A commercial disaster when it came out in 1966, generally relegated to the lower half of double bills, and dismissed by most critics, John Ford's magnificent last feature is surely one of his greatest films--not merely for its unsentimental distillation of Fordian themes, but for the telegraphic urgency and passion of its style, which is aided rather than handicapped by the stripped-down studio sets. The film effectively transposes the gender and settings of many of Ford's classic westerns: it's set in 1935, during the apocalyptic last days of a female missionary outpost in China that's about to be invaded by Mongolian warriors (including Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode). Anne Bancroft stars as an atheistic but humanist doctor who turns up at the mission, immediately challenging its sexual repressiveness and sense of propriety with her acerbic manner and lack of inhibitions; she ultimately emerges as perhaps the most stoic of all of Ford's sacrificial heroes. The other women, all superbly cast--Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Anna Lee, and Betty Field--provide a creditable summary of the possible human responses to impending disaster, and Ford's handling of their diverse emotions--ranging from lesbian longings and charitable instincts to competitiveness and hysteria--is both subtle and masterful. The results may come as a shock to those who perceive Ford in more sentimental, less expressionistic terms, but this powerful drama actually constitutes a radical condensation of his vision, and the effect is electrifying. Eddie Albert is also around as an ineffectual husband. Running as part of the Chicago Lesbian & Gay International Film Festival. (Music Box, Saturday, November 9, 3:00)

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