7 Women (1966)
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Today, the film is little known and seldom seen. It is far from Ford's best work, yet there is power and believability in many of the lead performances, and power in the arc of the story. Anne Bancroft shines as a feisty New York doctor who ultimately sacrifices herself to save the other missionaries -- many whom she doesn't agree with -- from brutal deaths at the hands of Chinese bandits. Her work here is more forceful and better realized than her role of Mrs. Robinson, done two years later.
The best gift MGM/Sony could give lovers of serious cinema is a clean print of this forgotten film. Its sets are often glaringly artificial, and some of the secondary players are over the top (an old weakness of Ford's) as well as miscast, but "7W" is a far better film than Hollywood legend has told us.
The title refers to seven women, but the fact is that there are eight: What led us to believe that Anne Bancroft is excluded from the beginning? She wears man's clothes, she smokes and drinks. The loner Bancroft, condemned to always walk alone, like Ethan Edwards in "The Searchers". And what about the final scene, with a rare beauty, where the viewer isn't allowed to watch her fall? She is dressed in woman's clothes for the first time and is prepared to a truly catholic gesture, the sacrifice. "Seven Women" is a beautiful film, almost perfect. Towards the end, we become aware that Mr. Ford will live eternally.
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!
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 plot—two 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 characters—to 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 turn—sure, 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 feet—much like our beloved Cartwright—without 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.
*** (out of 4)
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.
We find one of Ford's permanent features:a group of human beings in jeopardy who's got to struggle against an enemy:"Stagecoach" is the best example .Dudley Nichols's screenplay was inspired by Guy de Maupasssant's "Boule de Suif".
Women always played a prominent part in Ford's canon.Ford's world is deceptive :it seems to be a male world but actually women are the strongest and the wisest (Jane Darwell's character in "Wagon Master" ,the soldiers' wives in "Fort Appache" ).It was only natural that Ford's last movie was an all-women film (all men,including Albert's character are caricatures.) And these women are very endearing.Anne Bancroft,one of the greatest actresses America ever had, shines all along the movie ,and even when the script verges on grotesque ,she's still beaming, fascinating ,never losing her sense of humor.Even when she "becomes Chinese" ,nobody would think of laughing at her.She's so strong an actress that we seem to know her heroine intimately,her life in NYC people dispensaries,her sad love stories.With her masculine swagger,her boots ,her cigarettes and her whiskey we see a broken woman who has lost all her illusions.She's an atheist,which is very rare in Ford's canon.
Religion is in the center of many a Ford movie ."Seven Women" takes place in a mission .All these women put their faith in God and ...in America (We're American citizens!).One of them (Margaret Leighton) is particularly interesting : a tight-lipped puritan at the beginning of the movie,she becomes,slowly but inexorably ,a mystic lunatic,mentioning Babylon and sinners.Like "Stagecoach" ,"seven femmes " borrows from Maupassant.Like his heroine,"Boule De suif" Cartwright gives her life in sacrifice so the others can survive.
Six Woman are leaving Sodom under an ominous sky :one of them is screaming about lust while the blonde schoolteacher (Sue Lyon,whose role is an equivalent of Caroll Baker's in "Cheyenne Autumn ,though it's an underwritten part ),along with the newborn child, represents hope for the future:all that she went through ,her late heroine (she was the only one to be nice with Cartwright when she arrived)might help her to carry on.But Ford's last opus,like Huston's "the dead" is a very pessimistic opus.
It is so hard to resist talking about the ending of this movie. It seethes with so much devastating darkness. And yet, within this darkness, there is a human victory so profoundly complex as to take your breath away in resignation, anger, shock and inevitable acceptance.
Anne Bancroft has always been one of my favorite actresses. With all her celebrated roles, I still feel that the depth of talent has never been fully appreciated.
Yet, in this role, she displays her talents aplenty.
I recommend this seldomly seen movie and I hope it will be brought to VHS or DVD one day so that more will see this movie and its production will not be in vain.
Well supported by cast members like Margaret Leighton, Sue Lyon, Flora Robson, and Anna Lee, this film, a John Ford film which is still a western in its spirit like the great entries in his oeuvre. Good strong storytelling with believable characters make '7 Women' unmissable.
