Seven Men from Now: Lee Marvin steals the show in Bud Boetticher’s first and probably finest Western with Randolph Scott

Seven Men from Now (1956) is the first of the seven collaborations between Director Bud Boetticher and star Randolph Scott. This terrific Western, which set the template for the rest of the films in the series, features a scene-stealing performance by then up & coming Lee Marvin.

A man oughta be able to take care of his woman.”

If one has to pinpoint the basic theme that drives Bud Boetticher’s “Seven Men from Now,” as well as his other six Western collaborations with star, Randolph Scott, then the above line spoken by Scott in “Seven men..” will suffice. These seven Westerns, know as the ‘Ranownseries and made between 1956 and 1960, deals with men whose masculinity is in a crisis because they failed to protect their women for one reason or the other. So, when we meet them for the first time in these films, they are out to prove themselves, or redeem themselves, by taking vengeance on the forces responsible for their loss (and also by protecting some weak, helpless souls along the way) . But even though most of these films are revenge-Westerns, that’s not exactly how they unfold on screen for most of its running time. Boetticher and writer Burt Kennedy (who wrote most of these films) strips down the Western to its very basic essentials: for two thirds of the film, the hero is reduced to the archetypal laconic, mysterious stranger, albeit with some character flaws; when the film opens, he’s in the middle of his mission, and we get to know his painful backstory and the purpose of his mission through the supporting characters. During the course of his mission, the hero picks up both friends and enemies, which always includes a woman who’s meant to resemble the woman he lost. The characters- whether good guys or bad guys- are composites: the good guys have flaws, the bad guys have some goodness in them; and they are bound by a strict code of honor, which they refuse to break under any circumstance. The dialogues are terse, and the characters mostly answer a question with another question. In other words the characters are less real, and more abstract symbols. The visual style of these films also reflects the spare, minimalist and straightforward nature of these films, with the barren deserts and buttes of ‘Lone Pine,’ California, photographed in widescreen and color, providing a timelessness and abstractness to these Westerns. All these films were, at the time, designed to be B-Westerns: they were made very cheaply in less than 3 weeks, and their running time was less than 80 minutes.

“Seven Men from Now” is the first, the best and the most definitive Boetticher-Scott Western. In the film, Scott plays Ex-Sheriff Ben Stride, who, as the title suggests, is on the trail of seven men. These men had killed Stride’s wife while robbing a ‘Wells Fargo’ freight office. Stride, who was the Sheriff of ‘Silver Springs,’ lost his job some months ago, and his pride will not allow him to take up the job as deputy Sheriff. To support herself and her husband, Mrs. Stride is forced to take up the job of a clerk at Wells Fargo- which ultimately lead to her death. So having failed as a husband twice- failing to provide for his wife and failing to protect her life- Stride is driven by hurt, ego and anger to bring the seven men responsible for his wife’s death to justice. The opening of the film is a real stunner and perfectly establishes the style and tone of the film (and the lead character): after the credits have finished rolling over a dark, rainy, deserted stretch of wild country, a stranger, with his back to the camera, walks into a dimly lit cave during a torrential downpour. There he meets two strangers, they drink coffee. they talk. The stranger (now revealed to be Scott) explains to them that he was attacked by Apaches on the way and he lost his horse. When he reveals that he is from ‘Silver Springs’, the subject of their talk turns to a killing that happened in Silver Springs. One of the men asks, “they ever catch them fellas who done it?” Scott answers, “two of them.” and then we hear gunshots as the camera cuts to their horses standing nearby. The next scene shows Scott riding one of those horses and dragging the other behind him. Suffice to say that Scott’s “Stride” has somehow managed to track down (or did he accidentally locate them?) two of the seven men responsible for his wife’s death, and killed them. Now he’s after the five who are left. Of course, we don’t know all that at this point. All this will be revealed to us in the course of the film.

And as Stride rides through the Arizona wilderness, he comes across a married couple, John and Annie Greer (Walter Reed and Gail Russell) stranded in the wilderness after their wagon gets stuck in the mud. The couple are coming from Kansas City, and on their way to California and, naturally, they are unused the difficulties of frontier life. Stride, who helps them get their wagon out, is persuaded by the couple to ride West with them in case of further problems. Stride is unenthused at the beginning, but when he realizes that they plan to travel through the town of ‘Flora Vista‘ before turning for California, his interest is aroused and he tags along. Soon, at an abandoned stagecoach Relay station, the threesome are joined by a couple of seedy characters, Bill Masters and Clete (Lee Marvin and Don ‘Red’ Barry). Both of them share a past with Stride- When Stride was Sheriff, he had put them behind bars twice, but Masters now proffers no animosity towards Stride, but he has other selfish reasons for tagging along with the ex-sheriff: Masters is after the twenty-thousand Dollars in gold stolen from the Wells Fargo company, and he’s hoping to steal the dough once Stride is done with the seven outlaws. Along the way they run into a band of Apaches chasing a white man. Stride saves the life of the man, but the man, unknown to Stride, is one of the ‘Seven’ he’s hunting. Before the man could shoot and kill Stride, Masters shoots him in the back and save Stride’s life. This is the kind of thing, the bad guys in ‘Ranown’ movies do: they will not allow the hero to be killed by anybody else other than themselves, and this also ensures that the hero is in their debt.

