It’s no secret that John Ford expended a life’s worth of energy both begrudgingly celebrating and categorically expunging the individualist violence of the American West while also quietly questioning the worth of the supposed righteous path to civilization proposed by so many Westerns in the American mind. The Searchers, his most famous film, and his most piercing commentary on the harshness of the path to American civilization, ends with a beacon of wild and wooly old West vigilantism, embodied in the bellicose John Wayne, leaving through the doorway of civilization. Many classic Westerns begin with a mythic hero ceremoniously wandering into a town to engage in the violence Ford felt was ultimately, if unfortunately, necessary on the path to peace; The Searchers doesn’t radically reject the notion of Western civilization, although it proposes that the white men who paved the way for this society don’t belong in it much at all. So Wayne entered the new world, and so too he must leave.
Over a decade later, Ford skulked out of the cinematic world as unceremoniously as Wayne walked out of the door. His final film, 7 Women, received the butt end of a B-picture double bill and, outside of Andrew Sarris and the Cahiers crowd, was almost never heard from again. The film similarly invades and contests the so-called civilizing impulse of the Western world, but it doesn’t end with a character walking out of the door leading away from civilization. The uncharacteristically grim film for the ever-rosy Ford concludes with no door to walk out of, and as one character falls it is the camera itself that must recede as the lights dim, a Western hero stands alone, adroit, and civilization politely looks the other way.
The character still standing wears a cowboy’s outfit, but D. R. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) is a doctor, first, and a woman second, and although the introductory shot might posit otherwise, she’s in Northern China in 1935 working in a Christian Missionary headed by the ever-devout Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton). Cartwright is an atheist and a skeptic, two things Andrews frowns on as Ford uncharacteristically enters Black Narcissus territory in a film that actively denies and refutes any semblance of masculine impulse. It’s telling that the camera must fade out around Cartwright when she submits her own act of violence to conclude the film. When Cartwright engages in such an act, Ford clearly sympathizes with her rebellion against a masculine world, but the frightened camera must turn away and shun her as well. There’s no escape; not for Cartwright, and maybe not for the camera. In 7 Women, men are unforgiving, savage, ignoble beasts, and the only way to beat them is to submit to their ways, and die with them in the process.
Men are also, importantly, Mongols in 7 Women, and counterpoints to the white women in the film. If 7 Women provocatively stands up for traditionally feminine notions of life while also subverting the role of women (in a distinctly Hawksian gesture) by sympathizing with the pants-clad, chain-smoking, atheist Cartwright, it also shamefully and problematically perches its masculine protagonists along uncomfortably racist lines. Admittedly, these men don’t enter the film until almost the final third; the earlier portions rescind themselves to the interpersonal conflicts of the women in the missionary and Ford’s pointed criticism of the white American imperialist impulse. With 1966 America already deep in the middle of the Vietnam War, one character’s pitiful, negligible comment that they’ll all be ok because of their collective American identity finds the usually Hawkish Ford shaking his head at America’s unearned assumption of moral and physical victory in any and all situations.
A noble question on the film’s part, contorted and torn apart by the tangled web of progressivism and conservatism it paints in bold, even blood-red strokes. If the film upends traditional notions of gender by sympathizing with an unkempt, unburdened woman, it also contrasts that woman with horridly racialized depictions of Mongols that differ little from the omnipresent Native American “other” in Westerns of old. If the film exposes the egotism in American civilizing impulses and raggedly ripostes masculine notions of viciousness, it also secretly wishes that Americans could just civilize the world, provided the savages of other races would only listen. For every challenging gesture, including the way the lone white male in the film is presented as an essentially passive figure, another crude and nonredemptive explosion of American superiority percolates elsewhere.
The only constant in the film is its inconstancy, then, extending Ford’s rough, cluttered attempts to break free of the limitations of the classical Western archetypes he often contested in his films but never quite escaped the breath of. Released in 1966, one year before the New Hollywood would explode and Westerns would more incontrovertibly contest, and detest, their classical origins, no year could be more fitting for a film so trapped between reductive myths of old and the more anxious, revisionist gestures of the new. Indeed, while 7 Women is entangled in the shadow of the American Dream that still shrouds the Western genre in more ways than one, it also prefigures the more ruthless, even nihilistic likes of The Wild Bunch.
It is telling that Ford’s final film is his most savage, although it is most definitely a John Ford film. Bearing his customarily perfect framing and character blocking, he transforms the innards of the missionary into a hot house of suffocating dread and boiling, malleable power dynamics, epitomized in the shifting physical depictions of the women who rise and fall in the frame as they grow and shrink in command of their lives and of the mission itself. Still, the craft is applied in a death-marked tone usually rejected by the romantic Ford; when Cartwright takes a life at the end, the tone is not heroic but forlorn and sorrowful.
