In 1958, World Publishing put out Westering, a novel by Irwin R. Blacker about a wagon train’s journey. The first edition had a red cover that progressively graded down to pink, where the wagons were roughly delineated in black at the bottom. If the gradient spread from red to pink gave the book a certain warmth, subsequent editions pushed this in a different direction.
In 1960, the same novel was published by Corgi in London and the color cover featured the taut yellow wagon canvas as the backing to a woman in red and white, her blouse falling over her shoulders and eyebrow raised as a cowboy grasped her arms and kissed her neck. This heightened sensual urgency was pushed to an extreme when the book was republished by Signet. The back of the paperback reads, “The families of the covered wagons pushing toward Oregon faced starvation, Indians, and plague. But the greatest danger was not in the wilderness. It was in their own untamed, searching hearts.”
The 1961 cover illustration captured this strikingly. With its figures split into two halves, the upper portion featured the familiar wagons and assorted figures (the scout, the outrider, the frontier couple, and an abnormally prominent cow), and the bottom a man and woman with the gnarled trunk of a felled tree. Sitting amid emptied gingham picnic baskets, he seemed eager to touch her elbow as she struggled with the strap of her rather 1960s-looking bra, her top hanging from a branch and her heavily made-up face cast askance. Foregrounding the potential sexual content of the novel (which is extremely minimal) in a very literal way, the image also suggested that this erotic content was somehow simmering beneath the more generic trappings represented above it.
This leap in suggestiveness over three years occurred on a much larger timescale in the cinematic Western. The drama of settling the land was inevitably accompanied by that of romance and settling down, the establishment of territory with the erotic bonds of matrimony and procreation. Such narratives, extremely lucrative in the substantial market for ranch romance pulps that were targeted primarily toward women, were often more implied and secondary in films. Yet, in a handful of the major works in the genre, this would be central, and it would also be curiously echoed with the emergence of the sub-genres of hard and softcore Western pornography.
The erotic potentials of the journey west were essential to some pornographic fantasies. The short hardcore feature Coming West (Steve Scott [Sal Grasso], 1971) expresses this quite clearly, its title providing the implied double-meaning. It opens with shots of a car passing through the scarcely populated landscape outside of Cheyenne as folk music loops on the soundtrack. The trio of women in the car bicker on the way to Laramie until one, Kitty (Maria Arnold), mentions she always wanted to come out west. She assumes there must be cowboys and Indians roaming the countryside. Kitty daydreams of herself and two companions as a trio of prostitutes on the way to Laramie to open a cat house. Entering the woods to bathe in a stream, she also enters into a series of different sexual pairings with both cowboys and Indian before a friend joins in the action. The film concludes with the three female friends driving through the contemporary landscape, the two men from the fantasy standing along the road as hitchhikers.
In the film, the West is clearly that of the Western, and motifs that have been passed down with it. For the instance just described, the erotic west is not just what clings to the other side of the canvas or the action sneaking out of view but is a fantasy space that can be stepped into as though it is always potentially contemporary and ready to be embraced.
The settlement epics, whether exemplified by the laying of train rails or the wagon train, were starkly different from the cattle trail films, or those which transpired in already settled towns. Train films tended to operate under an increased sense of physical precarity, not least because of the presence of women — always under threat of abduction, rape, disease, and murder — as a basic aspect of their narratives. Whether wagon or locomotive, the train film was part melodrama, part landscape film. They stressed physical hardship. If the Western commonly thematized, and visually celebrated, the punishing treatment of its male heroes, the train films offered a more collective image of the suffering body, fragmented and knotted, sometimes by the machinations of business, but as often by those of the weather.
If the Western was synonymous with the spectacle of the outdoors, in its erotic variant this took on a very different quality. The majesty of panoramic views and the spectacle of the backbreaking elements were no longer a spectrum that dwarfed and threatened the erasure of the human figure. Rather, there is a truncated quality as they take place primarily in the interim moments that would have only been hinted at in the typical Western narrative. However, as I will note, an erotic dimension is detectable in several of the major examples of the settlement train sub-genre.
Following previous films like The Last Drop of Water (D. W. Griffith, 1911) and William S. Hart’s Wagon Tracks (Lambert Hillyer, 1919), The Covered Wagon (James Cruze, 1923) gave the genre a new degree of scale and the verist qualities of documentary due primarily to its capturing of the landscape, vast cast, and abrupt shift through events, even if this was hampered by a barren plot, static compositions, and long shots that denied any investment in the notion of dramatic realism. None of this stopped it from being a great success and spurring on many imitations. With the romantic plot generally secondary to the process of group movement, the film’s strongest protagonist was not a human but a plow, which continually reappeared and multiplied, treated like a strange or even magical device by Indians and settlers.
