Cast & Crew
Charles Marquis Warren
In 1856, settlers in the Kansas Territory face an election to determine if Kansas will join the Union as a slave or a free state. To help ensure its entry as a free state, abolitionist John Brown has come from Ohio with his sons, John, Jr., Frederick, Salmon and Jason. Later, Brown's sons Owen and Oliver travel to join the others. On the train to Kansas, Owen meets Elizabeth Clark, who expresses her belief that his notorious father is a dangerous man. Some time later, Rev. White, the leader of opposition forces known as the Border Ruffians, approaches Brown's settlement and orders the black and white settlers to leave the territory in forty-eight hours. During a raid by the Ruffians on the town of Lawrence, Elizabeth's father, along with four others, is killed. Proclaiming that "the war has begun," Brown marshals his men. After kidnapping some of the men who have been identified as participating in the raid, Brown summarily executes five of them, citing the biblical command to exact "an eye for an eye." His actions sicken John, Jr., and fearing for his sanity, Jason decides to turn himself and his brother over to the Union army. Later Frederick, horrified by the morning's events, also decides to leave. Owen, however, remains despite Elizabeth's accusation that he has become a murderer like his father. Frederick is later killed at his campsite, and the Ruffians attack and burn the settlement. After Owen is seriously wounded during the attack, Elizabeth overcomes Brown's disapproval to nurse him back to health. In the meantime, Brown orders the discouraged settlers to rebuild the settlement, so that they will be able to vote in the statehood election. When Owen recovers, he tells Elizabeth that he loves her, and she admits that she returns his affection, although she still dislikes his values. Brown's other two sons return to Ohio, leaving only Owen to support his father. On the day the voting takes place, Elizabeth speculates bitterly that even if the vote goes his way, Brown will not be satisfied but will continue his fight elsewhere. Owen does not believe her, but promises that no matter what, he will return to Ohio to continue farming. Elizabeth then accepts his marriage proposal. Elizabeth proves to be prophetic, however, and after the family is reunited in Ohio, Brown announces that his work is not finished. Only Oliver and Brown's youngest son Watson are willing to follow him, but then, despite his promise to Elizabeth, Owen vows to join his father. In 1858, Brown raises money from Boston intellectuals, including Henry David Thoreau and Ralph Waldo Emerson. With the money, he buys guns and ships them to Harpers Ferry in Virginia, where he expects slaves to escape and join him in a revolt. While Owen and two other men wait in a nearby schoolhouse for the escaping slaves, Brown leads the rest of the men in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry. When Brown tells the black guard that he has come to free the slaves, the man responds that he has been free for eight years and does not step aside. After he has secured some hostages, Brown, who intends to exchange them for the freedom of the slaves, sends a soldier to inform the Army of his actions. To Brown's mortification, the expected revolt does not take place, and Watson and Oliver are killed in the ensuing fight with the Army, led by Lt. Col. Robert E. Lee. At the schoolhouse, Ned Green, a freed slave, prevents Owen from joining Brown, pointing out that his father's efforts have failed. Later, Brown is found guilty of treason and sentenced to death by hanging. Owen attempts to gain his father's release, but Brown states his belief that it is his duty to be martyred. In 1859, Brown is hanged.
Charles Marquis Warren
I. Stanford Jolley
Don C. Harvey
Vincent M. Fennelly
Richard C. Meyer
Edward Morey Jr.
Lester A. Sansom
Daniel B. Ullman
Allen K. Wood
Seven Angry Men
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 Benét'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 Movies.com
Seven Angry Men
The film's working titles were John Brown's Raiders, God's Angry Men and God's Angry Man. According to an unidentified February 1953 news item, Arthur Orloff was originally hired to write the film's story, but his contribution to the final film has not been determined. John Brown (1800-1859), a Mayflower descendent, was violently opposed to slavery. During the 1820s and 1830s, his home was a station on the Underground Railroad, which helped runaway slaves. In 1851, Brown organized an armed band of black soldiers to aid runaway slaves. When Kansas was opened for settlement in 1854, Brown and five of his sons moved to the new territory to fight for a free Kansas. He organized a guerrilla band, whose most notorious act was the Osawatomie massacre on May 24, 1856, when five pro-slavery men were killed.
On October 16, 1859, Brown led a group of twenty-one men, including five blacks and his sons Oliver and Watson, in an attack on the federal arsenal at Harpers Ferry, which was then a part of Virginia. With the arms, he planned to equip slaves whom he believed would join him eagerly. Local slaves did not join the revolt, and after two days, during which his two sons were killed, and he was wounded, Brown surrendered to Col. Robert E. Lee. Contrary to Brown's hopes, the raid aided Southern extremists in their fight for secession from the United States. Immediately after he was hanged on December 2, 1859, Brown became a folk hero. The folk song "John Brown's Body," which used the same melody as "The Battle Hymn of the Republic," became one of the Civil War's marching songs, and Stephen Vincent Benet wrote an epic poem of the same name in 1929. Some scholars have speculated that Brown was insane, but this has not been proven.
Debra Paget and Jeffrey Hunter were borrowed from Twentieth Century-Fox for the production, and Larry Pennell was borrowed from Paramount. A September 17, 1954 Hollywood Reporter news item includes Patrick Waltz in the cast, but his appearance in the completed picture has not been confirmed. Modern sources include Hank Mann in the cast. Raymond Massey also played John Brown in the 1941 Warner Bros. picture Santa Fe Trail (see AFI Catalog of Feature Films, 1941-50). In 1954, Massey, Anne Baxter and Tyrone Power toured with a stage show depicting the incident at Harpers Ferry.
Released in United States Spring March 1955
Released in United States Spring March 1955