Here's a movie I really wish wasn't stupid. 1966's 7 Women, the final film of the great director John Ford, is another example of a filmmaker's attempt to be progressive in the 1960s coming off as terribly awkward. Some great performances and nice compositions unfortunately do not redeem it.
I suspect the motivation behind the project was to address the stigma attached to female sexuality. That having a number of sexual partners is seen as diminishing a woman's worth. Ford and his screenwriters seem to have decided to address this issue by creating a situation where a woman sells sexual favours in order to save the lives of several people. Unfortunately, the situation they created is based on too apparent logical problems causing the story to be too transparent and the ideological motives to come across too simplistically.
Anne Bancroft is cool as hell when she's introduced dressed like Indiana Jones. I really wanted to like this movie where her Dr. Cartwright is the central protagonist, a chain-smoking atheist doctor assigned to a Christian mission in rural 1930s China.
The film's divided into two acts--the first isn't so bad, it's about a cholera outbreak at the mission. The head of the mission is Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) whose faith is shaken by proximity to so much death and suffering. She delivers the content of her character in some rather awkwardly straight exposition, confessing to Cartwright her commitment to God is an attempt to make up for the emptiness of a life without a family. Curiously, the story doesn't make any attempt to say Bancroft's untraditional lifestyle has left a similar void in her life. Though there is an awkward scene where, after the cholera outbreak is over, a drunken Cartwright tells the assembled women about a love affair that went wrong.
The title of the film may have been a nod to Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa, a director Ford liked. The second act of 7 Women bears some resemblance to Seven Samurai in that it involves a group of bandits attacking the mission.
It's here the film really falls apart. It's bad enough the Mongol bandit leader Tunga Khan is played by an Austrian man and his second in command is played by African American Woody Strode. But the main problem is in how stories told about Khan's gang earlier in the film told bluntly of how these men had indiscriminately killed, burned and raped. When they merely imprison the white women, and turn the one Chinese woman among them into a servant, the reason is given that they're keeping them for ransom. This seems a little shaky to begin with, but when Cartwright agrees to granting sexual favours to Khan in exchange for medical supplies for one of the women who's going into labour it all becomes much more insubstantial. No-one asks the obvious question--why wouldn't Khan rape Cartwright? Why does he have to barter with her? This unasked question becomes a greater and greater problem as Cartwright eventually trades enough sex to get all the other women freed, presumably losing Khan the ransoms he expected to get for them.
All the while, Agatha spits vaguely biblical venom about Cartwright, calling her a slut and "whore of Babylon" until the most pious and devoted of the other missionaries becomes disgusted with her and, by implication, the heart of the film turns against religious demagoguery.
It's a shame, because the intention is quite good and Ford was a great director. I would point to Powell and Pressberger's Black Narcissus from twenty years earlier as a film that had much better success at conveying a similar statement.