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Ballad of Little Jo, The (1993, Suzy Amis, Ian McKellan)



Director Maggie Greenwald constructed the screenplay for The Ballad of Little Jo from a number of stories of women in the Old West. Rather than accept the common portrayal of women as having been essentially a schoolmarm or saloon girl, Greenwald’s research showed that a large number of women found that passing themselves off as men was the best disguise. Even if the disguise was only minimally that of a man, so long as a woman could ride, rope and run a ranch, then it would be generally accepted that she was a man.

This is the premise for the film. Ex-model Suzy Amis (who went on to star in The Usual Suspects ), stars as a wealthy woman from the east who has been cast out from her family after giving birth to an illegitimate child. Travelling out to the Gold Rush, Amis realizes that a woman will always be a figure for sexual harassment, especially after she shares a ride with peddler Rene Auberjonois, who attempts to rape her. So she buys men’s clothes, cuts her hair, scars her face, speaks with a gruff voice and adopts the name of Jo Monaghan.

Her portrayal of a man is sufficiently good to convince the citizens of Ruby City, where she settles that she is male, although womanising Ian McKellan expresses doubts about her sexuality and her neighbour Bo Hopkins may have his own ideas but keeps them to himself. Amis lives a life of isolation until she witnesses a Chinese emigrant David Chung being beaten up, and, after McKellan encourages her, she intervenes in the fight and hires Chung as a workman cook. Chung soon realizes that Jo Monaghan is not all that he seems and a love affair begins between the two, the twist in the relationship being that she is the one who goes out to earn money while he stays at home cooking and cleaning.

In many ways, The Ballad of Little Jo follows on directly from Clint Eastwood’s masterly Unforgiven , which cast out many of the myths of the Old West and Mario Van Peebles’ Posse which brought the black cowboy back into the history off the west. Using the story of Josephine Montague, Greenwald re-examines the role of women and some of the smaller racial minorities.

production details
USA | 121 minutes | 1993

Director: Maggie Greenwald
Script: Maggie Greenwald,

Suzy Amis as Josephine ‘Jo’ Monaghan
Bo Hopkins as Frank Badger
Ian McKellen as Percy Corcoran
David Chung as Tinman Wong
Heather Graham as Mary Addie
Rene Auberjonois as Streight Hollander
Carrie Snodgress as Ruth Badger
Anthony Heald as Henry Grey
Melissa Leo as Beatrice Grey
Sam Robards as Jasper Hill
Tom Bower as Lyle Hogg