The story of a woman who goes through life in the Wild West disguised as a man, THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO coolly subverts the traditionally macho western by turning established gender roles upside down.
1866. Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis), a young New Yorker, is thrown out by her father after she gives birth to an illegitimate son, who is placed in the care of her sister Helen (Jenny Lynch). While journeying West, she is befriended by an elderly travelling salesman, who unbeknownst to her
contracts to sell her favours to two soldiers. Jo flees, the soldiers kill the salesman and give chase, but she escapes. However, when she tries to replace her torn dress, she can only find men's clothes. Jo decides to cut her hair, slashes her face with a razor to leave an impressive scar, and
thereafter passes as a man.
Jo arrives in Ruby City, a prospecting town, where her androgyny draws some attention, but her independent streak and low voice seem convincing. The mine superintendent, Percy Corcoran (Ian McKellen), tells her about a job and offers her a room. They become friendly, but when a prostitute comes
to town and Percy attacks her, a disillusioned Jo leaves to take a job tending sheep in the hills for Frank Badger (Bo Hopkins). That winter Jo meets a family of Russian homesteaders and learns to shoot. When she returns to town, there is a letter from her sister, which Percy has opened, thereby
discovering Jo's secret. After a failed rape attempt, Percy blackmails her into financing his move out of town.
Five years later, Jo buys a homestead and becomes a sheep rancher. On a trip to town she saves Tinman Wong (David Chung), a Chinese man looking for work, from a hanging. When the townsmen insist Jo take the man on as help, she reluctantly has him cook and sew for her. He soon reveals that he
knows she is a woman, and they become lovers. When Jo learns the Russian homesteaders have been slaughtered by cattle ranchers who want to buy up the land, she decides to sell her property. But Tinman and Jo's neighbor Frank object to the idea of selling out. When a cattle ranch manager (Anthony
Heald) comes out with a contract, Jo backs out of the deal and asks the cattleman if his wife knows how many people he's had killed. Frank and Jo are subsequently ambushed going to vote in the town's first elections, and in the fracas Jo kills two men.
Many years later, after Tinman has died, Jo becomes sick and dies. Frank discovers her body and takes it into town for burial. When the undertaker prepares the corpse, he discovers the truth, and the amazed townsfolk run in to see for themselves. Frank searches through her belongings until he
comes across the letters from Helen and her full story is made public.
Though the screenplay is based on the life of a real person, there are nonetheless moments when the basic premise seems stretched very thin, especially given Amis' fine-boned features. But writer-director Maggie Greenwald uses that androgyny to her advantage, turning Jo's gender into a
suspenseful, life-threatening secret that must be guarded at all costs--a trick that Amis' tough, bluffing character pulls off remarkably well. The lesson here is not just that life was tough for women in the old West, but that it was a brutal, racist place for any outsider.
The most interesting element, and the one where the issue of gender is most easily explored, is the romance between the two outsiders, Jo and Tinman. The shifting balance of power between the two, as their relationship develops from the (apparently) male master and servant, to the (secretly)
female mistress and servant, to lovers, is not simply a straight reversal. Even as they are equals in love, their social roles are determined by the masquerade they must maintain, fixed by the racial and gender hierarchies of the day. (Nudity, violence, adult situations.)
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- Released: 1993
- Rating: R
- Review: The story of a woman who goes through life in the Wild West disguised as a man, THE BALLAD OF LITTLE JO coolly subverts the traditionally macho western by turning established gender roles upside down. 1866. Josephine Monaghan (Suzy Amis), a young New Yo… (more)