It is through Masters that we, as well as the married couple, comes to know the backstory of Stride. The attraction that Annie has developed towards Stride during the course of the journey is intensified when she hears this story. The married couple, John and Annie is a pale reflection of Stride and his wife- the husband John is rather weak and clumsy (referred to as half-a-man by Masters) , and is certainly not in the league of Annie- who’s beautiful and resourceful. So it’s natural that Stride, who’s grieving for his wife, would take a liking to Annie, but he does his best not to reveal his feelings; and though the naïve John is oblivious to their silent romance, the willy Masters is not. He uses their forbidden romance as a means for getting his hooks into Stride- leading to the most brilliant scene in the film. It must be said that the best scene in this big-sky, panoramic Western takes place in the claustrophobic confines of a wagon, where Masters uses his eyes, hands and his words more lethally than any gun. During a night of pouring rain and thunder, when Stride, John and Annie are comfortably warming themselves with hot cups of coffee inside the wagon, Masters barges in demanding coffee. Seeing Stride and Annie locking eyes, Masters, impertinently, starts telling a story- he describes how a wife was once lured away from her soft and gentle husband (Masters again uses the words ‘half-a-man’ to describe the husband) by a more rugged, tall and tougher stranger – alluding to the fact that Annie was drawn to Stride:

That’s the trouble with the likes of you and me, Sheriff. We never take time out for the fancy things in life. We leave that to the fellas that run sort of gentle, soft…Been that way ever since ever, l guess. Of course, that ain’t sayin’ that women don’t warm up to the likes of us….Why, l knew me a little old gal one time, looked a whole lot like you, Mrs. Greer. She’d been married maybe five, six years. Husband, he kind of short on spine. And one day, along come this big, good-looking gent started warmin’ up to her. First thing you know, why, this little old gal, she just up and ……..”

Stride interrupts: “Drink your coffee, Masters!,” but Masters nonchalantly continues:

Ain’t you interested in what she up and did, Sheriff?…Yeah, she looked a lot like you, ma’am. But not near as pretty….Well, don’t you want to hear the rest of the story, Mr. Greer? You might could learn somethin’ from it…You know what, Sheriff? l just happened to think of somethin’. Danged if you don’t remind me of that big, good-looking gent l was talkin’ about. You know, the one that run off with the other fella’s woman?…Sure you don’t wanna hear the rest of the story? Suit yourself

Lee Marvin’s performance as the charming, cunning, showy and overconfident Bill Masters- he wears a prominent green scarf around his neck throughout- in the film is truly a scene-stealing one, but he’s particularly good in the above scene. His body language and his line deliveries are just bang on. He behaves like a wild animal who has just invaded a civilized space inhabited by humans. Boetticher’s filmmaking is very simple here, but very very effective- in the way he places the actors and cuts to the close-ups of each one as Masters’ storytelling progresses. Burt Kennedy’s dialogues are also very economical, but pungent, and Marvin knows how to deliver them. Marvin was just coming up as an actor at the time; he had done small parts in “The Wild One” and “The Caine Mutiny” and just before this film, he had a prominent role as a heavy in John Sturges’ “Bad day at Black Rock.” His performance in this film is truly one of the first of his more memorable ones.

After this rather sadistic behavior from Masters, Stride picks a fight with him and asks him to leave. Masters and Clete leave for ‘Flora Vista’ where they run into rest of the four outlaws and their leader Payte Bodeen (John Larch). From Bodeen, Masters learn, to his astonishment and disappointment, that the Twenty-thousand worth of gold that he has been desperately seeking was in the Greers’ wagon all along. Bodeen had bribed a gullible John with $500 to deliver the Wells Fargo box containing the gold to Flora Vista. Back in the canyon, Stride also finds out this truth about the gold from John; Stride has just been injured while fighting & killing another two of the ‘Seven’ whom Bodeen had sent to kill him, and he can hardly walk. But he decides to make a final stand there. He asks the Greers to drop the box in the canyon and leave for California. But John decides that he isn’t leaving Stride all alone to face the outlaws, and decide to turn his wagon to Flora Vista and take help from the town’s Sheriff. At Flora Vista, John and Annie are accosted by the last two outlaws, Bodeen and Clint; John tells Bodeen that Stride has the gold and he’s waiting for Bodeen in the canyon. After that John walks towards the Sheriff’s office, only to be shot in the back and killed by Bodeen. Watching all this from the side, Masters develops a new respect for John and regrets having called him “Half-a-man.” While Annie cries over the dead body of her husband, Bodeen and Clint, as well as Masters and Clete, head for the canyon to confront Stride. In the ensuing gunfight, Stride kills Clint but Bodeen is killed by Masters and Clete. Masters, blinded by greed, then kills Clete and walks out into the clearing where Stride has placed the box of gold. They face off, and Stride kills Masters before he can pull his guns. The film ends with Stride returning to ‘Silver Springs’ with the gold and to take up the post of deputy Sheriff- which his pride had prevented him from taking up before.

