Wednesday, August 25, 2010

7 Women (1966)

Few directors loom larger in American cinema than John Ford, and few directors are so commonly oversimplified. I make no pretensions of being a Ford scholar, but as I have explored his films over the past few months, I have not been satisfied with any of the generalizations typically applied to him. It has been said that he is primarily a director of Westerns. True, Ford's Westerns are the best-remembered of his films, but his filmography extends far beyond that genre. It has been said that he was a workmanlike director, who saw directing as a job rather than an art. That is certainly the impression that Ford conveyed in his interviews, yet his films are graced with an undeniable artistry, in his painterly compositions and the themes that repeatedly express themselves in his work. It has been said that he was a stoutly conservative man, who could even be backwards in his depictions of race, yet socially conscious films like The Grapes of Wrath (1939) and later Westerns like Sergeant Rutledge (1960) and Cheyenne Autumn (1964) contradict this theory. In short, Ford remains something of an enigma to me. Although he is quickly becoming one of my favorite directors, I can never quite pin him down.

Case in point: 7 Women (1966). Ford's final film was derided upon its release, as was much of his later work, as being the work of a man past his prime. A few film critics and Ford scholars have challenged that consensus, but the film still doesn't hold much of a reputation - meaning, inevitably, that it is unavailable on DVD and remains something of an obscurity. That is a shame, because 7 Women is one of Ford's most fascinating films: imperfect, yes, but distinguished by subtleties of character, a claustrophobic visual style, and a harsh cynicism that masks a kind of humanism.

In its broadest outlines, 7 Women could almost pass for a Western: in the middle of the wilderness, a group of bandits descends on an isolated outpost of civilization. However, the setting is 1935 China, the bandits are Mongolian warriors, and the outpost isn't a stagecoach or a frontier town but a Christian mission. The mission is run by Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), a rigidly pious woman who betrays almost no warmth, except to Emma (Sue Lyon), a teenage girl whom she has taken under her wing. The other missionaries include a pregnant middle-aged woman, her husband, and several refugees from other missions who seek shelter after theirs is destroyed by the bandits.

This uneasy mixture is thrown into further distress upon the arrival of Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), a cynical and atheistic doctor who outspokenly challenges the beliefs and values of the missionaries. Much of the early drama of the film is psychological, as Cartwright wins the admiration of Emma and brings forth the repressed emotions of the women. Later, the drama becomes more pronounced, as a cholera epidemic rages through the mission and the bandits arrive.

It is curious that Ford, whose films are so populated with strong masculine characters, should choose as his last film a movie with an almost entirely female cast. What is more curious about 7 Women is its tone. Even in Ford's more "serious" films, like The Searchers and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, there is quite a bit of comic relief, usually in the form of Andy Devine or John Qualen. But in 7 Women, the mood is consistently somber and ominous. There is a line early on that sets the mood for the rest of the film, as the frenzied Florrie Pethers shrieks out, "This is the last place on Earth!"

That kind of apocalyptic foreboding is well matched with Ford's visual style. Like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, 7 Women was shot largely on studio sets rather than on location. Gone are the panoramic vistas of The Searchers and Ford's other Westerns. Instead, the movie has a decidedly artificial feel. The characters hardly ever leave the confines of the missionary; when they do, they merely stand outside the gates and muse about an outside world over which they have no control. As such, there is a palpable sense of confinement. Ford's use of color, too, is quite atypical. In contrast to the bright hues of, say, The Quiet Man, 7 Women is dark. Muddy browns, dirty greys, and dark purples are ever present.

With all of these anomalies, it can be difficult to look at 7 Women from an auteurist perspective. It doesn't really feel like a John Ford film. With the pronounced and dramatic use of interior space and the lesbian undertones of one relationship, it could almost pass for a Nicholas Ray movie.* Yet upon closer examination, the movie betrays several of Ford's recurring themes. One is the idea of community and tradition. In movies like The Quiet Man (set in rural Ireland) and The Sun Shines Bright (set in the American South), Ford explores the dynamics of fixed communities and their responses to change. His point of view is usually mixed: a combination of affection towards their traditions and criticism regarding their somewhat backwards ways. 7 Women illustrates this principle. Many of the missionaries - the self-described "soldiers in the army of the Lord" - are admirable characters that elicit our sympathies. But Miss Andrews is depicted in a rather unflattering light, as an unthinkingly stubborn adherent to an outdated form of Christianity. In the end, she is doomed to irrelevance, as all of the other missionaries come to reject and ignore her.

The real hero of 7 Women is Cartwright, the atheist. It seems odd that Ford, a devout Catholic, would celebrate her, but then again Cartwright is in many ways the embodiment of the Fordian hero - an outsider, tough, outspoken, brave, and yet compassionate. In the final scenes of the film, Cartwright must sacrifice herself to save the other women. This decision is not revealed with any teary speeches, but simply as the resolve of a woman who knows what she must do. The final moments of the movie are all the more moving because they seem so distanced and cold. There is no sentimentality, and the way Ford chooses to end the movie is brilliant - jarring, disturbing, and not easy to forget.

What, then, can explain the movie's negative reception, and its current obscurity? For one, several of the performances - particularly the supporting ones - are quite simply bad. Sue Lyon is wooden and bland; Betty Field is shrill and irritating. The script showcases some truly bizarre dialogue. And the portrayal of the bandits as a bunch of greasy, brawny musclemen randomly given to fits of uncontrollable laughter is more unintentionally funny than frightening.

Still, these are ultimately minor shortcomings in one of Ford's richest and strangest movies. It is telling that he himself considered it one of his best, and was deeply disappointed by the public's lack of interest. After 7 Women, plans for at least one more film fell through, and Ford retired from filmmaking. But it is a fitting capstone to his career, and the final scene takes on greater significance in this context. "So long, ya bastard!" Cartwright exclaims in a final act of defiance, and we are reminded of that gruff Irishman whose film this was, uncompromising to the end.

*About Ray - I initially planned to make the next post about him. But I saw "7 Women" and felt compelled to write about it. The next entry will be about three Nicholas Ray films, though - "Bigger than Life," "Johnny Guitar," and "Wind Across the Everglades."