PictureDespite having been restored, I still found the picture for The Magnificent Seven a little disappointing. I know it's an old film, but when you consider the terrific work done on the likes of The Wizard Of Oz, Ben-Hur, The Wild Bunch, even Sturges' own Never So Few from even earlier, as well as Leone's Spaghettis, this spruced-up edition definitely lacks something with regards to the colour and the detail. Don't get me wrong, this anamorphic 2.35:1 transfer is still a joy to look at, but there are times when the print seems grubby, the colours jaded and the clarity suspect. The aspect is spot on, though, and an absolute revelation for those who only have memories of the film's pan-and-scan TV presentations. Sturges fully utilised the widescreen frame, keeping his main action front and centre with locked cameras, but have a look around his compositions to find many background elements, such as onlookers and people scurrying about to see how well he filled the picture. The disc does a great job of holding the full image with stability.
Print damage has been all but eradicated, although some scene transitions are terrible, suffering fade-outs and excessive grain. Even some shots in the same scene vary quite considerably in quality. For example, the shot of the welcome committee at Boot Hill is a mess of glaring, grain and inept definition, but the very next cut to Chris and Vin on the hearse is a pretty splendid combination of clear image and bright colour. There are also a couple of noticeable judders.
But colours on the whole, as I have said, are not too great, looking washed-out in places and somewhat muted. Calvera and his men should be bright and resplendent in their bandit regalia but that does not come across at all as well as it should. The rare splashes of blood, however - like the thugs disarmed by Chris, or Bernardo's first wound - are surprisingly, and pleasantly, bright. Most exterior scenes are grainy and a touch too hazy for my liking, leading to an inevitable softening of the image. Crowded scenes of action and gunplay, like the two main battles, suffer mostly here, with backgrounds losing definition. And the blue skies, barring one or two nice exceptions, look dirty. Contrast is not too bad, but the black level is at its most successful during interior scenes, with the night-time sequences lacking richness and depth. Whereas close-up detail can be quite effective - the differing costumes, the crags in Bronson's face, the glint in Vaughn's nervous eye and the detail on the guns - middle to background figures are prone to becoming indistinct. Vaughn's final lip-crawl down the wall is a nice, clear and well-rendered moment, though. And Vin's superb dive over the bar of the tavern reveals some nice detail on the soon-to-be shot-up construction.
I'm being picky, I know, but I love this film and had purposely held off getting the previous editions as I heard there was to be a grand restoration job for the film in the pipeline. On the plus side, digital demons aren't given much of a chance to rear their ugly heads. I spotted some edge-enhancement and one or two instances of aliasing when things get frenetic but, overall, the digital transfer for The Magnificent Seven is more than satisfactory.
SoundWell, the first thing to mention is that this release features the original mono track for the first time. And it is nice to hear it too, considering that it is arguably superior to the re-vamped 5.1 mix that is also supplied. The history of remixing old single channel soundtracks into full surround is long, and strewn with false hopes and sad misfires. The surround for The Magnificent Seven, whilst not containing any major errors or defects, is still not what it purports to be. The rears are hardly ever used, content merely to add some slight ambience - and I mean slight - and the sub is virtually redundant throughout. Of course, the film was never intended to wrap sound and effects around its viewers, so it shouldn't be at all surprising that the engineers at MGM failed to find much to work with around the extra channels. But, to be honest, the surround mix here doesn't really open up the film across the front much, either. Bullets hardly whiz around the set-up, the thundering of hooves as Calvera's men ride around the village is only marginally steered and there is something of a low hiss audible throughout many of the quieter moments that may be an attempt at atmospheric desert noise, but the jury is still out on that one. The score, though, sounds wonderful and is treated to great clarity and a bright acoustic flourish. Therefore, if you remember that it never had split-effects to begin with, and you can dismiss that 5.1 tag, the track still entertains with Elmer Bernstein's rip-roaring music really carrying the film with gusto. If voices sometimes sound a little flat it's invariably because the score has bludgeoned them with its overall dominance.
The original mono track, by contrast, suffers none of these letdowns. It is crisp and clear and well presented, with score, dialogue and gun-battles all given a fair crack of the whip. The action is thick and punchy, the fiesta sounds alive and Chico's mock-bullfight has a confident musical swagger. Flicking between the two mixes during the action sequences actually reveals little difference, so in this case it appears that the addition of extra channels has not achieved a great deal. The R2 release also has a DTS 5.1 track, but just what they think they may have achieved with that is deeply suspect. The days of Anchor Bay's woeful soundtrack tinkering sadly comes to mind. But, I haven't heard it yet ... so, who knows?
ExtrasDisc One contains two very fine Commentary Tracks. The first, from James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Producer Walter Mirisch and Assistant Director Robert Relyea is a joint effort that, despite quite a lack of spontaneity, still delivers a very comprehensive and fully-rounded history of the film's production. The quartet offer much in the way of anecdote - a lot of which will be repeated in the featurettes - but hardly ever appear to be actually watching the film. As such, the track is never scene-specific, but rather a collection of memories playing over the main feature. There are a few silences, but the chat is still eminently rewarding, with Coburn discussing his love for Kurosawa's film and actually getting to play his dream role of the Zen-blade expert, Wallach making a great stab at those naff Oscar acceptance speeches, and all offering quite frank memories of the trials, tribulations (read McQueen's powerplay struggle with Brynner) and the sheer fun that went into the making of the film.
