Men are usually seen as the star characters in Westerns, but it’s often the women who are the true grit of the story and a force just as potent as the lone riders. As SBS On Demand’s Wild Westerns season rides in – featuring Pale Rider, The Outlaw Josey Wales, Sweet Vengeance, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, The Searchers and Blazing Saddles – we celebrate the great women of Westerns.
Little Moonshine, The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976)
After Josey Wales (Clint Eastwood) effectively rescues young Navajo woman Little Moonshine (Geraldine Keams) from being raped and takes her under his wing, she becomes a formidable ally. Courageous and a natural gunslinger, Little Moonshine helps rescue Josey’s eventual squeeze, Laura Lee (Sondra Locke).
Calamity Jane, Deadwood (2004-06)
This is as far away from your Doris Day Calamity Jane as you could get. Robin Weigert’s rendition of the famed sharpshooting frontierswoman in David Milch’s Deadwood was as tough as nails and as sweary and drunky as a sailor, and took no horse crap from no one. But she also had a heart of gold as protector of young orphan Sofia Metz (Bree Seanna Wall). The character quickly became one of the show’s most memorable.
Mrs Baker, Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973)
Mexican actress Katy Jurado was a Western queen, appearing in the likes of One Eyed Jacks, Arrowhead, High Noon (for which she won a Golden Globe) and Broken Lance (for which she was nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actress in a Supporting Role).
In Sam Peckinpah’s Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, she’s the ballsy wife of Sheriff Baker (Slim Pickens), who comes out guns blazing after hiding in a wagon to protect her husband during a shootout that plays to a soundtrack of "Knockin’ on Heaven’s Door" by Bob Dylan. In a moving scene, she watches on as her mortally wounded husband fades away by the river. It was a wordless cameo from Jurado that packed a punch.
Lili Von Shtupp, Blazing Saddles (1974)
The “Bavarian bombshell” hilariously played by Madeline Kahn stole every scene in which she featured in Mel Brooks’s classic Western satire. Lili Von Shtupp memorably and mercilessly gave the saloon johns a reality check on what life’s like for a working girl in the Marlene Dietrich-like parody number, "I’m Tired".
“I have been with thousands of men, again and again,” she crooned. “They’re always coming and going and going and coming. And always too soon. I’m tired. Tired of playing the game. Ain’t it a fwigging shame. I’m so… Let’s face it, everything below the waist is kaput!"
Cat Ballou, Cat Ballou (1965)
Another Western spoof and the movie that made Jane Fonda a major star. Fonda plays the eponymous Cat Ballou, out for revenge after her father is gunned down at the behest of a property developer who has his eye on the family ranch.
Although she could've been overshadowed by co-star Lee Marvin’s duel Oscar-winning roles as assassin Tim Strawn and Cat’s hired help, the sozzled old outlaw Kid Shelleen, Fonda held her own. Cat meant business as a schoolmarm transformed into a feisty gunslinger, who offs the property developer, narrowly avoids a hanging, robs the train carrying his dough and pursues her father’s killer in this crowdpleaser that racked up five Academy Award nominations.
Broomhilda von Shaft, Django Unchained (2012)
Unlike Brooks’s comically sexual surname for his female lead, that of Quentin Tarantino’s in his bloody revisionist Western, Django Unchained, was designed as a nod to the imagined ancestral roots of iconic blaxpoitation figure John Shaft.
Broomhilda (Kerry Washington) is a brutalised slave who may not pick up a gun, but shows greater strength in her quiet dignity in the face of the barbarism inflicted upon her. Husband and former slave Django (Jamie Foxx) may be her rescuer from despicable plantation owner Calvin Candie (Leonardo DiCaprio), but Broomhilda was far from just a damsel in distress, remaining an indomitable force to be reckoned with throughout the film.
For Washington, the nine-month shoot took a great toll:
“I didn’t know if I was the right person to do it because it scared the crap out of me,” she told Indiewire. “I was scared about the places I had to go emotionally and psychologically as an artist. I remember turning to Jamie one day and saying, ‘If this movie goes on for one week longer, I’m not going to survive it.’"
Sarah Ramírez, Sweet Vengeance (2013)
January Jones took quite the detour, going from 1960s glamorous housewife Betty Draper in Mad Men to the gun-toting, late 19th century rancher Sarah Ramírez of Sweet Vengeance. Sarah also works a purple umbrella as a handy weapon, too – her fine dress a camouflage to the fighter within.
The former prostitute goes on the rampage with the help of violent Sheriff Jackson (Ed Harris) when her husband is murdered and their property threatened by sadistic religious fanatic Prophet Josiah (Jason Isaacs).