Tamba opens the film fighting his own people. He plays Ng, a Malayan resistance fighter against the Japanese occupation of his British-ruled country. Fighting alongside Ng are a schoolteacher, Dhana (Capucine), and an American adventurer, Ferris (William Holden). The film begins with the end of World War II, as our trio of heroes celebrate and separate. Ferris intends to buy up rubber plantations and wants Ng as his partner, but Ng is going to college in Russia. The alarm bells obviously started ringing right there for 1964 audiences, but despite Ng's transformation into a ruthless revolutionary, the film never becomes anti-communist propaganda. I can't even recall the word "communist" being used, though everyone will assume that Ng has become one.
We jump forward to 1953, by which time Ferris has largely realized his dreams of land and wealth, Ng has become a guerrilla leader fighting the British, and Dhana heads a teachers' union while leading nonviolent protests against repressive British measures like a ban on bicycles. Our trio remains bonded in subtle ways. Dhana is Ferris's mistress but pines for Ng, while Ng has exempted Ferris's property from guerrilla attacks and is happy to see Ferris when the American finds his way to Ng's base in a vain attempt to discourage violence. Ferris takes Americans' preferred position in the middle, questioning the sincerity of Britain's desire for a peaceful withdrawal while deploring Ng's increasingly terrorist tactics. There's plenty to deplore on the British side. In reprisal for a grenade attack on a party for the new Resident, the army burns down a village. Failing to prevent this atrocity -- admittedly, the Brits evacuate the residents first -- Dhana briefly takes refuge in Ng's arms, and thus seals her own fate.
Dhana is soon arrested for carrying grenades in her bicycle pack, despite her protestations of innocence. Knowing her relationship with Ng, the Brits pressure her to reveal his whereabouts -- Ferris won't tell them -- to save herself from the death penalty. For a while it's possible to believe that the British framed her, but whatever the truth is -- we'll find out eventually -- Ferris decides chivalrously that he'll personally capture Ng in order to save Dhana. Complicating the story is Candace, the Resident's daughter (Susannah York), who's crushing on Ferris but feels sorry for Dhana, the mistress she's supplanting. After the arrest, Candace seeks out Ng, proposing to make herself a hostage to force her father to order Dhana's release. Ng is willing to play along, of course, but makes the conditions clear: if Dhana dies, so will Candace.
It seems that anyone can find Ng if they really want to, and before long his camp is hit with an air strike and invaded by paratroopers. Ng barely manages to escape, keeping Candace as a personal hostage, only to run into a gun-toting Ferris. A race against time begins as the trio must hack their way through the jungle and deliver Ng to the authorities before Dhana is executed. I won't spoil any more, but remember that I did call the movie a tragedy earlier.
The 7th Dawn could be a generic William Holden movie, merging Holden the self-interested cynic with Holden the Asiaphile. The pulpy political context makes Holden almost Bogart-like here, Ferris being torn between an instinct for prosperous neutrality and the need to take a side, if only for one person's sake. The best thing about the movie, in story terms, is how the main characters never reduce to types, but remain more defined by their relationships with each other than by anything else. Ng is probably the most enigmatic character of the group. No matter how ruthless he's shown to be, he still seems to want Ferris's friendship almost to the end and to play fair with him, to an extent. You could get the impression that he cares more for Ferris than for Dhana, but I don't think the movie actually means to go there. What makes Ng a tragic villain is that he wants to be friends (or more) with his old comrades-in-arms even as he stands ready to use or sacrifice them for his revolutionary ends. His sin isn't Communism as such -- he has no plans we hear of for after the British leave -- but the ruthlessness that Cold War propaganda identified as an essential Communist trait. His fate doesn't discredit the anti-colonial cause, which has Dhana as a more positive model, but the film ends with a pessimistic prophecy, perhaps more relevant to other countries than modern Malaysia, that things will get worse rather than better. Fortunately, an American like Ferris can just walk away this time.
Gilbert proves himself an able wrangler of masses of people and munitions in exotic settings, 7th Dawn no doubt serving as a kind of audition for his Bond gig. It has that authentic feel that few modern adventure films can manage in our CGI-ridden era, and Freddie Young's cinematography highlights the diversity of locations, from the imperial swank of the Resident's party to the green prison of the jungle. Riz Ortolani contributes a characteristically lush score, its romanticism a constant counterpoint to all the violence and tragedy. The 7th Dawn is no classic, but its narrative clarity and conviction are enviable compared to many more pretentious or supposedly more psychologically sophisticated movies made today.