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
John Ford's final film is one you really wouldn't expect to see from him but I guess it goes to show what a great director he was as he could end his nearly fifty-year career with something fresh and original. The film takes place in 1935 China as a free-wheeling and free-spirited doctor (Anne Bancroft) comes to work at a missionary where she immediately clashes with the head of the mission (Margaret Leighton). The head doesn't agree with the doctor's way of life, which includes smoking, drinking, profane language and of course not believing in God. Soon the doctor is battling this but then a plague breaks out in the mission and then they come under attack from some rebels. I'm not sure if stunned is too strong of a word but that's what my feelings were going through this film. I've seen at least fifty John Ford movies and I never thought I'd see something like this one. The attitude of the Bancroft character just seems like something the director would stay away from and the anti-religion stance was so strong that again I couldn't believe this was something from Ford. I think if you showed this movie to the biggest of film buffs and didn't tell them who the director was I doubt they'd ever guess it was someone like Ford. I really appreciated the 60s fling thrown into the picture because you can obviously tell that they were taking a 60s woman and putting her into this situation. There's a bit about the doctor leaving America because a woman couldn't get a fair shake at a good career and again I wonder if they were standing up for women's rights. The film also has bits of lesbianism, the religious hypocrites and a strong sense of sexuality. The movie certainly isn't ahead of its time considering this was 1966 but it's still impressive stuff. Bancroft is downright marvelous here and turns in a very memorable performance. I must admit that I fell in love with her character as you have to respect the toughness that the actress brings to the role. I believed every second of it and there's just a certain fire to Bancroft that clearly shows up on the screen. Leighton is one of those love-to-hate performances and makes for a great villain. Sue Lyon, best known from Kubrick's LOLITA, turns in a fine performance. We even get Woody Strode in a small role as one of the warriors. The film's pacing is a very slow one and it feels like the movie is a lot longer than its 86-minute running time but this isn't a negative thing as I never got bored. I was certainly surprised to see how much Ford managed to cram into the short running time. His direction here contains some of his softest touches but they all work. It's a shame this movie isn't mentioned more when people discuss his career but it's certainly a good and original way for him to go out.
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