When you get an e-mail from your parents saying ‘did you know that this film was based on the rape of the Sabine women?’, then you don’t really have much choice but to sit down and watch it. (I had been meaning to anyway, but that e-mail was the necessary spur to push the DVD up the rental list.) The people who I’ve spoken to about it have mainly remembered the choreography, which is amazing – there is a barn-raising scene that is simply phenomenal, not to mention a number of other beautifully organised numbers. IMDB tells me this is because the men hired to play the brothers were actually professional ballet dancers and gymnasts, and I can well believe it. The songs are also pretty good, although they do occasionally stray into that trap of the musical, the song which does not appear to be serving any demand of the plot. I am particularly thinking of Lonesome Polecat, where lovesick men chop wood and sigh in the snow. The song includes the line “a man can’t sleep when he sleeps with sheep”, which apparently (again according to IMDB) only got past the censors as no sheep appeared in that particular shot.
But what I’m actually interested in, aside from the dancing and singing and general silliness (and may I add that Howard Keel makes a very fine backwoodsman protagonist, and that there is a fine collection of facial hair on display throughout), is the classical reception involved in the plot. The film is based on a story called The Sobbin’ Women by Stephen Benét, where the title obviously alludes to its classical predecessor, but a colleague informs me that it is also based on an actual event in the American West, where a group of men really did abduct women from the local town and take them up into the hills (whether they had read their Plutarch is uncertain). Their story had a lot less of a happy ending, as it seems to have resulted in a shoot-out with the parents of the women and the death of the abductors – but that wouldn’t make a particularly jolly musical, so the film plays with Plutarch instead.
The classical reception element takes a while to come through, because the plot begins with the oldest of seven brothers, Adam Pontipee, going into town to find himself a wife; he comes back with Millie (Jane Powell). While he seems to view her as essentially a household servant, she has a good influence on the all-male household (never mind the gender stereotypes here, it is the 1950s and I’ve not got the energy to deconstruct them) and attempts to civilize the rest of the brothers so that they too might obtain brides. The opportunity for their first attempts at courtship comes at a barn raising, but it descends into a punch-up between the Pontipee brothers and the men from the township, who are already pretty invested in keeping hold of the few women available. The brothers, in true musical fashion, have been smitten by the women they have spent an afternoon impressing, and mope. Adam gets fed up and comes up with a solution – they will take their inspiration from the Romans, and just take the women they want! What could possibly go wrong? (She types, with irony.) The brothers mount their expedition, abduct the girls, there is a chase scene, and an avalanche blocks the pass so the girls are trapped on the brothers’ farm. Millie demonstrates outrage and protects the girls, but over the winter their rage softens and when spring comes we have a cheerful song about all the love and flirting going on in the barnyard. Including lambs. When the fathers come to reclaim their daughters, they don’t want to go, and the film ends with six surprisingly happy shotgun weddings.
I could easily devote this post to unpicking the extremely problematic representation of abduction, women falling for their abductees, the assumptions that violent behaviour is an appropriate way to conduct romantic relationships when traditional courtship fails, all that sort of stuff. I’m going (possibly naively, but there we are) to assume that the problems with assuming This Is A Good Social Model To Follow are so massive as to be obvious without detailed scrutiny, and move on to the reception bit.
I’d argue that the central scene for my purposes is the moment when Adam reveals his grand plan for getting the women to his brothers. He brandishes a book before them – a copy of Plutarch that Millie brought with her to the farm, which raises a whole set of other questions about women and knowledge and the management of knowledge. Is the film setting Millie up as indirectly responsible for what happens, especially given her active role earlier in getting the brothers ready for courtship? Is this a comment on the dangerous nature of classical knowledge and the need for it to be more strictly controlled? But Adam then tells the story of the Sabine (pronounced Sobbin’) Women as a model for his brothers’ future actions. There is a song. Here is a video.
The song sets out the events of the story in tuneful mode, specifically attributing the story to Plutarch. Adam takes on the role of story-teller, informing his audience of how this tale is relevant to their lives – and, as some of you may have realised, thus neatly recreating the Roman educational model of the exemplum. So in this backwoods cabin, the Sabine women’s story is used as it would have been in Rome. The women of the film, of course, also imitate the exemplum – we are explicitly shown Millie reading the relevant passage to the girls as they while away the winter, so they know that they are supposed to get between their families and their new husbands (or husbands-to-be), and indeed they do. The Roman system of moral education is alive, well and living in 1950s Hollywood musicals.
The other thing that’s interesting about this whole affair is its geographical location. I wouldn’t have realised this if I hadn’t gone to a panel on American children’s literature at the American Philological Association a few years ago, where I heard Deborah Roberts give a talk titled “Empire as Frontier: Antiquity in Historical Fiction for American Children”. Her argument was that American children’s books set in ancient Rome had a tendency to incorporate the tropes of the American frontier – for instance, the illustrations showing Roman soldiers on the move would show vehicles that looked like settlers’ wagons. As she demonstrated, the frontiers of the Roman empire became a place to explore some of the potentially problematic ideas about the American frontier in space made safer by its historical remoteness.
What we see in Seven Brides for Seven Brothers is almost a mirror image – our story takes place on the frontier, and the backwoodsmen use Rome as a useful way to think about their own situation in the here and now, bringing antiquity into the present rather than staying in antiquity to examine concepts that might otherwise prove troublesome. It’s an interesting addition to this puzzle of the relationship between Rome and the American West, and indeed to the ways in which we now use antiquity as a way to think about modernity.