“Whatever the doctor’s doing, she’s doing for our good.”
A doctor (Anne Bancroft) sent to a mission in China clashes with its puritanical director (Margaret Leighton), but is a source of inspiration for many of the other inhabitants, including an older pregnant woman (Betty Field) and an impressionable young recruit (Sue Lyon). When their mission is invaded by the nefarious Mongol warrior Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki), Bancroft makes a controversial sacrifice in exchange for the others’ safety, and must bear the brunt of Leighton’s disdain for her decision.
John Ford’s final film was a box-office failure upon its release, but has since become a critical darling of many (and is enjoyed as a thinly veiled bastion of homoerotic tensions by others). It’s a curious departure from Ford’s normal oeuvre, given that it focuses primarily on women rather than men, and takes place in Northern China rather than in the American West — nonetheless, as many critics have pointed out, it ultimately touches upon several of Ford’s key thematic concerns, including “an isolated group stranded in a hostile environment, civilization versus savagery, and self-sacrifice.” In truth, the women in this film can easily stand in for many of Ford’s archetypal characters: the dynamics between mannish Anne Bancroft and uptight Margaret Leighton are reminiscent of John Wayne and Henry Fonda in Ford’s Fort Apache, for instance.
Indeed, it’s the interplay between these two females — both independent and strong-willed, but with radically different moral takes on the world — which carries the somewhat uneven script, and keeps us interested to see what will happen next. Leighton’s character eventually devolves into campy hysteria when the situation at “her” mission spirals out of control; her repugnance at being forced to stay in the same room as a woman (Betty Field) giving birth borders on laughable. Bancroft, meanwhile, maintains a fiercely realistic and forceful presence throughout; she’s suffered heartbreak and injustice in the past (simply by being a female doctor in the 1930s), but refuses to compromise her passion for helping others through medicine — even if this means sacrificing herself. The ultimate outcome of the film — in which Bancroft utters a now-classic line — will likely come as a touching surprise to most.
Redeeming Qualities and Moments:
- Anne Bancroft as Dr. Cartwright (Peary nominates her for an Alternate Oscar as Best Actress of the Year)
- Margaret Leighton as uptight Agatha Andrews
Yes, simply for Bancroft’s stand-out performance, and for its historical importance as Ford’s last film. Listed as a Cult Movie in the back of Peary’s book.