Seven Men from Now
(Check out my previous Western film review here: A Lawless Street)
Seven Men from Now was the first in a series of 7 Westerns created between 1956 and 1960, all directed by Budd Boetticher and staring Randolph Scott. The series is known as the Ranown Cycle and in each film, the exploits of a lone gunman who has undertaken a mission or a journey, on account of a lost past, moves through a world seemingly right on the precipice of nihilism, with no more great Trad Western metaphysical distinctions between good and evil, with likable rogues who coil in friendship, for a time, before unfurling to lash out and make clear the substance of their natures. This cycle is the predecessor of the Revisionist Western par excellence.
Apart from the pairing of director Boetticher and actor Scott, there are a few other technicians who make the cycle a real collection of films. Screenwriter Burt Kennedy contributed the scripts for four of the seven pictures (including Seven Men from Now),
while Charles Lang contributed scripts for two (Decision at Sundown, Buchanan Rides Alone) of the remaining three. After Seven Men from Now, producer Harry Joe Brown funded the following three picture in the cycle, and Budd Boetticher himself took up the helm to produce two of the three remaining pictures. With such a tight-knit group of recurring characters on the production side of the Ranown Cycle, Boetticher had an opportunity to do something that few directors have ever had: to create a true group of films in which his artistic integrity would be paramount in the creation of each. The result: today the films are all held in high esteem with critical ratings on sites like Rotten Tomatoes of 100% for the majority of the films in the cycle, and Boetticher is something of a legendary director of American cinema for his great contributions to Western filmmaking, specifically through the achievement of the Ranown Cycle.
In the first film of this series, Randolph Scott plays a mysterious drifter named Ben Stride who is out for blood. He is searching for a particular group of men, seven men who recently knocked over a bank in a town called Silver Springs. They left with some $20k in gold and probably nearly crippled the town’s economy thereby, but this is not the major point of contention for Stride. No, they also killed a clerk at the bank during their operation. A clerk who just so happened to be his wife.
And Stride blames himself. You see, Stride used to be the Sheriff in Silver Springs, but he was no good at politics and was slowing becoming an old man who some of the townsfolk didn’t see fit to keep the peace any longer. When elections came up for the new Sheriff position, he was voted out in lieu of a younger man. Although he fought to regain his reputation as a gunslinger and an able-bodied keeper of the peace, he and his wife were on hard times with no stable income. She took the job as a clerk of the town’s bank to make ends meet, and as such, he can see how old Ben Stride felt he was responsible: If he had kept a hold of his job, she would have never been in bank in the first place.
Stride’s mission now is to kill all seven of the men who were responsible for the heist, to reclaim the money and send it back to the bank, and to thereby regain his position as the town’s Sheriff through his overwhelming acts of valor, of glory, and of revenge. But along the way, he runs into a young couple, The Greers, who are travelling in the same direction as himself, toward Flora Vista where a few of the robbers lie in wait for Stride’s arrival. The husband, John Greer, was given a job, unbeknownst to his wife or to Ben Stride to deliver the chest with the money to the men in Flora Vista for $500 (no small sum today, let alone a century and a half ago).
To add another complication to the entire affair, a man named Bill Masters (played by the great Lee Marvin) travelling with a seedy gunman named Clete, knows Stride, knows about the money, and decides to tag along with Stride to help kill the robbers. However, it is made explicit to Stride by Masters that he intends take the money after the mission has been completed, and he knows that Stride will not just hand it over willingly. He knows that there will be a final confrontation between the two men, and he respects Stride nonetheless. There is no feeling throughout any part of the film that this is a tale of good versus evil. Instead, it is a tale of roguish figures with different, but no less honorable moral codes butting heads merely to survive, and if able, to thrive out in this desert wasteland.
The men who killed Stride’s wife did not do so out of enmity for the one-time Sheriff of Silver Springs. No, they didn’t even know that she was his wife until well after Stride took after them and began hunting them like dogs. The men killed Mrs. Stride by accident during the hold-up, and if they knew then what they know now, they would have never entertained such a thought, would have been much more careful to leave her alive and unharmed. Stride is no longer a Sheriff, and by hunting these men down, he is merely acting out a revenge fantasy at best, which is validated legally merely as a bounty run, and at worst is making a supposed heroic play to win back hi sold job and the esteem that came with it. John Greer is low on money and needs to get he and his wife to California where the prospect of making a better lifer for themselves is at least plausible. So he takes the job of hauling away the money, no questions asked. And Masters is out for money, but will ultimately not try to gun down Stride without a fair fight in the open, not without a traditional shootout to see who has the quicker draw.
Moreover, the men who killed Stride’s wife often ambush the ageing one-time lawman, but once outwitted and brought down to Stride’s level, down below the rocks fighting out in the open, they fight, and die like men with honor. John Greer realizes the error of his ways and refuses to hand over the money to the men once he finds out what they had to do to get it. He tries to aid Stride by hailing a Sheriff in Flora Vista, but is gunned down by the men in town who killed Stride’s wife. Masters, proves his honor by fighting like a man, mano e mano with Stride. And Stride proves his honor by not taking advantage of John Greer’s death to woo his beautiful wife Annie Greer (Gail Russell), despite the too being obviously amorous.
Seven Men from Now is taut and gripping, it is dark and amoral, it is ultimately heroic though tragic, and it is a dramatic work with a comedic eye toward the absurdity of life. And as one man falls after another because of the consequences of their unwitting actions or through their motivations, their basic core natures, the bodies leave no real emotional imprint on the viewer beyond the recognition that one day, our lives too will end, and when they do, nothing will change, life will go on, and we, the one-time players in this farcical game called life, have only dealt our final hand, a losing hand, the last of our chips on the table. And not even a crucifix in that death-hand will change the final equation: Death is Oblivion.
[Next up: The Tall T]