Women’s Shadow in the American Western
Tim Binding, Tim Willocks, Thirza Wakefield
‘You want to talk about the vanishing wilderness?’ These are the opening words of John Boorman’s Deliverance (1972), spoken by Burt Reynolds’ character Lewis, the only self-declared outdoorsman among four Atlanta men headed for a canoeing trip along the fictional Cahulawassee River. The expedition is Lewis’s idea and, driving into backcountry by way of the opening credits, he’s hard-pressed to persuade the party of the urgency and importance of their trip. This is the last chance they’ll have to ride the river: the government plans to flood the valley to make way for a reservoir – more recreation for ‘your smug little suburb’, Lewis calls it. Where they’re going is frontier territory: ‘just about the last wild, untamed, unpolluted, un-fucked-up river in the South.’
Director of photography Vilmos Zsigmond’s wooded American wild is a voluptuous green, backlit by an acid sun. Zsigmond desaturated the film’s Technicolor, dredging the photography of reds, blues and yellows, effecting a backwoods that vibrates with fecundity, a cannibalizing flora that eats at the edges of the frame. Lewis and family man Ed thrash through it in a 4×4 – going up ahead, gung-ho, like old-time pioneers – looking for a place to enter the water. Clearing their first run, the boaters are elated and, in calmer waters, take a moment to reflect. ‘First explorers saw this country. Saw it just like us – in a canoe,’ says Lewis, the author-elect of their adventure story, fitting a cigar between his lips.
He’s not wrong. In the early nineteenth-century, two men – Meriwether Lewis and William Clark – led the Corps of Discovery west in pirogues along the Missouri River, mapping country recently wrested from indigenous people. But these are indefinite details to Deliverance’s Lewis. It isn’t history as it really happened that he summons into their North Georgia surrounds, but the narratives and characters handed down by American cinema. To look elemental nature in the eye, see and be seen by land less-travelled: this is a mantle of heroism made far realer to him in movies than by reading between the lines of a textbook. Film – invented not fifty years after federal territory pushed to the Pacific – popularized the nation’s pioneer past. The Western, particularly, filtered into popular consciousness as a myth of the American wild that feted the ascetic individualism of the adventurer; the heroics of the rough-hewn white man and his dominion over the wilderness. The word Lewis uses is ‘saw’ – not settled, not conquered, not colonized – because seeing was as owning in the Old West, and movies are seeing, too.
Before long, the men of Deliverance are out of their depth. They become separated in the rapids, and half the party trapped on the riverbank by two backwoodsmen, armed with a shotgun. One of the men, Bobby, is raped in the leaf litter; first subjected to a sordid foreplay. His attacker plucks and clutches at his breasts; makes Bobby playact a pig: ‘Looks like we got us a sow here, instead of a boy.’ Lewis kills Bobby’s aggressor with an arrow shot from the recurve bow he’s brought along for the look of the thing as much for fishing with. In the ensuing panic, they flee the scene, whereupon one of their number falls overboard: Drew, discovered later, dead in the water. His shoulder dislocated, the left arm latched behind the right side of his head, he’s disfigured, a freak in death. (We recall Bobby’s remarks about the rural people, living on the edges of the river: ‘Talk about genetic deficiencies. That pitiful?’) Washed out and wedged upright between two logs like a fallen gibbet, Drew’s hand, palm outward, shows a gold wedding band. In the crossbeams of this hangman’s corner, he’s a reminder of civilized America; home, which is no less pitiless in its lawful punishments than the lawless wild they’ve tangled in.
The deconstructed Western, of which Deliverance is an example, hopes to interrogate the Hollywood-pavilion history of the period-set Western with its racial and gender bias and its subordination of the ‘other’ by the errant, ‘enlightened’ white. Like the buttes of Monument Valley, the heroes of the Western were tall and separate, detached, and rooted in the desert wild. Gunslinger or mountain man, this wilderness where he makes his bed is a jealous mistress. She keeps him meagerly, and asks his full attention. This relationship is reflected in the final image of The Searchers: returning his niece – kidnapped by Comanche – John Wayne’s Civil War veteran Ethan Edwards stops at the threshold of the Jorgensen ranch. Letting the reunited family pass inside, he stays, framed, in the doorway. ‘Ride away,’ the film’s theme plays, as Ethan looks wistfully within, then, turning as if called, walks into the desert expanse. Deliverance’s Lewis self-identifies with this masculine archetype. Smooth-skinned, clean-shaven, he’s a cartoon-corny cowboy in a sleeveless rubber vest. But it’s all a posture, sheath thin, and he cries like a baby when his leg is broken in the rush of white water. In Deliverance, the river (a ‘she’) and the savage are allies, colluding to flush out the ‘city boy’. Lewis and his friends are brutalized and ejected; the survivors spat out on a mud bank, where a white picket fence – symbol of the American dream – recedes, dirtying, down the ramp into dark green river.
