Ballad of Little Jo, The (1993): Maggie Greenwald’s Gender Bender Tale–Suzy Amis as Woman Disguised as Man in Old West (Women in Film)

Suzy Amis’s superlative performance dominates every frame of this earnest drama about a woman who disguises herself as man in order to survive hardship in the Old West.

Well-intentioned revisionist frontier saga is too solemn and dramatically unexciting to generate wide appeal beyond the core of female viewers and ardent followers of indie pics.

Inspired by a true story, writer-director Maggie Greenwald’s ‘s fascinating story is set in l866, during the Gold Rush. Its heroine, Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis), is a wealthy woman from the East, outcast by her family after giving birth out of the wedlock. Heading West, she meets Hollander (Rene Auberjonois), a peddler who initially befriends her, but then shows contempt and sexually harasses her. Realizing her only chance to attain freedom in the West is as a man, Amis proceeds to cut her long hair, scar her face, put on trousers–and change her name to Little Jo.

Amis begins her new life in Ruby City, a frontier-mining outpost populated by fortune-seeking adventurers. Miraculously, she is accepted as a man by everyone, including macho Percy Corcoran (Ian McKellen), who provides practical advise, and Frank Badger (Bo Hopkins) who instructs her in sheep herding. Before long, she learns how to mine, hunt, and manage a self-sufficient existence.

Amis’s solitary life changes after she saves Tinman Wong (David Chung), an Asian outcast, from lynching. In what amounts to an intriguing role reversal, Chung is assigned to cook, mend, and take care of her needs–while she functions as the breadwinner. However, once he discovers her true identity, an affair ensues and they secretly set up house.

Unusual story then jumps ahead to Amis’s last days and death. Ironically, it is only at the funeral that her true gender is revealed–to the utmost shock of the undertaker and the other town members.

Focusing on the issue of sexual politics, scripter-helmer Greenwald brings a contemporary feminist vision to the frontier saga. Her perspective is boldly novel, as most frontier tales concern men and are told from a distinctly male P.O.V. With all her efforts to demystify the Old West, however, Greenwald ends up mythologizing her heroine as a symbol of pioneering endurance.

Shot in an understated style, “The Ballad of Little Jo” unfolds as an illustrated anthropological essay, chronicling in utmost detail life in the West. In its ambience and matter-of-fact treatment, pic recalls Richard Pearce’s 1979 indie, Heartland, another honorable tribute to the frontier’s courageous women.

Despite the film’s length (120 minutes), important issues remain unexplored, such as Amis’ maternal feelings for her illegitimate son whom she never sees. Greenwald also fails to capture Amis’ inner torment and struggle in maintaining her disguised identity–the fear of being disclosed. Amis’ relationship with Chung is sketchily depicted, without much depth or flair, and same could be said of the schematic conflict with the wealthy cattlemen who want to buy her land.

Greenwald is so committed to a feminist agenda that her treatment leaves out a good deal of the humor and suspense inherent in the story. For instance, the sequence in which a young woman (Heather Graham) thinks she’s found the ideal husband in Jo is full of droll possibilities that are unexplored.

Fortunately, Greenwald’s casting and work with the actors are more inventive than her direction. Bo Hopkins, who has played macho roles in Peckinpah’s (and other) Westerns, is cast against type as a sensitive rancher who helps Amis. Shakespearean actor Ian McKellen plays a miner who teaches Amis the meaning of manhood, but then reveals his own sexist tendencies. Rene Auberjonois is also fine as the peddler who initially befriends but then betrays the young Josephine.

Ultimately, what makes The Ballad of little Jo a worthy film is Amis’s full-bodied performance in what may be her most challenging role to date; she never makes a false move.

Handsomely lensed by Delcan Quinn in southern Montana, “The Ballad of Little Jo” captures both the beauty and harshness of the vast uninhabited landscape–and the indomitable spirit of one fearless woman.