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Notable for being the final feature film by veteran director John Ford, Seven Women (1966) is the story of an American religious mission on the China-Mongolia border that is run entirely by women, with one male exception. A central conflict develops between the mission headmistress (Margaret Leighton) and the new doctor (Anne Bancroft), but their differences cease to matter when their small community is threatened by a Mongolian warlord, Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki). Like many of Ford's classic Westerns, Seven Women contains all of the director's favorite themes - an isolated group stranded in a hostile environment, civilization versus savagery, and self-sacrifice. Yet, despite the film's obvious merits, it was not a success critically or financially, prompting Ford to say, "I think it's one of my best, but the public didn't like it. It wasn't what they wanted."
While Ford could be a tyrant on film sets (reports of his public humiliation of certain actors is legend), he was on his best behavior for Seven Women, possibly because he knew it would be his final feature. As co-star Anna Lee recalled in John Ford: The Man and His Friends by Tag Gallagher, "I think he was ready for it because he was absolutely charming to everybody. We'd break for tea as we always did at 4:30 and have the table brought out and the teapot and the cakes. He was particularly gracious on this one, never raised his voice." Well, there WAS one unfortunate incident; a confrontation with actress Flora Robson who protested that her dressing room door lacked "Dame" before her name. Lee added that "I saw her being absolutely shredded, because she did not realize you could not argue with or question Mr. Ford. It was always like that when someone was new."
Patricia Neal was originally cast as Dr. D. R. Cartwright, the gutsy doctor eventually played by Bancroft, but was felled by a stroke just a few days after filming commenced. Otherwise, Seven Women was a relaxed shoot that was filmed entirely on a sound stage since Ford's poor health prevented him from traveling to China for location shooting. Nevertheless, Ford's working methods never ceased to surprise some of his cast and crew members, particularly producer Bernard Smith, who, according to Anna Lee, "would come over to the long table (where the cast gathered) with new pages hot off the wire. Ford would lift his patch and look at them, study them for a few moments, and then deliberately, right in front of Bernie Smith, he would throw them on the floor, and say, 'Now, improvising the dialogue," and that's why I don't think probably more than a dozen pages in the original script were ever used." How much was really improvised, however, is debatable since a comparison between the screenplay and the film show few major differences, other than the staging and some slang verbiage, like Bancroft's final line to Mazurki before poisoning him, 'So long, you bastard.'
Another point of interest in Seven Women: it reunited Ford with one of his favorite actors, Woody Strode, who played the lead in Ford's Sergeant Rutledge (1960) as well as prominent roles in Two Rode Together (1961) and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962). In his autobiography, Goal Dust, Strode wrote, "There were two Chinese leading roles in Seven Women. I got one, and Mike Mazurki played the other. He and I fight over a missionary woman and I get killed out of the picture. This time the make-up people put rubber over my eyes and stuck a pigtail on my head. The Chinese musclemen working on the film said, 'Woody, you look more Chinese than we do.'" It was while Strode was working on Seven Women that director Richard Brooks offered him a role in The Professionals (1966) which guaranteed him star-billing for the first time, alongside Burt Lancaster, Lee Marvin, and Robert Ryan.
Producer/Director: John Ford
Screenplay: Janet Green, John McCormick
Production Design: Henry W. Grace, Jack Mills
Cinematography: Joseph La Shelle
Costume Design: Walter Plunkett
Film Editing: Otho Lovering
Original Music: Elmer Bernstein
Principal Cast: Anne Bancroft (Dr. D.R. Cartwright), Sue Lyon (Emma Clark), Margaret Leighton (Agatha Andrews), Flora Robson (Miss Binns), Mildred Dunnock (Jane Argent), Betty Field (Florrie Pether), Eddie Albert (Charles Pether), Mike Mazurki (Tunga Khan).
by Jeff Stafford