Westward the Women
Though Frank Capra wrote the original story treatment for MGM's Westward the Women, he was too busy to direct the film, and handed the reigns instead to his former Liberty Films partner William A. Wellman. This stark, no-nonsense outdoor drama stars Robert Taylor as a trail guide named Buck, who in 1851 is hired by California settler Roy Whitman (John McIntyre) to head a wagon train full of mail-order brides from Chicago to the West Coast. Though Buck spares the brides nothing in describing the hardships they're about to face, most of the ladies agree to undertake the journey. Starting out with 104 women, Buck leads the expedition through some of the most treacherous territory in the West. Several of the women die en route, killed off by the elements, Indian attacks, and sundry unexpected mishaps. Most of the male travellers likewise fall victim to disaster, save for Buck and his courageous Japanese cook Ito (Henry Nakamura). Even when the wagon train reaches its destination, the story is far, far from over. Though second-billed Denise Darcel is the most prominent of the women, the large cast generally works as an ensemble, with everyone pitching together for the common good, just as their real-life counterparts had done back in the 1850s. Throughout, the film abruptly (and effectively) switches moods, veering precipitously from raucous comedy to profound tragedy (some of the deaths occur so suddenly that they can still elicit gasps from the audience). An expertly assembled and reasonably realistic saga, Westward the Women is one story that needs to be told in black-and-white; the currently available colorized version should be avoided like the plague.