The Iron Horse (John Ford, 1924) more explicitly defined itself in its opening titles as a “pictorial history” dedicated to the celebration of Lincoln’s dreams for the nation. These dreams, expressed in the unification of various immigrant groups as they labored on the railroad, are knit into a romance plot and offset by the frequent interloping of the mobile brothel that accompanies the westward expansion, leaving corpses and the abandoned ribs of makeshift homes along the tracks as signs that the “orgy” has passed along. Amid the tangential ethnic humor and dentistry jokes, the film culminates in a lengthy action sequence that unites the various labor forces with prostitutes, townswomen, and Pawnee to fight off a tribal attack before finally uniting its lovers on the completed tracks.
The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930) picks up the Covered Wagon model and continues the basic pattern of the westward melodrama. Opening with a panoramic introduction to a variety of characters, throughout there is broad humor, recitations of facts and statistics, anecdotal details about travel practicalities, dancing, hunting, and intertitles that cast the action of the “prairie schooners” in a decidedly mythopoetic vein. The last of these also points to its place in the transition to sound, reminding one of the surprisingly minimal use of music in its first half and pointing to its detailed texture of ambient sounds. Further to this, sound effects are demonstrated by one character on screen, testing the sensual attentiveness of the audience. Although it is held together partially by a melodramatic plot, it is primarily concerned with depicting geography through the aspects of movement as an event to be continually re-imagined.
The mechanical way the settlers move through the landscape is depicted in detail, dissecting the logistics of movement and travel through speeding water and over cliffs and extreme fluctuations in weather. With its, then atypical, use of widescreen dwarfing most of the action in the film, this is accentuated by the props that often crowd out the performers and the dense tableau of actors that fill up most frames. All this also serves to give the promise of sexual union at the film’s conclusion an almost cosmic intensity. In the palpable sense of grime and filth, the film anticipates the fetishization of such qualities that would emerge in the Westerns at the end of the 1960s.
Although Walsh’s way of imaging the West would find echoes, there were other ways of depicting westward expansion. Even with its tangents of slapstick chaos, Union Pacific (Cecil B. DeMille, 1939) is one of its director’s most tightly constructed films. Opening with broad historical scope, this rapidly narrows to a series of compact scenes that succinctly flip from romance to action to comedy, often introducing aesthetic flourishes (lighting, convoluted violence, abrasive composition) that break them up. Unlike other major Western epics, it contains extraordinarily little of the outdoors and takes little interest in the landscape, transpiring instead in cramped spaces, cluttered or falling apart at jagged angles.
In sum, the westward movement is expressed through creating denseness in a void, its various contraptions (trains, collapsible buildings, etc.) continually taken apart and re-engineered. This also functions on a sexually symbolic level as the train car carrying a mobile brothel (sterile expenditure), referred to as the “end of the line,” is eventually destroyed and physically displaced by the circularity of the joining of lines, biological and industrial, that make manifest the expansion of America.
John Ford’s take on the wagon film, Wagon Master (1950), would serve as the inspiration for the NBC and ABC TV series Wagon Train (1957-1965). The original film is notable for its inclusion of two significant sexual aspects, even if neither is given substantial play: a cooch dancer traveling with a medicine show hawker and the specter of Mormon polygamy. The former receives only a few words and hints in costuming and the latter is mostly mentioned defensively through humor. Tangentially, it merits acknowledgment that the potentially rich vein for sexploitation offered by Mormonism never became one, although it did appear in John il bastardo (Armando Crispino, 1967), an updated Western re-imagining of the tale of Don Juan, as an ironic counter to the philandering of its protagonist.
The Way West (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1967) was one of the last big-budget Westerns Hollywood made in the 1960s. In the wagon train tradition, it is filled with beautiful landscape shots to give it an epic quality. Trashed by critics as “hackneyed hash,” “hammy” and overtly artificial, it starred Robert Mitchum, Richard Widmark, and Kirk Douglas as a deranged senator leading the train to Oregon. It often feels like a weak Ford film that has been too polished. More interesting is the very overt erotic aspect of the film, mostly expressed through Sally Field cast as a sexually adventurous teenager whose seduction leads to disaster, and a strikingly perverse sequence of Douglas having himself publicly flogged.
If the train film was the sub-genre that most typically and extensively highlighted the presence of (non-burlesque) women in westward expansion, one A-budget film stands out in this respect. Based on a Frank Capra story, Westward the Women (1951) was William A. Wellman’s startlingly brutal depiction of 150 singletons, whores, pregnant teens, puritans, and schoolmarms crossing to California by wagon train. A third die on the way and it includes a startling amount of punching and flogging of women for an MGM picture. Robert Taylor kills or chases off most of the other men on the train for attempted rape as he teaches the women to be tough. This is made stranger by the interjection of light humor. Although significantly grimmer than the films just discussed, it still retains the essential positive comic conclusion by affirming the founding of a renewed social order in marriage and love.
