Seven Women (1966): Ford’s Last ilm, Starring Anne Bancroft and Margaret Leighton

A  tribute to the resilient strength of women in dire conditions, “Seven Women” is John Ford’s very last film, and unfortunately, an underestimated one.
Ford works from a  script by Janet Green and John McCormick, based on the story “Chinese Finale” by Norah Lofts.
The film boasts an all-star cast (both British and American) of three generation of actresses: Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field, and Anna Stein
Anne Bancroft, just before playing the seminal Mrs. Robinson in “The Graduate,” took over the role of Dr. Cartwright, when Patricia Neal (Oscar-winner for “Hud”), who had been Ford’s first choice, suffered a series of strokes.
The story is set in China in 1935 on a remote missionary post, mostly populated by women, and facing endless threats from within and from outside.
Appearances are deceitful. On the surface, everything seems calm and orderly as the severe head of the mission, Miss Agatha Andrews (the splendid British actress Margaret Leighton) runs the place rigidly, self-righteously committed to her notion of Christian piety.
The other women at the mission are Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock), her loyal assistant; Miss Binns (Flora Robson) and Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee) from the nearby British mission, who are seeking safety from the war atrocities; Mrs. Florrie Pether (Betty Field), whose husband, Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) is a mission teacher and the only male there; Miss Ling (Jane Chang), the Chinese mission teacher and translator and Emma Clark (Sue Lyon), a member of the staff and the youngest and prettiest girl.
The arrival of an outsider, the elegant, cynical, atheist doctor, Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft), soon disrupts the fragile peace, especially when Emma becomes the doctor’s admirer. Sporting pants and a leather jacket, and with a cigarette constantly in her mouth, Cartwright stands apart from the group of women.
Predictably, Cartwright and Andrews clash over the former’s approach to work, her profane speech, her smoking, and her lack of interest in participating in the ritualistic prayers.
Gradually, all kinds of neurotic tensions begin to rise, some of which due to Miss Andrews’ repressed lesbianism and her latent attraction for Emma.

Then Florrie gets pregnant but fears she is too old to give birth, not to mention the mission’s primitive sanitary conditions. Dangers further escalate when a cholera break out, and they go from worse to worst when the place is attacked by Mongol marauders who commit atrocities and other acts of barbarism.

Cartwright manages to inspire the women to great bravery and they manage to cope with extremely dangerous situations. But there is a price to be paid: To save the group, Cartwright is forced to offer herself up as a concubine to the Mongol leader, Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki).  This sets a rift among the missionaries: Agatha is appalled by Cartwright’s decision, while Miss Binns and the other femmes applaud her courage and spirit.
At the film’s powerful conclusion, Cartwright toasts her ruthless captor Tunga Khan with a poisoned cup of tea which he drinks and immediately falls to his death, while coldly uttering: “So long ya bastard!”
The women are fully developed as individual characters, not social types. Throughout, each member of the group offers a different response to the various dangers, which gives the film depth and diversity. Ford is generous enough a director to accord each femme a number of good scenes.
Production values are polished, with lush music score by Elmer Bernstein and sharp cinematography by Joseph LaShelle.
This film signaled the end of the spectacular, five-decade career of John Ford, who had won four directing Oscars.
Cast
Anne Bancroft as Dr. D.R. Cartwright
Sue Lyon as Emma Clark, Mission Staff
Margaret Leighton as Agatha Andrews, Head of Mission
Flora Robson as Miss Binns, Head of British Mission
Mildred Dunnock as Jane Argent, Andrews’ Assistant
Betty Field as Mrs. Florrie Pether, Charles’ pregnant wife
Anna Lee as Mrs. Russell, Mission Staff
Eddie Albert as Charles Pether, Mission Teacher
Mike Mazurki as Tunga Khan, Bandit Leader
Woody Strode as Lean Warrior
Jane Chang as Miss Ling, Mission Staff
Hans William Lee aa Kim, Mission Staff