The following essay, adapted from a review published in Queen Anne News (Seattle), appears in the new anthology from the National Society of Film Critics, The B List, edited by David Sterritt and John Anderson (Da Capo Press).
The making of Seven Men from Now was a modest enterprise. John Wayne’s old Batjac production company had a B-movie arm in addition to the main unit, which set up A-class vehicles for producer-star Wayne, and Seven Men From Now, which clocks in at a second-feature length of just under an hour and 20 minutes, was produced under its auspices for release by Warner Bros.
The screenwriter, Burt Kennedy, was a newcomer who’d been scribbling for radio; the director, Budd Boetticher, was a colorful fellow who’d started as a bullfighter in Mexico, made some trim B movies in the ’40s—and one distinctive, highly personal film, The Bullfighter and the Lady (produced by Wayne, as it happens) in 1950—and then reverted to only slightly more upscale Bs later in the decade. At the time Seven Men from Now went into production, Wayne was busy giving his finest performance ever in John Ford’s Western The Searchers, so the leading role fell to Randolph Scott, a fading star who’d been working in mostly unremarkable Westerns since the mid-’40s.
No one at Batjac or at Warners was expecting more from Seven Men from Now than reasonable profitability. Yet the three men’s talents blended uncannily, producing the best movie by far ever to sport the Batjac label. It’s not just a terrific Western but a cinema masterpiece—an ironical, beautifully spare bit of storytelling that became the ideal showcase for Scott’s sandy reticence.
You don’t want anybody synopsizing the plot for you; there’s little of it, really, yet how it’s told makes it complex and compelling. We know, from a memorable first scene, that Scott is hunting down seven men who did something terrible; we soon gather that he’s also seeking to assuage a nameless guilt of his own. He will be thrown together with several other characters, including Lee Marvin as an affable but deadly rascal with whom he shares some history. Everybody has private reasons to be traveling through Apache country. Savor every syllable of the laconic dialogue, what people say, what they don’t quite say. And what they think they understand about one another’s motives, except that the understanding keeps getting rearranged.
The dandy screenplay keeps taking surprising turns and disclosing new layers of complexity in the journeys and interrelationships of its characters. There’s a wry, persuasively frontier ring to the dialogue, especially as delivered by Marvin (who improbably sports an elegant, overlong green scarf). He owns the movie’s best scene, in which he and Scott seek shelter in a covered wagon belonging to the Greers, a married couple played by Gail Russell and Walter Reed. By the light of a single lantern, as the rain pours down outside, Marvin begins to make love to Russell without laying a hand on her–simply talking about another woman he once knew, whose hair and eyes “were nothing like yours, Mrs. Greer.” Scott and the husband have to sit and take it. But only up to a point. Lee Marvin never played a slyer scene (and Boetticher would repeat the gambit in 1960’s Comanche Station). The coda of the scene has Russell and Scott bedding down for the night—she in the wagon, he underneath it, and the two of them acutely aware of lying parallel to each other.
Boetticher’s setups are never fancy or pretentious, but there’s always something tensile about the point of view—the disposition of people within the frame and within the spare, mostly desert-rock landscape—and the way shots cut together as the action turns brusquely lethal. It would be nice to report that 1950s audiences embraced the movie as a singular event in American cinema history, but in fact it took the French—notably the influential critic André Bazin—to recognize its distinction and praise it for working narrative miracles without ever breaking a sweat or breaking faith with the unassuming requirements of its genre.
Make no mistake, Scott and Boetticher knew they’d hit on a good thing. Reuniting with his longtime producing partner Harry Joe Brown, Scott kept Boetticher on to make five more low-budget Westerns over the next half-decade. The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960)—the Ranown cycle, as they came to be known, from Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown—were all good pictures, and The Tall T, Ride Lonesome, and Comanche Station are better than good. Perhaps not coincidentally, those three are also from scripts credited to Kennedy, though the disappointing fact is that none of Kennedy’s own films (he became a writer-director in 1961) ever came near the highs of the Boetticher collaborations. Ironically—and Boetticher always relished irony—the Ranown pictures, which were released through Columbia, would remain more or less constantly available over the years, on TV and through film societies, while the movie whose success inspired them was nowhere to be seen for more than 20 years following John Wayne’s death in 1979, which threw the Batjac library into limbo.
It saw the light of day again in 2000, when a UCLA restoration was showcased at the New York Film Festival to the ecstatic reception of press and audiences. Budd Boetticher was there for it—a happy, gallant gentleman—and Burt Kennedy knew about it. Both men would die the following year. But their film lives. God, does it live. And we’ll never lose it again.
© 2008 Richard T. Jameson