When Thelma and Louise hit the big screen in 1991, it stood out in the world of mainstream movies for being a film that portrayed women as badass renegades who fought against abuses from men and took the law into their own hands. But it was hardly the first film that had that kind of plot background. In the 1960s and early ‘70s, there was a whole slew of motion pictures that had women taking things over and ruling the society around them, and living in ways that suited their own desires rather than following any ordained laws of men.
Most of these titles were B-movies and being a B-movie junkie, I’ve seen a silly number of them. Russ Meyer’s 1965 drive-in classic Faster, Pussycat! Kill! Kill! is an obvious example of the kind of movie I’m talking about, and one of the very best. But there are hordes of others. There are futuristic films that have women lording over some colony, or female biker gang flicks, or the Bee Girls, about which I’ve already written. But the example I’m about to discuss is a Western that features women as outlaw toughies: 1969’s The Female Bunch.
Before I get into a plot summary and critical analysis, a couple of interesting side-notes about it: First, and creepily, it was shot on the infamous Spahn Ranch when the Manson Family was living there. Second, it was the last movie role for Lon Chaney, Jr., who died four years after its release.
Ok, so . . . the story is told from the viewpoint of a young woman named Sandy. She’s a good-natured, good-looking gal who gets a job as a cocktail waitress at a sleazy Vegas nightclub. She becomes romantically involved with a low-rent Elvis type guy who sings at the venue. She falls for him but he throws her over for another broad and tells her to take a hike. Personality-wise, the guy comes off about like the tacky glittered jacket he wears in his stage act. Yet when he dumps Sandy she becomes depressed to the point of being suicidal. A friendly female co-worker tells her about this ranch she knows about, that’s some distance away and that nobody but those who live there know about, and that’s run by a bunch of women who have been victimized by men and who have decided to live their everyday lives without guys. Sandy thinks that setup sounds great at the moment, her friend takes her to the ranch and she gets initiated into the gang and takes up residence.
The place is occupied by a small band of fed-up women. They ride around on horses, do drugs, sometimes love on each other, and just generally carry on as man-free, self-ruled cowgirls. And when they get restless they ride into a little town just into Mexican territory, where they go into a cantina and get soused, dance around, and, at least for the ones who are attracted to men, pair up with guys and get that certain itch scratched. Also in the Mexican town, they pick up quantities of heroin which they sell on the outside, this illegal commercial operation apparently being how they support themselves. The women are free to do as they wish on the ranch so long as they follow the rules of the head lady there, the foremost of her directives being: Do Not Bring Men Here.
Oddly, in this movie that has women with all the power, the only two notable acting people are both men. Chaney portrays the one male who is allowed on the ranch – he’s a gravelly-voiced, hooch-happy, subservient old ranch-hand geezer who takes care of the ladies’ horses. The other known thespian is Russ Tamblyn, whom Twin Peaks fans will know as Dr. Jacoby from that show. Tamblyn plays a flask-sipping, dole-collecting, randy cowboy who is unlucky enough to be man-friend of a ranch denizen who decides to take the grave risk of sneaking him onto the grounds. They get caught by a ball-busting Amazonian redhead who looks like she belongs in a John Waters film, and she turns them in to the boss. The head lady decides to teach Tamblyn’s character a lesson and does so by branding his forehead. Later, back out in the desert, he resolves to sneak back onto the ranch and exact revenge. He tells this to his Ken doll-looking friend, and when the Tamblyn character doesn’t come back from the ranch by a certain time, the friend goes in after him. There, the friend joins forces with Sandy, who has by this time become disillusioned with the vindictive and remorselessly savage ways of the female pack.
The Female Bunch was directed by B-movie impresario Al Adamson, was just his second feature in a long run of lowbrow fare. As is true of many of the women-as-fiercely-awesome-beings movies I discussed in the opening chapter here, it is hardly a story that feminists are likely to see as a rallying point for their cause. The great irony inherent in many of these films is that at the same time that they show women as holding power over men, they exploit them as sex objects for men. We’re not five minutes into The Female Bunch before an excuse is provided for the buxom Sandy to strip off her top and appear in a skimpy bra. The majority of the ladies who exist on the ranch just happen to be well-endowed babes with pretty faces. And if that’s not enough to turn a feminist off, there’s the fact that the lady who owns the ranch is a junkie and that the woman who runs the place for her is a conscience-free sadist. Yeah, so, Thelma and Louise this isn’t.
So what is The Female Bunch, then? And is it actually any good? To answer the second question there, I might first half to clarify what the person I’m talking to considers “good” in a movie. I’ve already said I wouldn’t try selling this as a pro-feminist story and I will also say that I’m not comfortable recommending it to a Western movie buff as a shining example of a quality film of that genre. But I love The Female Bunch. I see it as a low budget gem. And it’s likely to be appreciated by other B-movie aficionados. If, say, the Something Weird Video catalog houses the kinds of feature films that hit your sweet spot, or if you’re a fan of the work of the afore-mentioned Meyer or the world of Roger Corman’s B-movie empire, I think this title will be a happy-making watch for you. If someone were to tell you that it’s a late ‘60s exploitation film/Western that would have been more suited on a drive-in double bill with a Meyer or Corman feature than with a John Wayne vehicle. . . and if that description is the kind of the thing that could make you say, “Sold, ring me up!” I suggest you seek out this obscure film.
Brian Greene's short stories, personal essays, and writings on books, music, and film have appeared in more than 20 different publications since 2008. His articles on crime fiction have also been published by Crime Time, Paperback Parade, Noir Originals, and Mulholland Books. Brian lives in Durham, NC with his wife Abby, their daughters Violet and Melody, their cat Rita Lee, and too many books. Follow Brian on Twitter @brianjoebrain.