Genre as variations on a theme: Seven Men From Now (Budd Boetticher, 1956)

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Seven Men from Now is a film entirely concerned with being what it is, not just by avoiding larger matters, symbolic or otherwise, but in how it focuses on showing and revealing one small story. It’s about the journey Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) takes to revenge himself upon the seven men who killed his wife during a train robbery. Along the way, he meets two settlers, Annie (Gail Russell) and John Greer (Walter Reed), and gunslinger Bill Masters (Lee Marvin); these three become part of his story too.

This film only involves a few characters. Even the seven men play little part. Rather, the film gradually explores the relationships between the four leads. They are all connected, and slowly drawn closer together. Reveals are made slowly and with understatement, and many thoughts are unspoken. Every nuance is explored as the journey continues, and as the characters separate and reunite.

In this context, an actor such as Lee Martin can be a standout with little effort. In only a few exaggerated gestures, Masters becomes positively flamboyant. He makes advances toward Annie in full view of her husband, he practices his quickdraw, he delivers exposition about the past that Stride has no interest in revealing. He’s charismatic, and funny, and ruthless, and his self-confidence may be his downfall.

Stride and Masters stand in stark contrast. Scott is stoically inexpressive, making every slight indication of Stride’s inner feelings significant. In an inventive scene, Stride sleeps out of the rain under a wagon, directly beneath where Annie will spend the night. A great deal passes between the characters even though they cannot see each other. Stride has been ruined by loss, and all that remains are remnants of emotions connected to his former life.

This film is rarely visually striking. Its landscapes are barren, with only one desert scene having a sense of beauty to it, and an unlikely one at that. Little details are important: a cloud of dust rising signals approaching riders; a wagon crossing a river sends sunlit ripples across the water, the journey briefly taking a pleasant turn; hidden gaps between rocks offer misleading means of escape, or entrapment. These are not Ford’s landscapes, or even Leone’s; they are unextravagant and often as ungiving as the film’s protagonist.

Seven Men From Now will feel familiar to anyone who’s ever seen a western. However, in its lack of scope, downplaying of iconography, and disinterest in violence, it shows how thoughtful decisions can create distinctiveness and defy expectations. As much as anything, the film is a highly successful commentary on the western. Its simplicity belies its intelligence and, under analysis, becomes its most accomplished feature.

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