Boorman was not alone in testing the Western in this era of American cinema. The nineteen-sixties and seventies – the same period that saw protest at US involvement in North Vietnam – produced the Revisionist Western. It looked askance at American exceptionalism, and inclined to greater empathy for the displaced Native. It debated the identification of virility with violence, and probed at the rightness of the lone, roving, implacable lead. But if it rectified these things, in one aspect the Revisionist Western did as the conventional Western did – which secluded women in a domestic setting or traded them as conciliatory favours – and seldom conceded the heroic lead to women.
The protagonist of Sydney Pollack’s 1840s-set Jeremiah Johnson (also 1972) rides into the Rocky Mountain wild with a horse and a Hawken gun. He hails from who knows where and that ‘don’t seem to matter much.’ Come to make his living in the ‘marrow of the world’, he wants nothing but tracking and killing and keeping warm. Robert Redford’s Jeremiah is as fair playing as wild law gives him cause to be; the more conscionable protagonist the Anti-Western made possible. Filmed on location in the Uinta and Wasatch National Forests, its authentic setting is partnered to a realistic script that would sooner make light of this ‘dumb pilgrim’ than hallow the trapper livelihood.
But in its representation of women, Jeremiah Johnson was turned out of the original mould. Jeremiah meets with two female characters, both fundamentally mute. The Flathead girl he’s strong-armed into taking for wife (a gift – the daughter of an Indian chief – he dare not refuse) cannot speak his language. The second, a widowed mother, driven mad with grief at the massacre of her family, yammers indecipherably. Jeremiah ventriloquizes their halves of a hatcheted dialogue or, in the case of Swan, teaches her his words: ‘Yes,’ he says, indicating himself, ‘Great hunter, yes? Fine figure of a man, yes? That is all you need to know for now.’ The grief-stricken widow commits suicide; Swan is slain by Crow Indians in retaliation for Jeremiah’s trespassing on a sacred burial ground. Jeremiah puppeteers these wordless women for so long as they’re around, but it’s by their absence that they make themselves really heard. ‘Woman.’ – Jeremiah clarifies, in reply to Bear Claw’s amused ‘For what?’ He’s asked the veteran trapper, ‘Ever get lonesome?’ Fleeced fat with pelts, Bear Claw burbles that he does not: ‘Full-time night woman? I never could find no tracks in a woman’s heart.’ Flesh-and-blood women are impassable: they cannot be tooled (not like a stick); they cannot be scented like elk. A good nose won’t work on women. Unassailable, secretive, they out-devil even a high-up hard winter for difficulty. Covering smoldering coals to sleep on, Bear Claw settles the matter – ‘I swear that the woman’s breast is the hardest rock the Almighty ever made on this earth, and I can find no sign on it.’ But Jeremiah’s losing a good woman, the wife he grows to love, and the sight of whose body, whose topography, draws exaltation from his lips – ‘Lord!’ – that the Rocky Mountain landscape never could, sets him thinking on things that didn’t interest him before. After her death, he’s newly aware of time, which had been, up to this point, the domain of ‘down below’. When, nearing the end of the film, he crosses paths with Bear Claw – the first time in a long time – the old mountain man remarks: ‘Come far, Pilgrim.’ ‘Feels like far,’ returns Jeremiah, and distantly: ‘Would you happen to know what month of the year it is?’ By absenting women or – having them feature – refusing them the fullness of character, the Western creates a formidable negative where woman ought to be. Like a bark rubbing, the wilderness wears the contours of American imperialist history. Similarly, in the Western and Revisionist Western, woman sits proud of the surface.
We get but a few glimpses of women in Deliverance. The film’s first image of womanhood seizes on Ed when he looks in a window of a wood cabin. Inside sits an old woman, obscenely wrinkled – profiled like Whistler’s Mother. She works a needle in her lap, watching over a disabled child in a basket chair. These women – if they can be so called (his eyes say as much) – are binary opposites at the furthest ends of life; they are neither of them the kind of women these men care to think about. Nubile, fertile, breeding women – arable women; pretty like the ‘pom-pom girls’ who file out at halftime at a football game – are on their minds that night. Bachelor-salesman Bobby amuses his campmates by flirting with his air mattress, ‘the instant broad’. (‘And if you fellas will excuse me, I’m gonna go be mean to my air mattress!’) He’s reminded of an early sexual experience: ‘I had my first wet dream in a sleeping bag.’ Wet dream woman, a paradoxical half-presence, weighs heavy on the camp; haunts this trip that had supposed to give them opportunity to pretend to a primal, unfettered masculinity. When Ed kills a man he’s mistaken for the redneck abettor on the bank, realizing his error, he holds his victim’s face between his hands as if he would kiss him; lays his head on his chest like a lover. There, and not there. The wild is no place for women—the film would seem to say. But Zsigmond’s eerie green presses in, and, by its pervasive otherness, comes to represent what is absent from or at the fringes of the Western and its subgenres.
