[19 January 2006]
Oscar “Budd” Boetticher is one of your more colorful Western writers and directors. Chicago born, educated at Culver Military Academy, a boxer and a college football star, he went to Mexico to recuperate after a knee injury and became a matador.
Boetticher made it into the movies by his mid-20s, with help from his godfather Hal Roach. He provided technical advice to Rouben Mamoulian on the 1941 bullfighting movie, Blood and Sand, made his directorial debut in 1944, and wrote and directed his own Oscar-nominated bullfighting movie, The Bullfighter and the Lady, in 1951. By the time he died in 2001, Boetticher had made more than 40 movies, many TV films, and several documentaries. He had also been married five times, worked with and fallen out with John Wayne, and had one helluva wild life.
The documentary, “Budd Boetticher - An American Original”, included on the DVD of Seven Men From Now: Special Collector’s Edition, provides discussion of this life, with input from Peter Bogdanovich, Clint Eastwood, and Quentin Tarantino (the latter two side-by-side), as well as archive interview footage with Boetticher himself. Eastwood and Tarantino agree that Boetticher’s finest work was the cycle of six B-westerns he made with Randolph Scott in the late ‘50s: Seven Men From Now (1956), The Tall T (1957), Decision At Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960). Simple in plot, characterization, and cinematic style, these movies are frequently credited with heralding a new era of western. Sergio Leone’s work might be traced back to Boetticher just as much as to Kurosawa, and Don Siegel also owes him something, and not just because Boetticher wrote the story for Two Mules for Sister Sara.
Made for John Wayne’s production company, Batjac, Seven Men From Now was both a box office and critical success when released. But it disappeared from circulation shortly thereafter, owing to Boetticher’s ongoing problems with Wayne and then, his estate. Consequently, it developed something of a cult status among western lovers. Reappearing with the UCLA Archive’s immaculate restoration in 2001, it is now available for the first time on DVD.
The premise of Seven Men From Now is simple. Someone does Randolph Scott wrong, and he sets off to track him down, obsessed with revenge. Or is it justice? In this first collaboration with Boetticher, Scott plays Ben Stride. An ex-sheriff who lost his job because he couldn’t play politics, he’s now looking for the seven men who held up a Wells Fargo and killed his wife. The movie opens with Stride walking into a cave where two men are taking shelter from a storm. You can pretty much guess the rest, though Boetticher’s plotting offers a few satisfying surprises.
As Stride continues his hunt, he falls in with a struggling pioneer couple, who quickly become integral to the plot, and Bill Masters (the young Lee Marvin), whom Stride jailed twice in the past. But Stride doesn’t suspect Masters of any complicity in the death of his wife, and indeed he seems a noble villain who respects the ex-sheriff, but is drawn nonetheless to the strongbox full of gold the gang took from Wells Fargo.
It’s tempting to draw parallels between Boetticher’s movies and bullfighting. In this world, men are defined by ritual and honor. From the moment we meet Masters, we know he and Stride are fated to participate in a mortal showdown. While they are similarly plainspoken, in comparison with the almost geologically stoic Stride (Scott seems to be laying the groundwork for Eastwood’s career), Masters oozes charisma. Speaking in the documentary, Boetticher is careful to distinguish Scott’s character from the stereotypical machismo associated with bullfighters:
“Macho” to me is a kinda dirty word, because I’ve known so many machos in my life, who are close friends. I’m supposed to be macho myself. [A] macho is a repulsive, egotistical, pain-in-the-neck… I can’t put Randolph Scott in that category. My stories were not macho. My stories were stories of a very strong man who had a gigantic personal problem, the death of his wife, or something similar, who went out in 75 or 82 minutes to solve that problem.
Just so, Seven Men From Now is a small, economical movie, concerned with sacrifice and nobility. As film historian James Kitses says in his audio commentary, repressed information and subtexts lurk beneath the surface. Much of Stride’s motivation is a function of his sense of guilt, at losing his job because he couldn’t keep up with the times and at the fact that his wife was only working at Wells Fargo because he was too proud to take the job of deputy sheriff that he had been offered. Kitses sums up Boetticher’s films as follows: “The moral is a simple one: everyone loses. Life defeats charm, innocence is blasted. The world is finally a sad and funny place, life a tough, amusing game, which can never be won but must be played.”
Considered as one example of this philosophy, Seven Men From Now is certainly worth seeing, and for fans of the genre, owning. It’s clear that both Scott and Boetticher found something in each other they hadn’t found elsewhere, and the 60-something Scott gives the best performance of his career for a director who responds in kind.