John Ford’s 7 Women unfortunately remains something of an obscurity. Upon its release in 1966, the film played as the second half of a double bill with the Burt Kennedy-directed Elke Sommer vehicle The Money Trap and was roundly ignored or pitied (save by a gallant few that included the always-alert Andrew Sarris and the insightful, passionate Ford historian Tag Gallagher) as the latest failed project of a once-great director. But time reveals truth: 7 Women is, in actuality, a great film whose potboiler plot masks an incisive inquiry into the battle of the sexes; it 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.
In North China, year 1935, an emissary of change threatens the conservative values of a female-run Christian mission: Dr. D.R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) is a hardheaded atheist, firm believer in science, and just about the most mannish woman you ever saw. Clad in cowboy garb that gives her more than a passing resemblance to Ford’s frequent actor John Wayne, Cartwright drinks, smokes, cusses, and basically wreaks havoc on the traditional ideals of womanhood that the mission upholds. Her main nemesis and polar opposite is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), an uptight, repressed authoritarian who holds a fairly obvious lesbian attraction to oblivious young protégé Emma Clark (Sue Lyon). Tensions abound between Cartwright and Andrews, with a begrudging respect afforded when the doctor near single-handedly saves Emma and the other mission residents during a cholera epidemic. Yet their truce is short-lived, for the mission is soon invaded by the vicious Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki), as brutish a symbol of unchecked, rampaging masculinity as the cinema has ever offered.
Ford is no stranger to mapping the divide separating men and women, though, in a unique twist for the director, 7 Women explores the gender abyss through primarily female viewpoints. Indeed, the first half of the film focuses entirely on the women, the only man (“the only rooster in the henhouse” as Cartwright none-too-kindly observes) being the cuckolded, weak-willed Charles Pether (Eddie Albert), husband to an exasperating, menopausal, and pregnant wife (Betty Field). Ford understands the power of isolation, that it inevitably creates its own social rituals. Accompanied by Elmer Bernstein’s superb score (its timpani-heavy flourishes at once parodic and incisive), Ford’s camera captures the women in either two-shot conversation (numerous ideological and emotional dichotomies always playing off of one another) or in group shots that emphasize their ever-changing power placement: Watch, especially, how the initially towering Margaret Leighton (who, between this film, Alfred Hitchcock’s Under Capricorn, and Joseph Losey’s The Go-Between, fully paid her dues to the Loathsome Bitch Club for Sexually Repressed Religious Fanatics) appears to shrink and retreat into herself with each successive scene.
Ford treads racist impulse in his portrayal of the Mongolians—both Mazurki and black actor Woody Strode (always a welcome presence) are made up to ridiculous slant-eyed excess—but there’s a clear theatrical distance in their presentation that complements the obviously soundstage-bound setting. As positioned in and around Ford’s Cinemascope frame, the Mongolians’ bestial actions and untranslated dialogue—sounding like the brusque, guttural grunts of mad dogs in heat—finally seems a profoundly intuitive philosophical disquisition on the decidedly masculine impulse toward war and destruction. Certainly Leighton’s constant reassurances to her wards that the mission is safe because “we’re Americans” provide a clue toward 7 Women‘s most apparent allegorical reading, while the title of Ford’s subsequent documentary (Vietnam, Vietnam) pretty much seals the thematic deal of this, his final fiction feature.
It’s a surprisingly astringent turn for a director who more often presented himself as the rah-rah patriot of American filmmaking, a decidedly Western poet-laureate/idealist who could none-too-shamelessly and all-too-seriously play “Glory, Glory Hallelujah!” over the sentimentalized, myth-mongering climax of his otherwise superb Young Mr. Lincoln. 7 Women represents a fully-developed newfound side of Ford that prior features like Steamboat Round the Bend (in which Black pariah Stepin Fetchit fuels a steamboat fire with historical American waxwork figures) only hinted at: a concurrent bitterness and cynicism, though of a wise and elating sort. In particular, the way that Ford films Bancroft suggests simultaneous feelings of attraction and revulsion, as if he is working through a vision of the future slowly taking root before him, a muddying of the lines between heretofore accepted definitions of Male and Female that alternately repel and fascinate him.
It’s little surprise, then, that Bancroft’s character is clearly not included among the seven women of the title—as the film’s androgynous ambassador of change and choice (both being essential tenets of democracy), she stands appropriately apart. As such the ultimate tragedy of 7 Women comes with Cartwright’s climactic loss of choice, forced into a life of concubinage in exchange for the titular group’s freedom. Yet even at this depressing, despondent point, Ford acknowledges that the strong-willed individualists among us can still retain some measure of control over our fates. Thus does Dr. Cartwright, now hauntingly clothed in Geisha garb, stand before Tunga Khan in 7 Women‘s final scene, toasting her captor with two poisoned teacups between them and offering the film’s—and John Ford’s—appropriately morbid, knife-to-the-guts epitaph: “So long ya bastard!”