With the exception of The Magnificent Seven Ride!, which is presented in 1.85:1, all the films are in 2.35:1, and all transfers have been encoded via AVC MPEG-4.
The Magnificent Seven looks terrific. Damage and print nicks are still in evidence, a fine layer of grain still adds texture to the image. The opening title sequence still wobbles about a fair bit and there are still those curious little blotches and whatnot on the print that reassure you that the new hi-def makeover hasn't become mired with digital gremlins. Depth is wonderful - look at the villagers scuttling away into the distance when Chris and his men await Calvera's arrival, or the action taking place at all corners of the battlefield once the bullets begin to fly. Bronson on the roof-top, the Seven riding across the stream before they finally allow Chico into their number, Calvera eyeballing the young peasant boy - all these scenes and more present visual mood far better than ever before thanks to the enhanced depth of field.
Colours are splendid for the vintage of the film. Reds - neckerchiefs, Calvera's silk shirt, the splash of blood as Bernardo takes a hit and the eye-scorching opening titles - look much brighter and more vivid. Blues, for the skies and for the denim shirts and jeans have more variety than ever before. Skin-tones are flush and warm and ruddy - just as they should be for this shiny Hollywood prestige picture. The little pottery jugs are a lovely earthen brown and the greens of the wine bottles and the lichen or moss on the stones that form some of the barricades now appears with more clarity. And check out the vividness of multi-coloured gob-stoppers that fill the jar on the bar of the taverna. Even the subtle salmon colour of Vin's shirt has more substance, as well as the gold teeth gleaming in Calvera's mouth - and this comes despite Sturges having had them dulled down!
Edge enhancement, so obvious on the DVD, has no such prevalence here, with edges well delineated but un-sharpened. Contrast works a treat, too, and blacks are neither compromised by grey, nor do they ever swamp any of the darker scenes. Shadow-play from overhanging branches or from the sides of buildings produces an image that is often wonderfully composed and visually arresting - Bernardo sheltering from the sniper as those “damn kids” crouch beside him, or Lee's nightmarish breakdown. Detail is considerably improved, which is a breathtaking revelation. Walls, trees, the ground, clothing and mountain ridges have lots more texture, as do faces and eyes. You won't go thinking that this was made yesterday, but you've definitely never seen The Magnificent Seven look this vivid, this finite, or this exciting at home ever before.
The Return Of The Magnificent Seven starts off looking quite ropey indeed, but this alters, during the first act until the image becomes extremely good. In fact, there are moments in this film that look positively gorgeous, with amazingly deep and well-saturated colours, marvellous depth and a lot of finite detail that makes some close-ups especially radiant. What is nice is the glow that bathes Brynner as he ponders the meaning of it all during the night-time sequences, when he is lit by fire-light, and, on a similar tack, when he and his besieged brethren endure a night of rain and sharp silver streaks of lightning - the latter really cutting through the shadows.
Guns Of The Magnificent Seven looks just as good again, with a picture that is often spectacularly vivid. Grain fluctuates and there is a section during the first half hour when some vertical line damage shimmers just off-centre of the image, and to the left, but this is strong, detailed and boldly coloured for the most part. Once more, the close-ups of faces can look tremendous. Eyes, leathered skin, hair-separation ... and look at the acres of craggy whiskerage on James Whitmore! There is also a nice level of depth and three-dimensionality afforded the picture, such as when Chris and Keno are down by the stream as Max comes to pay a visit, or when the team are moving along the ditches as they creep nearer to the fort. Obviously some shots could not be restored without resorting to excessive noise reduction and digital tinkering, and thankfully MGM have not attempted to do so. "Guns" boasts a vibrant image that occasionally exhibits the softer extremes of the frame from the anamorphic lens, fluctuating grain fields, sometimes within the same scene and period-bound spots and flecks. Black levels aren't too bad, but shadows and night-time scenes can be infiltrated by grey. This does nothing to hamper the atmosphere of the show, however. Contrast, by and large, is reliable, and we get some great early scenes of crisp blue skies above harder, more earthy-looking ridges and riversides. Thus, as with all the films in the series, some moments are absolutely grimy and swirling with grain, and other are truly sublime. But Guns looks utterly superb for the most part.
The Magnificent Seven Ride! alters the visual aesthetic of the series by coming in at 1.85:1 and, despite having a cleaned-up print that holds fine colour saturation promoting the primaries, lacks any sort of depth, dimensionality or detail beyond what is up-front and personal. In fact, this looks fairly shoddy and almost made-for-TV with an overall image that is soft and slightly blurred at times. Blacks can appear washed-out and skin-tones look too pale. None of this is down to the transfer, though - this is just the lowly state of the film itself. Hi-def glory is nowhere to be seen, at least in comparison to the other three movies, but this is still a step up from the DVD version.
None of the titles suffer any sort of banding or smearing. Aliasing may crop up very slightly in a couple of the later movies, Guns has a slight green tinge to edges during one or two scenes, though this is almost certainly down to the original print, but noise reduction is not present to any detrimental effect. All have elements of grain fluctuation, but this is only to be expected.
So, to sum up then, all of the four movies have scrubbed up remarkably well and provide ample encouragement for an upgrade. The colours are stronger, the detail greater, the edges better defined and each instalment now boasts a lot more depth and three-dimensionality. Hi-def glory does accentuate this collection. As we shall see, the extras actually lose a mark or two, but the AV quality is more than enough to warrant forking out for the set.
Whilst the image presentation for each film is appreciably improved from anything we've seen before on home video, the same can't be said about the audio. Oh, don't get me wrong, the DTS-MA HD 5.1 tracks that adorn each of the four movies do their job, all right, but they don't supply anything more than you've already heard before. In fact, I would go as far as to say that the surround track that appeared on the SD Collector's Edition for the original film was actually a bit more consistently enjoyable. I found that I had to crank up the volume on this lossless version a lot more to reach that comfortable level for dialogue. Mind you, it was only the earliest feature that I had this problem with, as the rest of the series manage to balance things out a bit better.
Despite the number of films on offer with this collection and the addition of lossless audio tracks for each, there is, to be honest, very little to actually comment on. None of the films carries much in the way of surround activity, other than some score bleed, a few gunshots and ricochets here and there, and, as the films progress, a more convincing representation of thundering hoofs moving away behind us. Be honest, though, you didn't expect anything more, did you? Magnificent Seven Ride, although the newest of the bunch, has some rear-impact that sounds a tad muffled and unrealistic, perversely enhancing that hollow TV movie vibe that the entry has - but this is just me struggling to find anything to report on, to be honest.
With regards to the first film, which also has the original mono as an alternative, the most overt thing that you will become aware of, unmistakably and immediately, is Bernstein's phenomenal score. Now the presentation of the music is actually quite terrific, with warmth, energy and a nice room-invading swagger each and every the main theme, in particular, comes on, but it does make you realise that the audio track is possibly mixed wrong. Compared to the dialogue, especially in this first movie, the music positively roars out over the top. Arguably, this may be how it was always meant to be. And, if you notice, each of the films drops the dialogue in order for the score to swirl and storm through, so it is not a case of the score simply drowning out the speech ... but there still seems to be a massive leap in depth and aggression whenever that theme barrels in to the film. Calvera's driving ostinato rhythm also plays in all the movies, and the tumbling ethnic percussion always comes over well.
The stereo spread is reasonable, with Guns and Ride offering the widest stage on which to play. Voices and activity are steered across this array, but you won't be assaulted with a great deal of vigour from any of these discs. Gunshots all have that rather strange sound that the Magnificent Seven is famous for - which is small, slight and almost as though the cast are using toy guns. These restrained and timid effects are not what Leone would bring to the park, with his positively artillery-like blasts, but they are distinctive, nonetheless, and now a part of the mythos of the franchise. They do, also, gain strength and clout as the films progress.