The end of the film is the only part I did not think satisfying or realistic in view of the character of the doctor. She is obviously a fighter and a very courageous woman. Her final action was cowardly and not in her character at all. All that was necessary was a few more days of cajoling the chief into sufficient liberty to get a horse to match her riding breeches - there were plenty of horses around then kill the bastard, with perhaps a few more thrown in, and make for the main gate pronto.
In conclusion, the film shows a riveting clash of values in a theater piece that hardly needs any set. And the atheist comes out a clear winner. Good for you John Ford!
Maybe George Cukor should have directed it. Or maybe this story should have been done a few years later when the production code was finally lifted. A lot of things could have been made more explicit.
Anne Bancroft, inner American city female doctor, gets assigned to a Christian mission in China in the early Thirties. This was when the Kuomintang government of Chiang Kai-Shek was trying to put down the Communist insurgents and various warlords and having mixed results to say the least.
One real bad warlord is Tunga Khan played by Mike Mazurki and during the course of the film he's having a lot of military success forcing the Kuomintang garrison to flee, leaving the mission helpless.
The mission is run by Margaret Leighton who's a walking rule book and a repressed lesbian to boot. She's crushing out big time on young Sue Lyons who's also a fairly new missionary assigned there. Others assigned are Mildred Dunnock and married couple Eddie Albert and Betty Field. Fleeing Mike Mazurki and his army and staying there temporarily are Flora Robson and Anna Lee of a nearby British mission.
Anne Bancroft is upsetting everything in Margaret Leighton's little satrapy. She smokes, she swears, she drinks and engages in all kinds of improper behavior for a missionary. She's not a believer though, in fact she's fled the USA after a bad love affair with a married man. She's lived in other words, not like most in the mission.
Of course Mike Mazurki and his troops take the mission and the lives of the 7 Women are hanging in the balance. What's to happen?
Anne Bancroft is the best one in the film and Margaret Leighton runs a close second. They have to be or the film would be unwatchable from the gitgo. It's their rivalry that drives the film. But they're good actresses.
That couldn't be said for Sue Lyon. Now maybe it was just Sue Lyon's part to look wide eyed and innocent, but she read her lines like she was in a high school play. Maybe she was the reason Ford quit after this film.
Eddie Albert and Betty Field are an interesting couple. They got married late in life and are now having a baby. Albert wanted to be a minister, but for financial reasons couldn't get married to Field and couldn't go to a seminary. So he's taken his wife out to China and they've conceived a child in her menopausal period of life. And the baby is born while the women are captive of Mazurki.
The warlord and his troops come off like Indians in a John Ford western. And I mean the Indians in The Searchers as opposed to those in Fort Apache. At least in that other famous flop film about missionaries in China, Satan Never Sleeps, Leo McCarey at least cast oriental players in the principal oriental parts. You'd never get away with casting Mike Mazurki as the warlord.
It's sad because there were a lot of interesting themes in 7 Women about the role of missionaries, repressed homosexuality, the politics of Kuomintang China in the film and none were really developed. Maybe John Ford wanted to show the critics he could direct a picture with a majority of women in the principal parts. He didn't make it.
Do our intrepid missionaries escape the clutches of the rampaging Tunga Khan. Well if you're interested, all I can say is think about A Tale of Two Cities.
In this, his last feature film, John Ford moves from the Wild West which formed the setting for many of his best-known films to the Wild East. The film is set in 1935 in an American mission post in a remote area of Northern China, close to the border with Mongolia. The mission, which aims to bring Christianity to the local people, is mostly staffed by women, led by the formidable Miss Agatha Andrews. The life of the mission is disrupted by the arrival of a new female doctor, Dr Cartwright. Cartwright is very different to the pious ladies who make up the existing staff- she is foul-mouthed, smokes, drinks hard liquor, dresses in men's clothes and has no religious faith. She openly boasts of having had an adulterous affair with a married man. There is an immediate clash of personalities between her and the tough, authoritarian Miss Andrews. One of the staff is pregnant, and Dr Cartwright wants to get her to a modern hospital. Miss Andrews, however, refuses to authorise the release of mission funds for such a purpose.
