The Ballad of Little Jo (Dir: Maggie Greenwald, 1993)

Country of Origin:
Running Time: 120 min

Formatting: 35 mm, color

The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993) is a full-length feature film set in the Old West. It does not, however, fit into the stereotype of Western genre films. First of all, the protagonist is a woman, Josephine (Suzy Amis) albeit one who is dressed as a man. After being kicked out by her East Coast family for having an illegitimate child, she heads out west only to find that it is a difficult place for a woman. Subsequently, she disguises herself as a man. The film focuses on women’s roles in the west in several different forms – naive, good girl, experienced wife, and beautiful prostitute. The women that appear throughout the film offer small vignettes of the types of women who lived in the west and the difficulties that they faced. We meet Mary (Heather Graham) an innocent and good young woman who falls for Jo but settles on a man who offers her the ticket out of Ruby City. Mary’s beauty and good nature are her only assets that she can use to escape the run-down mining town. We also meet Ruth Badger (Carrie Snodgrass) a knowledgeable and powerful woman who, although we only see her for a few minutes, shows her knowledge of home cures and her “get it done” attitude. We also find out that she has had eight children and that her husband has cheated on her. She was the stereotypical tough wife of the west, yet also one who dealt with a cheating husband. The character of the prostitute is the final reincarnation of the western woman. Our first vision of her is on a white horse, delicately clad, a romantic and beautiful image. Our last vision of her is riding dejected after being badly beaten by a customer. Our ideas about women’s roles in the west is constantly challenged in this film as we see each woman harshly treated by the Old West, yet also, somehow, surviving.
One of my problems with the film is the fact that Jo as a woman seemed to be completely helpless. The dichotomy between Jo as female and Jo as a male was practically between Jo as child and Jo as adult. Many of the transformation of Jo into a man seemed like a young man’s coming of age story more than a transformation from woman to man. An illustrative example is the scene where Jo faces the wolf that wants to kill his flock. Jo acts afraid, cowering and losing a sheep. She eventually overcomes her fear to become more successful in her male role. Part of me wanted to see a strong Josephine to counterbalance a strong Jo.
As to the enjoyment of watching this movie, the movie is a worthwhile one especially if you are paying careful attention to gender issues throughout the movie; however, the movie can drag at times. The nature of the film asks for a certain quiet, necessary to the setting in the West and to Jo’s life, but also necessary to provide some quiet between the intense scenes of violence and drama. While other films, such as Brokeback Mountain, succeed in this mix of quiet and drama, Jo lacks either the internal tension or, alternatively, the internal quiet necessary to carry these scenes. On the whole, despite its occasional lulls and some faults in Jo’s character, a worthwhile movie for its deconstructing of the Western genre and its explorations of gender.