They fought like seven hundred!
What follows is an expanded version of my original review for The Magnificent Seven, followed by coverage of all three sequels. So, hang on to your hats, folks, 'cause we're going over the border and we won't all make it back!
This classic 1960 western from John Sturges proved to be the turning point for the whole genre, literally the Last Chance Saloon for the iconic cowboy role-model that had shaped and defined big screen heroics for three decades. An American remake of Akira Kurosawa's seminal masterpiece The Seven Samurai, itself modelled on the noble horse operas of John Ford, The Magnificent Seven (actually the US title for the truncated cut of Kurosawa's popular film) proved to be one of the most influential, and fondly remembered movies of all time. On many levels it is not as good as its forefather - technically and narratively, it comes up short - but, and here's the crucial thing, given the choice between the two, most people would opt for the breezy, rousing ensemble of Hollywood's superstars-in-the-making over the deep and portentous marathon of Samurai. So, with the release of this new Blu-ray Collection of the original and the three sequels that gradually tarnished its illustrious name, let's attempt to see why.
“Well, I'll be damned. I never knew you had to be anything other than a corpse to get into Boot Hill.”
The plot is fairly straightforward. A destitute Mexican village is repeatedly exploited by a ruthless bandit called Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang of forty thugs, who ride in like a storm of locusts and pick the fruits of all the poor folks' labours, season after season. Calvera may be all smiles when he comes a'calling, but when challenged over his greedy protection racket, he won't hesitate to let his guns to the talking. The weak-willed villagers decide they must fight back and, in desperation, go just over the border to look for guns in the lawless West. But, instead of returning with just the tools of destruction, they bring back the very experts of the trade, themselves, to fight Calvera and his men. Seven of them in all. Led by idle and dissatisfied mercenary Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), the seven are a bunch of tough gunslingers, that see in this crusade a chance for work, a purpose in life and means to confront the demons of the past. And in the case of Steve McQueen's happy-go-lucky Vin, a chance to have some fun, too. The story lifts directly from Kurosawa and translates extremely well because Kurosawa's film was a Western in all but location. Sturges and his writers, William Roberts and the uncredited Walter Bernstein, jettison some elements, magnify others and even create whole new ones. The differences between the two are worthy of discussion, but we'll leave that for another time and concentrate just on the film that Sturges made.
“How many of you did they hire?”
On paper, the casting is bizarre, to say the least. Shaven-headed Russian Yul Brynner and German heart-throb Horst Bucholz essaying, respectively, Yankee gunslinger Chris Adams and Mexican hothead Chico , shouldn't really work. Yet, like almost everything about the film, it does. Brynner, who had been instrumental in getting the production off the ground in the first place, inhabits the loner-with-a-heart with an aristocratic air of nobility that commands authority and respect. That he can more than hold his own against young upstart Steve McQueen, who tries to wrestle the limelight in every single frame that the pair occupy in an effort to break the shackles of TV serial doldrums - namely his bounty hunter show Wanted: Dead Or Alive - is testament to his own colossal screen magnetism. Outwardly, the role of Chris is the most straightforward in the bunch - the recruiter/leader with a single clear purpose - but Brynner uses his kingly attitude (he'd played so many monarchs by this time that he was probably surprised he didn't awaken in a palace every morning) to great effect. He looks and sounds unusual, yet we never think to question just how this austere, black-garbed gunslinger arrived in town just in time for a very tense funeral. When, after an introductory scene of valour, he is asked where he came from, Chris just thumbs over his shoulder that-a-way. When asked where he is headed, he merely point ahead ... this-a-way. Beautiful. Thus, it is actually Brynner who is the coolest one on the team, those captivating eyes never losing confidence for an instant, his demeanour as full of self-worth as Robert Duvall's Col. Kilgore in Apocalypse Now. And, as with that old war-horse, Brynner's Chris just instinctively knows that “he wouldn't get so much as a scratch on him.”
