Nether Regions 08.23.11: 7 Women
Posted by Chad Webb on 08.23.2011
This week it's time to unearth John Ford's final film from 1966, a strange deviation for him with a story of a group of women isolated at a Christian mission in China...
Nether Regions started as a segment of the Big Screen Bulletin that meant to showcase films that have been discontinued on DVD, are out of print in the United States, are only available in certain regions outside the United States, or are generally hard to find. Now it is a column all its own! You might ask, "Why should I care about a film I have no access to?" My goal is to keep these films relevant because some of them genuinely deserve to be recognized. Every time I review a new film I will have a list of those I covered below so you can see if they have been announced for DVD release, or are still out of print.
Featuring: Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, and Margaret Leighton Directed By: John Ford Written By: Janet Green and John McCormick Running Time: 87 minutes Original Release Date: January 5, 1966 Missing Since: Never Released Existing Formats: None Netflix Status: Not Available Availability: Extremely Rare
1966 saw the release of the great John Ford's final film. It was a rather unconventional story for him to tackle called 7 Women, based on the novel Chinese Finale by Norah Lofts. Ford presented his epic farewell to westerns with Cheyenne Autumn two years previous. While 7 Women was his last hoorah, his final complete work was a documentary called Chesty: A Tribute to a Legend about decorated U.S. Marine Lewis B. Puller that was made in 1970. Not unlike many of the curtain calls from legendary directors, 7 Women is a flawed effort, but one that does indeed possess merit.
Dr. Cartwright's smoking at meal time raises eyebrows.
The story unfolds in 1935 China, at the Unified Christian Mission, which is run by the stern Miss Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton). She believes that her idea of Christian piety is the proper way for everyone to live, and any straying from that manner is frowned upon. They have been feverishly waiting for a new doctor, and finally one arrives in the form of the Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), whose atheist views sends waves throughout the mission immediately. Miss Andrews is aided by Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock) her loyal assistant and Miss Emma Clark (Sue Lyon), a young girl. They also have a teacher and his pregnant wife, Charles (Eddie Albert) and Florrie Pether (Betty Field). For a group that has lived under the tight shift of Miss Andrews, none of the other women are accustomed to Cartwright, who uses profanity, does not participate in daily prayers, always has a cigarette in hand, and has experienced more of the world.
Before long, Miss Clark, whom Miss Andrews definitely favors, becomes deeply interested in Cartwright's cavalier attitude. In the midst of this, the Mongol marauder Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki) and his gang have been destroying towns by burning homes, raping the women, and slaughtering any townsfolk they come in contact with. A nearby British mission, run by Miss Binns (Flora Robson), her assistant Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), and Miss Ling (Jane Chang) seeks shelter from the barbarism of Tunga Khan after Andrews somewhat reluctantly agrees to give them a temporary solution. Problems arise when Tunga Khan inevitably invades the little mission. He wastes no time in killing and keeping the women as prisoners. What worries Dr. Cartwright is how Florrie Pether, a woman of 42, will give birth under these primitive and hostile conditions. In order to obtain the necessary medical supplies so that the baby and Florrie can live, Cartwright must make a huge sacrifice, one that receives divisive reactions among the women.
7 Women was a commercial flop when it was released as second on a double bill with The Money Trap, and critics were not entirely enthused with it either. It made back only around half of its $2.3 million budget. Furthermore, Ford decided to shoot the film in chronological order to elicit the best performances from the actors. Because of this, he exposed four times as much film as he normally did. Over time, the reputation of 7 Women has grown with critics, but all that praise can only go so far since the picture has yet to be released on DVD. As a matter of fact, it was never even released on VHS, only on laserdisc. The reasons could be anything from rights issues to lack of interest because it was not an expected straight up western from a filmmaker that was synonymous with them. In addition, I have noticed that many final films from directors, especially during the 60's and 70's, are hard to find.
Cartwright gets ready to follow through on her deal with Tunga Khan.
If nothing else, 7 Women proves that John Ford was a much more complex and subtle director than he is given credit for. Many writers prefer to lump into an easy group as a conservative director for regular, working-class people who focuses on evoking Americana. Perhaps it's easier to label and package him like the majority does, but that was not always the way his mind worked. Ford was a devout Catholic, and this story confronts complicated religious themes head on. They are certainly integrated in various films throughout his career (How Green is My Valley), but not with this level of tenacity. In the characters of Andrews and Cartwright, Ford is conveying what it means to be a moral person and to merely act like one who adheres to a stringent set of rules. While the message is absorbing and meaningful, the story, direction, and performances are a mixed bag. Admittedly, the lack of artificial sentimentality is refreshing, but that does overshadow the noticeable blemishes.
