SEVEN ANGRY MEN—-1955 historical drama about John Brown & family features Raymond Massey reprising his role of the fiery 1850s abolitionist and would-be Civil War sparker. The imposing actor tones down the Brown-as-maniac he put over in 1940s absurd, entertaining fiction Sante Fe Trail. His characterization here is still a zealot, stern and self-righteous, but it’s softened enough that he comes across as a convincingly passionate human instead of a frothing cartoon villain.
‘Bleeding Kansas’ in the 1850s saw scores of violent encounters between pro & anti slavery forces, warming up for the eventual South Carolina cannon shot rift at Ft.Sumter in 1861. Determined to lift the scourge of human bondage from the land, the possibly deranged (certainly homicidal) Brown led sons (some of the twenty children his two long-suffering wives bore) and sundry other volunteers on a raid against a Federal armory, securing his controversial place in American history.*
Modest production doesn’t have the resources to properly do much justice to the scale (and savagery) of the strife in Kansas, and the script simplifies issues, adding the requisite standard romance (get gals into the theater along with their action-hungry guys) and is careful not to alienate audiences grappling with race relations and still touchy about the carnage cost of the Blue vs. Gray slaughterhouses of Antietam and brethren, and the swaths of destruction carved through the South.
Beyond a bigger studio and budget, the earlier Brown film had the directorial pizzazz of Warner’s warhorse Michael Curtiz, tyrannically keeping the narrative cooking with his star cast (Flynn, deHavilland, Reagan, Heflin), where the 90 minute cramming here makes do with competent but pedestrian guidance from Charles Marquis Warren. Good sound effects mark the action scenes.
Massey is solid, but the most notable aspect of this production is its showcasing of a platoon of fresh faces on their way up the career ladder. Jeffrey Hunter and Debra Paget were securing lots of work, this was their third team-up in a row, after Princess Of The Nile and White Feather.** Backing them are eager young turks Larry Pennell (vigorously breaking at 27), Leo Gordon, John Smith, James Best, Dennis Weaver, Guy Williams and John Lupton. Other familiar faces diligently working their craft: James Anderson, James Edwards, Dabbs Greer, Robert F. Simon and John Larch.
*The mistress of History eternally fond of irony, Brown’s free-the-slaves rebellion was put down by one of the U.S. Army’s best-regarded soldiers—Robert E. Lee. For a superb movie on the pre-war fratricide of Kansas, seek out the 1999 sleeper directed by Ang Lee, Ride With The Devil. Next-door-neighbor Missouri was also plagued, spawning legendary figures like Jesse James and the Younger Brothers, and scores of cinema outlaws.
** Hunter nailed another historical ‘seven saga’ that year with Seven Cities Of Gold: he followed with the coveted co-starring role in The Searchers. Pennell, my late brother-in-law, had nothing but praise for Raymond Massey as an actor and a person.