7 WOMEN—-“So long, ya bastard!” The stunning last line in the last movie from the great John Ford. It fits not only the justifiable homicide and dignity-preserving suicide that closes the compact 87 minutes of this orphaned 1966 drama, but as a final dash of ‘take this!’ Irish rebellion from one of Cinema’s greatest pictorial poets and canniest crafters of emotive storytelling.
By the time Ford starting shooting Janet Green & John McCormick’s screenplay of Norah Loft’s short story “Chinese Finale” he was 71 and had created, lived through and subjected himself to enough art, strife and punishment for a dozen men. Growing increasingly disaffected as he aged, his latter output reflected a deep inner lament over the abuses of institutional orthodoxy. Masked by cynicism, it was often misinterpreted as simple parochial grumpiness, out of step with the headlong rush towards social liberation that seemed as heedless as heralded. Apart from sharing in one mega-hit, his projects since 1957 had under-performed or failed, critically and commercially, and his once-inviolate reputation was up for unkind debate with a brash new breed of critic and an impatient, attention-span-challenged modern mix of audience.*
Small-scale, offbeat (decidedly downbeat), looking old-fashioned, this parlor period piece about a group of female missionaries in 1935 China was abandoned by MGM—they ignominiously dumped its New York showing into a 42nd Street grindhouse double-bill. It pulled only $934,000 worldwide against a cost of $2,298,000 and was savaged by critics. Thinking of hags like Judith Crist and Pauline Kael (revere her all you want—leave me out) and twits like Bosley Crowther and Richard Schickel in the same breath as John Ford is enough blasphemy to knock the corks out of an entire case of Scotch.
Imperiously lording over an isolated outpost, rigid missionary doyen Margaret Leighton has her private fiefdom riled up by the arrival of irreligious, plain-speaking doctor Anne Bancroft, as open about sex as she is to doses of whiskey and cigarettes. Bancroft rustles Leighton’s clucking flock and soon all are truly terrified when merciless bandits gallop into the compound. Loot, rapine and death seem certain.
The performances of Betty Field and Eddie Albert don’t work (mostly Field, who is really hard to take), and the stylized, set-bound look is at unfortunate atmosphere odds with same-time epics like The Sand Pebbles: viewers of the day saw it coming off artificial. Editing flayed some depth that should have remained to flesh things out more. The production suffered a blow when headline star Patricia Neal’s incapacitating strokes took her away, emergency replaced by Bancroft. But the basic drama is solid, the earthiness Bancroft exudes works like a charm, tension builds and Elmer Bernstein’s score wraps color into the periphery. The dangerous hulk of Mike Mazurki and daunting muscularity of Ford favorite Woody Strode make for great threats as the chief bad guys. Some took issue with their makeup and manner; I think they’re both fine.
Ignored and derided in 1966, things have come around. Five decades on, Ford’s bitter and brave finale is now getting its due. The crusty hard case with a naked heart who had built much of the foundational movie lore on America’s idealized past in his classics of the 30s and 40s had enough patriot’s belief in the country to challenge it in revision with The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance. A devout yet tormented Catholic, Ford left westerns and martial material, left the continent and nationalism and took his farewell bow with a bracing slap at the universal self-serving fraud of religious intolerance. He lets the practicing phonies flail versus the sacrificial purity of real faith.
The smug missed it. At least one critic, Andrew Sarris, was ahead of the pack: “The beauties of 7 Women are for the ages, or at least for a later time when the personal poetry of film directors is better understood between the lines of genre conventions. Ford’s gravest crime is taking his material seriously at a time when the seriousness of an entire medium is being threatened by the tyranny of trivia.” So long,ya bastards……
With Sue Lyon, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Anna Lee, Jane Chang, Irene Tsu and H.W. Gim.
*With the exception of the horseplay of Donovan’s Reef (itself as much nostalgic wish as ribald lark) Ford’s work from The Long Gray Line on was mournful in tone—The Searchers, The Wings Of Eagles, The Last Hurrah, The Horse Soldiers, Sergeant Rutledge, Two Rode Together, the Civil War segment of How The West Was Won, Cheyenne Autumn, Young Cassidy. Of those, after The Searchers only How The West Was Won found a large audience, and that was due to the novel sweep of Cinerama and the bravura segments directed by another tough old bird, Henry Hathaway. After decades of reading how lame 7 Women was, it was a pleasant surprise to find how much of it I liked. While certainly not close to The Master’s best, it’s good enough, an honorable salvo for an old sailor to go out on.