February 04, 2008

Review of Seven Men from Now

In the late 1950s, director Budd Boetticher made a series of low-budget Westerns. The movies had similar plots and themes. An article describes them:

An Unknown Now, He Made Westerns Of Spiritual DepthTypically--especially in the four films written by Burt Kennedy--the aging lone rider, Scott, makes his way through a hostile terrain (the same Lone Pine, Calif., stone piles coming to suggest a dinosaur graveyard), escorting a wanted man and/or an endangered lady. Soon an enterprising rascal appears, with one or more eternally adolescent gunslingers in tow. With hostile Indians and/or other banditos just over the horizon, the travelers form temporary common cause. The rascal chats up a storm. There is shared history and suspicion between him and the Scott character but curiously no bad blood. The rascal genuinely likes and admires Scott, whose attitude in return is harder to read. But that won't, can't, interfere with the rascal's determination to get whatever it is that he ultimately wants from this journey, this accidental meeting. It's clear that Scott and the rascal must conclude the journey with a fatal showdown. What's also unsettlingly clear is that the nominal villain is possessed of great charm, intelligence, even a singular species of scruples. It will be a pure shame when Scott has to kill him.

The villains are always more affable than the Scott hero. More needy, too. They want something: money, yes, and maybe to arouse a response in the woman who's part of the expedition. A droll Burt Kennedy specialty, deliciously road-tested by Lee Marvin in "Seven Men From Now," has the badman pitching woo at the lady (the lamp-eyed Gail Russell) in front of Scott (and her weak husband, Walter Reed) by genially pretending to discuss another woman he met once upon a time.
I recently watched Seven Men from Now, perhaps the best of Boetticher's Westerns. IMDB.com gives the basic plot:A former sheriff, haunted by the loss of his wife in a Wells Fargo robbery, hunts for the seven men responsible for her death. Along the way, he assists a couple travelling west from Kansas City to California, and is forced to deal with another former outlaw he had once sent to prison.Although it's nominally about the sheriff's hunt for the outlaws and the missing gold, Seven Men from Now is really about the three men vying for Annie Greer. She wants Ben Stride (Randolph Scott), Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) wants her, and her husband John (Walter Reed) just wants to get along.

The film basically works because of Lee Marvin. Anybody could've played the other parts, but not his. As an Epinions review put it:The role of Masters is quite complex for a B-western and Marvin is spectacularly good in the part. Stride is pretty ruthless, but Masters more so. Masters respects worthy opponents and prefers working with Stride to fighting him, and the plot is less formulaic than it seems, for much of the movie, to be.Indians over the horizon

Chiricahua Apaches get two mentions and appear twice. First, Stride tells two of the outlaws that the Apaches stole his horse...to eat it. Later he tells a soldier hunting the Apaches that the Indians are half-starved.

A band of six Apaches confronts the Anglos, who give them a spare horse to mollify them. Soon they're back in pursuit of a stranger on foot. Outnumbered something like 8-2, Stride and Masters kill a few of them and chase off the rest.

In their brief appearance, the Apaches look authentic. Stride says there's only 50 of them left, which explains their desperation. And the California high desert effectively substitutes for the Arizona low desert. (The Epinions reviewer said Lone Pine didn't look like the Chiricahua stronghold to him, but the resemblance is a lot closer than Monument Valley's resemblance to the Great Plains.)

So the Indians aren't bloodthirsty savages, but they also aren't individuals with thoughts and feelings. They're an intermediate stage: the faceless menace. The portrayal could be better, but it could be worse. By referring to their hunger, Stride at least gives them a hint of humanity.

A masterpiece?

Is Seven Men from Now a "B-movie that turned out to be a masterpiece," as the New York Times put it? I'd say it's a masterpiece of a B-movie, but it can't quite compete with A-list Westerns such as High Noon and Shane. (It can compete with such overrated John Ford Westerns as The Searchers and She Wore a Yellow Ribbon.)

I didn't buy the central premise: that Ben Stride and Bill Masters are real men but John Greer isn't. Although everyone thinks he's spineless, including his wife, he doesn't act weak or cowardly. His main "fault" is not glaring or snarling or sauntering like the others. He talks too cheerfully like the salesman he is.

Because of this, Annie Greer starts sidling up to Stride? Yeah, right. This battle of the he-men may have impressed 1950s audiences, but it doesn't impress me. John Greer should've told his rivals to get lost...and if he didn't, his wife should've.

Rob's rating:  7.5 of 10.

No comments: