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.

  • John

    Wonderful article. So well written. So true. I hope that articles like this (and your continued support) can keep the movie IN SIGHT and not buried.

    Love Maureen O’Hara. Love the Westerns she was in; depicting a strong woman, or as strong as a woman could be in those 1950s films. SO glad that she’s getting an Honorary Oscar this year at, what 93 or 94 yrs. old.

    As for The Homesman. I saw it last week and I am still haunted by it. It’s currently my 4th favorite movie of the year (behind Boyhood, How To Train Your Dragon 2, and Life Itself). Swank was SO good. So strong. I agree that what she does 2/3 through the film may sting audience/voters but, awards buzz or none … it was a bold move. I kinda fell in love with Mary Bee Cuddy and I’m so glad The Homesman exists.

  • murtaza

    The Homesman is an opportunity wasted, it’s ridiculously made.

  • benutty

    I’m really excited for The Homesman and I appreciate that you’re keeping the hope alive that an audience outside of those who dismissed it at Cannes might enjoy it!

  • Cassandra

    Another 1940s era strong woman who Hillary Swank resembles in this movie is Anne Revere — on the other end of the spectrum from Maureen O’Hara.

  • keifer

    Maureen O’Hara was my mother’s favorite actress. I always thought she was beautiful as well.

    I read O’Hara’s autobiography a few years back. She had lovely things to say about working with the late John Candy in “Only the Lonely” – she felt that he would have made a fine dramatic actor given the chance and had he lived longer.

    She also claimed that she was cheated out of a Best Actress nomination for 1947’s Miracle on 34th Street when Louis B. Mayer went behind her back and privately campaigned against her with Academy members. She even intimated that she was in fact nominated, but was disqualified unnecessarily because she hadn’t made the picture with MGM. Who knows if it’s true, but back then, the studios did have power . . . and wielded it.

  • Bob Burns

    here in Brussels we tour the grand monuments of the still admired “Builder King”, Leopold II, who built with the proceeds of his vast rubber plantations in the Congo…. who is widely credited with the early deaths of 8 million. The white man’s burden, no doubt. just sayin’…. the US pioneers were not especially rapacious in their day. If we were reduced to the probable life of Swank’s character (and the male characters, too) back east, eating worms on a tenant farm, would we do better?

  • Lucy

    great article Sasha ! I have been looking forward to this film and all the negative reviews seem to be from men who don’t like it because of Hilary Swank’s character when I feel like that will be the reason I like it ! Mary Bee Cuddy to me seems like a great strong complex female character.

  • murtaza

    I’m a man and i say the most interesting thing in this film is Hilary Swank, her performance and her character. The problems with the movie on the other hand are massive, which i think i shouldn’t write here for the sake of those who haven’t seen the movie.

  • Sasha Stone

    Lucy – the Oscar race and film criticism bows to the male standard, always. There is one part in The Homesman that put them off but I would wager to guess that men simply are uncomfortable with that much estrogen on screen.

  • murtaza

    Sasha, I’m not referring to that PART…

  • Matt Fischer

    As a male, it doesn’t matter how much estrogen is on the screen, hell pour estrogen all over my popcorn. If the movie isn’t good, it just isn’t good. As soon as a film with a female lead gets a bad review, you blame men. At some point you have to blame the movie!

  • Paddy Mulholland

    I think there’s plenty to blame for what’s at fault in The Homesman. But I’m not sure it’s easy to pinpoint where to place it. So maybe let’s not, and maybe let’s do as Sasha does and praise what’s so good about it. No doubt, Hilary Swank is excellent, and the film’s focus on the female experience is very welcome.

  • Caroline

    Hey Sasha,

    I went to see ‘The Skeleton Twins’ and there was a trailer for ‘The Homesman’ and they mentioned your name as a critic. I have to say that made me smile as I have been a fan of you and your writing for over 10 years.

    The movie looks great and Ms Swank looks like she knocks it out of the park!


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