Further disruption is caused by the arrival of refugees from a nearby British mission, fleeing from a gang of Mongolian bandits. A cholera epidemic breaks out, and Dr Cartwright takes charge, proving herself to be a practical and capable doctor. The epidemic abates, but the threat of the bandits persists. Miss Andrews believes that they will not dare to attack American citizens, but she is proved wrong and the gang overrun the mission. Once again it is Dr Cartwright who saves the day through her skill in managing the bandits and their leader Tunga Khan.
At the heart of the film is the clash between two different sets of values, the modern, secular values of Dr Cartwright, and the more traditional religious values of the mission staff, particularly Miss Andrews. As the title suggests, the film is largely about women- the only major male characters are Tunga Khan, an oafish barbarian, and Charles, the weak and ineffective husband of the pregnant Florrie- and these two competing world-views have very different concepts of what constitutes femininity. To Dr Cartwright, Miss Andrews and her colleagues seem repressed and ultra-conservative. To Miss Andrews, Dr Cartwright seems coarse and mannish. Paradoxically, however, although Dr Cartwright affects male dress, she seems to modern eyes (by which I mean those of 1966 as much as those of 2004) more attractive and feminine than the mission staff, all of whom, even the character played by Sue Lyon who was strikingly beautiful in real life, seem prim and dowdy. Although Dr Cartwright sees herself as a modern, liberated woman, when the mission is overrun by the bandits she is forced to use her feminine charms to deal with Tunga Khan, offering him sexual favours in exchange for more humane treatment of her colleagues. Miss Andrews disapproves of Dr Cartwright's flaunting of her sexuality, but there are hints (never fully developed) that beneath her prim exterior she herself may have lesbian tendencies. The relationship between her and her young assistant Emma certainly seems unnaturally close.
In some respects 'Seven Women' is a feminist film; Dr Cartwright is a woman trying to make her way in a male-dominated profession, and there is a suggestion that she has been held back in her career by male prejudice. Some of the symbols of female emancipation used in the film, however, seem odd today. It is strange that a female doctor should indulge in smoking and heavy drinking to demonstrate how liberated she is; feminism is not just about equal rights to contract lung cancer and cirrhosis of the liver. In this respect the otherwise reactionary Miss Andrews seems more modern and enlightened than her antagonist.
In my view, the film has a number of weaknesses. One lies in its often inappropriate casting. The best performance is from Anne Bancroft as Dr Cartwright, but many of the others seem poor. Miss Andrews takes pride and comfort in the fact of her American citizenship; it is therefore strange that the part went to a British actress, Margaret Leighton, who made no attempt at an American accent, especially as there seems to be an attempt to contrast the domineering Miss Andrews with the more genteel ladies from the British mission. Betty Field and Eddie Albert, both in their fifties when the film was made, were too old for the parts of Florrie and Charles Pether, who are supposed to be in their late thirties or early forties- a particularly glaring piece of miscasting given that Florrie's pregnancy plays an important part in the film. Sue Lyon seems wasted as the shy and repressed Emma. Tunga Khan is played by a European; a Mongolian or Far Eastern actor in this role might have been more believable.
Perhaps a more serious weakness is the way in which its potentially interesting themes are thrown away. After the arrival of the bandits, the once-strong figure of Miss Andrews declines into a hysterical fanaticism verging on religious mania; the clash between religious and secular views therefore ends in a win for secularism by default, which weakens its dramatic impact. In the second half of the film the film becomes less of an examination of two contrasting philosophies than a frankly racist adventure story in which a plucky white woman takes on a gang of despicable Oriental villains. Although the Chinese characters are treated fairly respectfully, the Mongolian bandits are ludicrous, baboonish caricatures rather than recognisable human beings.
