In the summer of 1956, when a taut, swift little B western called Seven Men from Now snuck into American movie houses, the long-lived film genre had begun to show its age, and its most popular stars were looking none too spry themselves. Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and Joel McCrea were all in their fifties; James Stewart and John Wayne were closing fast. For the next few years, a good deal of creative lighting, makeup, costuming, and especially coiffing would be necessary to sustain the illusion that these middle-aged gents were—as the genre seemed to require—lithe, virile, even dangerous hombres in the prime of life. Seven Men from Now said to hell with that, and wisely: its leading man, Randolph Scott, was born in the previous century. His hair was flecked with silver, his face was as craggy and crevassed as the landscapes he rode through, and his pale blue eyes looked as if they’d seen it all (and liked too little of it). The director, Budd Boetticher, a relative whippersnapper of forty, doesn’t emphasize Scott’s age, but he doesn’t try to hide it either. The revenge-bent hero of this picture could be any age but young.
Seven Men from Now wasn’t interested in reviving or revising the western form, much less rejuvenating it. The genre was in fact at the peak of its popularity in the midfifties. Color film and wider screens suited those wide-open spaces to a T, and those technological adjustments did a decent job of supplying a reason for audiences to pry themselves away from their boxy black-and-white TV sets and head out to the picture show. And thanks to a handful of big-budget, Oscar-laureled “adult” westerns like High Noon (four statuettes in 1952) and Shane (six in 1953), the humble oater had even acquired a bit of respectability. It was also, arguably, starting to get a mite too big for its britches.
But beginning with Seven Men from Now, Boetticher and Scott—often in collaboration with the veteran producer Harry Joe Brown and the young screenwriter Burt Kennedy—made a series of westerns in which everything seemed to fit perfectly, nothing too loose and nothing too tight. These movies, known collectively to film critics and scholars as the Ranown cycle (after Scott and Brown’s production company), appear in retrospect a kind of oasis of sanity and low-key professionalism at a perilous moment in the history of the western. The canonical Ranown cycle (Why “cycle”? Beats me.) is generally taken to include Seven Men, The Tall T (1957), Decision at Sundown (1957), Buchanan Rides Alone (1958), Ride Lonesome (1959), and Comanche Station (1960). Broader-minded critics will sometimes grudgingly admit Westbound (1958), starring Scott and directed by Boetticher but not produced by Scott and Brown, to the exalted company. Seven Men wasn’t actually a Ranown production either, but it’s a lot better and more distinctive than Westbound, about which Boetticher later said, “I made the picture and it wasn’t that bad. But it wasn’t one of my pictures.” Seven Men was too fine a specimen of horseflesh to get all particular about, though, so the critics and the academics with a taste for tidy classification just went ahead and herded it into the Ranown corral.
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