(For an explanation of the Forgotten Films project, go here.)
You’d think that John Ford’s final narrative film would have greater visibility -- especially since a number of influential film writers consider it to be one of the director’s finest. But it’s very hard to see, with no DVD of it available. (TCM does show it from time to time, and there was a widescreen laserdisc from MGM available back in the 90s.) It was a financial disaster upon its release, relegated to the bottom half of a double bill with The Money Trap -- this despite the fact that many influential critics and filmmakers of the 1960s were at that moment naming Ford as one of their greatest influences. Why, then, the widespread indifference to 7 Women? Perhaps because it seems, on its surface, such a departure from the prototypical Ford film.
Set in North China in 1935, the film takes place inside a female-run Christian mission besieged by an army of Mongols. But despite the potential such a logline offers for spectacle and exotic locales, Ford’s film turns out to be something of a chamber piece. The film was shot on a soundstage, a far cry from the director’s beloved Monument Valley vistas, and much of the action occurs indoors. More importantly, his concern here lies not with the rampaging hordes or windswept plains, but in a subtle psychological tug-of-war between the conservative, repressed head of the mission, Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) and the adventurous, decidedly secular Dr. Cartwright (a very spirited Anne Bancroft), a free-thinking modern woman who blows into the mission and disrupts its rigid ways. Raising the stakes is the fact that one of the women in the mission, Florrie (Betty Field) is pregnant and in her 40s, and desperately needs medical care. That a cholera epidemic breaks out doesn’t help, either. By the time the Mongols actually take over the mission in the second half, the tribulations of this helpless band of sisters puts to shame those of the Western pioneers Ford so lovingly depicted throughout his career.
For all its extremes and surface incongruities, 7 Women is most definitely a John Ford film; indeed, one could argue that it’s one of his most refined, most personal films. The director always focused on civilizing forces in his films, and often on personal conflicts within those forces. Indeed, the conflict between Dr. Cartwright and Agatha Andrews in 7 Women bears some similarities to the final act of The Searchers, in which John Wayne's wounded, puritanical rage clashes with the compassion of half-breed Jeffrey Hunter over the fate of Indian captive Natalie Wood. Alone and uncompromising, the older matriarch finds herself unable to understand the complexity of the troubles she is facing. Only someone like Cartwright can lead these women to safety; only a woman of the world can know how heartless the world can be.
Early on in the film, Ford shows Andrews glancing longingly at the youngest member of this sisterhood, played by Sue Lyon (who had achieved notoriety as a teenager with Kubrick’s Lolita). The implication is that Andrews is something of a closeted lesbian, but it could also be seen as a suggestion that she secretly longs for intimacy of any kind, after a lifetime of repression and denial. (This film would make quite a double-bill with Black Narcissus.) The hierarchy Cartwright disrupts is therefore one of both social stasis and sexual repression. But it’s no surprise that she comes from an outside world that will also eventually bring in the Mongol hordes. Andrews’s attempts to keep her mission completely isolated from the world is an attempt to prevent its decay. Ironically, though, it will lead to the very destruction she fears so much.
Although it’s a historical film, 7 Women is utterly divorced from actual history. Ford’s depiction of the Mongols reminds one more of the way Indians were depicted in Westerns than anything else. Their two leaders are played by two actors with a combined height of 13 feet -- the Ukrainian Mike Mazurki and the African American Woody Strode, both in garish makeup – and their gurgled language is left untranslated (one wonders if any of it is authentic). When the two enormous Mongol chiefs strip down and begin to wrestle each other to the death, Ford leaves us at a loss as to why.
A viewer casually watching the film may view such scenes as offensive, but it’s clear that Ford doesn’t intend for this to be taken as authentic in any way, shape, or form. Instead, he’s presenting his female protagonists with a foe that is purely masculine. If the women at the center of this film can be considered a refinement of that which is most civilized in humans – childbirth, compassion, piety, medicine, generosity – then the invading horde is its macho opposite – aggressive, irrational, ignorant, unthinking, and impulsive. Whereas in previous Ford films it was the gunfighter and the soldier who had to mediate the world between civilization and savagery, here it’s the pants-wearing female doctor Cartwright, and her ultimate fate suggests that Ford in his later years was becoming significantly darker and less optimistic.
In some ways, it’s better to think of 7 Women not as a historical film at all but as some kind of bizarre science-fiction fantasy. (The Ming the Merciless make-up on Mazurki and Strode makes it easy.) It’s the one genre Ford never touched, but his depiction of a world where the feminine, civilizing impulse has been isolated and beset by the unchecked aggression of the masculine, destructive impulse would not feel out of place in a speculative, apocalyptic sci-fi scenario.
One could chalk up 7 Women’s failure at the time as a sign that the aging Ford, with his classical filmmaking style, was gradually finding himself outdated by the free-wheeling, edgier cinema of the 60s. And yet, it’s hard not to look at the film today and see that, in his own way, Ford was indeed keeping up with the times. The raging war in Vietnam may well have been a potential influence for Ford (whose next credited film would be the 1971 USIA documentary Vietnam! Vietnam!), who perhaps saw in the modern conflicts of the late 20th Century a more complicated and destructive struggle between civilization and aggression. Certainly this film’s cynical, often brutal exploration of gender, identity, and society could stand up alongside the greatest works of the era.