The breakout star, of course, was Steve McQueen, who took the softly-spoken character of cowboy Vin and stretched him and broadened him into the larger-than-life action-man that is the heroic core of the movie. I love the way he twists and turns, ducks and dives during his own little shootouts. Brynner may have been the king, but we all still want to be McQueen. Having already worked with him before on the Frank Sinatra war-time drama Never So Few, alongside Charles Bronson as well, John Sturges knew enough about the maverick actor to just sit back and let him take the reins. There was a competitive streak in McQueen that simply couldn't be bottled anyway, and it is always fun to watch the way he attempts to steal the attention from Brynner with all manner of physical quirks, background movements and less-then-subtle fidgeting. But it is just as good to see the occasional knowing glance that Brynner retaliates with, sussing on to the upstart's game is right from the get-go and allowing it to go ... only so far. The famous scene of McQueen riding shotgun (or scatter-gun, as he calls it) on the hearse is the greatest instance of this mischief. Watching some of McQueen's ad-libbed mannerisms and side-of-the-camera expressions it now seems more obvious than ever that Mel Gibson studied such a scene-stealing and audience-hogging approach for much of his own early performances in the likes of Mad Max 2, Attack Force Z, Gallipoli and The Bounty. Off-camera rivalry between the McQueen and Brynner actually caused tension on the set, but the powerplay seen onscreen adds a terrific, and surprisingly, realistic dimension to the group dynamic. Actually, with so many brash gunslingers in town, it is a little odd that dissension in the ranks isn't more prevalent. The swordsmen in Kurosawa's film are bound by the code of Bushido, their behaviour and etiquette unwavering. The hired guns in the remake adhere to a more intangible, and slightly more spiritual, code than that of a warrior. They exist on the fringe of society, their lives ruled by violence and their extreme proficiency at it. Stark individuals who no doubt prefer to work alone and play by their own rules, they nevertheless, bond well as a unit, and seemingly find a greater calling in their crusade to defend the village. They are doing a good deed, to be sure, but the impression given is that their dedication and sacrifice is surely as a means of atonement for the dangerous lifestyles that they lead. They are not exactly good guys, but they have a definite sense of right and wrong. And, in that, there is certainly honour.
“You know, if we're not careful, we could have quite a social life here.”
James Coburn's lanky and laconic blade-expert Britt, introduced in a showy confrontation scene in which he utters no more than four words, is the strangest character amongst the seven, perhaps. Always referred to as the Zen-gunslinger, he exudes a sheer class that elevates him above all the cowboys that have gone before. The classic scene when Chris sends him out to bring one of Calvera's men back alive is a marvellous spin on a similar scene in the original. What goes unsaid and is, in fact, diluted a little by having Vaughn's Lee and Bucholz's Chico following in tow, is that the spiritually serene Britt is so supremely capable of pulling off what seems like a one-man kamikaze mission, that sending him into the hills is like unleashing a force of nature. Suddenly joining the team after first refusing Chris' offer, he merely says “I changed my mind,” and the clear impression given by this is that Britt's own mortality is held in its own blissful balance. Britt knows that life and death are beyond his control - so he is content to simply go along for the ride. Charles Bronson, as sharpshooting muscle-man Bernardo O'Reilly, reveals himself to have a sensitivity that his brutish physique masks for most of the time. Unfortunately saddled with a subplot that sees him bonding with the village kids, Bronson really does pull out all the stops when he emotes gruffly about the nature of true heroism, and it is a shame that he was rarely able to exploit such depths throughout the rest of his career. There is a sense that, of all of them, it is Bernardo who pines most for the sanctity of a family and a home to call his own, yet he knows full well that he is destined for bullets and blood.
“That was the greatest shot I've ever seen.”
“The worst. I was aiming at the horse.”
Chico is the most accessible member of the team. The impetuous youngster who bullies his way into Chris's crusade because of his awe at the skills of the gunslingers and his determination to prove himself as a hero, also has the biggest dilemma on his hands. When the seven head south of the border - and you can find umpteen parallels for American interventionism with this, especially when the original Seven Samurai stayed resolutely in their own country - he has the choice of two destinies. The villagers are his own countrymen, the problems that they face, in essence, are his own too. Thus, Chico's place in the grand scheme of things - gunfighter or peacenik farmer with a cute Latino girlfriend? - brings a humanistic relevance to the Boys Own drama. Horst Bucholz sure makes a mark with his performance and, just as we do with Brynner, we never scratch our heads and puzzle about his mysterious casting. Sturges spent a lot of time with the European Ace Face, and it is clear, even without the big bold lettering in the titles announcing the actor's introduction, that Bucholz was being groomed for bigger things. Check out the indulgent mock-bullfight scene, for proof of this fast-tracking, as well as the near-hysterical confrontation he has with Chris and the team he has amassed so far - all shouting, cursing, threatening and whimpering in the face of complete stoicism. And it is sad then, that other than back home in Germany, fame and celebrity never actually came calling. Here he is acting his socks off in scene after scene, truly winning hearts and minds by staying, miraculously, just the right side of theatrically melodramatic, and his I can do anything approach was ultimately ignored by Hollywood. Doesn't seem fair does it, when the rest of the mob do the exact opposite and become immortal?
