The arrival of the Spaghetti Western in the mid-1960s might be credited as the major pivot point for the film Western on the whole, but a subtler shift began more than a decade earlier. American director Budd Boetticher was familiar with the genre in 1956, having helmed six or seven Westerns in the early ’50s, films starring the likes of Rock Hudson and Glenn Ford. By and large these fit the mold of what you’d expect from the era, right down to the leading man: young, chiseled cowboys with a strong moral compass and a way with horses. Typified by Hudson, Ford, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, Joel McCrea and especially John Wayne, the Western Heroes of the time are jokingly (or not?) said to have had only two emotions on display: “hat on” and “hat off.”
The Spaghetti Western, of course, bucked that cleancut protagonist so far off the horse that he never really saddled up again. Sergio Leone introduced heroes that were as dirty as the villains, both literally and figuratively, first embodied by a snarling Clint Eastwood in the Dollars Trilogy. Leone would later cast Henry Fonda — the blue-eyed all-American known for playing Honest Abe and the least-angry man in 12 Angry Men — as the ruthless villain in Once Upon a Time in the West, solidifying the death of the unambiguous good guy/bad guy depictions that had defined the genre to date.
If that was the final nail in the coffin, it’s Seven Men from Now, Budd Boetticher’s low-budget Western starring Randolph Scott, that might be one of the first. Seven Men was also the first of Boetticher’s collaborations with Scott, as the pair would immediately go on to make six more Westerns following the success of their first. Dubbed the Ranown Cycle (named after the production company), each of these was a stripped-down effort clocking in under 90 minutes. More notably, they contained characterizations of both hero and villain that had rarely been explored in the film Western.
Admittedly, Seven Men from Now is still inescapably a product of its time. The film’s sole female character is routinely treated as more of an object than a character, predictably throwing herself at Scott’s protagonist by the film’s end. Native Americans appear in the flesh for a grand total of 30 seconds, but they’re still painted as little more than a bloodthirsty cabal of scalphunters from the first scene to the last. Boetticher may have paved the way for the revisionist Western, but Seven Men from Now hardly revises the central theses of the cinematic frontier justice.
Still, one of those seemingly-unshakeable tenets is the aforementioned hero — young, clean, the future laid out on the plains before him — and Seven Men from Now‘s embracing of a past-his-prime Scott is a refreshing departure from this. While his contemporary Gary Cooper dyed his hair and played “younger” studs throughout the ’50s, Scott’s as gray as a stormy day in Seven Men. We aren’t given his character’s backstory until 26 minutes into the 78-minute film, but it’s an atypical one when it arrives: after retiring as sheriff of a small town, he finds himself as little more than an out-of-work bum. This forces his wife to take work at the Wells Fargo, and she’s killed in a robbery just before the events of the film begin. Thusly burdened with guilt and shame, Scott’s silver fox is a far cry from the usual surefooted Man’s Man.
Seven Men‘s villains defy expectation in similar fashion. The title refers to the group of men that robbed the Fargo and killed Scott’s wife, and a few of them are picked off in the film’s opening before we even understand the events that led up to their demise. One of the film’s many twists reveals the mild-mannered Mr. Greer to be one of the seven, and it’s almost a reversal of typical Western hero-villain dynamics: the hero is a graying brute, the villain a polite and bespectacled city boy.
But Seven Men‘s greatest twist is in its assertion of another villain altogether, the opportunistic Masters, played to menacing perfection by Lee Marvin. Marvin’s film career began in 1951 and began to take off in 1953 after turns in The Big Heat and The Wild One, but he wouldn’t score a leading role until NBC’s M Squad in 1957. Not hard to imagine a film producer watching Marvin swagger through Seven Men and thinking hey, let’s make that man a star. His final confrontation with Scott is simultaneously surprising, because we’ve been so focused on Scott’s hunting of the seven robbers, and yet inevitable, because how could a character so completely out for himself not outlast a gang of half-cocked criminals?
So with a less-than-perfect protagonist and an impressive variety of villains on display, Boetticher made a Western that began to move away from the things that seemed most inextricable from the genre on the whole. Excluding the Italian-led Spaghetti Western renaissance, the Ranown Cycle is positioned as a bridge of sorts between the classical American Westerns of John Ford and the true revisionism of Sam Peckinpah. At a time when the genre had arguably already peaked, Seven Men from Now was an unexpected flash of originality that hinted at what the future would hold for the Western.