More recent Hollywood films – like Unforgiven (1992), directed by Clint Eastwood, and the Coen brothers’ remake of True Grit – have reconnoitred the role of women in the Western. But though they created competitive female characters – women of persuasion – they remain enslaved to a phallocentric purview. True Grit, in particular, in the punishment it deals to its teenaged runaway protagonist, is proof of the impossibility of the self-sufficient female in this setting. There is no precedent for such a character, no record. The director who desires to have woman arrogate this macho narrative mode would have recourse to construct a history that doesn’t exist – a creation myth of sorts.
Independent filmmaker Kelly Reichardt’s drama, Meek’s Cutoff (2010), pulls the machismo world of the Western woman-side-out. Set in the 1840s and based on real events, the film observes the shifting dynamics of a three-family wagon train, journeying west to Oregon. The party has become lost, after taking a vaunted shortcut off the established emigrant trail upon the encouragement of their guide Stephen Meek. The film, from beginning to end, is a fragment of the longer migration – a few days out of what promises to be a dangerous and possibly disastrous passage. Reichardt turns her camera on the narrative’s female players. Occluding, for the most part, the men of the story, it’s as if she gave us the reverse shot of the genre as a whole. The settler wives are the film’s focus – though no more empowered in narrative terms for this unorthodox attention. They make house: build fires, gather firewood, make the morning’s biscuits. They walk behind the wagons across the white evaporite of the Great Salt Lake desert, in dresses with full skirts – green, yellow, pink. Setting up camp in the sere sagebrush, they colour the blenched landscape, flowering in the dust. In traditional Westerns, women are so seldom in field of view that this film has it seem as if they rallied to remain in frame, willful – an expression of their great frustration at being taken for fools by the charlatan Meek, and without influence to change it. They are passive in progress; pissed off. One panning shot takes in the three wives, crouched, quiet, in shade, passing a cup of water between them. The men discuss how best to move forward, barely audible, in the background. Women do; men talk, and the men’s machinations to depose, even murder Meek – who has lost their trust – take place out of shot. Reichardt’s film brings woman out of the shadow and into the light. The Western held a mirror to manhood. Meek’s Cutoff shows us what had always been behind the mirror: women, bellyful with children, following in the wake of frontiersmen; wagonloads of women, bringing – in their selves – civilization to vacant country.
Having taken an Native American hostage, and used him to pilot a course through the wilderness, the group is cautioned by Meek to be wary: he’s ‘worse than a sinner’. Meek brags of slaughtering Blackfeet Natives in Missouri – trapping them in headwaters, taking aim as they came up for air. ‘If there’s blood to be shed,’ he says, ‘I’ll be there, I’ll put in my share.’ Emily Tetherow, listening to his story, is heard to respond off-screen: ‘Vanity. That’s all I see.’ Knowing as we do by now the film’s formal pattern (men, active, out of shot; women, passive, in shot) it’s evident that the power balance has altered. Emily has found her authoritative voice.
The final sequence of Reichardt’s film builds a diorama to compete with The Searchers. A medium close-up on Emily as she meets Meek’s gaze cedes to another, from a new angle, as she glances over her shoulder. Wider, for an eyeline match between Emily and the Native American, who has paused on his way over the prairie. The countershot – they look at each other; her face softens – and lastly, a wide of the plain, the mountains in the distance, and the Native American centred in it. He turns and walks toward the horizon, and we sense she’ll follow on. The picture blacks, but if she does and we imagine her – in pink dress, fading white – she might look something like the image of Columbia in John Gast’s American Progress. A painting much reproduced in the 1870s, its America-personified is a giantess wreathed in gossamer white, looping telegraph wire from East to West. It illustrates the then-popular conceit of Manifest Destiny, the notion that divine providence directed the hand of the white man in making one united nation of the continent of North America. Barefooted, virginal, she radiates light like a lantern. For good or worse, she brings her light-source to the twilit West, and the rest is history. ?
Images courtesy of Oscilloscope Laboratories and movpin