Robert Vaughn's neurotic Southern dandy, Lee, is perhaps my favourite of the second tier of heroes, though. A man haunted by his past, riddled with guilt, fear and self-loathing, and suffering from intense nightmares, he is not exactly your conventional gunfighter. He no longer knows if he is a hero or a coward, and is motivations for joining the seven are much darker and more Freudian than those of his six comrades put together. During the first skirmish with Calvera, he hides - is he biding his time for a sneak attack, or is he just keeping his head down until the right moment to strike? When Britt goes out to catch a bandit, he goes along too. Is this his bravado returning, or is it actually a kind of deathwish that he is chasing? Fresh-faced Vaughn looks too young to have had years of bad deeds to atone for, but his performance is beautifully modulated - one minute he's a bag of jitters, the next seemingly as cool as a cucumber. “You don't owe anything to anybody,” Chris respectfully informs at a pivotal turning point in the campaign. “Except to myself,” comes the ironic and, indeed, prophetic reply. When he finally makes his move, we also draw a deep breath ... and hold it as his swift heroics make that crucial difference. Symmetry governs him as well - crouching, early on, like a spider against the very wall that he will ultimately die against in that famous stone-kissing downward slide into oblivion much later. Such moral complexity is not afforded the seventh member of the team, however.
And whilst these guys play with the genre's archetypes, Brad Dexter's Harry Luck is often sidelined, yet he is actually the most realistic character in the set-up. He's only in it for the money that he wrongly believes will be their prize when they rid the village of Calvera's threat. With his intentions governed by greed, his is the most clearly defined role, and if his final act of heroism feels unfortunately rushed and tragic, then Chris's act of absolution as he cradles him in his arms is sweetly ironic, and the lie he utters strangely heart-warming. Dexter was another European, alongside Bucholz, but his number was up shortly after this, despite having been a familiar (though curiously forgettable) face in the genre for years. It is doubly ironic, then, that his is the name of the seven that most people never recall when quizzed.
“If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
As Calvera, the awesome Eli Wallach (one of the greatest character actors ever to grace the screen) commits to celluloid his dry-run for the incredible performance he gives as Tucco in Leone's The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966). Calvera is not at all the heinous monster that you expect him to be. His large-scale, pantomimic persona makes him charismatic and likeable. He is a man who flaunts his wealth in the faces of the people he has pilfered it from - gold teeth, fine silk shirts and a jewelled saddle - whilst enjoying their terrified hospitality, but his best moments come when engaged in verbal sparring with the villagers and, more pertinently, Chris. They all deal in lead, but for Calvera, despite all his crackpot delusions of grandeur, his nefarious schemes are still just a business. A way to make a profit. Which is why he cannot understand why the people he perceives to be rivals would put their lives on the line for the downtrodden. Especially when those rivals are Americans. After all, “Only Texans can rob banks in Texas ,” he says, summing up this veritable invasion force on his turf. But the nobility of the seven is something that is alien to him, and when they return for the last stand after some major plot twists in the darker final act, his incomprehension at their motives plays out brilliantly on Wallach's sunburned face. “You came back. Why? A man like you ...” Already a successful stage and screen actor, Wallach was still mystified by Sturges' desire for him to play Calvera. Utterly removed from Latino or Hispanic lineage, he nevertheless makes the perfect, and indeed archetypal Mexican rogue. He never got the hang of the gun, though. Check out the way he has to look at his holster before he can return his gun to it. You don't see the new kids on the block being so lacking in confidence or cack-handed.
“You think these walls will keep me out?”
“They were built to keep you in.”
