They were seven—And they fought like seven hundred!
Few films have been as influential, both in content and pure artistry, as Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai. So many films have been made that copy his work, either visually or through the story, that it can be a chore trying to list them all. One of the best known of those films is The Magnificent Seven, a direct remake done with Kurosawa's permission just six years after the classic was made. Transporting the samurai tale to the Old West was not without its challenges, but it largely succeeded and is one of the best known and loved Westerns of all time. A fine ensemble cast and one of the most memorable musical scores of the genre add to the classic story to make for a wonderful viewing experience. MGM has made a terrific special edition for this classic, a disc befitting the quality of the film.
Facts of the Case
A poor Mexican village has been besieged by a group of bandits led by the charismatic Calvera (Eli Wallach), who takes their food and anything else his band needs, leaving them destitute. The villagers are willing to fight, but lack guns or training. For this, they send a couple men to the other side of the border, where they witness Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) face down a group of men at Boot Hill, and decide they can trust them. Times being hard, Chris tells them that gunmen are cheaper to buy than guns right now. Feeling their plight, Chris recruits men to come save the village from the bandits, including Bernardo O'Reilly (Charles Bronson); Britt (James Coburn), a master of both gun and knife; Lee (Robert Vaughn), a gambler who has lost his nerve for violence; Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), an old friend of Chris who doesn't believe the job is really so altruistic in nature; Vin of course; and Chico (Horst Buchholz), a young and inexperienced kid yearning to be a gunfighter. These seven men will stand up to over 50 bandits with the help of the inexperienced villagers in what has been often called the seminal Western.
I'd have to agree with that sentiment about The Magnificent Seven—it is a seminal Western. The story is tight (and should be, since if you're going to borrow your story, borrow from the best), the cast is star studded and excellent, and the performances strong. Yul Brynner was still big from his performance on stage and screen in The King and I, and looks appropriately regal in his black gunfighter garb. His indefinable accent is kept low key. Steve McQueen wasn't a big star yet; he was best known for his television work in Wanted: Dead or Alive, but he had the talent and the drive to hold his own. In fact, the stories of the competition for attention and screen time between the two actors is nearly legendary; look at the many scenes where Vin is in the background and you will see him fiddling with his hat or doing some other meaningless thing with his hands in an effort to make you see him instead of Brynner. Yul put an end to this finally by threatening to take off his hat during McQueen's best scenes. Of course, we can't forget James Coburn or Charles Bronson, who each went on to become much bigger stars. Robert Vaughn gets his moment or two in the sun, and even the unknown (and still little known) Horst Buchholz gets a funny scene or two. Though certainly this was mainly the Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen show, each member of the ensemble cast gets something good to do, something that develops their character.
That character development is one of the aspects of the film that has made its appeal so long lasting. Each has their quirks, and the viewer can identify with one or more of them, which makes it even more interesting since the ones you are rooting for may or may not live until the end. It is often said that a movie such as this is only as strong as its villain, and they really did it right with the Calvera character. Eli Wallach does a superb job of playing the pragmatic villain, willing to negotiate even after some of his men have been killed, and recognizing Chris as someone he can respect and do business. His flamboyance is an affectation that adds to the development but doesn't become the end. Too many films allow the villain to remain two-dimensional; not so here.
Of course, the film wouldn't be considered such a success on characters alone; there are some very well done and exciting action sequences, and a build-up of suspense along the way. Much of the credit here belongs to director John Sturges, whose eye for these scenes and the pacing is impeccable.
This film remains vital and interesting, even 40 years later, through the departures from Western genre norms that the story takes. The Magnificent Seven is one of the first Westerns (probably the first) to delve into the emptiness of the life of a gunfighter. Sure, these men walk tall and don't take any crap, but they don't get the niceties of home and family either. It is a wonderful scene where the seven discuss the pros and cons of the life they have chosen, though it is apparent that this life hasn't rewarded them too greatly since they were nearly all poor enough to take this job for the villagers for so little pay.
All of these aspects tie together to make an engrossing and exciting film that I enjoy no matter how many times I've seen it. However, I've never seen it like this before; this is one fine DVD presentation. This was the first time I'd seen it in the original aspect ratio of 2.35:1, and it is a beautiful anamorphic transfer from MGM, something I'm not always able to say about their catalog titles. Colors are still striking, and the picture is bright and clear with great contrast and few nicks or other film defects to be found. There are no artifacts from the digital realm and no edge enhancement issues. This results in a less than razor sharp image, but provides a very film like look and a three dimensional image. I'm very happy with the look of this 40-year-old film. The sound is less impressive than the picture, though it's very good considering the age of the source elements. A new Dolby Digital 5.1 track was mixed for the DVD, and is available along with the original mono track. Elmer Bernstein's music is one of the best and best-known Western scores, and comes through in stereo from the front channels. Dialogue is clear and easy to understand from the center, with the surrounds relegated to ambient sounds such as gunfire echoes and ricochets. The only real flaw comes from the age and technical limitations of the time, which results in a somewhat harsh and strident sound on occasion.
We usually gripe about the lack of extra content on MGM catalog titles, but no such complaints here. First up is a commentary track with producer Walter Mirisch, actors Eli Wallach and James Coburn, and assistant director Robert E. Relyea. It is both candid and informative, with many stories from the set along with more technical information about how the film was made. Testosterone ruled the set, according to the commentators, as there were many competitive actors all vying for screen time. The track also takes time out to praise John Sturges and his work both in this film and in his career. Some of the stories, but not all, are also told in the documentary "Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven," a 46-minute thorough look at how the film was made and about remaking Seven Samurai. It's a fine documentary that I'm very happy to have. A stills gallery, two trailers (both anamorphic, as are all the extras on this disc), and production notes in the "collectible booklet" complete the extras. I'm very pleased to see extra content befitting the importance of the film.
The Rebuttal Witnesses
I took time out to watch Seven Samurai once more before writing this review, to better see the similarities. They're impossible to miss. That said, the story doesn't have everything that made the Kurosawa epic so wonderful. For example, the whole sub-theme about the changing of an era from the sword to the musket is lost in its transition to the Old West. This isn't so much a dig at Magnificent Seven as it is to reiterate the superiority of Seven Samurai.
If I had a problem with any of the cast, it would be Horst Buchholz. He came from Eastern Europe, made to play a Mexican with a big introduction, and was never heard from again, except for a series of foreign films. Though I liked his "matador" scene, he was really miscast, particularly in such a heavyweight lineup. This is a small complaint considering the quality of the cast and the film.
The Magnificent Seven offers drama, strong characterization, clever writing, action and suspense, and remains one of the finest films of the Western genre. For lovers of classic Westerns, it's a no-brainer to add to your collection.
There is no case here. The disc and the film are both acquitted, as they should be.
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