Originally Ford wanted Katherine Hepburn or Jennifer Jones for the role of Dr. Cartwright, but eventually selected Patricia Neal. Unfortunately, Neal suffered a stroke after three days of production commenced, so Anne Bancroft was brought in as a replacement. Ford allegedly was not big on her as he described his lead as the "Mistress of Monotone." Nevertheless, Bancroft is brilliant as the humanistic doctor that has seen and done things that the narrow-minded females in the mission could not fathom. Bancroft's chain-smoking, romantically burned, knowledgeable doctor is caring, but not submissive to Andrews' policies. Bancroft does not exaggerate one bit. As soon as she rides in like one of Ford's stereotypical western heroes, the story is given a boost of energy. Margaret Leighton's Agatha Andrews, who clings to her "holier than thou" approach, clashes with Cartwright at every turn. Their heated exchanges are electrifying. Leighton's performance blends overzealous religious fervor and suppressed sexual desire. It is equal parts marvelous and campy. Ford alludes to her closeted homosexuality in one obvious scene with Miss Clark as she is getting ready for dinner.
The bulk of the supporting performances are over the top and exceedingly cringe-inducing to the eyes and ears. Betty Field's piercing tone as the maddeningly menopausal Florrie Pether will entice you to turn the movie off, but Mildred Dunnock as Miss Argent and Anna Lee as Mrs. Russell tend to venture way overboard with the theatrics as well. Sue Lyon (Lolita) as Emma Clark and Flora Robson as Miss Binns are both adequate and intriguing characters, but under the weight and speed of an 87 minute running time, are not give a lot of room to maneuver on screen. The Mongolian thugs are silly caricatures and the portrayal of them has not aged well. Granted, these depictions should be viewed according to when it was released, but Mike Mazurki as Tunga Khan and Woody Strode as his right hand man (an Austrian actor and a black actor) playing these villains borders on cartoonish. They laugh, drink, and growl via dialogue without subtitles, but that's about it.
The problem lies in the conviction of the story, whose segments are thinly incorporated to underline the primary message of what it means to be truly compassionate versus having a god complex. The length stretches just enough to get noticed. Cartwright must diffuse a cholera epidemic, which is never all that menacing, and this is only inserted to waste time before the Mongolians show up for the finale. While I appreciated the religious discussion, I never got the impression that the women were in any grave danger. The subplot involving Florrie's pregnancy is relied upon as the main crisis, but since Florrie is the epitome of annoying, it is hard to be invested in her woes. Ford does dabble with the gender divide from the female perspective, but that thread is relegated to the background compared to the tensions between Cartwright and Andrews. On a side note, some have questioned just which of the women was not included in the "seven" since there are actually eight total. Bancroft's Cartwright clearly sticks out like a sore thumb, but my guess would be that Miss Ling is meant to be separated from the rest. All the others are pictured together in the trailer below.
Miss Andrews lectures Emma on staying away from the sinful Dr. Cartwright.
Everyone talks about how different the plot was for John Ford, but that's not altogether true. Several of his archetypal characters are simply women instead of men. 7 Women is also packed with Ford's customary themes such as civilization against savagery, self-sacrifice, and more. I think it's his direction that was the ultimate curveball. There may be one shot of a mountain vista during the beginning credits, but mostly cinematographer Joseph LaShelle shoots a dark, confining piece with depressing sets and poor lighting. 7 Women does not look like a typical sweeping, picturesque Ford offering, and anyone who has interest in this title, surely has seen Ford's classics and might be scratching their heads by the end. The camera is positioned for predominantly static shots of conversations. The claustrophobic nature of the sets is I'm sure intentional as the fact that the mission is isolated is key to the escalation of the story, but this fenced in school is a dull, dreary, and uncomfortable place.
Elmer Bernstein's score is however a fabulous mixture of rousing action passages and haunting sounds that awaken the volatile emotions swirling around the mission. It is sad that 7 Women was Ford's last film, not because it's mediocre, but because it points to what could have been a new phase in his career. The mature and rather subdued style, as well as the knotty subject matter could have been improved, but 7 Women, while sporadically engrossing, comes across as haphazardly filmed. I applaud Bancroft's turn, as well as the memorable final line "So long ya bastard," but this is an uneven tangent from a director that was preparing to hang it all up.