Bass levels aren't taxed, but this doesn't mean that the films don't still carry some depth and impact. Doors getting kicked in, bodies hitting the floor, explosions going off (in the later movies, especially Guns, which even has a mine-shaft collapsing) and general skirmishing features a more expansive lower register impression than any versions that we've had on home video before. For another example, listen to the stomping of the hoofs during the horrendous execution scene in Guns. Various other effects, such as glass shattering - notably when Vin returns fire to the shooter in the window on the way up to Boot Hill and when he later takes a round in the leg during the final shootout - and the wine jug getting blasted by the sniper, as well as various “pinging” and “whining” ricochets, are nice and crisp and detailed in the original. Adding to this, Return features some decent rainfall and lightning cracks. Guns has an attempt at the zing of a blade being thrown, and some riotously vigorous horse-led executions. Ride! pitches up a walloping explosion as well as lots of the usual gun-play ... so you can expect plenty of bang for you buck with this genocidal boxset.
Well, the pain really starts here, folks.
All those Magnificent fans out there will, no doubt, already have the 2-disc Collector's Edition and, well ... you are going to have to keep hold of it too. For the cardinal sin that this boxset release commits ... and I can't believe that they've done this ... is to drop the wonderful commentary track from our own Sir Christopher Frayling! And not only that, they've also cut loose his documentary as well! Whilst the rest of the special features are direct lifts from that previous release - and good ones they are too - this just beggars belief. Sir Chris simply is the man you want to hear from and the rest, as fine, as informative and as enthralling as it may be, just don't add up to a hill o' beans. But, you know what? Just to remind you good folks of the sheer class of this esteemed genre authority's theories and treatise on the film ... I'm going to recap what should have been in this edition ... but isn't!
The missing commentary.
The chat-track film historian and western-fanatic Sir Christopher Frayling is, by far, one of best examples of the form. 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 acting like an American Special Forces unit gaining hearts and minds on a counter-insurgency operation. A simply exemplary track, folks.
The missing documentary.
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.
Okay, the gripes over ... so let's see what this set does have to offer us.
We get the commentary 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.
We get the 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?
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/reviewer of them, I'm always pleased when a release such as this 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.
The three sequels each receive just their theatrical trailer, which is a shame and something of a missed opportunity. There is ample potential for a documentary overview of how the series developed. I mean, just look at the stars who participated in them - from George Kennedy and Claude Akins to Stephanie Powers and, of course, the mighty Lee Van Cleef. Surely some sort of recognition could have been made - I'll bet Sir Chris would have been up for it!
You know what I'm going to say, don't you? You get the original classic movie and the three sequels thrown in as extras. But I find it hard to complain that in one nicely packaged box you get the full series of films, and all in hi-def. What I will complain about, however, is the loss of the great Sir Christopher Frayling in both commentary and documentary from the first movie. It is incomprehensible that this release jettisons the best source of opinion and insight into the production and its everlasting impact.
Folks, if you stuck through all of this review, then my hat goes off to you. This week has been dominated for me by Chris Adams and his various Sevens, and that music has played so often that I'm surprised I don't see everyone outside wearing white peasant pyjamas whenever I leave the house. And I feel somewhat disappointed that I climb aboard a bus to get to work, and not a horse. In the old days, every Christmas and Bank Holiday, my family would groan wearily whenever The Magnificent Seven came on TV. I didn't. And I have loved every sombrero-routing second of this Western indulgence.
The first film is a classic. One of the most influential and popular movies 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 properly 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. It's been echoing right the way through this review and you can still hear it, can't you?
The Collection boxset is a great, though frustrating package. The commentary is 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, but the fact remains that this could have been better yet and so this is still not quite the definitive word on the subject.
I so want to award this the magical score of 10, but considering the omissions made and the law of diminishing returns with regards to the films, themselves, this set garners an 8 out of 10, overall ... whereas a single release of the original film, with all its proper special features and this stunning transfer, would effortlessly claim top marks. Many will hold out for just such a release and, who knows, maybe a UK edition will put things right. But, for now, this is Magnificent enough and very highly recommended.
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