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
Finished in 1965 and belatedly released a year later, 7 Women represents director John Ford's final bow on the silver screen after a long and extremely significant foray into the world of celluloid. Existing as something of an atypical swan song for the long renowned film-maker, the feature is one that suffers from an overall lack of ideas, but which also pulls this weakness to be its central force of power. Employing a recurring theme of empowerment in the face of defeat and a defiance of authority, blind-faith and outdated ideals, 7 women is at its heart, sixties film-making at its most empowering and critical. It may not be as elegant as other works of the decade, nor as moving, but blessed with a wonderful sense of character and performance, John Ford achieves one of his most significant works here with a piece of film that all things considered, should never be as such.
I say this, mainly, because 7 Women is something of a canned movie. In this vein, the feature, like a few of Ford's previous efforts, feels like a play rather than a movie. Through this minimalist tone, Ford strikes a stern focus on character and theme, rather than obtuse action or plottwo elements which could have easily been given the spotlight by any other film-maker had they chosen to. You see, telling the story of a small missionary camp set up in a civil-war-torn China during the late thirties, 7 Women finds its roots in theatre drama, yet also mixes an element of danger into the mix too, outside of any inherent character conflict (though, one could argue such plot devices are perfunctory and only serve merely as a catalyst to explore these characters more effectively). Under the attack of a rogue gang of savage bandits known for their pillaging, torture, rape and murder of several nearby missionary outposts, Ford attempts to bring out the absolute base levels of his charactersto put them under the microscope to see who they really are. The results are interesting, albeit predictable, yet the overall experience boils down to one of subtle reflection.
As mentioned above, and indeed more than made obvious by the movie's title, key to this somewhat somber approach is in the screenplay's devotion to character rather than plot; and what a character we have here. While ostensibly telling the story of the seven women staffed by the Catholic Church to help deliver these poor souls, the central point of Ford's story here instead chooses to focus on the black sheep of the bunch, Dr. Cartwright. Cartwright, played by an endlessly captivating Anne Bancroft, is a last-resort chain-smoking, binge-drinking, foul mouthed, pant-wearing doctor who would rather talk to the bottom of her glass than to the higher being in the sky everyone else around her seems content to confide in. Straight away Ford plays her as being as the misfit malcontent that she obviously would be in this situation, yet he does well to establish her as anything but incompetent with her duties. Following this theme through right to the movie's finest point (the very last scene which in itself is worth the ninety minutes that precede it), Dr. Cartwright ends up stealing the show at every turnsure, there are ideas here about humanitarian needs outweighing those of a clergy (most of which are needlessly heavy-handed and all too frequent with no real penetration involved), and there are more than a few other interesting characters here, but for the most part 7 Women is much more the story of 1 Woman, and well, that's probably for the best.
This isn't to say that there's not much to see outside of this wonderful pairing of Ford and Bancroft; it's just that this will be what you no doubt will take away from the feature as being its most enjoyable aspect. And with that said, it's important to stress that while 7 Women may not be as wholly enjoyable or entertaining or indeed significant as some of Ford's previous work, it nevertheless manages to stand on its own two feetmuch like our beloved Cartwrightwithout pandering to expectations either of its audience or of its society at the time. Much like many films of the sixties, 7 Women is a daring and often compelling look at ourselves, whether through our hopes and dreams, our loves and faiths or our demons and tragedies. Not only that but it's the final statement of a director that gave cinema many of its greatest hours, and in that vein, 7 Women gains some significance without ever sacrificing its distinctly restrained and quietly contemplative mood.
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