“So what’s normal about that? As a matter of fact, what the hell is so normal about any one of us nuts sitting at this table?”
No matter how many times I’m proven wrong, whenever I turn on a John Ford movie, I expect to see cowboys, Indians and John Wayne. But I keep getting reminded that he made more than just westerns. He did screwball comedy, he did prestige melodrama, he did period biopics and yes, he did westerns. But while his genre range was pretty wide, his predilection for manly men, in manly stories is undeniable. Which is why it seems so weird to me that his career finished with a movie almost completely about women. In fact it’s about 7 Women.
Set in a Christian mission in 1930s China, the latest arrival is Anne Bancroft as Dr Cartwright. Her pants wearing, cigarette smoking, progressive ways quickly put her on the wrong side of mother hen, Agatha (Margaret Leighton). Also living in the mission is the wide eyed innocent Emma (Sue Lyon), the pregnant Florrie (Betty Field), and her husband, the only dude in the place, Charles (Eddie Albert). Florrie’s older than your average first time mother and Dr Cartwright tries to convince her and Charles to go to a bigger city with a real hospital for the birth. But soon, a pregnant old shagger is the least of their worries.
Local bandit Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki) has decided to go on a bit of a rape and pillage tour of the lands, and even scares away the local authorities. Agatha convinces her people that not even a bandit would attack people doing God’s work, but she’s proven wrong when Tunga decimates a nearby British mission. The survivors take refuge with the titular seven just in time for Tunga to arrive. Now it’s a battle of will between Cartwright and Agatha to determine whose sensibility will help them survive.
I know it’s a sweeping generalisation, but based on the movies he made and the time he was making them, I guess I assumed John Ford would have been a raging misogynist. Before seeing 7 Women, every female character in a Ford movie was one dimensional, often there to destroy the male characters, and generically pretty forgettable. But 7 Women isn’t just a story about women, it’s a story about fully formed, complex, strong women.
I can’t imagine anyone out there would ever say that this is John Ford’s best movie. But after more than half a century and well over 100 credits to his name as a director, it’s great to see he was still pushing himself right up until the very end. 7 Women might not be his best, but it does show that John Ford never coasted or rested on his laurels.
1917 – 1976
The Searchers (1956)
Selected Major Achievements/Accolades:
Academy Award, Best Director (The Informer, 1936)
Academy Award, Best Director (The Grapes of Wrath, 1940)
Academy Award, Best Director (How Green Was My Valley, 1922)
Academy Award, Best Director (The Quiet Man, 1952)