Saturday, April 13, 2013

Seven Angry Men (Allied Artists, 1955)

by Mark Gabrish Conlan • Copyright © 2013 by Mark Gabrish Conlan • All rights reserved

I ran Charles a movie I’d recently recorded from TCM, Seven Angry Men, a not especially great but entertaining and quite fascinating film from Allied Artists (née Monogram) in 1955, directed by Charles Marquis Warren — best known as the creator of the long-running (20 years, which set the record for the longest-running drama series of all time, later tied but not beaten by the original Law and Order) Western TV series Gunsmoke. The script by Daniel B. Ullman is basically your pioneer homesteaders being hounded, harassed and attacked by vicious outlaws story — only the setting is “Bleeding Kansas” during the pitched battles over whether Kansas would come into the U.S. as a free or slave states, which took place from 1856 to 1858 and were basically the opening act of the Civil War, and the pioneer homesteaders are John Brown (Raymond Massey), his wife Mary (Ann Tyrrell) and their six sons: Owen (Jeffrey Hunter), Oliver (Larry Pennell), Frederick (John Smith), Jason (James Best), John, Jr. (Dennis Weaver, also a regular on Gunsmoke), and Watson (Tom Irish). Massey had previously played John Brown in the 1940 Warners’ big-budget Western The Santa Fe Trail, a pro-Southern gloss on the same events (well, Gone With the Wind had just been released, it was the most popular film of all time and therefore other studios had reason to believe that pro-Southern tales of the Civil War and the run-up to it were guaranteed box office) that portrayed Brown as an out-and-out villain.

His portrayal in Seven Angry Men is considerably more ambiguous and nuanced: Brown comes off as an Old Testament prophet — Charles joked that being involved with him was like being in a guerrilla war commanded by Isaiah — endlessly quoting or paraphrasing the Bible and insisting that he was literally ordered by God to be his avenging angel on earth to purge the U.S. of the evil of slavery. What’s fascinating about this movie is how it really seems like an anomaly given the historical Zeitgeist; it came out at an odd crossroads in human history, a year after the U.S. Supreme Court decision in Brown v. Board of Education that ruled that slavery’s successor, segregation, was unconstitutional, but also at the height of the so-called McCarthy era (“so-called” because it actually started before Senator Joe McCarthy emerged as a national figure and continued well past his demise), in which individuals in all sorts of professions, including filmmaking, were carefully vetted politically and required to affirm their “loyalty” not only to the United States government and to the capitalist economic system in order to work. The fact that the anti-Communist hysteria was still going strong in 1955 may account for the extent to which Ullman’s script stressed Brown’s religiosity; given that the U.S. officially defined the enemy not only as “Communism” but as “Godless Communism” (which led to the addition of “under God” to the Pledge of Allegiance, the addition of “In God We Trust” to all U.S. money, and the general effort on the part of government at all levels to declare atheists and agnostics at best second-class citizens and at worst anti-American pond scum), stressing Brown’s Christian beliefs and making them his primary motivation for his crusade (the word is appropriate for once!) against slavery obviously made him a bit more sympathetic to a 1955 audience.

Seven Angry Men has its flaws; it’s the sort of movie that walks right up to a lot of heavy-duty issues that still resonate today — like whether violence in the cause of political or social change is ever justified, and whether taking up arms against an evil and inevitably shedding innocent blood in the process advances the cause of social justice or just cheapens and demeans its practitioners — without really tackling them. And it has other, more superficial flaws too: Massey as Brown seems to have walked off the canvas of a 19th century painting, and his dialogue is sufficiently alien from the normal speech patterns of 1955 it’s easy to believe he’s a man from the past (albeit a highly theatrical one whose stylized language is probably nothing like the way normal people talked then), but the young actors playing his sons bring their usual 1950’s Brylcreemed hairdos to the set and look like just what they are — modern people in period costumes. The plotline follows Brown from the bloodshed in “Bleeding Kansas,” and dramatizes both the raid on the free-soil community of Lawrence and Brown’s response (he captures two of the young men who were in on the raid and, though they have both guns and ropes, they eschew those more common means of 19th century killing in favor of stabbing them à la Julius Caesar), and the main conflicts are between Brown and at least some of his sons, Owen and Frederick in particular, who get disgusted by the bloodshed on both sides and just want to get out of Kansas and live normal lives. Frederick is actually trying to do just that when pro-slavery “border ruffians” led by the film’s principal villain, Martin White (a marvelous performance by real-life ex-con Leo Gordon), ambush him and kill him just because he’s one of the sons of the hated John Brown. Brown leaves Kansas after the 1858 vote by which its citizens decide to come into the Union as a free state (under the Kansas-Nebraska Act of 1854, sponsored by Illinois Senator Stephen Douglas, which established so-called “popular sovereignty” by which the settlers in those territories could decide whether they would be slave or free — opponents contemptuously called it “squatter sovereignty” and Douglas’s 1858 re-election opponent, Abraham Lincoln, acidly said that all “popular sovereignty” meant was “if any one man choose to enslave another, no third man will be allowed to object”) and organizes his next campaign against slavery, the raid on Harper’s Ferry, Virginia in 1859.