Committed to nothing so ambitious and working on a miniature scale, Escort West (Francis D. Lyon, 1959) starred Victor Mature and pin-up model Elaine Stewart. A Confederate vet relocating to Oregon with his daughter, he winds up protecting a pair of women and a man he encounters from hostile tribes as they cross the state. If the B film’s poster exaggerated Stewart’s cleavage more than the film itself did, fellow B picture Five Bold Women (Jorge López Portillo, 1960) went considerably further. In plot, it involved the transportation of five female convicts, each introduced by their very different crimes. Much of the film is taken up with parsing this, rationalizing some of the crimes in terms of social and psychological conditions. One is raped to death by Indians and half of the others manage to overpower their guards and take off with an outlaw. Although it contains a sentimental love story between a lawman and one of the convicts, it also contains a parody of the cavalry rescue, and some surprisingly blunt killing and maiming.
The poster proclaimed that “They Used A Weapon No Badman Could…Sex!” To make the point, it displayed Irish McCalla, best known as TV’s Sheena Queen of the Jungle (1955-1956), in profile to accentuate her bust, wearing the same kind of gunfighter outfit that Jane Russell wore at the end of Son of Paleface (Frank Tashlin, 1952). The film contains the requisite bathing scene as the five convicts splash on a riverbank in various states of (concealed) undress and discuss making a show of themselves and how this can be exploited.
The varying strengths and common elements of the sub-genre seen in this small survey of its A and B examples, provide more of a counter-type to what is cultivated in the more directly erotic variation. The closest to it in terms of scale is likely the Spanish horror-western, Condenados a vivir (Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent, 1972), an atmospheric and gory tale of convicts being transported across country taking their revenge on their guard and his daughter before the film heads toward its brutal conclusion. Although rape plays a minor role in the film’s carnage, it is more notable for likely being the most explicitly violent Western of the time, including graphic cut-ins of exposed entrails and organs. This is not to suggest that the aspects of horror that dominate that film carry over. On the contrary, and despite the often-grim twists of their plots, in terms of their form and affective sensibility, most of the erotic train westerns are comical.
Shot in “Sexicolor” and promising “Love and lust on two continents,” Lady Godiva Rides (A.C. Stephen [Stephen C. Apostolof], 1969) may be one of the most eccentric of erotic Westerns. This film stresses even more severely the artifice of historical representation as its protagonist makes the journey west from Europe. Opening in an ill-defined period of English history where the costumes suggest both the eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the characters of Lady Godiva Betherli (Marsha Jordan) and Tom Jones (Harvey Shain) drift through the spare pastel sets and decor. They are simply bodies from the past that can be re-animated by the primitive glamor of stagey filmmaking.
When her husband catches her with her lover, she shoots him and is sentenced to hang. A local barmaid (Deborah Downey) is recruited to help her escape to America. While on a ship sailing across the ocean, Blanche (Elizabeth Knowles), a prostitute, and her lesbian lover (Meri McDonald), realize her true identity and sell her and her companion to a pimp. America is presented as a mound of rocks and the west is a quick trip by coach. When they finally arrive in Goldstone America, primarily a late nineteenth-century green saloon and its muddy street, they are forced to work as prostitutes but spend all their time avoiding sex. Eventually, this becomes too much, and Godiva and Blanche get in a catfight that turns into a topless mud wrestling match in the street. When the pimp attempts to rape Godiva after, Tom Jones arrives just in time to stop them. Challenged to a showdown, Jones is shot in the arm and Godiva rides by nude on a horse long enough to distract the pimp so he can be shot.
Strikingly formal, the film is starkly divided into three distinct 35-minute acts, the episodic quality of which combines with a lack of any lasting characterization to make the film disjointed. The central third of the film takes place on the cartoonishly flat ship, the cast dressed more like 1960s mods, and most of the time filled up by a showering sequence and topless dancing to a drum loop. The casual psychedelia the film employs also tends to dominate its sex acts. One scene allows the camera to simply zoom in and out on the faces of the couple at varying speeds for several minutes while the couple grunts, breathes deeply, and moans to dissonant music. More violent zooming in and out occurs in a later scene. Another sequence opens with a clear play on the famous lewd feasting scene from Tony Richardson’s Tom Jones (1963).
