As Tommy Lee Jones’ gritty and surprising western The Homesman reminds us, the Old West, with its lawlessness and hardscrabble way of life, was a tough place for everyone – but it was particularly tough for women. Westerns are not best known for their female characters, who are often reduced to madonna or whore stereotypes, the good girl representing idealised civilisation and domesticity while the bad girl is some sort of chanteuse or loose woman who sometimes ends up sacrificing herself so that the ungrateful hero can dedicate himself to settling down with her more virtuous rival.
Pairings such as prim Clementine versus sexy Chihuahua in My Darling Clementine (I once took my mum to see a rerelease of this and then berated her for having named me Anne instead of Chihuahua) or ice-cool quaker Amy versus hot-damn Helen in High Noon might as well be good and evil angels perched on the hero’s shoulders, whispering conflicting moral choices into his ear.
In real life, predictably, women in the Old West were more diverse than their movie counterparts. There was no shortage of faithful wives and dedicated camp followers, but they were often a lot feistier and more interesting than their movie representations suggest. Dee Brown’s The Gentle Tamers: Women of the Old Wild West offers a full complement of insights into the lives of actresses and missionaries, barmaids and college graduates, bonnet-wearing pioneers and cross-dressers, any one of which would make a brilliant subject for a movie (and which occasionally did, as in Maggie Greenwald’s The Ballad of Little Jo, based on a real story).
Instead, as in so many other movie genres, the female characters in Westerns exist primarily so they can stand by their man, lead him into temptation, or be killed or kidnapped in order to give him a motive to avenge or rescue them. They rarely have agency. In The Searchers, nobody ever asks Debbie Edwards if she wants to be reunited with her family after fifteen years with the Comanches; she’s just a McGuffin so that Uncle Ethan can use her as a pretext to work through his own issues and obsessions.
As for Native American women, on the rare occasions they were permitted speaking roles, they were usually love interest for the white male hero, and almost always (I can’t think of an exception right now, but if someone comes up with one I’ll insert it here) played by Caucasian actresses in brownface. Hence we have Debra Paget as James Stewart’s Apache love interest in Broken Arrow, Aimée Eccles (born in Hong Kong, of mixed ethnicity) as Dustin Hoffman’s Cheyenne love interest in Little Big Man, and Dame Judith Anderson as Sioux sage “Buffalo Cow Head” in A Man Called Horse.
As far as I know (and please do set me straight if I’m overlooking someone obvious) there is no female equivalent of reasonably well-known male Native American performers such as Chief Dan George, Russell Means, Will Sampson or Wes Studi. (Incidentally, while browsing names for this piece, I learnt that both Will Rogers and Ben Johnson, actors who often played cowboys, were part Cherokee.) Dances with Wolves sidestepped the issue altogether by having Kevin Costner hook up with a gone-native white woman in the Lakota camp. The Native American Woman’s story has yet to be told.
But Westerns are not without their interesting womenfolk. Here are ten of the most memorable, followed by a picture gallery of some of the others:
Claire Trevor as “Dallas” in STAGECOACH (1939)
Trevor got star billing over the then little-known actor John Wayne in John Ford’s first Western “talkie”, which has echoes of Guy de Maupassant’s famous short story Boule de Suif (read it! it’s not long). Thanks to Hollywood’s stringent moral guidelines, the screenplay never explicitly states Dallas’ occupation, but since she is run out of town by the “Law and Order League”, it’s not hard to guess. She’s accordingly despised by travellers on the eastbound coach, but hits it off with The Ringo Kid (Wayne) and keeps a cool head when a fellow passenger goes into labour and the Apaches come a-whooping.
Marlene Dietrich as “Frenchy” in DESTRY RIDES AGAIN (1939)
No frontier town is without its saloon, and no saloon is without its chanteuse, a character often barely distinguishable from prostitute in the Hollywood scheme of things. They don’t come much badder than Frenchy in this comedy-Western; she’s the bad guy’s squeeze (at the start of the film anyway), has a major hair-tugging leg-kicking catfight with Una Merkel, and croons suggestive ditties like “See What the Boys in the Backroom Will Have”, later to be spoofed so beautifully by Madeleine Kahn as Lili Von Shtupp in Blazing Saddles.