For this he takes a fundraising trip to Massachusetts and gets donations from such illustrious names as Ralph Waldo Emerson (Selmer Jackson) and Henry David Thoreau (Lester Dorr) to finance an expedition to a Southern town with a military armory. His band will take control of the armory, hold local white dignitaries hostage, and use the guns therein to arm the local slaves, who will then stage an uprising that will start a civil war and bring down the slave power. It goes awry for the same reason the U.S.-initiated Bay of Pigs invasion in Cuba did 102 years later: rather than join these crazy white guys in their would-be attack on slavery, the local Black slaves decide to sit out the conflict on the principle that, as Shakespeare put it, they would “rather bear those ills we have than fly to others that we know not of.” Brown gets this unwelcome news from one of the few recruits to his cause who actually is African-American, Ned Green (James Edwards, the fine actor from Stanley Kramer’s and Mark Robson’s Home of the Brave who should have become a major star, but for some reason he never caught on and the next hot young Black male lead, Sidney Poitier, was the one who cracked the color bar on major Hollywood stardom) — earlier there’s a marvelously ironic scene in which Brown’s men, out to capture the telegraph office at the railway station so the authorities can’t communicate to the outside world, finds that the telegraph operator is Black, and when they tell him they’ve come to free him, he says, “You don’t have to free me! I’ve been free eight years already!” — and they do a desultory hold-out in the Harper’s Ferry armory until a U.S. Army battalion led by Col. Robert E. Lee (Robert Osterloh) storms the place and takes Brown and his remaining sons into custody. Meanwhile, Owen Brown and his girlfriend Elizabeth Clark (Debra Paget, who despite her starlet reputation is actually pretty good) — an Illinois woman who met Owen and his brother Oliver as they were coming into Kansas and made it clear from the get-go that she approved of the Browns’ opposition to slavery but utterly loathed their tactics — sneak away from Harper’s Ferry and end up heaven knows where. It would have been nice to have a tag scene set after the Civil War starts, with Owen Brown enlisting in the Union Army and thus fighting the slave power via government-sanctioned rather than freelance violence.

With my penchant for recasting classic (or not-so-classic) movies based on who else was around at the time who could have played the parts, I found myself through much of this movie wishing that James Dean had played Owen Brown, not only because Massey and Dean did such marvelous work as an antagonistic father and son in East of Eden the same year but because Dean’s intensity would have brought a lot more power to Owen Brown’s dilemma — not only choosing between his father and his girlfriend but between violence and nonviolence, between war and peace, between fighting (and likely dying) for a cause and just living an ordinary life (and given the “family” ideology of the 1950’s it’s obvious the initial audiences for this film were intended to “read” the cause-free life as the “correct” choice!) — though it is ironic that in this film Jeffrey Hunter got to play the son of a prophet four years before he played the Son of God Himself in the sound remake of King of Kings. Seven Angry Men is a movie that’s better than it had a right to be: deliberately slow-moving, blessed with dramatically shaded cinematography by Ellsworth Fredericks (even though he was working with trees, hills and other features of the southern California locations that aren’t believable as representations of the Kansas plains) and an appropriately somber original score by Carl Brandt, intensely dramatic and more of an “issues film” than one expects from such a politically repressed time as the mid-1950’s, it draws John Brown as neither hero nor villain but a basically decent man, fighting for a righteous cause but getting so obsessed about it he sacrifices everything else, including the lives of some of his sons, to it, and thereby destroys himself.