio, and several vintage supplements. Even if you're not a western aficionado, you'll enjoy and appreciate this finely crafted, engrossing film. Highly Recommended

They are rugged pioneers and brave trailblazers who tame the wild west. These are the women of the great frontier – that’s right – the women! Based on historical records, this wagon-train saga details a 2,000-mile journey from Chicago to California. The men seek gold; the women seek matrimony. Both strike pay dirt! Buck Wyatt (Robert Taylor) is a tough, experienced scout who leads a wagon train comprised of two ex-showgirls (Denise Darcel and Julie Bishop), a hearty widow (Beverly Dennis) and fifteen men who function as guides. When one of the men disobeys Buck’s orders not to fraternize with the ladies, Buck shoots him, causing the others to desert. Instead of turning back, the determined women insist on going on, learning to ride, shoot, and drive mules. Although treacherous terrain and a deadly ambush lay ahead, these tough ladies are filled with the American frontier spirit, and nothing will stop them! Based on an original story by Frank Capra, and directed by signature gusto by the masterful William Wellman, Westward the Women is a cinematic masterpiece!

OVERALL:
Highly Recommended
Rating Breakdown
STORY
VIDEO
AUDIO
SPECIAL FEATURES
Tech Specs & Release Details
Technical Specs:
Blu-ray
Video Resolution/Codec:
1080p/AVC MPEG-4
Length:
116
Aspect Ratio(s):
1.37:1
Audio Formats:
English DTS HD-MA 2.0 Mono
Subtitles/Captions:
English SDH
Special Features:
Original Theatrical Trailer (HD)
Release Date:
September 26th, 2023

Storyline: Our Reviewer's Take

Ranking:

Westerns, for the most part, are the domain of men. Though plenty of actresses during Hollywood's Golden Age saddled up and took to the range - Barbara Stanwyck chief among them - the films they graced largely revolved around their male co-stars. That's why Westward the Women is so refreshing. Director William A. Wellman's stirring chronicle of the arduous journey a group of midwestern mail-order brides must undertake to meet their frontier husbands in 1851 may star a rugged Robert Taylor, but a vast array of females are the focal point of this unique and highly entertaining yarn.

Tough, often gritty, and packed with action, Westward the Women enjoys a solid reputation among western aficionados, but has flown under the radar of mainstream movie fans for decades. Adapted from a story by Frank Capra (yes, that Frank Capra) and scripted by Charles Schnee, who wrote the screenplays for such classic westerns as Red River and The Furies (Schnee would nab an Oscar the following year for the glossy Tinseltown saga The Bad and the Beautiful), the film opens in the bucolic California valley founded and nurtured by the aging Roy Whitman (John McIntire). What once was dubbed Whitman's Folly is now a prosperous territory, but its only residents are men, and the grizzled Roy is savvy enough to realize the valley's survival, future, and legacy depend on bringing women - nice, upstanding, hard-working women who can lay down roots and bear children - into the mix.

Roy convinces experienced wagon train leader Buck Wyatt (Taylor) to accompany him to Chicago and recruit more than 100 willing females to make the treacherous trek from Kansas City to California to forge a new life. Buck doesn't sugarcoat the journey's dangers to the bevy of applicants who, for various reasons, choose to leave their civilized existence behind. "It's a long, hard grind with no let up," he tells them. "Rain, hail as big as eggs, breakdowns, prairie fires, sand storms, dust storms, alkalai water, no water. Cholera, Indians, drownings, stampedes, stupid accidents. You'll pass graves everywhere. Milestones along the way. One out of every three of you will be dead before you get to [Roy's] California valley. So if you're smart you'll leave by that door. That's my best advice. Follow it. Now." 

Buck isn't kidding. The colorful characters face a kitchen sink of calamities as they trudge across the unforgiving terrain while also enduring the hard-driving Buck's dictatorial demands. How many will survive the journey? And will the scruffy, unhewn cowboys at the end of the dusty road be worth the sacrifices they made to get there?

Personally produced by Dore Schary, Westward the Women exhibits his distinctive stamp. The film's naturalistic tone, probing themes, and complete lack of MGM gloss are Schary trademarks, along with a commitment to diverse casting. Potent social issues abound. One of the women is an unwed mother-to-be, another gets raped by a frisky cowhand. There's even a nod to the novel idea of gun safety in a particularly wrenching episode. The Harvey Girls this most definitely isn't. Though such typical western tropes as Indian attacks, stampedes, predatory wildlife, and deadly storms also pepper the script, the story's female slant puts a different spin on them.

There's also a lyricism to Westward the Women that recalls the work of John Ford. Extensive location shooting in the wilds of Utah adds to the realistic feel (though Wellman wisely forgoes Ford's Monument Valley in favor of a less iconic backdrop), while the consistent attention to character beats supplies essential intimacy and enhances the impact of the action sequences. Moments of humor provide relief from all the tragedies, and though I could have done without the de rigueur romance between Buck and Fifi Danon (Denise Darcel), a stubborn, sassy French immigrant hoping to polish up her tarnished reputation (too many echoes of The Taming of the Shrew for my taste), it's deftly handled. Wellman, who may be best known for helming the classic gangster flick The Public Enemy, the original version of A Star Is Born, and the first-ever Best Picture Oscar winner Wings, didn't direct many westerns over the course of his three-decade career, but the ones he did, like The Ox-Bow IncidentViva Villa!, and Yellow Sky, stand the test of time. This one does, too.

