7 Women (1966, John Ford)

First, it’s actually 8 Women; Jane Chang doesn’t count because she’s not white. Though I suppose it could just be counting good Christian women, then Anne Bancroft doesn’t count. Women is a Western, just one set nearer to modernity and not in the American West. Instead, it’s about a mission in China on the border with Mongolia. By 1966, apparently Hollywood had decided it was no longer okay to do yellowface of Chinese people, but you could still go whole hog on Mongolians. Including eye makeup. It’s a lot. It takes a while for the Mongolian raiders to show up, and the film definitely saves its big swings for them.

Bancroft is the new doctor at the mission. She had to take the job because she wanted to get out of the States, where being a female doctor in the thirties meant a mostly unhappy life helping out in the slums. The mission’s boss is Margaret Leighton, who’s definitely the most tragic figure of the film. Women has many hurdles with Leighton’s character; she’s a repressed, self-loathing lesbian, which the film sensationalizes for a moment then sort of drops. The film also swings hard against Leighton’s religiosity, especially after a harder working missionary from elsewhere in the province stops in. Flora Robson plays that other missionary; she’s actually British, while Leighton’s character (Leighton herself being British) is a stuck-up American from the Northeast. Nevertheless, Leighton’s definitely the most interesting character in the film, even if the last third has her descending into religious blather as Bancroft has to maneuver a way to save everyone’s life.

Well, everyone who’s left. Women’s a Western with the Mongolians standing in for the Native Americans, but the Mongolians have automatic weapons and can kill lots of people at once. It’ll eventually be a combination siege and hostage picture, with Leighton, Robson, Sue Lyon, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field, Anna Lee, and Chang hostages; Bancroft’s a hostage with privileges.

Bancroft gives an excellent performance. She lifts up every other performance in the film, which usually has religious constraints. The film calls bunk on Christian missionary philosophy, but it can’t actually call bunk on it, so it instead shows it playing out as bunk. Specifically American Christian missionary philosophy. Robson, Lee, and Chang, representing the British, come off a lot better. They’re at least aware of themselves. Leighton’s not happy unless everyone works themselves into severe depression thanks to cognitive dissonance, including protege and object of her affection Lyon. It breaks Leighton’s heart when Lyon takes to brass, worldly Bancroft; if it weren’t for Bancroft, no one but her would be getting Lyon’s attention. Dunnock is meek, Field is exceptionally annoying. Of course, Field’s also there with her husband, Eddie Albert. Albert always wanted to be a preacher, but the closest he could get was teaching badly at a mission school in China.

So there’s no one to impress Lyon except Leighton, who hates herself for wanting to do so, but at least it’s kind of sympathetic for a while. At least until she shows how much she’s willing to jeopardize others to maintain her control.

While Bancroft is top-billed, she’s more the catalyst than the protagonist. Especially in the last third, when Bancroft’s machinations off-camera with white guy in yellowface Mike Mazurki and Black guy in yellowface Woody Strode drive the plot. The film still can’t be too explicit about what’s going on–well, unless you’re a Bible freak like Leighton, who can’t stop spouting made-up scripture to damn everyone but her–so knowing looks and fade-outs do a lot of work.

The film’s got its technical high points—while director Ford goes for Western siege picture most of the time, he and composer Elmer Bernstein treat Bancroft’s arc like it’s more of a film noir. Okay photography from Joseph LaShelle. LaShelle should’ve gotten Ford to double-check the headroom, though. The framing’s always just a little off, with Ford sometimes struggling to fill the wide Panavision frame. There’s also some crappy “Oriental” music in Bernstein’s score. Not as much as there could be, but the rest of the music is good especially Bancroft’s themes.

Otho Lovering’s editing is fantastic.

7 Women (8) does pretty well with all its constraints, including Lyons, who’s likable but not very good, and is an outstanding showcase for Bancroft. It’s also classist, racist, misogynist, and homophobic.

But it does pass Bechdel with flying colors. And it’s got no time for hateful religious malarky.


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