There is a shocking, although effective, conclusion to the film, which I will not reveal here. Despite this, however, I was left with the impression that what had started out as an intelligent and unusual film had declined into a conventional one. It is ironic that a film about the clash between modernity and tradition should itself reveal some attitudes that were looking outdated even by the standards of the sixties. Perhaps the seventy-two year old John Ford's ideas about 'modernity' were still the ideas of the thirties; it would have been interesting to have seen how a younger director might have treated this theme. 5/10
7 WOMEN is very studio bound and has a real half-hearted feel to it. Bancroft, a last minute replacement for Patricia Neal, is actually TOO strong and her character is really unappealing. Leighton is shrewish and the other women in the classy cast including Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock and Sue Lyon barely register. And why is 53 year old Betty Field playing a pregnant woman? Her husband is the equally aged Eddie Albert. Mike Mazurki offers a cartoon character version of a savage who invades the mission and puts the disruptive Bancroft in her place. Ford may have viewed himself as a man of the Indians, but he really had no clue of how to handle women!
Will someone please tell me how Sue Lyon was cast in the picture. She didn't look the type to get into mission work. We have the dependable Mildred Dunnock, as stern as ever but a heart geared toward understanding, unlike the head of the mission, Margaret Leighton, in a fabulous performance, as a strict-Christian adherent, who falls apart when the mission is over-run by savages.
Anne Bancroft notches another excellent portrayal as a unhappy doctor, common, vulgar, with a no nonsense approach to life. To think, Mrs. Robinson was only a year away!
Eddie Albert is basically wasted as a preacher-like minister who is killed off early. Bette Field, who played his pregnant wife, is just too old to be pregnant, even by today's standards. Nonetheless, Field brings plenty of tension, in a fine supporting performance.
The ending is unsatisfying here as Dunnock finally breaks with the over-bearing Leighton, as they and several others flee the warlords.
From today's point of view it is inappropriate for the doctor to smoke so much and even get mad when is told not to, but as we know in the past women were not allowed to smoke, not for health reason, but only for the fact they were women, we could see it as her rebellion against this attitude.
For all the above the ending came as surprise. I think that Ford made for the main character a typical female destiny. Something like that: Dear ladies, you could try to be like a man, but in the end you couldn't avoid your female destiny. Is this a bottom line of the film? Later we see her dressed like a geisha. How sad to see her in that outfit when we know how she loves to wear man's clothes for practical reason. If the main character was a man,I am sure Ford would intend for him typical man's (male's)ending. He would fight to the last drop of his blood even if it would be hopeless. What is the point of her sacrifice? She saved 8 lives, but with her determination and skill as a doctor she could have saved 8 thousands lives if she had stayed alive. Also it was not pleasant to see Chinese depicted as brutes with disgusting eating habits who mumble instead of talking. Obviously some see the world like this: We are in the middle and the rest of the world is made of savages, brutes who constantly fight with each other. I'm sure this wasn't Ford intention; he just followed the pattern. Nevertheless, it is a good film, which makes you think.
Quotes from the review in New York Times May 5, 1966:
"Imagine a bunch of isolated, pristine mission ladies captured by bloodthirsty Mongolian banditsthis, mind you, under the great director, John Ford. Add a heady, female bevy of players like Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field and, emphatically, Anne Bancroft in the role begun by the stricken Patricia Neal...
Mr. Ford's picture, which gets off to a graphic, arresting start (with some ripe Elmer Bernstein music) tapers off to a stark, bony melodrama of female hysteria and mayhem...
And Mr. Ford has gotten professional performances, in the main, from his tense, but transparent study of violence besetting an American mission in 1935. But the story edges to a grim, foregone conclusion, underscored by nagging, neurotic yowling, led by Miss Leighton and Miss Field...
What steadies the film and almost severs it, in fact, is a sizzling, earthy performance by Miss Bancroft, as a profane hard-bitten doctor whose arrival tilts the mission even before the barbarians roar into view. Miss Bancroft, a little mannered heretofore, is simply wonderful, from her first bleak appraisal of the premises to the obvious, tragic fadeout, by which time the mission seems like an Oriental East Lynne..."
So where does it go wrong? I guess the movie is just too short. Too many characters are gathered together and there is not sufficient time to develop them. So they look like some cartoon figures rather than a story from a country where there is going to be a revolution. Non-Christian Chinese are all killers, only sexually depressed women will work at a mission and doctors do anything to save life, even killing non-Christians.
Sad. One of the last movies of Ford, became his worst.