Jennifer Jones as “Pearl Chavez” in DUEL IN THE SUN (1946)
Producer David O Selznick sought to repeat the success of Gone with the Wind with this lurid western melodrama, so ridiculously steamy it was promptly nicknamed Lust in the Dust (recycled in 1985 as the title of a comedy western directed by Paul Bartel, and starring Divine and Tab Hunter). “Whitewashing” – the casting of white actresses as “exotic” love interest – was par for the course in Hollywood; Jennifer Jones (mistress and later wife of the film’s producer and co-writer, David O. Selznick) is all flashing eyes and heaving bosom as “half-breed” orphan Pearl Chavez, whose overwrought love-hate relationship with Gregory Peck, ne’er-do-well son of her adoptive family, climaxes in one of cinema’s sweatiest, dopiest and most colourful showdowns. Martin Scorsese is a fan, and Pedro Almodóvar inserted a clip of it into Matador (1986).
Doris Day as “Calamity Jane” in CALAMITY JANE (1953)
Heavy-drinking frontierswoman, famed Indian-fighter and buddy of Wild Bill Hickok, Martha Jane Canary or Cannary (1852-1903), better known as Calamity Jane, has been played by Jean Arthur, Jane Russell and Ellen Barkin, among others. But her most famous film representation is in this musical makeover starring Doris Day, who swaps her boyish buckskin duds for girly pink frills in a bid to win the heart of the man she loves. Day is a terrific singer and belts out “The Deadwood Stage” and the Oscar-winning “My Secret Love” (covered in the UK by glossy-lipped Kathy Kirby) brilliantly, but the character’s more intriguing biographical details are sidelined in favour of wholesome romantic entanglement.
Robin Weigert played her – with considerably more colourful language – in the TV show Deadwood (2004-2006):
Joan Crawford as “Vienna” in JOHNNY GUITAR (1953)
Dallas, Frenchy, Vienna – do we spot a pattern here? No girly names for our western heroines – these women stake a claim, mark their territory, and probably cover the waterfront too. Joan Crawford turns it up to eleven as the imperious saloon-keeper in Nicholas Ray’s outrageously camp western, which stirs Freudian symbolism and anti-McCarthyism into an intoxicating melodramatic brew.
Sterling Hayden plays the title character, one of Vienna’s ex-boyfriends, but it’s Joan’s protracted claws-out catfight with poisonous black-clad fury Mercedes McCambridge as “Emma Small” (even scarier here than she was as the voice of Pazuzu in The Exorcist), that provides the film with its pulling power, packing enough suggestive hints to make it a Freudian’s dream. Peggy Lee sings the haunting title theme.
Barbara Stanwyck as “Jessica Drummond” in FORTY GUNS (1957)
Landowner Jessica Drummond, her delinquent brother and her personal posse of 40 hired guns terrorise a small Arizona town – until she starts taking a healthy interest in marshall Barry Sullivan’s pistol.
Stanwyck’s stuntwoman refused to perform a stunt in which she is dragged by a horse during a cyclone, declaring it too dangerous – so the actress (then aged 49) did it herself. What a dame. Samuel Fuller’s action-packed Western also features one of the genre’s most surprising final showdowns.
Claudia Cardinale as “Jill McBain” in ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1969)
“You know, Jill, you remind me of my mother. She was the biggest whore in Alameda and the finest woman that ever lived.” Poor Jill McBain thinks she has left her life as a prostitute behind in New Orleans when she marries an honest widower, only for him and his three children to be gunned down by Frank (Henry Fonda) before she has even stepped off the train to join them.
“You wake up one morning and say, ‘World, I know you. From now on there are no more surprises,’ and then you happen to meet a man like this, who looked like a good man – clear eyes, strong hands – and he wants to marry you, which doesn’t happen often, and he says he’s rich too, which doesn’t hurt.”
