Every time I watch one of the Westerns Randolph Scott made with Budd Boetticher, I’m struck by how much the director could achieve with so little. These are little films – low budgets, short running times of less than 90 minutes and featuring stars like Scott who were considered over the hill and newcomers like Lee Marvin who were yet to make their mark.

Randolph Scott in "7 Men From Now"

But they were all big on plot, characters and subtext – none of these films has a traditional hero or a villain. In several of them, the hero and villain spend a lot of time together on screen, sometimes even getting to like or respect each other.

“7 Men From Now”, the first movie that brought together star Randolph Scott, director Budd Boetticher and scriptwriter Burt Kennedy and led to the “Ranown cycle” of Westerns, is a simple and spare tale told with a lot of elegance.

It all starts simply enough – former sheriff Ben Stride (Randolph Scott) is on the trail of seven men who killed his wife, a clerk at a Wells Fargo office, during a hold-up in the town of Silver Springs. But Kennedy’s script – surprisingly his first produced script – deftly adds layers of complexity and introduces twists, none of them contrived, that elevates this Western to a completely different level. 

The movie opens on a cold rainy night, with Stride walking into a cave where two men are sheltering. Stride tells the men his horse was eaten by Chiricahua Indians, has some of their coffee and talk turns to the robbery at Silver Springs. Stride realises the two men were in on the robbery but there’s no big shootout. The screen cuts to the men’s horses in the rain, they twitch as shots ring out and the next morning, Stride rides out with the horses.

Stride’s journey brings him into contact with John Greer (Walter Reed) and his wife Annie (Gail Russell), Easterners making their way west to California, as well as Bill Masters (Lee Marvin) and his sidekick Clete (Donald Barry). Stride and Masters have a shared history, with the former sheriff have locked up Masters twice in the past.

Masters makes it clear that he intends to ride along with Stride so he can get his hands on the $20,000 the robbers stole from the Wells Fargo office. Matters come to a head between Stride and Masters in another scene set on a rainy night – a scene that Boetticher later described as the best he had ever directed.

Lee Marvin and Donald Barry in "7 Men From Now"

Stride, the Greers and Masters sit inside a cramped wagon, drinking coffee, as the raffish Masters jokes about John Greer’s lack of masculinity and, as one reviewer put it, verbally makes love to Annie Greer. This scene alone shows how right Burt Kennedy was about getting Lee Marvin for the role of the baddie – he’s possibly one of the few actors who can be convincing while menacing a solid-as-a-rock hero like Randolph Scott.

Soon after, Stride and Masters go their different ways but we know their paths will cross again soon, and only one of them will emerge alive from the showdown.

Lee Marvin’s character is more flamboyant than the good guy – sporting a bright green scarf and endlessly practising his fast draw – while Scott’s former sheriff is a cold fish who blames himself for his wife’s death; she took a job at the Wells Fargo office because he was too proud to work as a deputy after losing the election for the sheriff’s post.

“7 Men From Now” is much more than a Western, it’s one of the greatest little movies around. Do yourself a favour and watch it. The film is available in a Special Collector’s Edition in Regions 1 and 2, featuring a transfer based on a restoration done by UCLA and a nice documentary on the movie, Budd Boetticher and his collaborators. 

For more on the backstory of “7 Men From Now”, the TCM website has a great article here.

By the way, if you hate the horrible theme song at the start of the movie, don’t worry, you’re in good company. Both Budd Boetticher and Burt Kennedy hated it too.