“Seven Men from Now” was originally intended to be a star-vehicle for John Wayne. The project was developed by Wayne’s company, Batjac, with Bud Boetticher as the director. But Wayne had to leave the project as he was already contracted to do “The Searchers” for John Ford. But since he had spend a substantial amount on money on Pre-production, Wayne decided to proceed with the production of “Seven men..” with another actor. It was then that Wayne suggested Randolph Scott for the film The film would have been very different with Wayne as hero; because then this would be an A-List production, and hence the budget and the running time for the film would have to be increased. So, it may not have the lean, mean precision that it has now. Wayne insisted on the casting of (then down & out) Gail Russell as the heroine of the film. Russell had co-starred with Wayne in two films, and as it was his nature to help his friends in their time of need, Wayne gave Russell a shot at a comeback with the reasonably meaty role of a woman who married a weak and ineffectual man but would stick by him. Russell had a tragic life marred by alcoholism and insecurities generated by her thankless profession. Nevertheless, she plays her part perfectly here and it’s almost as if she was able to channel all the dissatisfaction with her own life into Annie Greer.

“Seven Men from Now”  did not make a great impact at the time but is now regarded by many as one of Scott’s best, as well as the one that launched Scott and Boetticher into a successful collaboration that totaled seven films. Boetticher was one of those talented directors who never broke into the A-List, and throughout the career had to be contend with making B movies. A bullfighter before becoming a director, Boetticher endowed these films with formal precision and visual elegance, especially in the clean, uncluttered way he shot the majestic landscape of the California Sierras. Most of these films were pessimistic in nature and possess elements of dark humor. Unsurprisingly, Boetticher- Scott Westerns were a huge influence on Sergio Leone and other ‘Spaghetti’ Western filmmakers, as well as Quentin Tarantino. All of the opening scenes (and Clint Eastwood’s entrances) in the ‘Dollars’ trilogy is directly influenced by how Boetticher opens his ‘Scott’ Westerns. Boetticher also influenced how violent scenes are staged in Leone and Tarantino films, where a long buildup- either through long silences or long conversations- is followed by a quick burst of violence. Boetticher’s Westerns were described by critic Andrew Sarris as “free-floating poker games” where everyone takes turns to bluff everyone else. One of the great pleasures of these films is seeing Scott match wits with charming bad guys like Lee Marvin, Richard Boone and Claude Atkins. It’s also interesting to note that Boetticher’s Spartan Westerns came at a time when Westerns were becoming big and epic- whether it’s Ford’s “The Searchers” or William Wyler’s “The Big County” or the mammoth Cinerama epic “How the West was won.” Though Boetticher did not win much acclaim during the height of his career, he won much deserved critical attention in the final stages of his life thanks to European critics. Today, he’s considered one of the greatest Western directors if all time, and his Westerns have survived the test of time much better than many of the more successful Westerns from the period.

Randolph Scott was the quintessential Western hero. Scott acted in more than 100 films in a career spanning more than 30 years- of which more than 60 films were Westerns. Scott was not a great actor, but he was tall, handsome and had a powerful voice, which made him perfect for Westerns. Though Scott had already broken new ground within the Western genre at the beginning of the 1950s with a string of ‘Adult’ Westerns he made at Warner Bros. with director Andre de Toth, it was his collaboration with Bud Boetticher that made him an icon. While Scott’s screen image up until this time was that of a debonair, morally upright lawman, Boetticher took it a step further by turning the lawman into a seething, guilt-ridden, social outcast & avenging angel, lost in a unforgiving landscape- the character (and the film) blurred the boundaries between good and evil, and also bend the conventions of the ‘Western’ genre. In these films Scott is the classical loner, haunted by the demons of his past and desperate to make up for the character flaws and inadequacies that brought him to his present state. He can be hard and ruthless when the circumstances demand but still retains a sensitivity to those who are dependent on him. This role was well-suited for Scott’s rather stiff and self-conscious acting style, where his rather wooden face masked his emotions and true intentions. After finishing Comanche Station (1960), which was the last ‘Ranown’ Western, Scott made just one more film- Sam Peckinpah’s classic Western, “Ride the High Country”- before he retired for good. He was 64 at the time and, by then, had become very wealthy thanks to his investments in real estate, gas, oil wells, and securities. Scott died of heart and lung ailments in 1987 at the age of 89. 

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