There is a moment in Budd Boetticher’s Seven Men From Now (1956) when Lee Marvin’s character voices the observation many of us have already made.  Regarding the lead female character Annie Greer, played by Gail Russell, he remarks, “It just don’t seem right to me, why a full woman like that would settle for half a man”.  Marvin’s character Bill Masters is referring to the fullness, the wholesomeness of Annie Greer, in comparison to her bungling, foolhardy, and, as we come to discover, acquiescent husband John (Walter Reed).  Masters is stating the obvious regarding Annie’s capacities and John’s ineptitude for life, particularly for life in the West. It is Annie’s fullness of character which see her as the most resilient within the film, but also the most receptive to the potential for transformation by her experiences.

Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr note in Ride, Boldly Ride that, “Boetticher gives his characters rare but telling opportunities for individuation and character transformation”.1 They suggest that, rather than the characters facing choices which are concerned with political, social or historical ideals, as is the case with many traditional Westerns, Boetticher’s films position characters to make choices around “moral awakenings” and “self realisation”.2  Boetticher himself has commented that he is far more interested in the characters themselves, than in any ideas or beliefs they may hold.3 In the instance of Seven Men From Now, the lead characters are more or less consistent in their motivations and actions.  According to Bandy and Stoehr, Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) and Masters remain true but it is John Greer who changes in his “will and character”.4 I would argue further that Annie Greer is also the subject of transformation.  Not from half to fully formed as her husband is transformed (Masters remarks at the occasion of John’s death, “I was wrong, he wasn’t just half a man”), but from an Easterner to a Western woman.  Annie, according to Masters, is a woman who can make a man settle down, stop roaming the frontier, give away gun-slinging; “You could grow mighty fond of a woman like that”.

Budd Boetticher

Gail Russell in Seven Men From Now

Seven Men From Now is a classical Western narrative, in keeping with the conventions of the period. On a wet and dark night, a lone man – Ben Stride – confronts and kills two outlaws who are hiding out in a cave.  Taking the dead men’s horses, Stride rides out and encounters the Greer’s, their wagon axle deep in mud.  Coming to their aid, he agrees to accompany them to Flora Vista, a stopover on their journey to California and the town where Stride is expecting to find the remainder of the outlaw gang.  En route, the group encounter various threats – hungry Indians, more bandits.  They are joined by Masters and Clete (Don “Red” Barry), two rather loathsome characters.  Through Masters it is revealed that the outlaw gang have robbed the Silver Springs bank, the former sheriff’s wife was killed in the process. Stride is that former sheriff, seeking vengeance for the death of his wife by killing the seven men who committed the robbery.  Masters is happy enough to follow Stride, his plan is to collect the stolen gold once Stride has done away with the outlaws. Unbeknownst to Stride and Masters, John Greer is transporting the stolen money, a secret also kept from his wife.  The lecherous Masters and his companion are sent on their way by Stride, when John is unable to protect his wife from Masters’ verbal advances.  The film comes to a head in a traditional canyon shoot-out, with only Stride and Annie surviving.

The subtext of the film is the developing affection between Annie Greer and Ben Stride, the thematics of which are amply demonstrated in a key scene of intimacy between the two.  In the previous scene Masters has fetishised Annie, her body and her voice; “You move like you’re all-over alive”. He has a predatory quality to him (it’s Lee Marvin, after all), but his lewdness deepens his villainy further still. John Greer further reveals his “cowardly and obsequious nature” 5 when he does nothing to respond to Masters’ objectification of his wife. It is Stride who defends her honour, banishing Masters from the wagon, knocking him to the ground.  In a storm soaked night, with Masters and Clete dismissed into the darkness by Stride, John takes the sentry until midnight. Stride drags himself under the wagon to sleep, Annie lays above him inside.  Randolph Scott as Stride is “expressively inexpressive”, his face is aged yet ageless 6.  When Annie speaks to him though the boards of the wagon his pain and longing at her gestures of affection are plain across his face. Stride is fully dressed, leather and rough fabrics, the rain falling beyond him.  Inside, Annie is in her underwear, soft with lace trim, beneath her a crochet blanket.  Gail Russell as Annie has an expressive face, eyebrows with a life of their own, furrowed and frowning. She asks him to be careful, and he responds that he intends to.  As Annie outs her lantern her gold wedding band is prominent on the screen, catching what little light is left in the wagon.  The gesture is mirrored as Stride outs his lantern below her, his wedding band also reflecting in the disappearing light.  Of course, the two lay above and below one another; just as any married couple may do.  But they are separated by the boards of the wagon, and by a husband keeping watch just yards away.

Budd Boetticher

Annie has many of the qualities we have come to expect of the Western woman. Budd Boetticher has himself commented that women count for little in the Western, outside of what they cause, inspire or represent; “She herself is of no importance”.7  While Boetticher might be dismissive of his own female characters, he has, perhaps inadvertently, given Annie the most complete and interesting role. Despite his glib remarks, the director has allowed for a woman whose transformative experiences are equal to that of the regular Western male protagonist.  As Marvin/ Masters rightly assesses, Annie is a full woman.  Articulate, compassionate, pragmatic: she jumps right into the mud herself, with no concern for propriety or appearances, lending her hand to her husband, equal to him in their partnership.  If she is unequal it is because he is unwilling to elevate her or be truthful with her, not for any inadequacies on her part.

Annie has her right of reply to Masters’ comment about her devotion to John, although not directly to Masters himself but certainly to the audience.  In conversation with Stride, she asks of him, should she love John any less because he cannot look after her, at least not very well.  Stride responds with a resolute “yes, ma’am”, although it is his own role of disappointing husband which he is lamenting, the murder of his wife having left him deeply guilt ridden.

Budd Boetticher

Ultimately, Annie proves to be the most resilient character of the film, even more so than Ben Stride.  As Stride rides away from her at the conclusion of the film, she is alone, recently widowed, and with everything and nothing before her.  Stride departs, yet he is returning to a familiar way of life, his own home town, his old job (albeit with a demotion).  Annie has been transformed by the West, while retaining all her Eastern refinements.  While Stride has commented that “A man ought to be able to take care of his wife”, Annie has proven without doubt that she can take care of herself.  She demonstrates her agency, her “gumption” (a quality highly regarded in this genre, particularly in films of this era), when she has her luggage removed from the stage, she is to stay in town “for a while”. One could hope she will eventually use her new-found agency to leave in pursuit of Stride, with whom she has shared the transformative experience.

 

Endnotes

  1. Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 220.
  2. Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 220.
  3. “Budd Boetticher”, John Wakeman (ed.), World Film Directors vol. 1, 1890–1945, W. H. Wilson, New York, 1987, p. 34.  Quoted by Adrian Danks in “Crossing Over, or “It’s a Long Way to Lordsburg”: Comanche Station,” Senses of Cinema 33 (October 2004), http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/comanche_station/
  4. Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 221.
  5. Mary Lea Bandy and Kevin Stoehr, Ride, Boldly Ride (Berkeley: University of California Press, 2012), p. 221.
  6. Mike Dibb, “A Time and a Place: Budd Boetticher and the Western”, Jim Kitses and Gregg Rickman (eds), The Western Reader, Limelight, New York, 1998, p. 162. Quoted by Adrian Danks in “Crossing Over, or “It’s a Long Way to Lordsburg”: Comanche Station,” Senses of Cinema 33 (October 2004), http://sensesofcinema.com/2004/cteq/comanche_station/
  7. Quoted in Kitses, Jim, Horizons West:  Directing the Western from John Ford to Clint Eastwood (London:  BFI, 2004), p. 198.