From United Artists
Directed by Lewis Gilbert
Maybe I've never enjoyed war films as much as so many of my gender and I know why. War films need women! No, not the women back home but those out on the line soldiering. This film not only has one woman holding her own in the jungles of Malaya but two. What's more, one of them is Capucine (sigh!) and she costars with her real-life boyfriend, William Holden, another great favorite. And I just finished watching it again and all is well with my world.
Ok, I'll hit the backspace button and say this: this is not war in the tradition of the landing at Normandy or Pearl Harbor. Perhaps it would be better to call the film a political thriller. Its filming in Malaya and Kuala Lampur at the beginning of America's involvement in Vietnam caused some consternation but, by and large, all went well.
I was always captivated by its opening. The main titles by Maurice Binder establish an exotic mood with its stylistic imagery of various locales and the people of Malaya. Shot by the brilliant cameraman, Frederick (Lawrence of Arabia) Young, the scenery in this film is clearly one of its stars. I adored the music by Italian composer Riz Ortalani, making his first American-produced film. He had done the fabulous score for Mondo Cane which featured the love song More, the most recorded song of 1963. The love theme for The 7th Dawn is a gorgeous piece of music and what he does for harsher scenes evokes menace and produces chills. It stands as one of my favorite movie themes ever.
We are immediately introduced to three guerrillas as WWII comes to an end in Malaya. Caught up in the fighting for what was known as the Malayan Emergency are Ferris (Holden), an American engineer who elects to fight with his good friend, the passionate Ng (Tamba), a Malayan-Chinese who hates the British involvement in his country, and Dhana (Capucine), a Eurasian, whom both men love. All are bound to one another but in a tender moment at a train station, Dhana declines Ng's invitation to accompany him to Moscow to complete his education and marry him. She decides to stay with Ferris who will not marry her.
Time passes and Ferris has elected to stay in Malaya, becoming very rich and prominent running a rubber plantation. Dhana has become his live-in mistress and a popular schoolteacher, beloved by the public because of her caring and political activism which Ferris largely ignores.
British rule has become very strong and a governor has been appointed who is very unpopular with the locals. At the same time, Communist terrorists have gained a stronghold, murdering and destroying property and making life unbearable for the Brits. Head of this band of guerrillas is Ng, now educated but a fierce and determined revolutionary cutthroat. The Brits use Ferris and Dhana as conduits to Ng in the hope of bringing about peace and order. It appears not to be working. Though friendships remain strong, the two men are a bit wary of one another, although Ferris realizes that his life and property have been protected due to Ng's orders to his henchmen.
The British governor has a comely daughter, Candace (York), who falls for Ferris, whom he politely rejects as a romantic interest, but not before Dhana gets her tail-feathers in a knot. Candace tells Dhana that she has no experience as a mistress and Dhana assures her she will have no need to acquire any.
As the insurrection escalates, Dhana, whose loyalties are divided between the terrorists and the colonists, is stopped by police as she rides her bicycle along a highway. The basket on her bicycle is searched and grenades are discovered. We come to realize that they were planted by Ng's people in order to start another revolt due to the people's love of Dhana. She is tried and convicted and sentenced to die.
Ferris is offered a deal by the governor. Dhana will be spared if Ferris reveals Ng's hideout but Ferris refuses. Candace then pleads with her father but he is immovable. Candace then decides to wander into the jungle alone (it's not clear how she knows where to go, but that's showbiz), hoping to be captured by Ng, which she is. Her plan is that her capture will induce a trade for Dhana.
The British governor is resolute, captured daughter or no captured daughter. Dhana will be hanged in seven days, in the early morning (what's the title of this film?), unless Ng is captured. Now Ferris decides to make the trek himself, not only to retrieve Candace but hopefully to bring Ng back.
A great deal of excitement comes in the final 20 minutes and I encourage you to see it to find out how it all works out for the film's four leads and treat yourself to a lovely experience. The film allows one to invest in the emotional experiences of three friends and to see what true friendship is all about.
It is said to be based largely on true incidents, although altered, and the characters of Ferris, Ng and Dhana are all based on real people or composites of a couple of real people.
William Holden certainly had some success in making films in the Far East. We might recall Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing, The Bridge on the River Kwai, The World of Suzie Wong and Satan Never Sleeps. But he didn't want to make The 7th Dawn. He'd just endured the worst experience he'd ever had on a film, Paris When It Sizzles, and claimed he was going to quit acting (which, in truth, he never much enjoyed). The real truth, however, was that his drinking had gotten wildly out of control and he had just gotten out of rehab.
But he was talked into the film by the producer, Charles K. Feldman, an old friend, and the director Lewis Gilbert (who would go on to makes three James Bond films) and the screenwriter, Karl Tunberg. Holden looks good but there are a couple of brief scenes where he clearly shows the ravages of drink, which is unfortunate.
He had also been reluctant to make the movie because of Capucine. He joined Gilbert and Tunberg in feeling that the French actress was wrong to play the part of a Eurasian. He had obviously forgotten an all-American Jennifer Jones played a Eurasian opposite him in Love Is a Many-Splendored Thing. He had to tread carefully because Capucine was the girlfriend of the man who insisted she do the film, Feldman.
The truth is that the two stars had a bit of a dalliance when they made The Lion in Kenya two years earlier but it was apparently just a location romance. Then during his drying out period, she rushed to Switzerland to nurse him back to health. That made him feel doubly bad when he didn't want her for this film, but it became a moot point because she got the role. And then what happened? That earlier fling became a two-year romance during the making of The 7th Dawn. That fact is another reason why I love this film.
And I don't give a damn what the Capucine-bashers say... she was wonderful as Dhana. With a face unadorned to play, what?, a French-Malaysian, she brought an elegance and grace that grounds the latter part of the film.
Tetsuro Tamba, a Tokyo-born actor that I enjoyed a couple of years earlier in Bridge to the Sun with Carroll Baker and James Shigeta, spoke no English and learned his lines phonetically. I so admire actors who can do this... not only speak a language unknown to them but handle it with all the nuances and emotions needed for each scene. He was on fire as Ng (pronounced Ing).
Susannah York, who spent a great deal of her career under parasols and wearing hoop skirts at garden parties, gets down and dirty in this one, getting slapped and thrown to the ground as well. Her age and air of innocence was perfect for Candace who gets caught up in the melee as she grows to love a man she can never have.
The rest of the cast, particularly Michael Goodliffe as Candace's father, was equally impressive.
There's a whole crowd that has always been crazy about this movie and I am certainly among them. If you don't know it or haven't seen it, take a couple of minutes to listen to its lush opening score (and enjoy some photos). They just don't make movie scores like this anymore.
And I'll find you, I'll be just a dream behind you,
For my love will lead me to the seventh dawn and you.