Tommy Lee Jones to Steward Frontier Women, and the Western Itself, in “The Homesman”

Tommy Lee Jones to Steward Frontier Women, and the Western Itself, in “The Homesman”
Tommy Lee Jones faces West.
(Courtesy imdb)

Tommy Lee Jones, one of the last holdouts against the fading of the Western’s light, will direct, produce and star in his adaptation of “The Homesman.” The 1988 novel, which swept the Western genre book awards, was written by the late Glendon Swarthout, whose 1975 “The Shootist” became the last John Wayne film.

A pioneer saga in reverse, “The Homesman” is about a, 1850s-era spinster and former schoolmarm, Mary Bee Cuddy, who takes it upon herself to transport four women, driven insane by the frontier experience, back east. (It will apparently be three women in the film.) One of them is a nineteen-year-old mother who lost her three children to diphtheria in a couple of days; another had to fend off an attack by wolves.

To guide the women’s wagon from Nebraska to Iowa, during which journey they’ll face Indians, an ice storm, and other perils, Mary hires the only man available who’s capable of doing the job of homesman. He is a grizzled army deserter and claim jumper called George Briggs, the role that Jones will play. One reviewer likened the ill-sorted pair’s relationship to that of “The African Queen”’s Charlie Allnut and Rose Sayer. Jones will therefore have to find a Katharine Hepburn to match his Humphrey Bogart. (No pressure.)

“The Homesman” was once optioned and developed as a movie by Paul Newman, who would have presumably cast his wife Joanne Woodward as Mary. It’ll be the first theatrical film directed by Jones since his well-received 2005 Western “The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada.” Expect it to carry its share of pain and melancholia, since Jones, as a filmmaker, is not one for easy sentiment.

Although it hardly constitutes a wave, “The Homesman” will follow last year “Meek’s Cutoff,” a revisionist-feminist account of three pioneer families led astray by a bragging scout on the Oregon Trail. Based on a true incident, it was directed in a minimalistic “slow cinema” style by Kelly Reichardt.

On April 10, Warner Archive released William Wellman’s black-and-white “Westward the Women” (1951), about a wagon train of future brides forced to endure great hardship as they’re brought West by their harsh wagonmaster, Robert Taylor, to hook up with the cowhands waiting to bed down with them. As tough as that superb Western is, it came too early to question the triumphalism of Manifest Destiny. Sixty years later, “The Homesman” promises to look askance at the tragedies that befell so many women.