Friday, July 15, 2011

The Best Films I Have Never Seen Before: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960) *** ½
Directed by: John Sturges.
Written by: William Roberts based on the fim Seven Samurai.
Starring: Yul Brynner (Chris Larabee Adams), Steve McQueen (Vin Tanner), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Charles Bronson (Bernardo O'Reilly), Robert Vaughn (Lee), Brad Dexter (Harry Luck), James Coburn (Britt), Horst Buchholz (Chico), Jorge Martínez de Hoyos (Hilario), Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man), Rosenda Monteros (Petra), Rico Alaniz (Sotero).

The Magnificent Seven is one of the most popular films the Western genre has ever produced. Even many people who don’t much like Westerns, or who don’t watch movies made before 2000 have stumbled across this film on cable, and watched it to the end and loved it. But somehow, I had never seen it before. I think it’s because I love Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai so much, I felt I didn’t need to see its American remake. Or because I have never been as big of a fan of Steven McQueen or Yul Brynner as others are (sorry The King and I fans, but to me Brynner’s most memorable film role will always be as the murderous robot cowboy in Michael Crichton’s Westworld). It certainly isn’t because I dislike director John Sturges – who made some great films like Gunfight at the OK Corrall (1957) and The Great Escape (1963).  I always suspected than I when I did see The Magnificent Seven, that I would enjoy it. And the film does not disappoint.

The story is standard issue stuff – pretty much copied from Kurosawa’s masterpiece. An aging gunslinger, Chris Larabee Adams (Brynner) is hired by poor, Mexican farmers to defend their small village from the evil Calvera (Eli Wallach), who comes into town a few times a year, and takes almost all of their food to feed his men – leaving the villagers barely enough to survive on. Although the pay isn’t much, Adams agrees to help, and soon he has rounded up five others – Vin Tanner (McQueen), a little younger than Adams, but also slowly burning out, Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), who once commanded a lot of money, but is now flat broke, Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), who is convinced the Mexicans have gold to pay them, Britt (James Coburn), tired of being a cowhand and Lee (Robert Vaughn) on the run from the law. They initially reject Chico (Horst Bucholtz), who is just a kid, but he won’t take no for and answer, and tags along anyway. Once in the village, they try and teach the peaceful people to defend themselves, and prepare for Calvera’s annual visit.

The film’s impact may have dimmed slightly over the years, since much of what it does has become standard issue action movie clichés. The assembly of a ragtag group of men to pull off an impossible mission, the quirky character traits of each individual member, the snarling villain, the action shootout. These weren’t exactly new in 1960, but they were certainly newer – Roger Ebert pointed out that many of these things were used for the first time in Seven Samurai, which means to American audiences, they probably would not have seen too many “audition” sequences like the ones that make up the first third of the film.

I have to admit though, that no matter how much of the movie may seem clichéd today, the film still works wonderfully well. Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are well cast in their roles – the strong, silent gunmen who have seen too much killing, too much death in their lifetimes and want to do something good for a change. I also liked Charles Bronson’s bonding with some of the young kids in the village and Robert Vaughn’s bout with cowardice. And Horst Bucholtz plays the wide eyed kid with much to learn well. James Coburn and Brad Dexter are the two of the seven who get the short stick here. The best performance though clearly belongs to Wallach, who revels in going over the top as his Mexican badass, with an exaggerated accent and he even has a mustache to twirl. Wallach is an actor who is capable of playing a variety of different roles, but he really does like to play the bad guy.

And John Sturges handles the action sequences with style. There are many gunfights in the movie, the most famous being the climatic one of course, and as he proved again and again in his career, Sturges was one of the best around at staging them. Whenever I see an old movie like this, that has action sequences this crisp and clean, it makes me wish that modern filmmakers would do the same thing, instead of relying on rapid fire editing and shaky camera movements that make action incomprehensible much of the time.

Yet, I also have to admit that while I was watching the film, I couldn’t help get the impression that I had seen it all before. In a way I had, with Kurosawa’s film, that this film follows pretty closely, even though it is about half the length, right up to the final line, which for some reason, rung truer in the Kurosawa film. Part of the problem with being an influential film – and The Magnificent Seven certainly qualifies as one – is that what you did so well, and seemed so original at the time, becomes cliché, so when future generations watch the film they wonder what was so special. It’s clear what is special about The Magnificent Seven – it is a well structure, exciting action Western (with one of the greatest film scores of all time by Elmer Bernstein). It just can't have quite the same impact as it once did.

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