The Girls of Westerns, Part 3; or, The Wild Woman

You know you’ve seen her.

She’s the stunning beauty with the hair over her eyes, the “other woman” standing in the shadows apart from the stalwart white woman.

She is either mute or deranged or she can’t speak English. She is often a figure of fun, the buffoon. She can be Native American, or Spanish, comely or the butt of jokes.

Oh, she’s out there all right. She’ll pop into an otherwise stellar movie and single-handedly drag it back to the Neanderthal age of humor. Woman dumb. Woman funny when she is dumb.

I was happy to perceive a quietly heroic role of Catherine Allen in the film Will Penny, a strong woman who loved but couldn’t keep her man. Unlike most western endings, Penny rides away back to his hand-to-mouth existence without the glowing colors of an epic sunset to gild his decision. His inability to change, rather than being held up as the end-all-and-be-all of masculinity, keeps him from achieving happiness.

But as I was pondering this movie, I had to ask myself, what happened to that other woman? The one hanging around the preacher and his sons? Unless I missed her high-tailing out of the ending fight, she literally disappeared, a blip on the horizon of this sunset. And a blip is right. Her role? “Girl.” Poor Chanin Hale.

She’s a typical Wild Woman: She’s beautiful. She’s enigmatic–she doesn’t speak once and her eyes are rarely seen, as shadows or her wide-brimmed hat keep her from view. The Girl works for the preacher and his sons–I’d hate to think what the “work” is but it must be brutal enough to keep her in a perpetual state of either childlike greed or lusty innocence.

She’s also morally ambiguous. When the preacher and his sons break into the line shack and beat Will Penny and taunt Catherine Allen and her young son, the Girl looks from the threshold of the shack and smiles. Her enjoyment of the situation is sadistic as befits the company she keeps–perhaps not entirely willingly. As Catherine Hale is manhandled by the preacher (the left side of the screen a whirl of movement) the Girl plucks hairpins from Allen’s hair and tries on aprons, disinterested in the woman’s plight or not able to care.

It’s a pretty disturbing role–and it’s played for laughs, putting it in the canon of Wild Woman roles of Nova of Planet of the Apes (Heston gets her in the end) and Stefanie Powers’s “Spanish” girly girl in the awesomely execrable Gone with the West.

Wild Women are often the victims of brutalization that cause them to refuse or avoid “civilized” company, unlike the white women of culture who somehow manage to get out of the situation with their dignity, virginity, and/or psyche intact. (To Larry McMurtry’s credit, Lonesome Dove‘s Lorena Wood’s plight with Blue Duck’s band of brigands begins to approach the degradation and lasting psychological effects of her gang rape. I’m also happy to note that all the brigands die. Forgiveness is not my strong suit.)

Hmmm…kind of a downer to end on, but this bit of movie business holds no humor for me. But despite this pandering to Neanderthal joke, Will Penny is still on my list of go-sees. Any other Wild Women? The character Look in The Searchers?

The perfect Eve--she can't talk. JK! JK!!!!

2 comments to The Girls of Westerns, Part 3; or, The Wild Woman

  • This just reminded me of a western I saw awhile ago that starred Jennifer Jones as a “half breed” who was caught between two brothers, one of them played by Gregory Peck. I’m pretty sure he raped her and then there’s the classic shot of her sitting in half light and darkness and Peck taunts his brother with having taken advantage of her. Brother punches Peck in the face and the girl is crying that she hates Peck but couldn’t keep away from him.

  • bucko

    Duel in the Sun! It doesn’t end well. It can’t–because she is the Wild Woman. Love the description of the shot.

Leave a Reply




You can use these HTML tags

<a href="" title=""> <abbr title=""> <acronym title=""> <b> <blockquote cite=""> <cite> <code> <del datetime=""> <em> <i> <q cite=""> <strike> <strong>