How can I not make great reference to the terrific score by Elmer Bernstein, who even went on to create the most iconic signature tune of all the World War II movies with Sturges' own The Great Escape, as well? Sufficed to say that it is one of the best and most memorable musical works ever composed for a movie, let alone a western. I possibly prefer Morricone's epic and operatic musical myth-making for the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West, but that is music for an altogether different and more elegiac style of western. They are powerful and tragic and adorned with the deep psychosis of corrupted souls and an era depicted as eating itself alive. Bernstein's score, whilst a bold and stirring romp, still represents the end of the line for the American-made oater - catchy, rousing and undeniably exciting it may be, but it also serves as a good swansong for all those motifs and themes that John Ford, Howard Hawks and their brethren sought to evoke in their joyous celebrations of life in the big country, before The Magnificent Seven arrived and broke the trend, re-modifying what a cowboy film was really about. It's hard to imagine the world of film music without Bernstein's incredibly influential score. His main theme - it's playing in your head now, isn't it? - is varied, inverted, subverted, upped and slowed many times throughout the film, but the rest of the score is just as electric. Calvera's theme is driving and percussive, a musical swagger of aggression to match the bandit's bravado. The Mexican fiesta is gloriously uplifting. But watch how the onscreen action, which is often surprisingly languid, is beefed-up and made all the more dramatic by the music, which plays much faster to compensate. Bernstein's contribution to the mythology of The Magnificent Seven lends the film a supercharged dynamism that it would have lacked otherwise - to its detriment. It really is the ninth star of the movie.
“I've been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.”
Sturges directs the action with economic verve. For a rip-roaring two-hour Western there really isn't all that much actual mayhem. The battles are short and sharp, another holdover from Kurosawa, and just as impactful. Often criticised for being somewhat turgid in style, Sturges actually does a lot of tremendous things here. To wit, the finitely choreographed set-piece following Calvera and his men as they gallop through the village and jump over walls that matches up perfectly with a camera that doesn't move half as much as you think it does. Or the wonderful sequence when Chris, almost wordlessly, calls his men to battle-stations when he realises that the enemy is approaching and each of the Seven then moves calmly and professionally into position. But the film is literally peppered with terrific moments and flourishes of inspiration even beyond the most famous and iconic images. Chico's smiling and hand-waving to defuse the situation with the tense hearse-ride is a great and credible touch - immediately human and charismatic. Britt just pointing to where he wants his arrogant opponent at the train station to stand. Chris playfully enquiring how far Lee got with his latest mission to find the Johnson Brothers - “I found them,” comes the deadpan, somewhat ghostly reply. Calvera glaring suspiciously at the young boy as they ride past, his sixth sense screaming at him that something isn't right with his favourite village today. Coburn's bizarre shooting stance - he simply is too gangly to be a gunman. Bronson leaning backwards out over the edge of the roof for a final pot-shot - every inch the gunman at one with his rifle. Bucholz's gestures of surprised exasperation towards preternaturally unflustered Coburn as the three spies suddenly appear from precisely where they weren't expected to come from - right behind himself. Contrast those jitters with Brynner's mesmerising cool, casually unlacing the strap holding his holster to his thigh before a fight, and then placing both hands customarily on his belt with supreme nonchalance.
But there's more.
How about the brilliance of the sequence, when, flush from their first victory against Calvera, the Seven find themselves pinned-down by long-range sniper-fire and Sturges uses the suspense of the situation not for action, but the purpose of developing several key members of the team? At their individual positions, Bernardo, Chico and Vin establish deeper relationships with the people of the village, the film, once again, taking an unusual path and doing the unexpected. Or the swift explosion of violence as the tide turns and the farmers find their anger - a bandit hauled off his horse and beaten to death by them, machetes, chairs and axes brought into play. Chico's amazing gun-blasting run-through of two buildings, his clearing out of bad guys unseen by a camera that simply tracks his progress from the outside whilst we hear the chaos taking place on the inside. Lee's amazing triple-hit assassination to free some prisoners, especially the way he shoots and grapples at the same time and doesn't falter even for a split-second is a perfect follow-on to his earlier failure to capture three flies in the palm of his hand - the film finding exquisite poetry amidst the carnage.
“Farmers talk of nothing but fertilizer and women. I've never shared their enthusiasm for fertilizer. As for women, I became indifferent when I was eighty-three.”
After The Magnificent Seven, westerns would never be the same again. Well, apart from the three inferior sequels it spawned, that is - which tried very hard to be exactly the same. The genre, steered from here on by Sergio Leone and railroaded by Peckinpah and Eastwood, would become more intelligent and realistic, grittier and more psychological. But it would never again be quite so much fun. A genuine classic then, and not just a rainy Bank Holiday TV staple, and Magnificent in so many ways, John Sturges' triumphant remake of Seven Samurai will never die. And through it, Yule Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Horst Bucholz, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach and Elmer Bernstein will live forever.
“Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
Okay, so we've discussed the classic original movie, and most people buying this boxset will be content to stop right there ... but we are going to have to deal with those three inferior sequels eventually. And, who knows, maybe they aren't quite as bad as we all like to think they are. For a start, there is going to be lot of folks who haven't actually even seen them - and just pretend to despise them because that's the done thing. And this includes a great many reviewers and critics as well! So, taking them one at a time, let's see what the Seven did next. And, somewhat reassuringly, the one constant element in all the films is the music of Elmer Bernstein, who provided revisions and slight additions to his original score for each entry.
“I've failed them.”
“You failed yourself. You got knocked down. Get up, Father ... at least as far as your knees.”
1966 saw the resurrection of the title in The Return Of The Magnificent Seven. Taking place a couple of years after the events of the first film, Chris must once again take arms against a sombrero-wearing warlord and his bandit army when his old buddy, Chico, is hauled off into slavery along with all the other menfolk from the village they all defended and he, alone, stayed in to be with his Latino love, Petra. Rounding up another five gunfighters, including Vin, he heads south of the border again and faces off against his old enemy in order to win the freedom of the captives. Flinging a Winchester rifle to Chico, Chris finds the magic number of seven and the battle-lines are drawn.
Using his role as the bandit Lorca as a veritable rehearsal for his later portrayal of General Mapache in The Wild Bunch, Emilio Fernandez is surprisingly assured and sympathetic. He is not as single-minded and one-note a villain as even Calvera would appear to be - Calvera really onlybeing elevated only by Wallach's outstanding performance. He has a strict purpose and some fascinating and tragic motivation for what he is doing, lending some unexpected complexity to his desperado. Which is why the film works so well - the Seven, or perhaps just Chris, need a tangible, three-dimensional nemesis to go up against. Arguably, the first two films are at their most electric when Brynner is conversing with the enemy, refusing to back down for a second and implacably making his own demands against vastly greater numbers in that priceless, hard to emulate Mongolian brogue of his. Fernandez is sympathetic and dogged in the role and when he finally bites the dust, there is a curious tinge of sadness about his passing. More so even than for Calvera.
The film even anticipates the heavily religious aspects that would come to thrive in the Spaghetti Westerns that were just around the corner. The whole notion of building a church with imprisoned slave labour and the beseeching of the priest, played by Fernando Rey (who would crop up as the noble revolutionary at the epicentre of the drama in the next film in the series), distinct flavours that Leone and Corbucci and Castellari would explore in theme and allegory in their own staggeringly stylistic interpretations of the Old West.
Burt Kennedy (who he?) directs against a more epic, more extras-laden canvas. The script by the great Larry Cohen (cult writer/director of the likes of The Stuff, Q-The Winged Serpent, Maniac Cop and the It's Alive series) would have you thinking that it would be rife with wry humour and sarcasm, but this is sadly not the case. Attempts to lend the new Seven some individual personalities falls largely flat on its face, with only Claude Akins and Warren Oates bearing anything of depth. Although it is hard to see Oates as being the serial womaniser that his character is supposed to be. But the film loses a lot of points for its ruination of the characters of both Chico and Vin, who are thoroughly lousy stand-ins for the true incarnations of Bucholz and McQueen. Julian Mateos, as Chico, especially, is poor. He even looks like Roddy McDowell's Caesar/Cornelius/Galen mask from Planet Of The Apes, which is nicely ironic considering that his co-star, Claude Akins, was a gorilla general in the final movie in the Ape franchise, as well. It also stagnates Chris to the point where Brynner seems to spend a huge amount of time simply listening to people moan about their circumstances and the gravity of their deeds, those massive eyes gently smouldering holes in the film for long stretches of supposedly atmospheric build-up.
“My cousin says seven is a lucky number for you.”
For Chris, yes. But not always for the other six.
The along came Guns Of The Magnificent Seven, and with it the unmistakable death-knell of the series. Which kind of puts the film in a bad light, and that's wrong because this is actually quite a gripping and fascinating film. Possibly the most violent and certainly the cruellest of the series, Guns reflects the impact of the Spaghetti Westerns whereas Sturges' original actually set them up with settings and themes. And if the first two movies evoked the counter-insurgency of Korea and Vietnam, then this third entry was the World War II death-or-glory mission - Where Eagles Dare or The Dirty Dozen ... on horseback.
