Cowgirl Up: Five Outstanding Feminist Western Characters

Westerns have long been dominated by men, but these five powerful female characters stole the show. They’re not here to be liked. They’re here to be remembered.

Westerns is a movie genre historically dominated by male characters. Think of these films and what image immediately comes to mind? John Wayne in a ten-gallon hat and some kind of cowboy neckwear? Clint Eastwood smoking a cigarillo while donning a poncho? Maybe Kevin Costner sporting the Marlboro Man look? It’s probably a dude, right?

But if you watch enough of these features, or at least the right ones, you’ll come across some women who are not only the most important characters in the stories but who are total badasses. These ladies are much more than meek womenfolk who exist simply to take care of the homestead and provide big bowls of stew to their men when the guys return from their exploits.

Below are five western films that contain powerful female characters. Not all of these women are particularly likable or heroic figures. Not at all. But what makes them stand out in this context is that they are forceful people who act in ways that change others’ lives, rather than subservient figures who are there just to respond to men. And once you’ve seen the films and when you think back on them, the image that will likely come to your mind will be the primary female character.

Barbara Stanwyck from Forty Guns
Barbara Stanwyck from Forty Guns

Forty Guns (1957)

This title was written and directed by filmmaking maverick Samuel Fuller, whose 1964 noir classic The Naked Kiss delivered one of the most memorable strong female characters in the history of the cinema. In this western feature, Barbara Stanwyck plays the lead female role, and she’s a tough lady. Stanwyck’s character, Jessica Drummond, is the leader of a hell-raising, do-whatever-they-want-because-nobody-can-stop-them gang of 40 cowboys and herself. Drummond has no official governmental title within the county of Arizona she and her pack of rowdies dominate, but the local law officers answer to her and it’s generally understood around the area that she is calling all the shots about the way things roll in the dusty environs. A fun scene in the film has a local balladeer walking around while singing a tune that tells of Jessica’s character and the impact she has on life in the county – the song is called “High Ridin’ Woman with a Whip.” Watch out! When a trio of fear-inspiring brothers enters town with a federal warrant for the arrest of one of Jessica’s goons, and when she falls in love with one of those enforcers, things get shaken up in a way that’s going to leave life in the county changed forever after. Jessica Drummond talks and acts in a manner that makes Stanwyck’s mariticide-minded character from 1944’s Double Indemnity look like a mischievous Junior League volunteer by comparison. This movie is not the very best example of Fuller’s directing or Stanwyck’s acting, but her character is singular enough to make it a worthwhile watch. Criterion Collection is releasing a new edition of the film on December 11.

 

Millie Perkins in The Shooting
Millie Perkins in The Shooting

The Shooting (1966)

Monte Hellman (Two Lane Blacktop, 1971; Cockfighter, 1974) directed this eerie, sometimes confusing, moody western. Warren Oates, one of the acclaimed director’s favorite actors to use in his films, stars as Willet Gashade: a bounty hunter/gold miner who returns to his home camp from an expedition to discover that all kinds of hell has broken loose since he went away. Two of the people he generally lives and works alongside are gone from the camp, one of them having been murdered and the other mysteriously vanished. Gashade is trying to sort through all of that when an enigmatic, acid-tongued woman appears on the scene and demands that the miner guides her to a certain location she wishes to visit. Millie Perkins portrays the peculiar, hot-tempered woman who refuses to tell Gashade her name or the purpose of her journey. She also leaves her reluctant guide uncertain as to whether she had anything to do with the mayhem that’s been occurring around his temporary home. But the lady is willing to pay big bucks for the assignment, so Gashade agrees and takes along the lone remaining member from his troupe. The trio’s horse-driven journey through the desert and mountains is eerie enough to begin with but becomes positively frightening when they are joined by a mean-tempered gunman (played by Jack Nicholson), who may or may not have gotten into the mix by way of a secret invitation from the odd woman. This film was criminally ignored at the time of its release, to the point where it was not shown in theaters then and went directly to TV. But critics and aficionados have come around to it since. It’s a brain-frying mini-masterpiece, and Perkins turned in a superb performance as a domineering cowgirl whose character is the key to the story.

