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Seven Alone
(1975)
 

Director:Earl Bellamy                                        
Cast:
Dewey Martin, Aldo Ray, Anne Collins


My definition of "a family film" is simple: it's a movie that will not only entertain children, but will also entertain their parents and other adults (unlike "a kiddie film", which is strictly aimed at children.) This doesn't necessarily mean that both groups have to be entertained at the same level; Bugsy Malone and The 5000 Fingers Of Dr. T are two examples of family movies that will entertain children with things like costumes, catchy songs, and seeing children their age involved in great adventures, while adults will be entertained by things like sly writing. I don't know what audiences - young and older - thought of Seven Alone when it first came out in 1975, but I am very sure that today it won't be considered a family film, simply because it will not appeal to any age group. Children will be bored stiff by the slow, uneventful story. Adults will find the movie badly filmed, poorly acted, and written with a lot of padding.

I was initially attracted by Seven Alone, not just because it was an unknown movie put out by a very obscure video company, but because it advertised itself as being based on a true story, using the novel On To Oregon by Honore Morrow. Morrow got the story from Catherine Sager, one of the actual participants of the events. Oddly, the grown Catherine Sager character narrates the beginning and end of the movie (and one or two other bits), even though she does almost nothing in the movie itself. Anyway, the story: In Missouri, 1842 (which looks a heck of a lot like Wyoming - where this movie was actually filmed), the Sager family, seeing their friends and neighbors pack up to try their luck in Oregon, decide to do the same, and join up with the next wagon train. Along the way, the eldest of the children, John (Stewart Petersen), makes trouble for the family several times, doing things like losing the cows by playing cards instead of keeping watch, but mostly it is just implied that (offscreen) he is lazy and sullen.

"You've got a lot of good in you, John Sager - but I wonder if I'll live long enough to see it!" yells his father. "I don't know about you, boy! You're lazy, and you're good for nothing!" yells someone at him later. When John expresses his desire to be a scout, those darn adults can't believe it: "Him a scout? Ho ho ho!" And so it goes, with the screenplay bringing up comments like this every five minutes or so, just in case certain audience members can't instantly make the deduction that John will have to prove himself later on in the movie. After more than half the movie has passed, the title situation finally happens - the father weeks earlier died of blood poisoning from a Native American arrow, and the mother finally passes away after a long battle with pneumonia. What will the children do now? My research of the actual events, after watching this movie, found out that the Sager children stayed with the other members of the wagon train for the remaining leg to Oregon, and then they were instantly adopted by a kindly couple. Of course, with the movie having the title Seven Alone, this is not what happens here - the adults of the wagon train during a stopover at a fort make plans to send the children back to Missouri, but learning of this, the Sager children (lead by - you guessed it - John) sneak off and plan to journey to Oregon by themselves. Now, I don't blame the makers of this movie for changing what really happened around this point(*) - it would have been a pretty unexciting movie, even more unexciting as it currently is. But the moviemakers can certainly be blamed for executing this revised story - here and previously in the movie - so badly.

For starters, we never have an emotional stake in the movie. This comes from the fact that the characters are extremely weak. I could only pick up and remember three of the names of the children - except for John, the children are mostly silent, and when they talk, there's nothing in what they say (or how they say it) that makes them distinctive from their other siblings. They seem more like objects, not people, so the audience has no way to feel any kind of compassion towards them. John has a personality, but it isn't very likable. He really does seem to be a selfish, lazy boy, and I didn't give two hoots whether he would pull through or not. The other characters in the movie are pretty one-note; Dean Smith's Kit Carson character pops up every so often to deliver words of encouragement, and Aldo Ray, playing the wagon train's doctor, uses his outrageously awful German accent to yell various put-downs at John.

Even if the characters were stronger, we'd still be extremely confused by what's shown in the story - or, to be more exact, what isn't shown. I don't know if the script was all along lacking in explanations, or if footage was edited out of the final cut - whatever the reason, many of the events during the movie are very badly done. In the first few minutes of the movie, the mother firmly says she is against the proposed idea of going to Oregon, saying "I'm not going west, and that's final!" - and then we suddenly cut to the family starting off on the journey, all smiles. Early on in the journey, John is given a tongue-lashing by his father for pulling off a lot of pranks on others during the trip - yet, except for an ingenious practical joke that he pulled off on his sisters before the journey, we haven't seen him pulling off these supposed pranks. When the children are alone on their journey and meet with some people on the way, they mention that one of their mules was killed by wolves - which we never saw. The worst scene of this kind comes near the middle of the movie, when John jumps into the back of the wagon, and sees his mother holding his newborn baby sister - and there was no previous mention of the mother being pregnant! (And from looking at the time between that moment and when we previously saw the mother, Mother Sager set the record for the shortest labor.)

Seven Alone is also a very poorly directed movie. Director Bellamy somehow completely missed a highway in the background and a mysterious column of smoke coming from behind a nearby hill in two scenes. Every wilderness location looks the same. He uses extensive stock footage obviously from a different production, and even recycles some of the footage he actually shot for this movie. The background noise (rain, horse hooves, etc.) sometimes completely drowns out the dialogue the characters speak. During the more serious moments, pseudo-happy music plays in the background. It doesn't help that the print used for the video version I watched was pretty beat up, at one point displaying a very thick vertical white scratch in the middle of the picture for several seconds.

Is there anything positive to say about this movie? The movie does have a few moments. The best scene in the movie comes when the dying mother has a quiet talk with John, and tells him he is now responsible for his newborn sister, trusting him to take care of her. John's subsequent transformation to a more responsible person is believable, thanks to this nicely acted scene. Some religious people may enjoy the fact that there are prayers to God several times, and that there are positive values evident, like hard work and a strong heart will get you your dreams. I was also interested in that even though the audience for this movie was supposed to include children, the filmmakers did show evidence of this time and place being dangerous, with several attacks by Native Americans (and people die during these attacks.) Some viewers will still have to remind themselves that the period setting - and the time the movie was actually made - were not in PC times, with words like "savages", "squaw", and "papoose" used liberally to describe these indigenous people. That is, if there's anyone today who'd actively seek out Seven Alone, and watch the entire thing through.


*  If you want to know exactly what happened on the actual journey - as well as read about what happened afterwards - go to: http://www.nps.gov/htdocs4/whmi/3whmi4.htm

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See also: Against A Crooked Sky, Bad Company, The Rivals

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