History serves those who write it. And if memories come from the conquerors—those who lived to tell the tale—then what’s bound and sold as fact is never the whole story. The crucial part is recalling who those conquerors were (or are): often white, straight men, resulting in the enshrined ideal of the Lone Male Survivor, from Moses to Odysseus.
A similar pattern has emerged on the big screen, manifesting itself as an inability to continue action after a man leaves the room. While this issue cuts across all genres of filmmaking (as well as many other modes of storytelling), this is especially true of the Western. These are stories of lone men on horseback who stoically fight their inner demons as well as bandits and racist caricatures of Native American people. Because the genre experienced a resurgence of popularity during the Cold War, the Western became a mode of storytelling that spoke to American ideals. All mainstream American films do this in some manner, but the stakes are higher with the Western, as the genre’s tales are based in “fact.” Winning the West, crossing the Oregon Trail, the genocide of Native American people—all these things really happened, and as Hollywood recast history, white men took possession of the stories.
So women and people of color have been forced to accept secondary roles, as they’ve been cast as lesser players in history, their contributions deemed too small to ever carry an epic story. Outside of Nicholas Ray’s female-centric 1954 masterpiece Johnny Guitar (and lesser efforts like 1994’s Bad Girls), Westerns generally suggest that women’s role in establishing the frontier only existed in relation to men with holsters, and either feeding or fucking them. Of course, in addition to Ray’s Vienna (Joan Crawford), some women stand out in the genre. But even when there’s a strong female sidekick, the narrative usually ends with the man who rides off into the sunset taking the story with him. What’s forgotten is the reverse shot and turning the camera 180 degrees away from the horizon to where life without that cowboy continues on.
Which is why watching a recent spurt of female-centric frontier stories has been so fascinating. After Ray’s Johnny Guitar, the most frequently cited female Westerns are Forty Guns (1957), Cat Ballou (1965), and McCabe And Mrs. Miller (1971). Sam Raimi did the genre justice with The Quick And The Dead (1995), casting Sharon Stone as a gunslinger, but this was more a transposition of iconic tropes in service of (fantastic) genre play. These are by no means bad films, but the small number does speak volumes. While female stars have made headway in action (another genre dominated by men going it alone), the Western is proving to be the last holdout.
The first sign of change arrived in 2010, with Kelly Reichardt’s Meek’s Cutoff, the film that best embodies an alternate, feminist history of the West. Based loosely on the 1845 ill-fated attempt to cross the Oregon Trail, Meek’s Cutoff isn’t shot from the real-life titular character’s perspective, but from the wives in the group: Emily (Michelle Williams), Glory (Shirley Henderson), and Millie (Zoe Kazan). The camera often stays with them as they observe, and critique, Meek’s inability to take them to safety.
Reichardt’s camera placement is entrenched with the women, and the dialogue among the female characters foregrounds the action that happens at the back of the caravan. At times frustratingly slow, Meek’s Cutoff evokes a mode of storytelling that comes from those who aren’t the leaders, those who are trapped and led to a destiny they want to refuse. It isn’t a conventional narrative pace, but it highlights that while there is a man up at the front, the stories at the back of the caravan are rich in human emotion too.
The critical success of Meek’s Cutoff might be a factor in the increasing number of female-centric Westerns that have been released since. Four years later, Tommy Lee Jones returned to directing with The Homesman. Based on Glendon Swarthout’s 1988 novel of the same name, the film is as deceptive as Johnny Guitar in its masculine title: the women are foregrounded from the outset, especially Mary Bee Cuddy (Hilary Swank). She is a plough-driving, practical, and self-sufficient woman, with no husband or children. Free of ties that bind, she agrees to escort a group of women who’ve lost their minds across the country from her small town. (This alone makes it a radical narrative, as the film journeys—literally and metaphorically—with those suffering from mental illness instead of locking them away.)
En route, Mary meets a grifter, George Briggs (Jones), who joins their group. Mary’s journey ends before the film’s conclusion, but she still haunts the film until the final moment. Briggs, drunk, accidentally knocks the tombstone he’s taking to her unmarked grave into a river. No one notices but the camera, which captures it disappearing into the dark waters. It’s a succinct and powerful image of how so many women’s stories go untold and forgotten.
The most recent addition to this growing subgenre is Daniel Barber’s The Keeping Room. Written by Julia Hart, the film toes the Western lines in subject matter—three women fight off two Yankee soldiers during the last days of the Civil War—but resonates in tone. Augusta (Brit Marling), her sister Louise (Hailee Steinfeld) and their enslaved worker Mad (Muna Otaru) live day-to-day, barely scraping by on what they can harvest from the land. After a raccoon bites Louise, Augusta searches for medicine, which takes her to the saloon in town. There, Moll (Amy Nuttall), the local prostitute, warns her of two Yankee men who are eyeing her with malicious intent.
It’s an important scene, as Hart’s script places the emphasis on a female perspective. Not only does Hart give voice to the normally silent figure of the prostitute, she also shifts the focus of the dangers of living on the frontier to realities specific to women. Moll directly acknowledges a certain male blindness to female experience when she grabs a shot of whiskey away from the bartender and gives it to Augusta, snapping at him: “Why don’t you save it for someone who needs it?”
Of note in Barber’s film is the space given to Mad. While white women are making gains in the Western genre, stories about women of color aren’t nearing the same numbers. In The Keeping Room, however, Mad’s character is given a rich (albeit tragic) backstory, which she relates in a long monologue to Augusta and Louise. She talks, they listen, and so does the audience. This is, in essence, why the re-writing of how the West was won, historically and on-screen, is so important: In telling women’s stories, women live on. As Augusta says to a bed-ridden Louise, while relating a version of the Scheherazade tale, the female storyteller of One Thousand And One Nights: “As long as her sister kept telling stories, she didn’t have to die.”