If Ford’s film corroborates America’s view of the outside world as fundamentally nasty, it also exhibits contempt for America for assuming it could spread itself out over that nastiness and exert control over it. Ford, as per usual, was entering a troubled discursive region with his final film, a fair masterpiece of craft if not of purpose or social insight. He never overcame the worst features of the genre that birthed him, and the genre that he birthed, but 7 Women reveals he never gave up the fight to test those features, to expose their limits. If this film necessarily succumbs to those limits, and if the world ought to dim its lights on the imperialist views inherent to the likes of 7 Women just as Ford darkens the world of this distraught, shriveled arm of Western colonialism, it should not unfairly drop complicated films like 7 Women into the dustbin of history. Its visual craft is inimitable and its nervous social insights breed a worthy discussion that has yet to be fully completed fifty years later. Despite the cramped claustrophobia of the missionary corridors, 7 Women is a surprisingly spacious vessel for interpretation. Don’t excuse it or deny it; debate with it.
If John Ford’s 1966 Western stands as titanic testament to that director’s implacable commitment to dissecting his genre of choice, testing its mettle, and deconstructing its very limits, then Howard Hawks’ Western from the same year just shows he liked living for the sauce. The drunken, leisurely, adorably circumstantial El Dorado – a film that harbors no misgivings about being a functional remake of Hawks’ earlier Rio Bravo – is different from Rio Bravo only in that it moves the hangout Western sub-genre so far into mint julep sipping territory it might as well be farcical.
The two 1966 films – 7 Women and this one – are diametric opposites, and yet they both eschew narrative for the more elemental pleasures of characters trapped in a location they can’t control. Yet if 7 Women foretold the continuation of the fire-and-brimstone West with a bitter, desperately cynical eye ever-tightening the coils with venom and oil, the diffident El Dorado casually and luxuriously bathes in the genre’s muscle relaxants. John Carpenter would famously remake Rio Bravo as a nerve-shattering urban nightmare, but Hawks’ remake of his own film couldn’t be more de-stressed.
Leigh Brackett even rewrites her own screenplay from Rio Bravo in El Dorado, applying a canny air of slithering self-critique that pokes fun at both John Wayne’s age and the relative standardization of old-fogey roles in these types of Westerns which were rapidly going the way of the film noir (before lightning would shock the Western genre back to life a couple of years later). The restful, ever-calming nature of the film, endlessly skirting the central conflict and keeping it at bay with good cheer and friendly company, almost mocks its refusal to commit to its darker impulses (Hawks himself felt the film had no real plot to speak of). If 7 Women defined the West as a stagebound nightmare, the relentlessly theatrical El Dorado uses its setbound comfort and relative lack of menace as a way to express the easy-going fictionality of the Old West myth. Watching El Dorado, we get the sense that Hawks freely admitted that the so-called Old West was naught but a fable, an excuse to gather around a campfire and tell stories. So that’s exactly what he does.
Although it’s significantly shorter than Rio Bravo, El Dorado manages to flaunt its lackadaisical, chill-out demeanor even more so by adamantly refusing to peruse its central conflict until near the end of the film. Instead, it sets up the characters, alternating between light comedy and fringe melancholy creeping into the frame, all the more disconcertingly due to the film’s seeming reluctance to engage in its sorrows. The hanging out eventually casts a pall over the film, as if the characters are engaging in endless conversation so as to hide the silence and the spectral, lingering threats crawling around within it. Robert Mitchum’s nominally drunken sheriff requires the help of old pal John Wayne and a young knife-slinger (James Cann, fine in an early role until saddled with the film’s lone misfire, a cringe-inducing scene where he is asked to pretend to be Asian) when a cadre of goons comes after him. And in the fastidious yet ever-troubled Mitchum, who wields a joke like a respite from the soul-searching bottle, the film boasts a hushed lament of loneliness and a paean to camaraderie and its ability to stave away the internal turmoil lurking within us all.
The leisurely pace, however, belies Hawks’ usual formalist control of physical space that emphasizes the closeness of the characters and the camaraderie and community between them. In stark contrast to the violent contrasting geometry of 7 Women, where characters seldom exist on the same lateral plane in the frame, El Dorado emphasizes a certain horizontal harmony between characters and the camera, which seldom rises above or below the main characters or articulates the power relationships between them. It’s a subtle, almost unspoken gesture, but it does well to remind that Howard Hawks was not only a director united in his interests but in his aesthetics as well. The rolling chatter, the emphasis on conversation as precedent over the more assertive forms of action traditionally epitomized in genre films, and the wandering perusal of human relationships; all are quintessential Hawksian gestures, but they also unite under his level-headed, innately spatial control of the camera.
When the Cahiers crowd developed their auteur theory around Hawks, enshrining him in the canon of great directors in the process, they were mostly thinking of theme and texture, and not style. But a great Hawks film is, if more quietly, lithely notable in its style than a Ford film or a Hitchcock film, no less characterized by its attention to formal detail. Hawks didn’t enjoy revealing his personality as a visual director, but his films, even at their most slackened and unknotted, sparkle with character-focused visual ingenuity nonetheless. El Dorado doesn’t subscribe to any conventional definition of great cinema, but it’s okay with that; it’s having too much fun lazing around on a Sunday afternoon.