The film starred Anne Bancroft, Sue Lyon, Margaret Leighton, Flora Robson, Mildred Dunnock, Betty Field, Anna Lee, with Eddie Albert, Mike Mazurki and Woody Strode.
In rural China, in 1935, all but one of the white residents of a remote Christian missionary post are women. The strict Miss Agatha Andrews (Margaret Leighton) is the head of the mission, assisted by the meek Miss Argent (Mildred Dunnock). Charles Pether (Eddie Albert) is a mission teacher who always wanted to be a pastor; his peevish, domineering middle-aged wife Florrie (Betty Field) is pregnant for the first time. Emma Clark (Sue Lyon) is the only young staff member, whom Miss Andrews treats as a daughter.
Everyone is elated to learn that a much-needed doctor is arriving. However, they are all shocked to discover that Dr. Cartwright (Anne Bancroft) is a New York woman who chain smokes, wears pants and disdains religion. She and Miss Andrews are soon at odds. Emma, who has led a very sheltered life, is fascinated by the newcomer, much to Miss Andrews's great dismay.
After she has settled in, Dr. Cartwright urges Miss Andrews to provide money to send Florrie Pether to a modern facility, as she is too old to give birth safely in their primitive surroundings. Andrews refuses.
Meanwhile, there are rumors of atrocities committed by the Mongolian warlord Tunga Khan (Mike Mazurki) and his militia. Miss Andrews is certain that the mission will be safe, as they are American citizens. After a nearby, even poorer British mission is sacked by Tunga Khan, Miss Andrews reluctantly accepts survivors Miss Binns (Flora Robson), Mrs. Russell (Anna Lee) and Miss Ling (Jane Chang), but only for a short time, as she is unwilling to harbor those of any other denomination for long.
Right after the arrival of the survivors, a cholera outbreak erupts in the mission. Dr. Cartwright quickly takes command of the situation, and of Miss Andrews's initial consternation subsides when Emma herself gets sick, as Miss Andrews implores Dr. Cartwright to save Emma's life. After the emergency is solved and Emma is well again, the relationships between Andrews and Cartwright seems to be softening, but it's exacerbated when Cartwright shows up drunk in the diner room with a bottle of whiskey, and tries to make all the pious women drink as well.
One night, Charles and Cartwright see a fire on the horizon and hear gunfire. The next morning, the Chinese soldiers of the nearby garrison evacuate in a hurry, as Tunga Khan and his men are believed to be approaching the area. Miss Andrews is still convinced they're untouchable, but Charles is now determined to stop being weak and afraid, so he and Kim drive out to investigate the situation, while urging everyone else to be prepared to leave the mission, against Miss Andrews's will. After a while, they hear the car's horn, but once the gate is opened, bandits on horseback charge in firing their guns and quickly take over the mission. Before being executed by the bandits, Kim tells the women Charles was murdered when he tried to rescue a woman being assaulted by Tunga Khan's men. Then Miss Ling, coming from a powerful Mandarin family, is taken away to act as Tunga Khan's young wife's servant, while the seven white women are herded into a shed.
They watch as Tunga Khan has every Chinese in the mission executed, women and children included, to Emma's shock. Tunga Khan comes into the shed and tries to take Emma. Realizing they're (mostly) American women, he decides to ask for a ransom.
With Miss Andrews panicking and Florrie in labor, Dr. Cartwright asks for her desperately needed medical bag. Tunga Khan offers to exchange it for her sexual submission to him. The doctor agrees, and a baby boy survives his birth. After Cartwright goes to fulfill her end of the bargain, an increasingly deranged Andrews vilifies her, calling her "whore of Babylon". The others, however, understand the sacrifice the doctor has made and why.
In the evening, the Mongols gather in circle and organize wrestling matches for entertainment, with Dr. Cartwright watching the spectacle at Tunga Khan's side, as his new concubine. When the lean warrior (Woody Strode) who had been ogling Cartwright all along steps into the ring to face the winner of a bout, Tunga Khan insists on accepting the challenge himself and breaks the man's neck.
Cartwright manages to convince Tunga Khan to let the other women go, including Miss Ling. Before Miss Argent leaves, she sees the doctor hide a bottle that she had earlier called poison. She urges Cartwright not to do what she is planning, but to no avail. With the others safely away, Cartwright, now in a geisha outfit, goes to Tunga Khan's room and secretly poisons two drinks. She subserviently offers a cup to Tunga Khan, as she utters, "So long, ya bastard." After Tunga Khan drinks, he immediately keels over dead. Then, after a moment's hesitation, Cartwright drinks from the second cup.Anne Bancroft as Dr. D. R. Cartwright
Sue Lyon as Emma Clark, Mission Staff
Margaret Leighton as Agatha Andrews, Head of Mission
Flora Robson as Miss Binns, Head of British Mission
Mildred Dunnock as Jane Argent, Andrews' Assistant
Betty Field as Mrs. Florrie Pether, Charles' pregnant wife
Anna Lee as Mrs. Russell, Mission Staff
Eddie Albert as Charles Pether, Mission Teacher
Mike Mazurki as Tunga Khan, Bandit Leader
Woody Strode as Lean Warrior
Jane Chang as Miss Ling, Mission Staff
Hans William Lee as Kim, Mission Staff
H. W. Gim as Coolie
Irene Tsu as Chinese Girl
The film also appeared in several lists. These include:Most Misappreciated American Films of All Time (1977, Andrew Sarris)
Most Misappreciated American Films of All Time (1977, Pascal Bonitzer)
Most Misappreciated American Films of All Time (1977, Serge Daney)
Most Important American Films (1977, Enno Patalas)
Most Important American Films (1977, Luc Moullet)
Genre Favorites: Adventure (1993)
Alternative Choices to Sight and Sound's 360 Films Classics List (1998)
100 Essential Films (2003–Present, Slant Magazine)
Favorite Films (1975, Syndicat Francais de la Critique de Cinema)
Cahiers du cinéma voted it the 6th best film of 1966 and Andrew Sarris rated it the third-best of 1966 (only being beaten by Blow-up and Gertrud).
The film is currently ranked #847 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They? (TSPDT) list of the 1000 greatest films of all time. The list is based on a poll of 1,825 film critics, scholars, and cinephiles, as well as a culling of over 900 existing "greatest film" lists.
The original story, Chinese Finale, was presented as an episode of Alcoa Theatre in March 1960 with Hilda Plowright as Miss Andrews and Jan Sterling as Dr. Mary Cartwright.
John Ford considered both Katharine Hepburn and Jennifer Jones for the role of Dr. Cartwright, and Rosalind Russell lobbied for the part, but eventually Patricia Neal was cast. Ford began the film on 8 February 1965 on the MGM backlot, but after three days of filming, Neal had a stroke. Anne Bancroft took over the role of Dr. Cartwright but Ford was unhappy with Bancroft and called her "the mistress of monotone". Ford originally considered Carol Lynley for the role played in the film by MGM contract star Sue Lyon, whom the studio insisted on. Shooting finished on April 12, only six days behind schedule.
Ford chose Otho Lovering to edit the film; they had first worked together on Stagecoach (1939). Lovering edited most of Ford's feature films in the 1960s.
The film was not released until 1966.
As Ford was a devout Catholic, the film shows the difference between the claim of being moral and the act of morals; the stark contrast between compassion and sacrifice to the austere holier-than-thou philosophy.