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"Seven Women" is the last feature film of John Ford, arguably the
greatest director the United States has yet produced. After a half
century of film making, Ford ended his fabled career with a wide screen
feature about women in peril at a Chinese mission. Infirm and
alcoholic, he filmed it on an MGM sound stage; MGM then cut it and
tossed it away on the bottom half of a double bill.
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.
John Ford's swan song is very underrated. Anne Bancroft plays a chain-smoking doctor who has fled the United States (for reasons unknown, unless they were explained during the minute or so I was away to answer the phone) to work at a mission in China. Margaret Leighton plays the head of this mission, a devout Christian who controls her underlings with strict rules. Various troubles ensue, the most prominent being the threat of a cholera epidemic, a raid by Mongolian bandits, and a pregnant woman who is nearing menopause, which makes the birth a very difficult situation. It is the second problem which I mention that takes up most of the plot. The mission has heard stories of these Mongolians in the nearby areas. Leighton is sure that they will never dare attack her mission, by the grace of God and America. But they do, and they keep all the white women hostage after killing off every Chinese person in sight. They believe that they can win a ransom for them. The tough Bancroft bravely opposes them, but she can make no headway by those means. Instead, the leader of the bandits demands sex. In this way, she is able to influence the way the women are treated (especially concerning the birth). The main conflict of the film is between Leighton and Bancroft. It's very 60s, with the progressive, liberated woman fighting against the strict, sexless one. The role of religion is very interesting in the film. It's shocking that Ford, a devout Catholic, would make the headmistress so foolish. It's a very intelligent criticism of the holier-than-thou attitude of some. When death looks imminent, Leighton seems almost excited to become a martyr; and she's willing and ready to take everyone else with her. When Bancroft sees her chance to save the others, Leighton viciously attacks her for being the "whore of Babylon." The final scene is quite excellent. What a great way for the greatest director of all time end his career.
John Ford, usually with the reputation of misogynist, directed his last film
surrounded by strong female characters and where the male characters are not
particularly relevant. The movie is set in China, 1935, where a Civil War is
taking place. Anne Bancroft, a female doctor who is also an atheist, says:
"I spent years in slum hospitals. I never saw God come down and take care of
anyone". Ford, with his catholic roots, allows himself to be pessimistic.
Even when Margaret Leighton, a supposed strong believer is confronted by the
female doctor, she says: "I've always searched for something that... isn't
there. And God is not enough. God help me - He isn't enough".
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 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!
I am still reeling from the powerful ending to this unspoken of movie. John
Ford's last entry onto his glittering resumé stuns while it holds your
interest at every turn of a scene.
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.
...what a moving last picture for Ford's swansong.Too often underrated
,"Seven woman" in spite of a sometimes weak script-too many things
happen in too little time- is perhaps the most modern film in Ford 's
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.
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
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.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
'7 Women' is the story of Dr Cartwright, who dresses like a man,
smokes, drinks, and swears like a trooper, and what happens when she
arrives at a mission deep in a zone touched by revolution. The doctor
is played by Anne Bancroft, and it probably is her best role. She's an
atheist with humanity - when she eventually gives herself and her life
to save everyone else in the mission from a fate worse than death, it
isn't unexpected, although the women of God lose their strength and
resolve in the face of fear.
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.
7 Women (1966)
*** (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.
On the border of Mongolia in 1935, American missionaries suffer through starvation, cholera, a menopausal woman about to give birth, an attack by vicious bandits and the arrival of a chain-smoking, salty-tongued female doctor/atheist (Anne Bancroft) who usurps the power of the self-appointed leader (Margaret Leighton, whose nervous fascination with the minister's daughter, comely Sue Lyon, is vaguely lesbian in nature). Director John Ford's final film is brief and inexpensive, seemingly shot all on one sound-stage with few trimmings (when Lyon is told to take the children "into the fields," one wonders where exactly those fields are). So many different styles of acting are brought to the fore that it appears nobody knew how to approach this material. For his part, Ford may have been relishing the clashes (character and otherwise); his pacing tends to pick up whenever the conflicts threaten to get really nasty. I liked Anne Bancroft's straightforward, no-nonsense personality, Lyon is charmingly self-conscious, while Leighton is heinously hissable playing a completely unsympathetic "dictator" with high-flown manners (amusingly, she's never given a chance to redeem herself--and on at least two occasions is told to shut up--so that we nearly sympathize with her, but the screenwriter has her rigid and vile right up until the end). The climax is solid and satisfying, but filmed with a wink by Ford, as if to say "It's all b.s. anyway." ** from ****
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