#45 in my ranking of John Ford’s filmography.
John Ford ended his narrative feature filmmaking career with something different, a story about women instead of men. It’s a bit of a mixed bag of a film, showing a lot of the errant storytelling that had become more prevalent of Ford’s film in his final decade, but a surprisingly stark ending helps elevate the material in a way that I had not been expecting. Reminding me of how Hitchcock went out with Family Plot, a smaller, lesser film that still managed to entertain while also demonstrating the strengths the filmmaker had developed over the decades.
In a remote mission in rural China, a group of women and one man teach the local children English and in the ways of Christ. One of them, Florrie (Betty Field), is pregnant, nearly due, and having been brought to the mission by her husband Charles (Eddie Albert). The head of the mission, Agatha (Margaret Leighton), has seen the need for a doctor, so she has arranged for the arrival of Dr. D.R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), who happens to be a woman, a twist Agatha had not foreseen. What seems like the undergirding conflict of the film will be between the deliriously religious Agatha against the sardonically secular Dr. Cartwright. It never really comes to fruition, though. It’s set up so that Agatha and Dr. Cartwright will be duking it out rhetorically and morally for the soul of young Emma (Sue Lyon), the youngest of the missionaries.
What happens instead is a sudden outbreak of cholera after the battle lines of personality have been drawn. With the encroaching march of the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki), another British mission has abandoned their location and fled to the mission led by Agatha. With them came cholera, and Dr. Cartwright takes charge. She’s assertive and action oriented, getting the mission moving in a way that can deal with the outbreak with minimal loss of life, and then it’s suddenly over. We go from one scene where the outbreak is on the verge of being taken care of to a celebratory dinner (that Agatha insists on making dour while Cartwright insists on breaking open a bottle of scotch to celebrate) in a cut. I thought it was going to be a running plot element through the rest of the movie, and then it was suddenly over. Okay. Moving on.
That’s the first half of the movie, and it’s far from great. As a story unto itself, it’s oddly built and unsatisfying. As the first half of what comes next, it’s still curious but the basic story elements of Cartwright’s character, the pregnancy, and the setting have been established well enough to go into what seems to become the point of the film. Tunga Khan arrives with his horde and takes up residence in the mission, Charles having been killed in the village when he tried to help a young girl being raped. He shoves the women into a wooden shed, and Cartwright needs to take charge as much as she can, especially when Florrie goes into labor. Cartwright becomes the face of the women when negotiating with Tunga Khan, offering up her own body as ransom for her medical supplies, hot water, and food.
It would have been better had Cartwright’s character been a greater focus of the first half, though. There’s little about why she came to rural China for a job. She talks about how women doctors aren’t given opportunities to work and that she was also running from a failed relationship with a married man, but that’s about it. I don’t think enough is given to her early to make these early decisions terribly impactful. It’s a strong moment from Bancroft, carrying the weight of her decision well, but I just think it could have been better set up.
This moves us into the film’s finale where Cartwright essentially becomes Tunga Khan’s prize, his queen. A good thing about this later section of the film is Khan himself. There’s no good side to Khan. He’s a barbarian and a monster, unrepentant about his crimes and even kills one of his own men (Woody Strode) in one-on-one combat just because. There’s no negotiating with this man, no appealing to his humanity. His interest in human life is only what can profit him. So, Cartwright does what she can to provide the freedom of the other women, the titular seven. She gives herself fully to him.
Now, up to this point, I was kind of seesawing back and forth about the movie’s worth as a whole, but then the final scene happened. I loved it. It was an ending both dark and hopeful at the same time. It goes to a place with Cartwright that feels just right after what she had gone through and seen in the second half. I think it saves the movie.
I’ve felt a certain fatigue in Ford’s work as his career came to an end, but despite that exhaustion he still manages a solid little tale with his final narrative feature film. It may take until the final moments to push it to that level, but it does get there in the end.