Now, even Brynner was gone ... although Chris Adams was still very much alive and up for spilling more blood down Mexico way. Now much less “kingly” due to the fact that loveable bear George Kennedy had assumed the role, Chris is hired to spring a Mexican revolutionary from prison. But, of course, he can't do it alone - so he goes back on the recruitment drive to gather around him another mercenary Special Ops team (hmm ... six should just about do it, Chris). The disappointing Monte Markham plays Keno, a loose variation on McQueen's maverick, who is, at least, pretty good at scaling walls and leaping from roofs. But, more importantly, it is now 1969 and we'd had Jim Brown in Rio Conchos, Woody Strode in The Professionals (actually quite thematically similar to the whole gamut of Magnificent movies), and Sidney Poitier in Duel At Diablo (the latter two both hailing from a couple of years before), so black faces in Westerns were becoming almost de rigueur ... thus, accompanying Chris for this venture was a young, fresh-faced and muscle-bound Bernie Casey (Sharky's Machine, Rent-a-Cop and a one-time Felix Leiter in Never Say Never Again) as the explosives expert Cassie. A little lecture to Joe Don Baker's crippled ex-Confederate sharpshooter about racial stereotypes and the two are good to go. Actually, Baker is great in this early role. Sporting his Southern grey tunic and yellow piping and wailing around in the midst of bitter midnight dreams, he cuts an almost American Gothic figure of twisted rage and self-hate - compounded all the more when we see him attempt to hack off his own useless arm. The slack-limbed Johnny Reb is obviously the new-look Lee from the original, and it is an interesting interpretation.
Another member of the Seven is “Them!” 's James Whitmore, who it is always great to see. Playing an ageing blade-expert, the grizzled old character actor gives a wonderfully laid-back performance as the father-figure to a poor peasant boy and becomes an eternally cheerful and somewhat rascally nod to Coburn's serene Britt. Reni (Dirty Harry/Cobra) Santoni is also very good in the role of the patriotic Max, totally eclipsing Return's wooden Chico stand-in as token Mexican team-member.
Michael (Star Trek TV show) Ansara's despicable Fédérale Colonel sets about rounding up peasants and corralling them inside the walls of his Colditz-style fortress, but his callous disregard for civil liberty doesn't end there. He has prisoners dragged behind horses en mass until they fall apart and, in the film's grisly piece de resistance, buried up to their necks in the dirt and then their heads ridden over and trampled on! This is a concentration camp crossed with the atrocities in East Timoy. I would have said that Brynner would have been horrified at such violent excesses, but then he went on to play The Ultimate Warrior (in which heads are mashed with lumps of concrete) and the pirate chieftain in The Light At The Edge Of The World (in which people are regularly skinned, beheaded and butchered). The sight of a cluster of men hanged from the telegraph lines seems almost as though it was set up to make a point and, of all the four films, Guns seems unsure just how far it should go. Politically, this was pushing buttons and director Paul Wendkos, whether intentionally or not, was making possibly the most controversial entry in the series.
Chris doesn't actually seem to do much this time around, apart from keep some inner revulsion seething just beneath the surface - although you have to giggle when his big piece of derring-do comes after a door is kicked-in and Kennedy slides into action. Slides? Watch the scene ... he's slipped, folks! But the main problem with the film is that it has only one battle and it seems to take a helluva long time getting to it. Having said that, though, it is a terrific and bravura scrap that can't help but feel like a set-up for the final showdown in The Wild Bunch, with explosions going off, Mexican soldiers being mowed-down by the dozen, some blazing turns on a big machine-gun and a gallant last stand from the good guys. Guns is an out-and-out combat movie and, despite that sluggish middle-stretch and the softer, far less intense incarnation of Kennedy's Chris, this is a weirdly rewarding entry in the now repetitive cycle.
Interestingly both Return and Guns were shot in what were fast becoming the usual Spanish locations of Almeria and Alicante that served the Spaghetti brand of Western, signifying both the growing influence of Leone and Corbucci ... as well as the cheaper production costs, and the need to avoid the always sensitive Mexican censors. And both films definitely have that altogether different look that made the Dollars Trilogy and Django, amongst others, stand out, visually, from the genre.