After World War II, a more rough-and-tumble image supplanted the romantic, pretty-boy persona that Taylor rode to superstardom in the 1930s. His no-nonsense portrayal here laced with an eyebrow-raising dash of sadism is quite effective and he brings enough machismo to offset the tale's hefty dose of estrogen. The exotic Darcel often seems a bit too brazen, but the rest of the female ensemble, most of whom are largely unknown, file sincere, affecting portrayals. The standout among them is Hope Emerson, who plays the physically imposing and stalwart Patience, who stoically leads the tribe of women through their travails. Coming off her Oscar-nominated turn as the nasty, manipulative prison matron in Caged, Emerson proves she's equally adept at playing sympathetic, moralistic characters and makes us wish she had made more films during her career.

Westward the Women runs a bit long (its coda certainly could be trimmed), but it remains a substantive, absorbing, often exciting, and expertly crafted movie. I wasn't familiar with it prior to this initial viewing, but there's no doubt I'll take this onerous journey with these admirable women again.

Vital Disc Stats: The Blu-ray
Westward the Women arrives on Blu-ray packaged in a standard case. Video codec is 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 and audio is DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono. Once the disc is inserted into the player, the static menu without music immediately pops up; no previews or promos precede it.

Video Review

Ranking:

A brand new HD master struck from a 4K scan of preservation elements yields a sharp and vibrant 1080p/AVC MPEG-4 transfer that faithfully honors the cinematography of the great William C. Mellor, who would win an Oscar the very same year for A Place in the Sun and another one for The Diary of Anne Frank eight years later. The original grain structure remains intact and produces a glorious film-like image that immerses us in the dusty, craggy Utah locations. Excellent clarity and contrast, rich blacks, vivid whites, and nicely varied grays also distinguish the picture, which flaunts a fair amount of depth. The enhanced clarity draws a bit more attention to process shots, but they're still well integrated into the whole.

Day-for-night sequences vary in effectiveness; some are spot on, while others err on the bright side, but their appearance is likely baked into the original negative. Shadow delineation is quite good, sharp close-ups highlight facial hair, stubble, sweat, and the grimy complexions of the weary wagon-trainers, and no nicks, marks, or scratches dot the pristine print. I don't own the 2012 DVD, but it's impossible to imagine Westward the Women looking better than it does here. Fans will be thrilled with this exceptional rendering.

Audio Review

Ranking:

The DTS-HD Master Audio 2.0 mono track supplies clear, well-modulated, and often robust sound that thrusts us into the rugged western locales. Sonic accents like cracking whips, gunfire, screams, fisticuffs, echoes, splashing water, crackling flames, and rumbling thunder are crisp, while subtleties like ringing bells, the jangling and creaking of the covered wagons, rain, and howling wind supply plenty of authentic atmosphere. Strong bass frequencies add oomph and weight to the galloping horse hooves and stampede and a wide dynamic scale gives the music score plenty of room to breathe. All the dialogue is easy to comprehend and any age-related imperfections like hiss, pops, and crackle have been meticulously erased. Westerns demand strong audio to make the grade and this track delivers the goods.

Special Features

Ranking:

In addition to all the extras from the 2012 DVD, Warner Archive includes a radio adaptation of Westward the Women along with a couple of vintage cartoons.

  • Audio Commentary - Scott Eyman, biographer of both John Ford and Louis B. Mayer, sits down for an informative and engaging commentary that focuses intently on director William A. Wellman. Eyman compares the film to Ford's Wagon Train and examines its feminist nature. He also praises the movie's "rough-hewn integrity" and "brusque toughness," provides a detailed bio of Wellman, honors the work of Robert Taylor and cinematographer William C. Mellor, details how the project moved from Frank Capra to Wellman, and criticizes some plot points and directorial choices. If you're a fan of this film or aren't familiar with this little-known western, you'll definitely want to check out this high-quality track.

  • Vintage Featurette: Challenge the Wilderness (SD, 11 minutes) - This promotional short chronicles the movie's location shooting in Utah with behind-the-scenes footage of studio transport vehicles navigating the rough terrain, camera and lighting set-ups, and the training of the cast in various disciplines. Candid shots of the actors and storyboard and costume sketches enhance this interesting featurette.

  • Vintage Radio Adaptation (49 minutes) - Robert Taylor and Denise Darcel recreate their roles in this truncated adaptation of the film, broadcast on December 29, 1952 as part of the Hollywood Radio Theater series (formerly Lux Radio Theater). The pared-down script nicely condenses the plot without omitting too many narrative details and solid audio effects heighten the western mood. An awkward-sounding edit at around the 30-minute mark leads me to believe a portion of the broadcast may be lost - and might explain why the running time is 49 minutes instead of an hour - but it doesn't harm the program's flow.

  • Vintage Cartoon: Texas Tom (HD, 7 minutes) - This 1950 Tom and Jerry cartoon, directed by Willam Hanna and Joseph Barbera, transplants the cat and mouse to the Lone Star state, where Tom tries his best to attract the attention of a sexy feline cowgirl while a jealous Jerry makes plenty of mischief.

  • Vintage Cartoon: The Duck Doctor (HD, 7 minutes) - Also directed by Hanna-Barbera, this 1952 cartoon finds Tom in pursuit of a bird who needs Jerry's help to escape his clutches.

  • Theatrical Trailer (HD, 4 minutes) - "The strangest drama that ever came out of the West" is how the film's original preview, presented here in HD, hypes Westward the Women.

Final Thoughts

Excitement, craftsmanship, and excellent performances distinguish Westward the Women, which at last gets the attention it has long deserved. Wellman's film shines a spotlight on a rarely explored topic and Warner Archive honors it with a top-notch transfer struck from a new 4K scan of preservation elements, remastered audio, and a fine array of supplements. Western fans will certainly want to grab this disc, but even if you're not a fan of the genre you'll be entertained and absorbed by this well-made movie. Highly Recommended.