Sources of Inspiration: 5 Branded Women

Sarah Darkmagic - Posted on 26 April 2013

Over the past few months, I've been trying to consume more media where women are more heavily present whether as lead characters, supporting roles, or just stories that focus on a decidedly more feminine role or point of view. One of my favorite finds during this time period is a movie called 5 Branded Women, a 1960 film directed by Martin Ritt set in a Yugoslav town controlled by Nazis. Here's a plot summary from

Yugoslav partisans grimly crop the hair of a village quintet of women believed to have consorted with the occupational Nazis. Four, for various reasons, have indeed - and their seducer is a lone, swaggering sergeant whom the partisans briskly emasculate. Escorted out of town by the sheepish Nazis, the forlorn ladies link up, patriotically and romantically, with a band of tough mountain guerrillas.

Now, if the parts of the poster or description make you nervous that this is going to kick up the sensuality to 11, please, don't worry. Are there a few scenes that are a bit objectifying? Yes. But much of the movie is way more nuanced and introspective than that. I'm going to have a few spoilers below, so please stop reading if you'd rather see the movie first.

As the description notes, the movie follows five women believed to have slept with a Nazi sergeant. This "betrayal" angers some Yugoslav partisans, in some cases more because one of the men wanted one of the women for his own. They kidnap the women and forcefully shave their heads. Since a woman's long hair is a big part of who she is in that society, this is a big deal. Additionally, the revelation of the affairs breaks the peace of the town and the Nazi leader agrees it is in the best interest of everyone involved that the women be exiled from town. They are forcefully marched, with nothing more than the clothes on their back, through the town and outside the main entrance to town. They are left there to fend on their own with no food, supplies, additional clothing, or shelter. Sounds like the start of an adventure, doesn't it?

After leaving town, at least three of the five women make stunning confessions. One never slept with the man, she is still a virgin. Another is pregnant with his child. A third slept with him in hopes that she would have a child, something that being denied to her otherwise. That's something to note about this movie, each woman has her own beliefs, motivations, desires, and needs. Although they may superficially look the same, especially as most of them cover their heads with scarves, they are not.

Over the course of several days, the women have a number of adventures. Here's an example: [YouTube]

This scene happens after one of the women attempts suicide. The other women save her and they spend a night sleeping next to one another. The next day they continue their walk. Soldiers drive by them singing. As the soldiers round a bend in the road, gunfire breaks out. The women cautiously investigate and find a man shot by the truck. It's not shown here, but they grab his gun from his body, a tool that becomes useful later when another man attempts to rape one of them.

As they travel, no one will help them. No one that is, until they meet up with other partisan fighters. Eventually they are able to persuade the men to allow them to stay in their camp. They are taught how to keep guard, fire weapons, and the like. As often happens, one of the men and one of the women fall in love. Their attraction for each other causes them to miss an invader in their mountain camp and they are brought up before the group as a whole on charges. The group is required to make a difficult choice, follow their rules and kill the couple or give them a second chance.

What I loved about this movie is that it has a great mixture of perspectives. Sure, it has it's own message to tell, it is an anti-war movie after all. But it goes beyond that. I can understand what motivates the various groups, even if I don't agree with them. The women aren't all the same, they encourage and support each other, and often solve their own problems. It provides a woman's point of view on things as well as taking the tactic of working with what you have, rather than judging them.

From The Passionate MoviegoerFrom The Passionate Moviegoer

So beyond the entire movie being a classic adventure, here are some things I found interesting:

  • Exiled protagonists can be interesting, for the right group. What taboos exist in the setting's culture? How do the people in the setting mark those who break those taboos?
  • Whenever there is a war, there is always a shortage of people. Part of the reason the women are able to become resistance fighters in the own right is because the partisans need everyone that they can get. The majority of the people just try to live their lives the way they did before the Nazis invaded. This need breaks down stereotypes.
  • Love and pregnancy don't wait for a safe time. There's a good chance that if the woman who slept with the Nazi in hopes of having a child had waited for the end of the war, she would be too old to have children. This is a concern that is particularly pressing to those people with a uterus. It's a concern that arises again and again in the material I've consumed concerning women and war. Furthermore, sidelining the pregnant so that they are only in "safe" places leaves out this reality that many people face throughout the world and throughout time. Another great story resource for this is the comic Saga.

If you can find a copy of it, I suggest watching it and mining it for ideas.


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