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Seven Men from Now (1956) began as a simple writing assignment for Burt Kennedy. As a young writer and occasional actor, Kennedy had been floating around John Wayne's production company, Batjac, for about a year. Then, as he recalled, "they just put me in a room with a title, a legal pad and a pencil, and six weeks later I had written Seven Men from Now." The story of a former sheriff hunting down the seven men responsible for the death of his wife, the script at first seemed destined to languish on a shelf. But somehow Robert Mitchum got a hold of it, liked it, and offered Kennedy $150,000 for it. When Kennedy told this to Wayne, Wayne re-read it and suddenly loved it.
And so, on the last day of shooting The Killer Is Loose (1956), director Budd Boetticher received a message from the Duke, asking him to stop by for a visit on John Ford's set. Five years earlier Wayne had produced and financed Boetticher's breakthrough film Bullfighter and the Lady (1951), and Boetticher felt he owed much of his success to Wayne. He walked over to Ford's set and found him. "Here," Wayne said, "read this and tell me what you think." Boetticher took the script away, and after an hour he returned. "Well, you couldn't-a read it in an hour!" Wayne exclaimed.
"I read 35 pages. That's all I had to read to know that it's great. I'd like to meet this Kennedy fellow."
"So shake hands with him," grinned Wayne, nodding toward the man next to him. Boetticher later wrote, "And so began a long, happy and fruitful partnership. It was the nicest thing John Wayne ever did for me."
The partnership between Boetticher and Kennedy would generate five superb westerns over the next four years, starting with Seven Men from Now. All starred Randolph Scott, usually in a variation of the same story of him avenging his wife's death. (Two further Randolph Scott westerns directed by Boetticher but not written by Kennedy are of lesser quality.) Seven Men from Now is perhaps the best of the bunch. Lean and spare at 78 minutes, it has a deceptively simple story which is actually full of psychological complexity. It has witty dialogue and taut visual storytelling. It is laden with humor, suspense and even some touching romance. And it has an incredibly appealing villain named Masters, played by Lee Marvin.
Casting Lee Marvin was Burt Kennedy's idea. As Boetticher later wrote in his memoir, "Burt and I agreed that western heavies over the years had been portrayed as much too heavy. They rode black horses and wore black hats. You never saw anything good about any of them. Well, we set out to make our villains extremely attractive. Sure they were going to get killed - eventually - by our hero, but we wanted our audience to really love 'em while they were still kickin'." Lee Marvin had been making his mark with vivid performances in films like The Big Heat (1953) and The Wild One (1953) and had even worked with Boetticher once before, in Seminole (1953). Seven Men from Now is easily one of his finest early roles, and it's a pleasure to watch him practice drawing his gun, speak his lines with an amused drawl, and leer at Gail Russell throughout the movie.
Wayne wanted to play the lead role but couldn't, as he was tied up with John Ford's The Searchers (1956). Instead, Boetticher recalled, "Wayne said, 'Let's use Randy Scott. He's through.' Well, the Duke's desire to throw poor Mr. Scott a crumb was the basis for five of the finest films I've ever made." Randolph Scott was one of the richest men in Hollywood; nearing the end of his career, he certainly didn't need any crumbs, or even to be making any more movies at all. But luckily he said yes to Seven Men from Now, as it and the westerns that followed would comprise by far the best work he ever did. Boetticher and Kennedy worked hard to forge new aspects of Scott's persona. Scott had rarely been asked, for example, to bring subtle emotional sensitivity or even sex appeal to the screen, but he did so quite well in these films. His characters were also not above admitting to fear. As Boetticher put it, "I thought the Scott character, before the pictures we made with him, was a pretty stuffy guy."
