Every time I come to write about western movies, it strikes me again just how few – in the history of the genre – have been directed by women. Westerns have long been seen as the domain of white male directors, with a few notable exceptions popping up over the decades. (I’ve written in greater depth about women in front of and behind the camera over at Screen Queens).
The early days of cinema, by contrast, were full of westerns written, directed and produced by women. Dorothy Arzner, Frances Marion and Lois Weber all wrote or directed them, Grace Cunard wrote dozens for Francis – and sometimes John – Ford, as well as directing, acting and producing her own. Almost all of which are now considered lost. No doubt these films – productions of their time – were steeped in some of the worst tropes and stereotypes of the traditional western. However, their presence would have provided at least one alternative to the long accepted, singular vision of the genre. As Kelly Reichardt put it, when discussing the women’s journals written on the Oregon trail that she read as research for Meek’s Cutoff:
“When you read these accounts, you see just how much the traditional male viewpoint diminishes our sense of history. I wanted to give a different view of the west from the usual series of masculine encounters and battles of strength…”https://www.theguardian.com/film/2011/apr/09/kelly-reichardt-meeks-cutoff
I’ve compiled my eight favourite westerns directed by women (to be honest, there aren’t a huge many more…) all of which, to some degree, subvert, challenge and upend genre stereotypes. Ranging from the US to Russia, Indonesia and Iran, they are very different films, but what’s notable is that most of them could be classed as independent productions: the most “mainstream” among them is probably Kathryn Bigelow’s Near Dark. Which says a lot about Hollywood studio system…
So here we are, in chronological order. Hit me up with any I may have missed.
One of the earliest westerns (as well as one of the first westerns directed by a woman) is cinema pioneer Ruth Ann Baldwin’s ’49-’17; a silent film contrasting the 1849 Gold Rush with the legacy of the Old West in 1917, as a time and place already deeply mythologized. If you’re into early cinema, or the history and evolution of the western genre, then it’s definitely worth seeking out.
Jumping ahead seventy years (yes, really), and across to the USSR, we encounter Alla Surikova’s off-beat, raucous and memorable musical comedy western, A Man from the Boulevard des Capucines. Styled as a satire of the American West, it’s also something of a love letter to the power and responsibility of cinema.
Near Dark (1987), Kathryn Bigelow
Is it a western? Naaahh, not really, it’s a vamp movie in a western setting. But it gets a mention here, not least because Bigelow actually set out to make a western-western, before finding that financiers wouldn’t touch the project (this was pre the success of 1990’s Dances with Wolves) unless she mixed it up with another, more popular genre. Like vampires.
Thousand Pieces of Gold (1991), Nancy Kelly
Starring the wonderful Rosalind Chao, Thousand Pieces of Gold is based on the novel of the same name by Ruthanne Lum McCunn, about the experiences of Chinese immigrant Lalu Nathoy / Polly Bemis in nineteenth-century Idaho. Nancy Kelly has been outspoken in the past about the struggle to find funding to get the film made, which she ultimately did, on an indie budget. Even after its release, Kelly encountered blatant misogyny; “you are a good director, too bad you’re a woman,” one producer reportedly told her. However, thanks to Kino Lorber, Thousand Pieces of Gold recently had a 4k re-release in April 2020.
Meek’s Cutoff (2011), Kelly Reichardt
A masterpiece of smart, restrained filmmaking from Kelly Reichardt, Meek’s Cutoff is a taut western about pioneers lost of the wagon trail. It subverts a whole host of western tropes, and does it with fantastic cinematography and nuanced performances.
A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night (2014), Ana Lili Amirpour
Billed as “the first Iranian vampire western”, A Girl Walks Home Alone at Night – Amirpour’s debut feature – was part-financed by an Indiegogo campaign. Set in the ghost town of Bad City, it’s a mash-up of pulp, spaghetti western and moody noir.
Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts (2018), Mouly Surya
One of the reasons Indonesian director Mouly Surya apparently chose to make Marlina is precisely because she disliked the western genre for how male-dominated it is. Marlina the Murderer in Four Acts is a dryly funny, sometimes visceral revenge western, following the grimly determined Marlina (Marsha Timothy) as she traverses the arid, hostile roads of Sumba Island, seeking justice.
One of the most assured, striking and memorable debuts I’ve encountered in a long time, Nia DaCosta’s Little Woods is a neo-western set on the US-Canadian border. It explores enduring western themes of redemption, morality and the American dream run dry in a contemporary way. Re-named Crossing the Line in the UK, it is a film well worth seeking out, and DaCosta is a director to watch. (She has more recently directed the upcoming Candyman, produced by Jordan Peele).
First Cow (2020), Kelly Reichardt
And here’s an exciting bonus yet-to-be-released addition: Kelly Reichardt returns to the western genre with this intriguingly anti-macho sounding western set in 1820s Oregon, about a Chinese man, King Lu, and a fur-trapper’s cook, Cookie Figowitz, who become friends and start an illicit milk-rustling and cake-baking business. Originally due to be released early in 2020, it has been pushed back thanks to Covid-19, but you can be sure I’ll be first in line to see it.