DIRECTED BY: John Ford
FEATURING: Anne Bancroft, Margaret Leighton, Betty Field, Sue Lyon, Mildred Dunnock, Flora Robson, Anna Lee, Eddie Albert, Woody Strode, Mike Mazurki
PLOT: In 1935 China, a group of American female missionaries are startled by the arrival of straight-talking, atheistic Dr. Cartwright (Bancroft). Later, a fearsome Mongolian warlord (Mazurki) invades the mission, and, suddenly, everyone’s lives are in danger.
WHY IT WON’T MAKE THE LIST: Although it’s not obviously weird the way a David Lynch film is, this, the last project from one of the greatest movie directors of all time, has so many unintentionally (?) strange moments that it deserves to be known as more than just the obscure final picture on Ford’s filmography.
COMMENTS: Running just 87 minutes, 7 Women was dumped by MGM and dismissed by critics when it originally opened in 1966. As the last film of John Ford, who won more Oscars than any other director, it seemed an ignominious end to a glorious career. But, in hindsight, it’s a fascinatingly strange movie. Bancroft’s Dr. Cartwright wears jodhpurs, a leather jacket and short hair, smokes, drinks, curses and proclaims her atheism within a group of missionaries. Bancroft frankly appears to be playing a lesbian stereotype, until she makes a passing reference to having once had an affair with a married man. As Agatha Andrews, the supposed leader of the missionaries, Margaret Leighton sketches an over-the-top portrayal of a bully who completely falls apart after the mission is invaded by “Mongols.” She succumbs to religious hysteria and condemning Cartwright as “the Whore of Babylon,” and worse. But Leighton, who seems to be doing a Katharine Hepburn impression (Hepburn, in fact, turned the part down), appears to be playing a repressed lesbian, as in the scene where, practically trembling with anxiety, she watches the half-dressed Emma (Lyon, of Lolita fame) primping in the mirror, and tentatively helps brush her hair. Emma admires the forthright Cartwright, so one wonders, as the two older women clash repeatedly, whether Andrews is jealous. Later, hysterical British missionary Anna Lee (a Ford regular) watches out the window as a buff, shirtless, oiled-up Mongolian warrior (Woody Strode, from Spartacus) prepares to wrestle another gigantic soldier and, beckoning to her compatriot (Wuthering Heights’ Flora Robson), shrieks, “They’re all naked and greasy; it’s disgusting!”—although the look on her face suggests prurient interest. “Then why do you watch?” is Robson’s reply. Meanwhile, Betty Field (Of Mice and Men) and Eddie Albert (“Green Acres”) play a middle-aged couple as practically mentally disabled. Field’s Florrie, who outdoes Lee in the hysteria department, is supposed to be pregnant with her first child, although she looks about 55 years old. But as Florrie goes into labor, she seems to calm down, while Andrews grows increasingly unhinged as the women deal with the constant threat of rape and murder. Filmed in widescreen and color, although very obviously on soundstages, you get the feeling that the ferociously overacting cast and, maybe, Ford, were simply not the making the same film as the screenwriters. Some of the over-emoting here is worthy of John Waters. In Cahiers du Cinema, Ford said of this film,” I think it’s one of my best.” Probably not, but 7 Women may actually hold up better than some of Fords’ more celebrated pictures like The Informer and Mister Roberts.
WHAT THE CRITICS SAY:
“A maudlin, mawkish, gooey dripping hunk of simpering slush.”–Arthur Knight, The Saturday Review (contemporaneous)
“…reflects Ford’s artistic and ideological maturation and sums up many of his career-long themes within a narrative that transcends its B-movie, role-reversal kookiness.”–Keith Ulrich, Slant (2005)