HONOR BOUND….7 MEN FROM NOW (I Watch Westerns: Take Seven)

7 Men from Now (1956)
D. Budd Boetticher

(NOTE: Mild spoilers ahead, concerning the early part of the film.)

It’s common for the honor of one or two central characters to be tested in a western. It’s rare that everyone’s honor is tested.

Most of the values assumed by Burt Kennedy’s haiku-perfect script for 7 Men from Now, (sometimes rendered Seven Men from Now) the first of the magnificent string of westerns made by the director-star team of Budd Boetticher and Randolph Scott on shoestring budgets through the late fifties, have either vanished or gone underground. For three thousand years prior, those values–or, if you like, the value of those values–was unassailable. With sixty years of “progress,” we’ve managed to render them obsolete, which is why we ourselves will soon follow.

Meanwhile, we can have fun remembering.

You can’t have much more fun doing anything than watching Seven Men from Now, whether for the first or fiftieth time.

Nowadays, a man who sets out to avenge his wife’s death in a movie is a cartoon character, or else a mere projection of fantasy. The underlying urge is still understood–modern action movies thrive on revenge. Only it is bound to be rendered safely, in no more than two dimensions (and preferably fewer), devoid of emotional content that cuts any deeper than the thrill of seeing blood spurt (a thrill that animates a remarkable number of “intellectuals,” prone to bragging about their capacity for absorbing faux-violence from the cheap seats while calling for more, always in the name of “realism”).

Everyone knows that, in the real world–in what now passes for reality anyway–this is a job for law enforcement.

Of course, it was always a job for law enforcement, when and where they were up to the task, and the first brilliant stroke the creators of  7 Men from Now rendered, was having Scott play an ex-Sheriff, Ben Stride, who retains the moral authority of law and order, but no longer wears the badge that makes his authority official.

it was hardly the first time the idea had been tried, but Scott had reached a point in his life, and his career, where he carried the intrinsic weight of the contradiction like its own badge–one buried in his chest instead of resting on his shirt.

His test of honor is the simplest. Will he be able to kill the men who killed his wife?

The men on the run have robbed $20,000 in gold and they don’t know it’s his wife they’ve killed in the process. The outlaw who does, Bill Masters, doesn’t ride with them and he plans on parlaying his knowledge into some sort of edge that will give him possession of the gold.

He’s played by Lee Marvin in his early villain stage, so you know going in his code of honor is going to be a bit slipperier than Scott’s….or even those other outlaws.

It’s real, though. A good part of the plot involves finding its limit. The force of that journey is magnified considerably by his double testing of John Greer, a westward moving settler (a stolid Walter Reed) who is having his own manhood tested by the rigors of the trail, a plot twist you might not see coming, and his ability to hang on to his attractive wife, Annie (the always luminous Gail Russell), whose own hold on a wife’s honor is simultaneously stretched and burdened by her attraction to Stride (either because he’s Randolph Scott or because he’s a man who can handle the wilderness that has her husband buffaloed) and threatened by a leering Masters, who would count his reward far more than doubled if he landed her and the gold….and who is either perceptive or narcissistic enough to guess she might just go along if he’s the last man standing.

The tension in the plot, then, involves a good man who won’t dishonor a wedding vow, a woman who just might, a husband who depends on the men who are better than him being decent about it, and a bad man who wants what he wants but knows he’ll have to earn every bit of it.

In a modern context all of this would need explaining. (Anywhere it doesn’t need explaining isn’t modern yet.) And such explanations would  dispense with the narrative tension that 7 Men from Now ratchets, line by terse, stoic line.

There’s a deep enough mix of cynicism and romanticism in Marvin’s  remarkable performance (and perhaps even more remarkable presence, to speak of bygone concepts), to encompass everything Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah got up to when they set about to “revise” the western in the following decade, right down to a denouement that’s a full-blooded precursor of the self-destruction that swallows William Holden and company at the end of The Wild Bunch.

The principal difference–the one that will allow each present-day viewer to chalk up a clear preference, one way or the other (because before that, it’s a close run)–is that Marvin’s Bill Masters is more lucid about his aims and the crucial showdown in 7 Men from Now literally takes an eye-blink. For me, the impact is force-multiplied by the compression of time, rather than dispersed by arty slo-mo, but, of course, tastes will vary.

But this is not a simple case of the charismatic villain stealing the show. None of the formidable writing/directing/acting principles were ever better.

Scott’s Stride has a steely conviction that burns deep. He doesn’t strive to be likable. He has no interest in winning friends or influencing people and it’s clear that this isn’t merely a product of riding the revenge trail. We learn, early enough, that it’s the very quality that put his wife in danger.

Gail Russell’s job, playing Annie Greer, is to convey an attraction powerful enough to absorb such knowledge and remain torn between what she feels for Stride and what she owes her husband, even as it becomes clear that Stride would not be an easy man to live with and her husband grows into a figure of whom Marvin’s Masters can say “I was wrong Clete, he wasn’t half a man.”

That’s a tricky line to walk and Russell–one of those actresses who was forever accused of “playing herself” no matter how much one of her screen selves was unlike another–does it beautifully. (I’ve elsewhere called it the most affecting and unassuming performance ever given by a strikingly beautiful woman in a Hollywood film and I’ll stand by that….Did it help that her beauty had faded a touch through hard living and self torment? Maybe. Does it matter? No.)

One false note from the three leads, or even the supporting cast, and the spell would be broken.

It never breaks.

It’s easy enough to say “they don’t make ’em like that anymore” and easy enough for the response to be what a Bill Masters would want. You know: “Thank God for that.”

But the problem isn’t so much that we can’t now make a film like 7 Men from Now (not from lack of the talent–there’s always talent–or even will–put the talent at the disposal of a single strong, gifted personality and you’d be surprised what can result), as the reason we can’t.

It’s not that we can’t live it. We couldn’t “live” it in 1956, when the values that underpin it were still commonly recognized as virtues.

It’s that, absent those virtues, we can’t dream it.

The real residual value of the western (or any other marker of lost worlds, including rock and roll), isn’t what our present can take from it, but someone’s future.

Let’s all hope that future can arrive without an intervening collapse…

…but, hey, ya’ll know how I feel about that.

[NOTE: A recently acquired friend of the blog, the film critic, Blake Lucas, was preeminent in the restoration of 7 Men from Now a few years back. I’ve assured him that his place in heaven is secure.]