Wednesday, December 9, 2015

Women at War: The Guns of Fort Petticoat

The Guns of Fort Petticoat, screenplay by Walter Doniger from a story by C. William Harrison ("Petticoat Brigade"), directed by George Marshall, produced by star Audie Murphy and Harry Joe Brown, and released in 1957, is the tale of a Union Army soldier from Texas, played by Audie Murphy, who deserts his Arizona regiment and heads to his male short West Texas home town to warn its inhabitants of imminent Indian attacks after his martinet commander Col. Chivington (Ainslie Pryor) leads an assault on an unarmed Cheyenne village, a variation on real life historical incident the Sand Creek Massacre. Over the course of the film Lt. Frank Hewitt (Murphy) molds his "petticoat army" into a brigade that holes up for strategic reasons in a Texas mission and fends off an Indian attack.

The women of Hewitt's "petticoat army" include Sgt. Hannah Lacey (Hope Emerson), who repeatedly shows that she is as she says is, "worth more than three men". There is the sharp shooting and somewhat tomboyish Ann Martin (Kathryn Grant) who, after Hewitt discovers that his girlfriend Stella Latham (Patricia Livingston) is married, becomes Hewitt's love interest. There is the Christian pacifist zealot Cora (Jeanette Nolan) who learns that there are somethings worth fighting for. There is the toff from Charleston Charlotte Ogden (Isobel Epsom) who has her slave Hetty (Ernestine Wade) do most of her work until Hewitt teaches her that everyone is equal in an Indian attack. As for Hetty she proves to be a fine shot. There is the loose woman Lucy Conniver (Peggy Maley) whose piano playing and singing provide a kind of Greek chorus over the course of the film. The Guns of Fort Petticoat ends with Hewitt's "petticoat army" saving the lieutenant from a kangaroo of a court martial for desertion led by Chivington.

Though one might think that The Guns of Fort Petticoat would provide a lot of grist for the feminist cultural criticism mill and the representational mill that dominates a lot of cultural criticism of film and television these days, I couldn't find any scholarly writing on the film. This is a pity because The Guns of Fort Petticoat is both significant and important in a number of ways. The Guns of Fort Petticoat was made during an era in which the United States was dominated by a progressive liberalism, a progressive liberalism that would last from the New Deal to the oil crisis of the 1970s and 1980s, a liberalism which accepted the New Deal welfare state and even its expansion under LBJ. The Guns of Fort Petticoat was made during an era in which there were countercultures, business and cultural, hovering beneath the apparent Protestant-Catholic-Jew Cold War consensus that some have seen as dominating the era, a consensus that eventually would be torn apart by the civil rights movement, LBJ's Civil Rights act, Vietnam, and the Oil Crisis. The Guns of Fort Petticoat reveals some of the tensions amidst this apparent liberal consensus--divisions between American North and American South, the dominance of Jim Crow in the South, the need to fight the Soviets, the role women should and could play in the Cold War--and that makes the film not only historically and sociologically interesting but also historically and sociologically significant.

Whether someone likes, dislikes, the traditional binary pivots of film "criticism", or hasn't seen The Guns of Fort Petticoat, by the way, is immaterial unless you are engaged in audience analysis. Most audience analysis, when it is done scientifically, proves one thing, empirically speaking, over and over again. Some people like particular movies, some people don't, and still other people haven't even seen the movie at all.

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