John Ford, I typically think of westerns, and male-dominated westerns at that. If his movies had female characters, they were almost always in the background or as a source of conflict between two men. Some directors worked well with actresses, but from what I've read about Ford he was much more comfortable directing men. Certain actresses continually popped up in his movies, but almost always playing basically the same character over and over again. It's funny then that in a career that included almost 150 movies, his last movie is a female-dominated cast in 1966's 7 Women.
Ford making some interesting decisions late in his career was nothing new. With Cheyenne Autumn, the director admitted he owed an apology to how Native Americans had been treated in many of his movies, telling their story in this big budget if average western. In The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Ford explored the idea of legend versus fact and the idea of romanticism in the old west. With '7 Women,' he has a story that could have easily been set in the wild west like so many of his movies were. But he picks an incredibly unique setting to tell a story that is completely different from any other movie in the Ford lexicon.
In 1935 in northern China along the Mongolian border, Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) is in charge of a Catholic mission that helps any Chinese refugees on the isolated frontier. She has help from a handful of women who have sacrificed much to be there in this dangerous situation where everything from bandits to diseases threaten everyone inside. A new doctor, Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), arrives and quickly finds out how rigid, how very strict Andrews' mission is. Cartwright is more of a free spirit and doesn't fit in so well, but that's the least of everyone's problems. A warlord/bandit chief, Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki), is on a rampage across the frontier with the mission right in his path.
Along with Leighton and Cartwright, the 7 women of the title include Sue Lyon as Emma, a young innocent girl somewhat naive to what's going on, Flora Robson and Anna Lee as two survivors from a nearby mission, Mildred Dunnock as Jane, Agatha's assistant, and Betty Field as Florrie, a middle-aged woman going through her first pregnancy and one of the most shrill, annoying characters I've ever seen in a movie. It easily could have been '8 Women' but Ford chose to leave out Jane Chang's character for some reason. Cough RACISM Cough. Just kidding. These women of all shapes, sizes and creeds certainly cover the gamut, giving a nice diversity as they are forced to cope in these horrific situations where no one is there to protect them other than themselves.
With so many characters, it would have been easy for all the performances to get lost among themselves, but I don't think Anne Bancroft was going to allow it. This is hands down the reason to see this movie for her performance, rising above a script that really doesn't have much going for it early on. Dr. Cartwright is as tough as they come, a woman who put herself through school in the 1920s when female doctors weren't exactly commonplace. Bancroft gives her a hard edge that has enabled her to survive on her own these years, but it's in the last 30 minutes where her character's true colors come to light. She's spent most of the movie arguing with Leighton's Agatha character, but Bancroft's Cartwright makes a noble decision, leading to a very effective and more than a little surprising ending.
Of the rest of the women, Robson stands out as a fellow missionary who respects Cartwright for all her differences when no one else does. She is underused unfortunately, but what's there is certainly a positive addition to the movie. Lyon too represents herself well as the young Emma, torn between her duty and what she sees in the new doctor who is unlike so many other women she's met in her life. As Agatha, Leighton is the self-righteous, condescending she-devil who thinks she is above criticism but feels incredibly comfortable dishing it out. Also joining the cast is Eddie Albert as Florrie's Bible-spouting husband, Charles. Like his wife, this character comes across as easily unlikable early on but he too comes around, realizing how ridiculous his stance is.
Now it is a John Ford movie, and there has to be some element of racism or politically incorrect moments, doesn't there? I don't mean that as negatively as it sounds, and I am a huge Ford fan, but something almost always pops up in his movies. Here it is Mazurki and Woody Strode as Mongolian bandits. Mazuriki is laughable as bandit chief Tunga Khan, and Strode looks ridiculous with eye makeup that attempts to make him look like a Mongolian. Close but no cigar.
It's certainly a change of pace for Ford, and being his last movie, it is an intriguing watch. It is different from any other Ford movie I've come across and is worth a watch for that reason alone, all flaws aside. You can watch it at Youtube starting with Part 1 of 9. Listen to the early parts of the credit, and guess who the composer is. It took me about two notes, and if you said Elmer Bernstein, you win a cookie.
7 Women <---trailer (1966): ** 1/2 /****