 

Lina Wertmuller in The Belle Star Story
Lina Wertmuller in The Belle Star Story

The Belle Starry Story (1968)

This is one I wrote about in my Criminal Element post celebrating Elsa Martinelli’s acting in crime and suspense films. The Belle Starr Story is an Italian-made spaghetti western about the notorious 19th-century American outlaw. The film, which was co-directed by a woman, namely Lina Wertmuller, is based loosely on the known exploits of the actual black-clad, sharpshooting, horse thief and criminal gang member. Martinelli is convincing and fascinating to watch as she plays Starr as a fiery-spirited, resolutely independent woman who will use her good looks only when she needs to. She is a crack hand at poker, a sure shot with guns, a crafty law evader, and a songstress who can break out her acoustic guitar and wail a plaintive ballad when the mood suits. The tale’s climax is built up to when Starr encounters and becomes emotionally involved with a male outlaw who could either become her partner in love and crime or the cause of her downfall. Watching, you initially half-expect the film to stoop to becoming hokey, but it remains edgy and compelling throughout. The glamorous Martinelli was a supremely versatile actress who showed here that she could play a loner outlaw from the Wild West as well as she handled her myriad other roles.

 

Verna Bloom in The Hired Hand
Verna Bloom in The Hired Hand

The Hired Hand (1971)

This one’s a bit of a stretch for inclusion on this list because the story is ultimately about the mind and heart of a male character. But it’s a valid entry because of the powerful nature and spirit of the primary female player. Peter Fonda, who directed the film, portrays a drifting cowboy who abandoned his wife and their young daughter six years in the past. Finally mentally exhausted by his loveless lifestyle, he decides to return to his former home in the company of his male traveling companion (who’s played, brilliantly as always, by Warren Oates). What the cowboy finds in his wife (portrayed by Verna Bloom) is a newly, forcefully independent woman who holds him at arm’s length and will only let him and his buddy live on the ranch if they agree to do so as hired hands. She won’t even let him tell their daughter that he is her father, as she is unwilling to endanger her child’s relatively stable emotional state. And in a crucial scene, she tells her ex’s pal about how she took in a slew of lovers over the intervening six years to satisfy her needs but sent all the men packing if they tried to get too close to her. Even when we see her vulnerability as she can’t help herself but feel pulled back to her ex, we still know she is not to be played with. This is an excellent film with a lot of visually arresting, artful shots. Bruce Langhorne, a frequent Bob Dylan collaborator and the inspiration behind Dylan’s song “Mr. Tambourine Man,” provided a score that’s as lonesome sounding and gorgeous as Ry Cooder’s soundtrack for Paris, Texas. And while the story centers around the male lead, Bloom’s admirable character is its heart and soul.

 

Marsha Timothy in Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts
Marsha Timothy in Marlina The Murderer in Four Acts

Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2018)

Most reading this are likely familiar with the subgenre of spaghetti western movies. I’ve recently become acquainted with another subset known as paella westerns. But how about a satay western? That’s how this superb new film from Indonesia has often been classified. The story opens with a small group of unsavory men descending on the isolated home of a young widow who lives alone. One of the men rapes her, a few others steal her livestock and drive away with the animals, and the rest hang back and force her to cook them a meal while making it known that they all plan to rape her before they leave. The woman, Marlina, manages to kill several of the men on the spot. And the rest of the story mostly follows her as she travels, in a daze, with an unclear purpose and with the disembodied head of one of her victims in tow. The film is gorgeously shot, with many breathtaking visuals. Its tone is somber, yet director Mouly Surya nicely offset the moodiness with some unexpected bits of surrealism and gore. The movie has been described as Quentin Tarantino meets Sergio Leone. And while that’s an apt enough take on it, Marsha Timothy’s quietly intense performance as Marlina calls to mind the cinematic work of Japanese icon Meiko Kaji, particularly in her vehicle series of Female Prisoner Scorpion films from the 1970s. Dea Panendra, who plays the part of a female friend of Marlina’s, is excellent in portraying a woman who’s trying to help a troubled ally at the same time that she struggles with her own grave difficulties. This is the most directly feminist title on this list, with its clear theme of women having to take the law into their own hands, and fend for themselves and one another, in a world populated by men who are generally hostile and/or indifferent to them.

 

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What other westerns could be included on this list?

Comments

  1. Linda

    “True Grit” for sure, especially the most recent.

  2. Andrew McBride

    I thought DIANE CILENTO in HOMBRE (1967) had one of the best roles and gave one of the most memorable performances in westerns. Actresses like BEVERLY GARLAND, JANE RUSSELL, SHELLEY WINTERS, JOANNE DRU and MAUREEN O’HARA gave punchy performances too.

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