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Seven Angry Men

Seven Angry Men(1955)

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teaser Seven Angry Men (1955)

"There are guns for you and your brother, and when it comes time to use them, God's hand will be on the trigger with yours."

With those words, a father places in his teenage son's hands a rifle. The man is a grizzled zealot with a prominent graying beard and a booming, argumentative swagger. The boy will be sent, along with his brothers and others like them, into homicidal and suicidal missions. The man calls it a "war," though he is alone in using that word, and he justifies every blow with a passage from the Bible. The man himself would be called "the father of American terrorism," but even if you didn't know that, the associations that these images bring up today are of fanaticism and religious violence. John Brown was arguably the most controversial American of the entire nineteenth century, and his memory stirs up conflict and discord even today.

John Brown's name lives on today thanks to the Civil War marching song "John Brown's Body" (as in "John Brown's body lies a-mouldering in the grave"). Union soldiers chanted this as they prepared for battle; school kids learn it now in Social Studies class.

That name once had even more power. John Brown was an abolitionist, at a time when the mainline abolitionist movement was advocating peaceful resistance to the nation's slavery policies. Brown was infuriated at this. To him the non-violent stance of the movement was a sign of insincerity and weakness--real people were suffering now. Either you took up arms to defend your beliefs, or you betrayed them with your silence. Either you were with John Brown or you were his enemy. He had many enemies.

It was in Kansas that Brown first came to prominence. This was 1856, several years before Abraham Lincoln was elected. Kansas was not at the time one of the officially enumerated United States, and the question was open: when Kansas joined the Union, would it be as a free state, or one that condoned slavery? Brown was determined to see it ratified as a free state; pro-slavery forces were equally determined to the opposite goal. Both were prepared to use any means necessary to win. Brown's side won; there were harsh human costs to achieve that triumph.

In 1858 Brown led a slave insurrection in Harper's Ferry, Virginia (now West Virginia). This was less successful--he was captured, tried for treason, and executed. His martyrdom galvanized public support for his cause--and inspired debate over the moral legitimacy of violent tactics.

But that's what John Brown meant then.

Roughly a century later, director Charles Marquis Warren helmed a low-budget Western called Seven Angry Men, which retold the story of John Brown from his Kansas success to his Harper's Ferry disaster. By virtue of being made in 1955, it presented Brown's tale in the context of his still-unfinished struggle for equal rights. Just the year before, the Supreme Court's ruling in Brown v. Board of Education found segregated schools unconstitutional. In 1955, Rosa Parks refused to surrender her seat to a white man, and initiated the Montgomery bus boycott. Martin Luther King, Jr. was rising to prominence as the central voice of the civil rights movement. In 1952, Malcolm Little rejected his "slave name" and renamed himself Malcolm X, taking over the Nation of Islam as its leader and public face. In the streets of segregated America, white police officers turned attack dogs and fire hoses on black citizens, while white civilians spat on black children walking to school. Two voices competed to rally the forces of opposition to this institutionalized cruelty: one called for nonviolence, one advocated more forceful methods. To make a bio-pic about the life of John Brown in the midst of such events could never have been a casual, non-political act. Seven Angry Men is not about history; it is about the shadow that history casts across the present. (In the years after its release, a civil rights group in New Haven adopted the film's title as their own, agitating for real-world revolution using the title of a 1950s B-movie as their rallying cry).

Which is odd, because a glance at the production team roster seems to imply no political agenda. For example, one could imagine a socially-minded filmmaker like Joseph Losey undertaking such a production as part of a larger agenda of progressive cinema. This was not the case. Producer Vincent Fennelly was a former sales director for the Poverty Row studio Monogram, who had settled into a comfortable rut producing B-Westerns. Screenwriter Daniel Ullman was similarly happily ensconced in a routine of writing B-Westerns. Director Charles Marquis Warren was the closest thing to a wild card in the bunch--he too had a CV stuffed to the gills with B-Westerns, but he had a personal history that belied a hidden depth.

Warren was the godson of F. Scott Fitzgerald, and trading on the strength of that name got him a job as a writer in Hollywood in the 1930s. WW2 rerouted the direction of his life and turned him into a Naval Commander, a veteran and a hero. He returned from war to a life of words, but those wartime experiences never fully faded from view. In addition to writing movies, he also took to writing novels--about war, naturally--and in 1951 made the leap to director, with Little Big Horn. Westerns, war, heroism, the meaning of violence--these things weighed on Warren's mind all the time.

To play John Brown in Seven Angry Men, Warren turned to Raymond Massey. This was a foregone conclusion--Massey's entire career as an actor was deeply rooted in the Civil War era.

In 1939, Massey had been cast as Abraham Lincoln in the stage play and film version of Abe Lincoln in Illinois (1940). The play toured the country as the film adaptation by Michael Curtiz opened. Because Jim Crow laws prevented black audiences from seeing the play at the same time as whites, civil rights protestors set up picket lines outside performances of the play to highlight the hateful irony. Eleanor Roosevelt was to attend the DC premiere as Massey's invited guest--but to do so she would need to cross the picket line, something she had never done. Cross the line she did, and it would be the only time in her life she would break solidarity with picketers. The First Lady excused her action by explaining the protestors did not have the support of the NAACP--as if that invalidated their complaints. The Jim Crow laws remained unchanged.

No sooner did Abe Lincoln finish its run than Massey was called to play John Brown in the 1940 film Santa Fe Trail. At that point in American history, Brown's legacy was less ambiguous: Jack Warner gave instructions to the screenwriter Robert Buckner to "make the son-of-a-bitch the heavy." Buckner complied. The film is a patronizing thing that tries to dodge the very issues it sets out to raise; it was a hit and remains better remembered by posterity than the more earnest but threadbare rendition of Seven Angry Men.

