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With: Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field, Anna Lee, Eddie Albert, Mike Mazurki, Woody Strode
Written by: Janet Green, John McCormick, based on a short story by Norah Lofts
Directed by: John Ford
MPAA Rating: NR
Running Time: 87
Date: 05/04/1966

7 Women (1966)

4 Stars (out of 4)

To Be a Woman

By Jeffrey M. Anderson

You'd think the final film by one of the very best filmmakers of all time, John Ford, would warrant more attention. When it was released, it was the bottom half of a double-bill, and most critics -- those that even bothered to see it -- dismissed it. (Andrew Sarris was one of its only early defenders.) As of this writing, and to the best of my knowledge, it has never been released on home video in the United States. I found it as a discounted digital download in the iTunes store, though I had been on the lookout for it for many years. Now, those that have seen it consider it one of Ford's finest achievements, but it's still a relatively unknown film.

Its subject matter is also quite different from other Fords, though his favorite themes are here, perhaps shown more clearly and concisely than ever before. It's odd to think of Anne Bancroft as one of the ultimate Ford heroes, but she does deserve mention next to mention next to the best roles of John Wayne and Henry Fonda. She plays D.R. Cartwright, a hard-talking, hard-drinking doctor who volunteers to help out at a remote mission in China in 1935 (she apparently can't get any work in the United States).

As other writers have pointed out, Cartwright is not one of the "seven women" of the title; the others are nuns ranging from senior citizens to the young, beautiful Emma Clark (Sue Lyon, famous for having played the title role in Stanley Kubrick's Lolita). None of them seem to have any real life experience or the knowledge to handle anything outside their ordinary lessons, teaching Chinese kids about religion and other things.

A middle-aged lady (Betty Field) is pregnant for the first time, and behaves like a child herself, unaware of the dangers that her pregnancy involves. Her husband (Eddie Albert) is only slightly more aware of things, and at one point defies his wife to try to do the right thing. Authoritarian Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) seems irresistibly attracted to Emma, nervously straightening Emma's hair braids, perhaps not knowing what else to do, and not understanding these impulses. It's all misdirected sexual tension.

The movie sharply differentiates the seven women and Dr. Cartwright. She dresses like a man (a cowboy, in her first scene), and believes more firmly in her medical bag than in God. She seems to know what she wants, but just can't get it. She has a touching, drunken speech about a would-be lover that decided to go back to his wife. When the turning point of the film arrives, fierce Mongolian raiders -- played by the very non-Chinese actors Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode -- Dr. Cartwright is the only one that knows how to handle them, or at least is willing to truly sacrifice something.

7 Women is obviously not a big-budget production. It's clearly shot entirely on sets, and not a thing could actually be confused for the real China of 1935. The Mongolian makeup is equally theatrical, and yet this somehow enhances the movie's mood. Realism might have detracted from it. It's maybe not clear whether Ford intended this effect or not, but he was at least skilled enough to understand that it was possible and to achieve it.

Probably Ford never knew if this would be his last film or not, but it's fascinating to think of it in that way: the focus on women, rather than men alone, or men and women mixed, and the sacrificial way it ends. The final line of the movie could almost be Ford's final line: "So long, ya bastard!"

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