“The reason that people understand the westerns I made with Randy Scott is that they were simple…..nothing in those Scott pictures would make the audience say, “What did he mean? What was he trying to say?........I said it very simply, and that’s the way I make my pictures. One doesn’t have to sit there and say, “Well, I don’t know….ethically….and maybe he meant…” That’s a lot of crap: to be so artistic that you don’t make sense.”
Budd Boetticher - 1972 - Excerpt from The Director's Event
For it is indeed the most intelligent western I know while being at the same time the least intellectual, the most subtle and the least aestheticizing, the simplest and finest example of the form.
Andre Bazin - 1957 - Cahiers du Cinema
Seven Men From Now was the first of the series, the best of the series, and laid the framework for the films in the Ranown cycle. Randolph Scott stars as Ben Stride, ex-sheriff, who is hunting a group of 7 criminals who stole $20,000 from the Wells Fargo freight office......and also killed Stride’s wife in the process. He’s out to track them down, kill them, and return the money. He lost his job following the event, so is now taking law into his own hands, not waiting for anyone else to do that job. He kills two of the men early in the film in an excellent setpiece in the rain, dropping us right in the middle of his quest. Then he comes across a married couple, John and Annie Grier (Walter Reed and Gail Russell) traveling west from Kansas City who are trying to reach California. He helps get their wagon out of a muddy ditch and then decides to ride along with them for a while. It is clear one of the reasons he stays with them is that he has eyes for Annie. They happen across two ex-cons, Bill (a brilliant Lee Marvin) and Clete (Don Barry), both of whom Stride once put behind bars. These two are tracking the same criminals and want the money for themselves. Friction builds as Stride and Annie begin to develop feelings for each other, while Bill begins to prod and tease them as he notices it, right in front of John, the husband. Before long, Stride steps aside from the group in order to face down the remaining criminals and deliver justice in the proverbial showdowns that ensue.
John Wayne's Batjac production company bought the script from Burt Kennedy, with the original intention of having Wayne star as the lead character. He was tied up with making The Searchers at the time though, and instead chose Randolph Scott to star, which I think was the perfect choice. Scott seems like some kind of perfect amalgam of all the great western lead actors, somehow encompassing the little bits and pieces that we like about Wayne, Fonda, Stewart, Eastwood etc., but is remarkably balanced, not dipping too far into any particular acting stereotype. I like his stoicism, his smirking nonchalance, his deft masculinity...... I almost can't even imagine Wayne in Scott's role here. Scott is far more down to earth, which fits Boetticher's simple, bare-bones aesthetic. What I find consistent in all of these films that Scott and Boetticher made together, is the genuine goodness of Scott’s characters, despite the fact that he often has reasons to be angry and vengeful: he is polite to women; he is chivalrous and does good deeds without expecting anything in return; he usually has a good degree of patience and calmness in the face of danger; he rarely ever raises his voice or speaks harshly of anyone. There's something so unassuming and unpretentious about him. For me, he is the prototypical, no nonsense cowboy of all time. No wonder Andre Bazin likened Scott to William S. Hart. Nothing ever seems to phase this guy, not even in the final showdown in this film, when he’s hobbling on one good leg, using his shotgun as a cane, and has to face down Lee Marvin in a draw who has two guns and two good legs. Boetticher utilizes Scott's persona to build a simple purity of the western as artform, which appeals to true western aficionados. Boetticher stripped his works of over-reaching and complex, extracurricular contexts. They are not about unspoken backstory or some mystery, per se, to rely upon characterization (Mann), nor do they rely on the “kitchen sink” approach (throwing in comedy, romance, sentiment, action, social commentary etc.), like Ford uses, nor are they moral proverbs like Daves’s films (3:10 to Yuma, Jubal, Broken Arrow), nor are they social allegories (High Noon) or reflexive mythological examinations (Shane). They are in a sense, about the here and now....the ever present moment and the decisions made in those moments. Yes Stride has a backstory providing a set-up, but there isn't really anything hiding. The pre-destiny of the situation is written on Scott's face. It is about what Stride is doing in the moment as he rides, as he thinks, and as he talks. The purity of the storyline and lack of pretension reverts the western to its essentials. Many have often called Boetticher's films, "chamber westerns" and this is because they're so focused and lean, without a wasted moment, but they also contain a certain limited list of characters who are thrown together and must work out their problems in a relative isolated situation. Despite the simplicity, there is a remarkable range to Boetticher's best works...brutal and violent, austere and stoic, tender and sensitive, and nearly perfect in their clarity.
Regarding Boetticher's approach, it would be a mistake to overanalyze his works, but there's simply too much to enjoy, like Kennedy's unadorned and propulsive script, which would be a hallmark of Boetticher's best works. Furthermore, William H. Clothier's cinematography creates some of the most beautiful and eye-catching visuals in any western film and the color palette is often striking. He was on contract to work with Wayne in his Batjac production company, and the two would collaborate together on 22 films. In particular, sequences involving Gail Russell hanging up the laundry, a particular scene where the wagon rolls away with Scott in the background, and the final showdown, are framed so perfectly, it's astounding. Ultimately though, the legend of a film like this boils down to the way that Boetticher strips everything to a series of man to man conflicts in the form of showdowns, both psychological and physical. Through this, we find the basis of the types of westerns that would be built in the decades to come.