But Jill is one of the smartest women in Westerns, and one of the most pragmatic, refusing to be intimidated while she tries to solve the puzzle of her dead husband’s legacy. She wins the admiration of the mysterious Harmonica (Charles Bronson) and amiable bandit Cheyenne (Jason Robards). She also ensures her own survival by seducing Fonda – though comes across as anything but a victim in her scenes with him.
Spaghetti westerns aren’t exactly known for their strong female characters, but Jill stands out; of all the four main characters, she is the closest thing to an identification figure for the audience, and it’s her personal journey as much as Harmonica’s quest for revenge that propels the narrative. Cardinale imbues her with fierce intelligence and determination; she is not love interest, nor is she a bargaining chip or trophy. She wields just as much dramatic weight as her male counterparts Harmonica, Cheyenne and Frank, and as if to underline this, she too is given her own theme in Ennio Morricone’s score.
Nor is she a gun-wielding tomboy who resorts to violence – if she has a weapon at all, it’s sex. In the final reel, the screenplay tries hard to reduce her to an earth mother archetype, doling out water to thirsty railroad workers, but too late, because we already know she’s more interesting than that. The railroad represents civilisation, and as it advances across the continent, Harmonica and Cheyenne are aware that the gunslingers and outlaws have had their day, and that the future is female.
Julie Christie as “Constance Miller” in McCabe & Mrs Miller (1971)
One of the Western’s saddest love stories. Christie plays the Cockney madam who runs a brothel set up by John McCabe (Warren Beatty) – two-bit card sharp and would-be entrepreneur – in a ramshackle mining town in the North West. She’s also addicted to opium, and you can’t altogether blame her because, as Robert Altman’s deglamorisation of western mythology keeps reminding us, this part of the Old West is mostly mud, snow and senseless death, particularly when hired gunmen ride into town to “persuade” McCabe to hand over his businesses.
Leonard Cohen’s songs on the soundtrack ought to feel out of place, but instead they give it the perfect melancholy finishing touch.
Hailee Steinfeld as “Mattie Ross” in TRUE GRIT (2010)
Kim Darby starred opposite John Wayne in Henry Hathaway’s rollicking 1969 adaptation of Charles Portis’ novel, but young Hailee Steinfeld is both scowlier and less of an annoying nag as Mattie Ross, the dogged 14-year-old who hires irascible one-eyed lawman Rooster Cogburn (Jeff Bridges) to track down the man who killed her pa. Steinfeld was cast at the age of thirteen.
Unlike the earlier film, the Coen brothers’ version adheres more closely to the novel, making it Mattie’s story rather than Cogburn’s. “It’s partly a question of point of view,” Ethan Coen told IGN.com. “The book is entirely in the voice of the fourteen-year-old girl.” And its coda, set twenty-five years later, is less sentimental and more heartbreaking than the 1969 version. It’s a rare Western told almost entirely from the point of a view of a female protagonist.
Michelle Williams as “Emily Tetherow” in Meek’s Cutoff (2010)
Kelly Reichardt’s low-budget film was inspired by true life events in 1845. What is supposed to be a two week trek across the Oregon desert turns into a much longer ordeal as it becomes clear that Stephen Meek, the leader of the wagon train, is in dire need of the 19th century equivalent of a GPS. Supplies are running out, and so is the water. It’s a reminder that nature, climate and the harshness of the land itself were just as much of a threat to the survival of white pioneers as rampaging Native Americans, and that the trek west was a journey into the unknown, full of hazard.
Reichardt is an exponent of so-called “Slow Cinema” and aims to depict the Old West from a woman’s point of view, which means knitting, sewing, wearing big bonnets and leaving important decisions to the menfolk. But it’s Michelle Williams, conveying whole worlds in a single glance, who comes nearest to providing the audience with an identification figure.
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in November 2014. It has since been considerably rewritten and expanded.