If anything, the film comes off more as a parody of Salome, Where She Danced (Charles Lamont, 1945), which launched the career of Yvonne De Carlo with its transnational journey of eroticism heading west. Loosely inspired by the life of Lola Montez, the film began at the end of the American Civil War, leaped into the Austro-Prussian War, and then back to America before landing in San Francisco. De Carlo appeared in the exploitation, and to a lesser degree in the film, doing a cooch dance. Variety noted that it was a “disjointed” film with the “usual western accouterments” that worked primarily because it looked good.
Godiva offered the more phantasmagorical ways of imagining women heading west, doing so in ways that were generally colorful and comic. The softcore quality of the sex meant that the spectacle of general activity had to be exaggerated to construct a more elaborate means for visual enjoyment. Hardcore films relied more on the special effect of the mechanics of intercourse and the explosion of bodily fluids than the threats of cleavage to spill into view.
Clearly following one of the most basic formulas of the train Western as discussed above and making overt its sexual framing, Six Women (Michael Bennett, 1971) sends half a dozen women from a brothel across the country on a “meat wagon” to Sonora. The women worked in the local saloon and raised the ire of the preacher (Tom Brown) and townswomen who nearly lynched them. Instead, they are expelled. When they make camp, one attempts to escape but is easily caught by leader Charley (Mikel Angel) and then tied to a tree topless and flogged until one of the other men, RG (James Lemp), stops him. After speaking to the girls, he soon realizes they are being imprisoned for nothing. He falls for one of the women (Linda McDowell) and soon turns on the leader of the expedition after one of the women is raped and two killed, and kills him. They all head for California.
Much of the film takes place at night, either in murky interiors or blackened outside, lit only by small fires. The film’s poster more deftly relates its plot. Displaying the female cast showing off their cleavage, it proclaims that “six hellcats ramrodded from Santa Fe to an all-male prison in Sonora — called the pit!” In practice, the story is not explained until a fifth of the way through the film and it then unfolds unevenly through a flashback and several tangents arranged for the exposure of skin. The flashback involves two of the saloon girls seducing the reverend to the accompaniment of player piano music. This attempt fails when he proves to be impotent.
It contains the conventional lesbian and bathing scenes but accentuates the latter visually by turning it into a scene about peeping and so giving it a self-reflective intensity. The sex scenes often feature lamps, one a red light, and one an oil lamp that transiently occludes and distorts the visibility of bodies. Sets tend to be unfinished and framed with cloth or fur hanging from them. Some of the clothes are anachronistic while the soundtrack is a mixture of jabbing percussive sounds and string music that sounds lifted from other films.
Auditory and titling cues can underline what a film takes from a genre. A Fistful of 44’s (Jaacov Jaacovi, 1971), as the title may lead you to expect, opens with generic Italian Western music as we are introduced to the wagon’s passengers, a driver, and three prostitutes (two willing and one not). When he heads to town to do some banking, he soon takes the blame for its robbery after fighting in the saloon. The three bandits responsible find the prostitutes in the woods and have sex with them. After one, a virgin, is raped, she escapes and frees the driver, who returns with the sheriff and kills off the bandits after they have killed most of the prostitutes. In the level of violence that the film sustains, it keeps with its Italian Western model.
The grim checkerboard of violence that the plot suggests does not accurately summarize the film’s tone, which is a kind of hysteria stunted by style. Scenes are flatly lit or too dark to be readily legible and the pacing is entirely inconsistent as it spins through an array of standard materials. Star Roxanne Brewer delivers most of her double-entendre-filled dialogue in a crude Mae West way while much of the other dialogue seems superimposed, adding to its flatness. There is the requisite nude bathing scene, the brief lesbian scene, an even briefer Indian raid, bestiality and necrophilia jokes, and circus music as the film fractures not only into sex scenes that are largely played for laughs but bizarre comedic sketches, such as a lengthy one involving an exploded bird and an allergic sheriff that ends in lengthy screaming.
The most inventive scene in the film relies on exploiting what the wagon as setting allows for. Shot from outside the covered wagon as a shadow play, Sheila (Brewer) and Jessie (Trent Dolan) strip in silhouette against the ribs of the vehicle, a bird in a cage floating beside them. When they begin having sex, this is portrayed mostly through sound, with the women outside and the bird inside adding supplementary commentary in what appears to be a nod to Se sei vivo spara (Giulio Questi, 1967).
The train Western provided one of the easiest set of motifs for appropriation, one which was readily compatible with various other narratives. Even within this small pool of films, we can also detect a fair amount of variation with Godiva using the Western motifs as a means to construct a theatricalized or burlesque mode of presentation that returned the Western to its primitive overlap with the nineteenth-century theatrical conventions that were central to shaping the image of the west and foregrounded the potential carnage and carnality that awaited the penetration of virgin territory.
— PFG is an art historian, photographer, curator, and soap opera enthusiast. He has a Twitter account.