(director: John Ford; screenwriters: John McCormick/Janet Green/from the novel Chinese Finale by Norah Lofts; cinematographer: Joseph LaShelle; editor: Otho S. Lovering; music: Elmer Bernstein; cast: Anne Bancroft (Dr. D.R. Cartwright), Sue Lyon (Emma Clark, Mission Staff), Margaret Leighton (Agatha Andrews, Head of Mission), Flora Robson (Miss Binns, Head of British Mission), Mildred Dunnock (Jane Argent, Andrews’ Assistant), Betty Field (Mrs. Florrie Pether, Charles’ pregnant wife), Anna Lee (Mrs. Russell, Mission Staff), Eddie Albert (Charles Pether, Mission Teacher), Mike Mazurki (Tunga Khan, Bandit Leader), Woody Strode (Lean Warrior), Jane Chang (Miss Ling, Mission Staff), Hans William Lee (Kim, Mission Staff), H.W. Gim (Coolie), Irene Tsu, (Chinese Girl); Runtime: 87; MPAA Rating: NR; producer: Bernard Smith; MGM; 1966)
“Thankfully Ford skips his usual sentimentality and cornball humor and drives home a hard-hitting period drama.”
Reviewed by Dennis Schwartz
John Ford’s last film in his long and brilliant career is a strange unconventional woman’s pic that is different from any other film he has done, though one can find threads to his Western storytelling ways if one looks for it (a gunslinger, in the figure of a doctor on the run, comes to town to save the scared townsfolks from the bad guys). It never achieved popularity with the public (seen only in the second half of double bills–“The Money Trap” was featured on top of the bill) or acclaim from most critics, but though remaining obscure its reputation among critics has grown immensely over time. I don’t rate it with his masterpiece The Searchers, but I believe it to be one of his superior films. Thankfully Ford skips his usual sentimentality and cornball humor and drives home a hard-hitting period drama about a group of Christian ladies in 1935 who are trapped in their isolated American mission in war-torn North China (on the border of Mongolia) by a ruthless Mongol warlord Tunga Khan (played by Mike Mazurki, with Woody Strode as another Mongol warrior, who are both made to look absurd with exaggerated slanted-eyes).
It’s based on the novel Chinese Finale by Norah Lofts and scripted by John McCormick and Janet Green. Its formulaic plot is overcome by Ford’s mature look at the seven women and one woman outsider who all have different viewpoints about life, but are caught in the same terrible predicament. The mission is a claustrophobic place that conveys the sexual repression of its rigid head mistress, a closeted lesbian, Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton), who sees the world in black and white terms and self-righteously believes her idea of Christian piety is the only correct way to live. Newly arriving humanistic American doctor, Cartwright (Anne Bancroft–she took over the role when Patricia Neal had a stroke), is the outsider, the loner who stands outside the seven women and upsets the mission tranquility by her atheism and strong opposing views to the mission head. They clash over Cartwright’s sassy attitude, profane speech, smoking, and disinterest in the daily prayers. The mission’s youngest member is Emma Clark (Sue Lyon), who is favored by Agatha but gets the head mistress riled up because she fawns over the doctor and her modern viewpoints and chic manner of manly dress. Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock) is the loyal assistant; while the Brit guests from a nearby mission, Miss Binns (Flora Robson) and Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee), are seeking safety from the war atrocities. The hysterical middle-aged Mrs. Florrie Pether (Betty Field) is the pregnant wife of the only male in the mission, Charles (Eddie Albert), who is the misplaced teacher and useless husband. Charles dragged his wife to this outpost because he always wanted to be a minister but was too weak to break away from the clutches of his invalid mother to attain that goal. Charles is viewed caustically by Cartwright as “the only rooster in the henhouse.” The seventh woman is the demure Chinese mission teacher and translator Miss Ling (Jane Chang).
Cartwright has to heroically deal with the fragile pregnant woman giving birth in such primitive conditions, then a cholera outbreak, and finally the Mongol invaders who menacingly heap on the mission atrocities, gross indignities, and acts of barbarism. In an effort to deter further brutalities Cartwright, despite the disapproval of Agatha, stoically offers herself to the Mongols as a concubine. This sets a rift among the missionaries with Agatha aghast at Cartwright’s choice, while Miss Binns applauds her courage and spirit to give herself up to save the group. Each member of the group offers a different response to the danger, which enriches the film with the kind of depth and diversity for women that Ford never showed before.
Ford clearly sympathizes with the Bancroft character. In his most economical way of filming, Ford leaves lots to ponder with his sharply pointed radical conclusion that has Bancroft garbed as a geisha toasting her captor master Tunga Khan with a poisoned cup of tea which he drinks and immediately keels over as she coldly utters: “So long ya bastard!” As far as I’m concerned, those were great last words from the master filmmaker who delivered his potent venomous message to the villains right up to the end–just like he has throughout his great career.
REVIEWED ON 11/5/2005 GRADE: A- https://dennisschwartzreviews.com/