“Jim, I've crossed that border to fight three times ... I ain't doing it again.”
Finally, there is George McCowan's The Magnificent Seven Ride!, which returned to home soil and was shot in California. Hailing from 1972, this otherwise lacklustre entry has two audacious stabs at taking the franchise off the beaten path. Firstly, and quite appreciably, it posits that Chris Adams has finally settled down, gotten himself married and even commenced working for a living ... as a lawman in a town with altogether too many buildings in it. Secondly - and this is also where it gets confusing - our favourite gunslinger has changed his face again, but this time it is the lean, vulture-visage of the great Lee Van Cleef who finds the need to round up six more soldiers of fortune when his fresh bride is brutally raped and murdered. With Papa Walton, himself, Ralph Waite (looking incredibly like Russell Crowe in 3.10 To Yuma!) also insisting that Chris aid him in protecting yet another town just over the border from rampaging bandits - this time a town that is populated by the widows of the murdered menfolk, including Stephanie Powers - and his only help coming in the form of five desperate criminals and, in a weird presaging of Eastwood's Unforgiven, a writer working on a biography of the famous gunfighter's life and exploits, our boy has to saddle-up one more time for a showdown with a swarm of angry sombreros.
Quite frankly, this final offering, despite having Cleef in it, is terrible and deserves all the scorn that is regularly, and unfairly, heaped upon all three sequels. Cleef is suitably steely-eyed and lupine, and the roster of ne'er-do-wells he gathers, Dirty (half) Dozen-style from the prison, may include the likes of Hillstreet Blues' James B. Sikking, Ed Lauter and Luke Askew (all massively familiar faces from TV and a surge of mediocre thrillers), but this is an extremely poor yarn that has TV movie production values, lumpen action and a ridiculous A-Team scenario of trap-building and defensive tactics that wouldn't stop a fly. What it does have going for it, besides the image of the big-hearted Chris Adams becoming a cold-blooded, vengeful executioner, are a plethora of splashy blood-squibs and a young Gary Busey, sporting some fine Wolverine-sideburns, and quite a relentless running battle sequence that sees a fair chunk of this cut-price Seven decimated before a final stand in the ubiquitous Mexican village.
If the series can be likened to anything else, then it would have to be either the Jaws franchise or The Planet Of The Apes. Sevens one and two are the Jaws and Jaws 2 of the bunch - they feed off one another, utilise the same characters, the same village and much the same threat and overall dynamic. The Return Of The Magnificent Seven is actually quite a respectable movie in its own right, just as Jaws 2 or Beneath The Planet Of The Apes are very commendable sequels to their first instalments. However, just as Jaws 3 and Jaws: The Revenge merely plundered the title and wrought havoc with the characters and the basic scenario, as did the likes of Escape From The Planet Of The Apes and (missing out Conquest, because I really like that one) Battle For The Planet Of The Apes, Guns Of The Magnificent Seven and The Magnificent Seven Ride do the same thing and seem determined to blast bullet holes in the mythic stature of the original movie.
To be honest, there is nothing wrong with taking the character of Chris Adams and running with him through a series of adventures. You can even bring Vin along, if you want to. But the producers and writers just shoot themselves in the foot by trying to mimic the original template of amassing noble suicide squads for a heroic mission, forgetting that it was, when all said and done, a one-off in the first place. Having Chris at the head of yet more septet teams, time and time again, is just plain ridiculous. But this is what happens for two pictures too many, of increasingly dwindling returns.
Brynner, no doubt sick and tired of the role, even to the point where he would willingly send-it-up in the astounding homage found in Michael Crichton's ace SF/thriller Westworld, where he played the homicidal android version of Chris Adams to sinister Terminator-inspiring perfection, could never be replaced. None of the original Seven could.
Stripping away the One-Upstanding Man ethic from the West, and promoting team-work, The Magnificent Seven is like a deadly take on The Apprentice. You need a solid, dependable force around you to get the job done, but the canniest of the bunch always knows, instinctively, that some of the others must cop a round that was probably meant for him. Folks, this set suddenly appeared on the horizon without much fanfare ... so catch a-hold of it before it slips over the border.
The Magnificent Seven gets a 10 out of 10. Return a lucky 7. Guns garners a 6 for its shocking violence. But Ride can only aim (and probably miss) a 3 out of 10.Please note that this US release is Region A-locked.
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