The Magnificent Seven Review

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by Chris McEneany Feb 1, 2006 at 12:00 AM

    The Magnificent Seven Review
    They fought like seven hundred!

    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 Collector's Edition, 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, 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. Sturges and his writers, William Roberts and the uncredited Walter Bernstein, jettison some elements, magnify others and even create whole new ones. The esteemed film historian Sir Christopher Frayling contrasts the two versions in detail in his commentary, so I will leave that to him 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. 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 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. The famous scene of McQueen riding shotgun (or scatter-gun, as he calls it) on the hearse is the greatest instance of this mischief. Off-camera rivalry between the two 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. 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. And it is sad then, that other than back home in Germany, fame and celebrity never actually came calling. 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? 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. Such moral complexity is not afforded the seventh member of the team, however. Brad Dexter's Harry Luck is often sidelined, yet he is actually the most realistic character there. 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.

    “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 unconfident 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 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 eighth star of the movie.

    After The Magnificent Seven, westerns would never be the same again. Well, apart from the two lousy sequels it spawned, that is - which were exactly the same. The genre, steered 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. Magnificent.

    The Rundown

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