Aside from Scott's character, there were other unusual qualities in the picture which made it stand out from routine B westerns of the time, including strong undercurrents of longing, loneliness, and vulnerability - as in the unspoken romance between Randolph Scott and Gail Russell. Mostly, though, it's an extraordinary blending of tones which makes Seven Men from Now such an impressive entertainment. Boetticher always said that his favorite scene of all he ever directed was the covered wagon scene in this movie. Scott, Marvin, Russell and Walter Reed (as Russell's husband) sit inside the wagon on a dark and rainy night. Marvin taunts Reed as being less than a man ("Love, that's a mighty fancy word," he says) and in effect verbally makes love to Russell as everyone grows increasingly uncomfortable. Boetticher called this a sex scene in which no one lays a hand on each other, and indeed it is a marvel of subtext brilliantly written by Kennedy, timed to perfection by Boetticher and his actors, and given just the right blend of menace and humor. Most striking is how the scene, the movie, and Boetticher's westerns in general are filled to the brim with humor without losing their overall feel of drama and suspense.
The location Boetticher chose for this picture was one which had been used for dozens of films, mostly westerns, since the silent era - the Alabama Hills of Lone Pine, California. This barren landscape, with its massive, otherworldly rock formations and the high Sierras towering overhead, formed a perfect arena for such a spare story. Boetticher would return to Lone Pine for three more Randolph Scott westerns. He later said, "If you're going to make a western, you can't make a bad shot in Lone Pine. It's the greatest western location in the world. You had the mountains, the volcanic rocks, and across the road you had sand dunes and rivers. I [could] do my whole picture there.... In Seven Men from Now, I wanted one of my villains to get shot as he tries to escape through a crack in the rocks. And when he's dead, he just hangs there - he never falls to the ground. I found the crack and then I built the rest of the scene around [it] and it really worked."
Boetticher and Scott became great friends while making this film. Boetticher called him "a gentleman. There never was one finer. If the South had had a thousand Randolph Scotts, the Confederates would have won the Civil War." That was more than Boetticher could say about John Wayne, with whom he had a love-hate relationship. Boetticher actually said, years later, "I loved John Wayne, and I hated his guts. But he produced the two best pictures I ever made, so you gotta love him."
Seven Men from Now marked a comeback for the beautiful and talented Gail Russell. Of all the leading ladies in Boetticher's westerns, Russell delivered the finest performance, sensitive and well-modulated. She hadn't appeared on screen for five years because of paralyzing stage fright, a troubled marriage, and a descent into alcoholism. John Wayne befriended her in 1946 when they co-starred in Angel and the Badman (1947), and over the years he had tried to help her deteriorating career as best he could, which included offering her this part. But unfortunately Russell would make only three more movies before dying in 1961 from alcoholism.
After its initial release, Seven Men from Now was held back from public screening by the Wayne estate for over 40 years, for reasons that are still unclear. In 2000, the UCLA Film and Television Archive unveiled a beautiful restoration, with Boetticher in attendance, and the picture was a huge success all over again. Then 84, Boetticher traveled with his wife Mary to film festivals across the United States and Europe, introducing the film to eager moviegoers. He just loved sharing his stories with new audiences. At the 2000 New York Film Festival, Boetticher received a long, standing ovation when he appeared on stage after a sold-out screening. He later said, "It was absolutely the most spectacular week of my life. When you see a thousand people standing and applauding at Lincoln Center, you can't believe it. I haven't cried in a long time, and I didn't, but I wanted to." Boetticher died in November, 2001, at age 85.
Producer: Andrew V. McLaglen, Robert E. Morrison, John Wayne
Director: Budd Boetticher
Screenplay: Burt Kennedy
Cinematography: William H. Clothier
Editing: Everett Sutherland
Music: 'By' Dunham, Henry Vars
Art Direction: A. Leslie Thomas
Cast: Randolph Scott (Ben Stride), Gail Russell (Annie Greer), Lee Marvin (Bill Masters), Walter Reed (John Greer), John Larch (Bodeen), Don 'Red' Barry (Clete), Stuart Whitman (Cavalry Lieutenant).
C-78m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.
by Jeremy Arnold