With all the fuss over Brokeback Mountain's gay cowboys subvertin' dominant masculine paradigms and such, you'd think nobody had ever made a psychologically complex Western before. But 50 years ago, there were soul-searching cowpokes all over the movie range, in the dark, morally ambiguous Westerns that Anthony Mann made with Jimmy Stewart, and the taut, existential oaters that Budd Boetticher made with Randolph Scott. Boetticher's work has been hard to see outside of retrospectives and the Encore Westerns channel, but movie buffs can now spend some quality time with the director via the DVD of the first Boetticher/Scott collaboration—the tough, fleet 1956 Western 7 Men From Now.
Burt Kennedy's typically terse script has Scott as an ex-sheriff out for revenge. Shortly after Scott is driven from office, his wife takes a job at Wells Fargo and gets shot dead in a robbery. Determined to hunt down and kill the seven men responsible, Scott saddles up and rides into the wild, picking up fellow travelers along the way: a young married couple played by Walter Reed and Gail Russell, and a pair of outlaws, including Lee Marvin, who knows all about Scott's past and wants a piece of the stolen Wells Fargo money.
Boetticher's action sequences are always crisp—and never more so than 7 Men's climactic gunfights in an empty, boxy canyon—but Boetticher-Scott-Kennedy films are just as renowned for their illuminating conversations. In 7 Men's most riveting sequence, Marvin casually sips coffee and tells Reed and Russell a thinly veiled version of Scott's life story, emphasizing that the seemingly noble lawman has no compunction about stealing another man's wife. Boetticher's Westerns frequently feature heroes driven to violence by circumstance, but Scott's 7 Men From Now character is more hair-trigger than most: friendly one minute, snappish the next, and hopelessly distraught the rest of the time. The film defines manhood by action (or, in Reed's case, inaction), and Scott's disgraced sheriff seems determined to prove himself by adapting so quickly to a situation that he loses his true self. When Scott initially resists riding with Reed and Russell, only to change his mind because they happen to be going the same way, it's part of Boetticher's ongoing, myth-busting miniature model of how the West was won and lost.
Key features: Western movie historian James Kitses provides a scholarly commentary, supplemented by an extensive documentary appreciation of Boetticher.