A masterpiece, pure and simple

A few months ago in this space we noted the return from limbo of the beloved mid-'50s mega-hit "The High and the Mighty," sprung from the vaults of John Wayne's old Batjac company thanks to a deal with Paramount Pictures. Any restoration is by definition a happy occasion, but now there's news of much greater aesthetic and historical consequence from the same quarter. Two weeks ago, Paramount gave us back the best movie by far ever to sport the Batjac label: the legendary 1956 Western "Seven Men From Now."

Batjac had a B-movie arm in addition to the main unit setting up A-class vehicles for producer-star Wayne, and "Seven Men From Now," which clocks in at a second-feature length of just under an hour and 20 minutes, was made under its auspices for release by Warner Bros. No one at Batjac was expecting more from it than reasonable profitability. The screenwriter was a new guy, Burt Kennedy, who'd been scribbling for radio; the director, Budd Boetticher (pronounced BETT-ih-krr), was a colorful fellow who'd started out as a bullfighter in Mexico, made some trim B movies in the '40s, one distinctive, highly personal film, "The Bullfighter and the Lady" (produced by John Wayne, as a matter of fact), in 1950 and reverted to only slightly more upscale Bs in the '50s. Wayne being occupied at the time giving his finest performance ever in John Ford's "The Searchers," the leading role fell to Randolph Scott, a fading star who'd been working exclusively in mostly unremarkable Westerns since the mid-'40s. Nothing special, any way you look at it.

Except that "Seven Men From Now" turned out to be a terrific movie. As a Western, it was an authentic genre original, telling a dandy story that kept taking surprising turns and disclosing new layers of complexity in the journeys and interrelationships of its characters. The dialogue had a wry, persuasively frontier ring to it, especially as delivered by Lee Marvin playing a deceptively affable scalawag with an elegant, overlong green scarf. Scott's lines were good, too, but terse and considered, as befit the star's accustomed reticence that, in other contexts, tended to make for wooden performances. Both their characters had things on their mind that they weren't about to talk about straight out; the dialogue was equally eloquent in what got said and what didn't get said.

Beyond all that, the film was, simply and thrillingly, a masterpiece of cinema. Boetticher's setups were never fancy or pretentious, but there was always something tensile about the point of view, the disposition of people within the frame and within the spare, mostly desert-rock landscape and the way shots cut together as the action turned brusquely lethal. It'd be nice to report that audiences embraced the movie as a singular event in American cinema history, but in fact it took the French - notably the influential critic André Bazin - to recognize the film's distinction and praise it for working its narrative miracles without ever breaking a sweat or breaking faith with the unassuming requirements of its genre.

Make no mistake, Scott and Boetticher knew they'd hit on a good thing. Reuniting with his longtime producing partner Harry Joe Brown, Scott kept Boetticher on to make five more low-budget Westerns over the next half-decade. "The Tall T" (1957), "Decision at Sundown" (1957), "Buchanan Rides Alone" (1958), "Ride Lonesome" (1959) and "Comanche Station" (1960) - "the Ranown cycle," as it came to be known (from Randolph Scott and Harry Joe Brown) - were all good pictures; "The Tall T," "Ride Lonesome" and "Comanche Station" are better than good. Perhaps not coincidentally, those three are also from scripts credited to Burt Kennedy, though the disappointing fact is that none of Kennedy's own films (he became a writer-director in 1961) ever came near the highs of the Boetticher collaborations. Ironically - and Mr. Boetticher always relished irony - the Ranown pictures, which were released through Columbia, would remain more or less constantly available over the years, on TV and through film societies, while the movie whose success had inspired them was nowhere to be seen for more than 20 years following John Wayne's death.

It saw the light of day again in 2000, when a UCLA restoration was showcased at the prestigious New York Film Festival to the ecstatic reception of press and audiences. Budd Boetticher was there for it - a happy, gallant gentleman - and Burt Kennedy knew about it. Both men would die the following year. But their film lives. God, does it live. And we'll never lose it again. -RTJ[[In-content Ad]]