Legendary director John Ford's final film involving seven dedicated missionary women in China circa 1935 trying to protect themselves from the advances of a Mongolian barbaric warlord and his cut-throat gang of warriors.
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In a mission in China in 1935, Agatha Andrews is a rigid missionary beset by Mongolian bandits led by Warlord chief Tunga Khan. With her are her assistant Jane Argent, staff members Emma Clark, Miss Russell and Miss Binns, head of the British mission, Charles Pather, a teacher at the mission and his pregnant wife Florrie. When Dr. D.R. Cartwright arrives, she agrees to sacrifice herself to the Tunga Khan in exchange for his letting the ladies go free. Written by
Dr. D.R. Cartwright:
Normal? What the hell is so normal about my life? It took me eight years to become a doctor; I gave everything up to study. And for what? Anything I could get. There are no tough jobs for women doctors. I couldn't even open a decent office; I had to sweat it out in the worst hospitals. And when I finally gave myself a little time, for a little love, I wound up pickin' the wrong guy. What do ya think of that, Binnsy? Oh well. It was nice while it lasted. But for keeps he preferred his wife.
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I wonder what feminists feel about this film. I found this work to be a fascinating look at women by a male director that can compare with two other cinematic works: Paul Mazursky's "The Unmarried Woman" and Muzaffar Ali's "Umrao Jaan". Strong women, weak women, lesbians, and immature girls, are contrasted with cardboard male characters that are never fully developed and are obviously no match to the array of women portrayed in the film. The men are painted so negatively that one begins to wonder if Ford thought Asian men had more brawn than brain--a strange view that has gained currency in Hollywood cinema.
I applaud Ford's decision to cast Anne Bancroft in this role. This is one of her strong performances. She makes even the most vapid films look elegant with her roles ("Lipstick", "Little Nikita", to name just two). Ford develops her role "7 women" on the lines of a Western gunslinger--only there are no gunfights. The woman has a weapon: sex. That weapon can down all the bad guys faster than it takes to down Mexicans, Red Indians, rustlers, bank-robbers. In this film these bad men are Chinese/Mongolian thugs. Established thespians Dame Flora Robson and Margaret Leighton are totally eclipsed by Bancroft's riveting performance.
What Ford wanted I guess was to stun the viewer with the ending--the twist preceded by the gradual softening of the Bancroft in men's clothes to the Bancroft in women's clothes and the acceptance of male superiority. Most critics have found the end facile but I found the end was powerful as it makes you review and reconsider the strength of the lead character.
The film questions established views on religion; evidently Ford was old enough to have seen enough to choose to make this film in the evening of his life. In his films, Ford's women are as interesting as any other aspect of his cinema and this film provides ample fodder for those interested in studying this element of Ford's work.
However, for a 1966 film, the studio sets for the film look too artificial for the serious cinema the film offers. If anything, the film makes the viewer think!
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