Massey played Brown again in 1952, in Charles Laughton's theatrical staging of Stephen Vincent Bent's poem John Brown's Body. Massey was immensely proud of this performance and he received great acclaim for it.

When Warren went looking for a John Brown for his film three years later, there was little doubt who was most qualified for the role. Just as Massey had first taken on the role of Brown right after playing Lincoln, this time the pattern was reversed--after completing work on Seven Angry Men, Massey reprised his Lincoln for the play Rivalry, based on the Senate campaign debates between Lincoln and Stephen Douglas.

To its credit, Seven Angry Men digs into the meat of the meal and engages with the central issue of whether revolutionary violence is justified, immoral, or counterproductive -- not to say that these three options are mutually exclusive. To help dramatize these philosophical concerns, the film focuses less on Brown's acts themselves than on his relationship with his son Owen, played by Jeffrey Hunter. Owen is a loyal son, he loves his pa, he's a staunch believer in the cause -- but he's no killer. When we first meet Owen, he's defending his father's reputation to Elizabeth Clark (Debra Paget), an abolitionist of the conventional peace-loving stripe. It's a comedown for Owen when he realizes the stories about his dad are true--and a further complication when he realizes that his father's methods may be the only thing holding the wave of tyrannical slavers back.

It is in this tension between John Brown, Owen, and Elizabeth that Seven Angry Men veers into melodrama and over-earnestness at times, but this material also grounds the shoot-em-up action in a moral context greater than the usual Western fare of the day.

Compared to Massey's experience on stage and screen, his co-star Jeffrey Hunter was still a newcomer, having been discovered by Hollywood talent scouts just five years earlier. He was still a year away from his breakout role in The Searchers (1956) alongside John Wayne, but since his debut in 1950 he had nevertheless racked up a long list of, you guessed it, Westerns.

Debra Paget plays Elizabeth in the third of her five pairings with Hunter. Paget was a talented dancer, a pretty face, and a competent actress, but she occupied a place in 1950s popular culture more for her party girl persona than her actual acting. She had been linked romantically with Hunter in various gossip columns, but it is unclear how much of this was genuine and how much was ginned up for publicity purposes.

One other member of the cast deserves special mention: James Edwards plays a freed slave named Green. It is a relatively small supporting role, but significant in several respects. Like director Warren, Edwards was a battle-scarred war veteran. Best known for his starring role in 1949's Home of the Brave, Edwards was a pioneering black actor who defied the stereotypes imposed on black performers and instead played serious roles with dignity. In 1955 cinema it was exceedingly rare for black actors and white actors to share the screen as characters depicted as equals. That Seven Angry Men is depicted as a historical event set comfortably in the past provided the needed psychological remove for Edwards to bump shoulders with Hunter as a peer, something all but impossible in a drama set in 1955.

The low-budget shoot benefitted greatly from the outdoor photography of cinematographer Ellsworth Fredricks. Throughout the era, Fredricks (also credited as Fredericks, on those occasions when he preferred his name's actual spelling) demonstrated a facility with making the most with the least--any number of underfunded sci-fi thrillers and Westerns of the 1950s owe their atmospherics to Fredricks' capable eye. A couple of years later he was even recognized by the Academy for this talent, nominated for an Oscar® for his work on 1957's Sayonara.

Seven Angry Men was distributed through Allied Artists, which was just Monogram under a new, more prestigious name. Walter Mirisch, the head of the studio, was eager to be overseeing a transition away from the exploitation fare that had dominated Monogram's output to something more worthy of respect. "I had always thought the John Brown story an exciting historical event that had a great deal of importance in American history and deserved to be told," Mirisch later recalled, noting that this represented "a big step forward from the kind of product that was being made at Monogram when I first arrived there."

That did not guarantee respect, however. The reviews for Seven Angry Men were poor, and the small stature of the film helped it slip into obscurity fairly quickly. Resurrected from the vaults today, what resonates is not the link to Civil War history or the evocations of the Civil Rights struggle, but our contemporary war on terrorism. In the light of modern events, the sight of a bearded cleric sending his sons out to kill and/or be killed to advance his holy cause pushes a different set of buttons. The debate continues: what tactics are the right ones in the defense of one's beliefs? John Brown's body may lie a-mouldering in his grave, but his ideas certainly don't.

Producer: Vincent M. Fennelly
Director: Charles Marquis Warren
Screenplay: Daniel B. Ullman (screenplay and story)
Cinematography: Ellsworth Fredricks
Art Direction: David Milton
Music: Carl Brandt
Film Editing: Richard C. Meyer
Cast: Raymond Massey (John Brown), Debra Paget (Elizabeth Clark), Jeffrey Hunter (Owen Brown), Larry Pennell (Oliver Brown), Leo Gordon (Martin White), John Smith (Frederick Brown), James Best (Jason Brown), Dennis Weaver (John Brown, Jr.), Guy Williams (Salmon Brown), Tom Irish (Watson Brown).

by David Kalat


David Adams, "The role of anger in the consciousness development of peace activists: where physiology and history intersect," International Journal of Psychophysiology.
Raymond Massey, A Hundred Different Lives.
Walter Mirisch, I thought We Were Making Movies, Not History.
Robert E. Morsberge, Slavery and the Santa Fe Trail, or John Brown on Hollywood's Sour Apple Tree.
Peggy A. Russo and Paul Finkelman, Terrible Swift Sword: The Legacy of John Brown.
Frank Wallis, editor, Ribbons of Time
Jeffrey Hunter

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