A couple of days ago, I posted a review of Peter E. Dans’ book, Christians in the Movies: A Century of Saints and Sinners for Patheos’ Faith Forward blog. Dans traces a representational arc that reveals Hollywoods’ portrayal of Christians as gradually moving from sacred to the scandalous from the 1920s to the 2000s. Of course, there are exceptions in each decade, but in general, he makes a fairly compelling argument. However, he fails to see how more recent cinematic “attacks” on Christians might be interpreted as Christian themselves. One film that he does not discuss and which would have simultaneously supported and exposed his argument is John Ford‘s last film, 7 Women (1966).
7 Women tells the story of a group of women who work in a Christian mission in the Chinese countryside in the 1930s. They are ruled by Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), a stern Christian woman who embodies a “my way or the highway” approach to running the mission. The mission also houses a pregnant couple Charles (the only man) and Florrie Pether (Eddie Albert and Betty Field), whose pregnancy is somewhat suspect. Charles wanted to be a pastor and this is close as he could get to sharing the gospel on a professional level. Emma Clark (Sue Lyon), a beautiful blonde with a promising future, is the youngest member of the mission. Jane Argent (Mildred Dunnock) is Agatha’s assistant, and Miss Russell (Anna Lee) and Miss Binns (Flora Robson) are refuges from the nearby British mission who serve to report the atrocities of attacking bandits and intensify the ominous mood surrounding Agatha’s mission. For various reasons, the women anxiously await the arrival of a new doctor. Florrie obviously needs the doctor’s assistance during her risky pregnancy (she’s a bit too old and the surroundings a bit too primitive) and the other women know that the children need good medical care as well. Charles goes into the nearest village to meet the doctor at the appointed time but doesn’t see anyone who fits the description. The next day, Dr. D. R. Cartwright arrives, but much to their surprise the doctor is a woman (a fiery performance by Anne Bancroft). Immediately, Agatha expresses disapproval of a female doctor, especially one that smokes, drinks, uses foul language, sits down to dinner before grace has been offered, and doesn’t even believe in the God to whom that grace is offered. Dr. Cartwright doesn’t tolerate Ms. Andrews’ rigid religiosity and her treatment of her fellow missionaries. However, when trouble strikes the mission, it is Dr. Cartwright, not Agatha, who makes the ultimate sacrifice for the well-being of the missionaries.
On the surface, 7 Women seems to be one of those films that simply attacks Christians and Christianity. Releasing in the 1960s as it did, it would certainly fit into Dans’ description of that decade and the tendency of films to denigrate religion/religious adherence. On one level, this is true of the film. Agatha is, as Dr. Cartwright refers to her, “a small time dictator.” She has no compassion, love, or care. When a cholera outbreak strikes the mission and Emma becomes ill, Agatha cannot even pray, as Dr. Cartwright goes to work to save her. Shortly after this, Agatha tells Dr. Cartwright that there is an emptiness in her life and that she is searching for something to fill it but that God is just not enough. When the women are trapped by invading warlords and Florrie goes into labor, her screams of pain enrage Agatha who refers to the pregnant woman as an animal. To top it all off, Agatha turns out to be a lesbian who desires Emma and cannot bear the fact that she admires and respects Dr. Cartwright. The rest of the missionaries are little more than bumbling idiots, save Emma perhaps, who evidences genuine compassion for and devotion to the children under her care. Mr. Pether places his desire for vocational ministry above the well-being of his wife, who, even when not in labor, is a loud, whiny woman that drives everyone within earshot crazy.
Yet to harp on this aspect of the film alone is to miss the deeper point that Ford, a Catholic himself, is trying to make yet again in his final film, one that he made throughout his career. While many of his films evidence a devotion to or respect of the more ritual aspects of religion, at the same time, they often feature a character or characters who buck those traditions, and that is nowhere more true than in the character of Dr. Cartwright, the obvious heroine of 7 Women. She is crass, out-spoken, and highly critical of Agatha’s beliefs. Yet she is simultaneously the embodiment of, dare I say it, a Christ figure. When we first meet Dr. Cartwright, she rides into the mission on a donkey as the children under Emma’s care sing “Jesus Loves Me.” In her leather jacket and wide-brimmed hat pulled low, we easily mistake Dr. Cartwright for a man until she dismounts and removes her hat. When cholera strikes the mission, she quarantines the area, takes care of the sick, and arranges the burial/burning of the dead. Ultimately, when the bandits invade the mission, led by Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki), she strikes a deal with him, giving herself over to him as a concubine so that the others may go free. This sparks a divisive reaction among the missionaries. Agatha is appalled at her sexual behavior while the others see it for what it is. As the film ends, Dr. Cartwright poisons Tunga Khan (“So long ya bastard…”) and partakes of it herself, choosing death rather than torture at the hands of the surviving bandits.
Here again, in his final film, Ford seems to suggest that a legal obsession with the beliefs and strictures of religion is not what is important. On the other hand, an ability to enjoy life, to act in the face of adversity to preserve life, and, finally, to give of yourself for others, even unto death, is the true model of Christ-like behavior. Confined to the inner workings of a mission, 7 Women does not contain the stunning visuals we expect from Ford’s films, even of a set-bound film like The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance; however, Ford manages to get some strong performances from his actresses, most notably Bancroft and Leighton. Unfortunately, 7 Women is not available on DVD and only occasionally airs on TCM. Though it is far from his best, it is Ford’s last film and certainly important in that respect. You can at least watch a trailer here.