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Maureen O’Hara and Hilary Swank: Revisiting the Woman in the Western Then and Now

Revisionist westerns in the modern age take a much darker view of the “white man’s” participation in the migration out west than the earlier westerns did. Maureen O’Hara, who will be honored this year with an honorary Oscar starred in John Ford’s Rio Grande, How Green was My Valley and The Quiet Man. She also starred in the western Comanche Territory. What’s funny about these films is they convey what Americans used to think about Native Americans and cowboys. We had a very naive view of them, of course, because most of our took our history from Hollywood westerns.

Tommy Lee Jones, and Clint Eastwood and Kevin Costner before him, sought to represent a much more truthful look at our expansion out west. Jones’ The Homesman is a haunting rumination on the treachery, the bloodshed, the misery of those who settled out west. The Homesman makes plainly clear that we took a land that wasn’t ours and destroyed a civilization.

What’s interesting about the western, though, is that both then and now they must rely on strong women, a dying breed in modern American film. Jones’ film centers around women, with Hilary Swank in the lead playing a complicated, unattractive but ambitious woman. She is a woman out of time, in fact, and would have been better served having been born in the 1960s. Women were traded and treated like livestock and if that weren’t bad enough they had to land a husband just to survive. Women were part of the homesteading and help build our pioneer frontier (for better or worse) yet often do not get any credit for it. The Homesman, though, is almost a ghost story in the way it depicts the littered bodies we left behind.

Rio Grande is the third of the John Ford western series, with Fort Apache and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon being the other two. Rio Grande was a film Ford agreed to make for the studio pairing John Wayne and Maureen O’Hara together so that Ford could then make The Quiet Man with the two of them. The Quiet Man became the bigger success.

Rio Grande takes the side of the settlers, telling the story of defeating the Apaches. It’s just depressing as hell to remember America that way – our country is built on slavery and mass murder. It really took years to realign our perceptions of how the west was won.

But O’Hara and Wayne had notorious sexual chemistry. The beautiful redhead was one of the most memorable things about Rio Grande – other than it being John Wayne, of course, and who could forget John Wayne.

Note how important it was, though, to have such a beautiful star in an expansive big budget western like that, as opposed to how Jones really had to try to dampen Swank’s beauty to reflect a more realistic view of women on the prairie.

The Homesman is one of the few films about women heading into the Oscar race. I’m growing weary of male bloggers and critics dismissing the scant few offerings women have now. It is as though they almost would prefer an exclusion of women entirely unless they are mothers, girlfriends, hotties or judges. But films about the inner world of women? Why is it THOSE are the films that always get sent out of the room first?

Hopefully that won’t be the case with The Homesman because it would be really great if Maureen O’Hara and Hilary Swank were both associated with the Oscars, representing strong women, the abundance of them then, and and what’s left of strong women on film now, which is scant few.

The Homesman will hit theaters November 14. The Governors awards will be held Novemeber 8th. Honorees are Harry Belafonte, Jean-Claude Carriere, Hayao Miyazaki, and Maureen O’Hara.