The second Commentary, with film historian and western-fanatic Sir Christopher Frayling, is by far the better of the two. Frayling (who also offered fantastic chat-tracks and other contributions to the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon A Time In The West DVDs, delivers a verbal essay that is exhaustive, intelligent and very well thought out. He dissects movies with humour, clarity and a tremendously personal point-of-view which is all the more satisfying when you consider that far too many film-writers just choose to tow the party line. Listen to how he works things out, such as the lack of colour and personality for the village, which he believes is as a result of the American print of The Seven Samurai having had over an hour of its own similar background narrative cut out. The screenplay for Sturges' film was based on this version, thus the writers never thought to add character to the villagers. His examination of the cross-cultural differences and similarities between Samurai and Magnificent Seven is revelatory, illuminating and thought-provoking. Personally, I could listen to him all day long and never be bored. I love the way he matches the onscreen action we see to commando tactics - the seven like an American Special Forces unit gaining hearts and minds on a counter-insurgency operation. An exemplary track, folks.
Disc Two contains all the featurettes and a fantastic documentary entitled Guns For Hire - The Making Of The Magnificent Seven (46.50 mins). With the participation of Walter Mirisch, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Horst Bucholz, Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter plus archive interviews with Yul Brynner, this chronicle is a splendid, warts 'n' all expose of the tough shoot. We hear about the weird and wonderful access to the rights to remake Kurosawa's classic, the awkward necessity of having an on-set Mexican censor - as well as a large portion of Mexican crewmen, too - to ensure that their nation's pride would not be jeopardised. Gary Cooper's film Vera Cruz from three years earlier had blown filmic relations between the two countries far apart, and Mexico wanted no repeat of such a stereotypical representation. The whole rigmarole for Sturges and his writers eventually wound up being tantamount to walking on eggshells. Filmmakers John Carpenter and Lawrence Kasdan, along with actor and writer Chaz (The Usual Suspects/A Bronx Tale) Palminteri and Steve McQueen's former wife supply more anecdotes and lots of praise. McQueen's on-set sparring with Brynner is extensively covered - which is always interesting. And I like the way that McQueen actually faked a car accident to afford himself time away from Wanted Dead Or Alive so that he could make the film in the first place. All remark on the vast amounts of testosterone that swamped the production, but there are some wonderful photos and a great mention of Brynner's on-set marriage to his fiancé Doris during the filming of the fiesta celebrations. An excellent and thorough making of, folks, and one that bears a return visit. And, by the way, doesn't Bucholz, as he appears here, look like the variety-comic Stanley Baxter?
Sir Christopher Frayling On The Magnificent Seven (20.20 mins). I love this guy. His series on The Birth Of Horror a few years ago was terrific, and his passion for movies, coupled with his astounding wealth of knowledge makes for great listening. This actually plays a little like an abridged version of his commentary, but is still well worth your time. He's frank and honest in his observations, his praise and his inevitable critique coming over as remarkably personal and unsullied by schmaltz or obvious referencing. Great mention of Brynner's gothic ears and the exciting fact that here was a hero whose name was Chris! When I was a kid watching this, it made me feel ten feet tall, as well. Again, excellent.
Elmer Bernstein And The Magnificent Seven (14.47 mins) features Jon Burlingame as he dissects the phenomenal score, cue by cue, detailing how it is structured, utilised and integrated into the film. As a huge fan of filmscores and a major collector of them, I'm always pleased when a DVD has a feature on the composer, and this lovingly detailed analysis is the best that I've come across. Obviously it is only brief, but at nearly fifteen minutes the amount of fact, trivia, and the relevance to movie-music that Bernstein's work here has had is expertly and respectfully presented. A beautiful and touching epitaph for one of the most iconic and dynamic score in motion picture history. Can't believe it didn't get the Oscar, although it was nominated.
The Linen Book: Lost Images From The Magnificent Seven (14.47 mins) is all about the discovery of the original MGM photo and portrait archive that was found deep down in a salt mine in Kansas, where the studio used to stockpile its treasures. The linen book, itself, contains hundreds upon hundreds of images, from production stills to publicity shots and portraits from the film that hadn't seen the light of day for decades. We meet Maggie Adams, head of MGM's photo archive, Robert Relyea and Eli Wallach, who pores wistfully over the photographs from a bygone era and reminisces about his co-stars and the filming as though it was yesterday. Want to see these pictures? Well, you can, because they're coming up next.
Photo Galleries offers us lots and lots of these images. Under the headings Behind The Scenes, Off The Set, Portrait Art, Classic Production Art and Poster Art we are treated to what must he hundreds of stills, folks. I haven't been through them all yet but, trust me, there's one heck of a lot. Great stuff, again.
And finally we get some Previews for Classic Westerns, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, The Great Escape, Silverado and The Best Of World War 2 Movies.
Altogether, a Magnificent Seven Special Features (not counting the previews, there) that truly do this monumental movie justice. Major thumbs up.
VerdictIt's a classic. One of the most influential films ever made, and certainly one of the greatest westerns. The ensemble cast are excellent, the bond between the seven a masterpiece of economical characterisation, and theme of gunslingers coming to terms with their own mortality the start of a glorious trend that had never been explored before. Sturges would take the “group versus the individual” ethic of heroics a huge stage further with The Great Escape, but the inescapable joy of this film is that we are watching truly iconic screen superstars being created right before our eyes, in brazen, cocksure performances that have ensured their immortality. And, oh, that music. You can still hear it, can't you?
The Collector's Edition is an excellent package. The commentaries are gold-dust, the Making Of an unadulterated treasure and the other featurettes are packed with information, thoughtful observation and touching anecdote. And the galleries will keep you going until hired guns prowl new frontiers far, far away from the Wild West.
I so want to award this the magical score of 10, but considering the differences between the R1 and R2 releases - the R2 has Art Cards and a DTS track (although, barring a miracle, I can't really imagine that this will actually make much of a difference) but loses the interview with Sir Christopher Frayling, which is a lousy omission, I will err on the side of caution. Still, whichever version you opt for, The Magnificent Seven is still an essential purchase.
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