Directed by Budd Boetticher; Written by Burt Kennedy
The western trades in killing, and dead bodies are its currency, as eye-for-an-eye justice appeals to our baser instincts and murder is simply spectacle, genre touchpoints as commonplace as sunsets and whiskey. When it comes to the fallout, shot bodies freeze in a second of incredible pain before they keel over and slump like long shadows, face-downard and quickly forgotten. Who they were doesn’t matter, what does is that we saw them die.
Seven Men from Now is driven by revenge like so many other westerns, like The Revengers, and yet it’s something else entirely. A revenge tale on paper, it’s a story of a deposed sheriff who sets out to murder the men who killed his wife during a robbery. Yet we never see the fateful event and nor do we see Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) do away with his first two victims, catching them hiding from a downpour in a cave.
With ironclad focus he pries into their comings and goings, and the two men grow uneasy of this man who walked in out of the rain with contempt in his eyes. When they finally put the pieces together, it’s too late: Gunshots are heard, and the scene cuts to morning where Stride rides along, once again dry and undisturbed by last night. Showing little outward emotion during the unshown act, all we know is this man has a singular purpose on this and the person inside has not come along for the trip.
He comes across the Greers (Gail Russell and Walter Reed) bound for California, but whose wagon’s now stuck in the mud. Stride, with know-how and assertion, gets them on their way, and he agrees to let them accompany him cross-country. Lucky for Mr. Greer, whose salesperson background is at odds with his frontier dreams, and unlucky for Mrs. Greer, who feels something stir when she looks at Stride, his lived-in confidence, and well-fitting jeans.
It’s an unlikely threesome, and sexual tension grows to a point where you could drive the Greers’ wagon through it, and while Mr. Greer is obtuse to the funk in the air, another newcomer to the party will soon ram it down his throat.
Lee Marvin, who’d become famous for being a taciturn hardass, plays Bill Masters, a salacious baddie who falls in with the group as they head west. Running his mouth at every opportunity, Marvin seems to revel in the obvious tension and in being a leering creep. His king-size bed of a lower lip juts out in naughty insolence below his lascivious grin, feeling no shame as he pokes fun at Mr. Greer for his lacklustre “manliness” and openly questions Mrs. Greer whether she wouldn’t like to try it on with someone who’s more at home in assless chaps?
Next to Scott’s stoic Stride, Masters is a scene-stealer, and a ton of fun, and it’s obvious Marvin’s enjoying himself a lot too.
As fun as the innuendo-laden exchanges are, Boetticher doesn’t forget why people tuned in to watch: gunfights! Seven Men From Now has a few great ones, but it’s all the more compelling with its guns holstered. Writer Kennedy and director Boetticher are more concerned with what makes a good man, a question that’s both pointed and immediate in this land where gunplay and gumption are in high stock, and when it’s finally time to duel, from the filmmakers there’s a sense of “right, I guess this is what we came here to do,” and even then they opt for calculated tension over all-out pandemonium.
The infusion of melodrama distinguishes Seven Men From Now, because the real showdowns are not at high noon, they’re in the stolen glances cast in the dead of night. The film’s violence isn’t frothing at the mouth or gleeful in its infliction, as the worst has already happened for Stride, and every bad guy he guns down won’t change the fact that these are the actions of a heart-broken man.
It’s never maudlin, thankfully, because Scott plays Stride with death mask-like stolidity, only comes to life in the vicinity of Mrs. Greer, and even then it’s restrained, as if he tries to fight his urges down. The lonely hunter we meet at the outset meets his biggest challenges yet, and the almost militant discipline Scott evokes makes the subtle changes in demeanour feel earth-moving.
Seven Men From Now and its focus on grief, guilt and healing is refreshing, all the while remaining an exciting spectacle when it wants to be. Charged looks, tense shootouts, tough, but breaking men – there’s something to be said for films that can bridge the gap between emotional self-improvement while still remaining true to the reptile brain ethos of frontier justice. Yes, you can grow as a person, but sometimes men need killing still.