Each Monday, I continue to share Western movie reviews. I have now launched a podcast about the making of Westerns and the overall filmmaking process. Click here to listen.
Week 183: Seven Angry Men (1955)
This pre-Civil War set Western focused on abolitionist John Brown takes almost a Biblical approach to its subject. Raymond Massey, who portrays Brown and did a couple other times in his career, might as well be playing Moses or John the Baptist from his delivery and reverential treatment of the character. In the first act at least, Brown is portrayed with such holiness that I thought I was watching a movie about a Christ figure.
However, director Charles Marquis Warren does show some shades of gray in this interesting but ultimately uneven picture. Brown’s principled stand has its consequences and an exodus of his sons (included for some reason as “angry” men in the title of the film) from the fight takes up the middle of the movie. The killing of one peaceful son is a particularly strong scene followed by a thrilling, well-staged attack on Brown’s camp. The action is superb throughout this picture and probably its best element.
After Warren gets the picture moving and it seems headed in the right direction, he settles into a middle section that leans heavy on the melodrama. Jeffrey Hunter, who I like a lot as an actor, plays the most loyal of the sons but either wasn’t mature enough as a performer or didn’t have the right material to make his character as complex and dynamic as it needed to be. Though Warren tries to make Hunter’s battle between a normal life with his love interest and fighting by his father’s side the main dramatic conflict, his internal struggle never moved me and, in the end, had me puzzled as to what his arch really was.
The last act is effective in its portrayal of Brown’s downfall, a disturbing and sad event. I don’t know enough of the history to comment on its accuracy but Warren’s version is an Alamo-like showdown that, even in the face of death, never truly questions whether Brown’s approach was the right one. I have yet to see the recent Ethan Hawke take on the abolitionist but my gut tells me that the definitive John Brown movie has yet to be made.
Watched on archive.org