Wednesday, September 21, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960): A Review


The Magnificent Seven faced an extremely uphill battle, and I don't mean the final shootout.  How exactly does one remake one of the greatest films ever made (in this case, the Japanese epic Seven Samurai)?  The answer is simple: to not remake it.  The Magnificent Seven is, technically, a remake, but I prefer to think of it as an adaptation of Seven Samurai.  The film is both faithful to the Kurosawa version and its own unique creation, a wonderful blending where all the elements work.

In an unnamed Mexican village, the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is terrorizing the citizens.  He steals from them and adds 'protection money' to his game.  In desperation, the villagers decide to go to the U.S. border to buy guns with which to protect themselves and fight Calvera.  Upon arrival, they encounter the sight of a pair of gunfighters taking a casket up the hill for burial.  The gunfighters face opposing fighters due to the fact the dead man is an Indian and some in town don't want some heathen on Boot Hill.  Nevertheless, the two gunfighters fight their way to the top of the cemetery where the man will be buried.

The villagers approach the main gunfighter for help in buying weapons. This fighter, Adams (Yul Brynner) advises them it would be cheaper to hire men than buy weapons.  At first, he agrees only to help recruit the fighters, and he does an admirable job of it.

He rounds up six disparate men to join in this battle, ranging from the other gunfighter at the funeral, Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) to Adams' old friend Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), master knife-fighter Britt (James Coburn), Lee (Robert Vaughn), a shaky hand recently finished with getting revenge, the half-Mexican half-Irish Bernardo O'Reilly (Charles Bronson) and the young hothead Chico (Horst Buchholz).  Reluctantly, Adams agrees to join the other fighters himself.

The seven ride out to the village, and begin training the farmers on the fine art of battle.  The men also begin bonding with some of them: Bernardo finds himself being informally adopted by three boys who are fascinated by him, and Chico finds himself falling for the beautiful Petra (Rosenda Monteros). 

Calvera's men return and are shocked to find not only have the villagers hired men, but that they themselves are not afraid to fight the bandits themselves.  Calvera rushes back to his base, and the Mexican (!) Chico infiltrates their camp, where he hears Calvera's plans to fight again.  An attempt to raid his camp fails, for Calvera has gone to the village and taken over.  He suppresses the villagers and orders the gunfighters to lay down their arms, escorting them out and convinced that they won't return.

Despite this, six of the seven decide to make a last stand, with only Harry opting out of the plan to save the village.  A fierce gun battle ensues, and even with Harry coming back at the last minute, the only ones of the seven to make it are Tanner, Chico, and Adams.  The villagers, inspired by the Magnificent Seven, rise up simultaneously and defeat Calvera, who is shocked to see that the gunmen have returned for these simple peasants.

As the three begin to ride out, Chico opts to stay with Petra, and Tanner & Adams lament their fallen comrades, observing that in the end, it's the farmers who are the real victors, not the gunfighters.

Anyone who has seen Seven Samurai knows that sentiment, given that was the same conclusion Kurosawa's film came to.  It was wise for The Magnificent Seven to keep most of the structure of the original in its own version in that it keeps the story both simple and epic at the same time: the themes of honor, courage, and a fight against injustice despite the odds permeating through it. 

What is fantastic about The Magnificent Seven is that one doesn't need to know Kurosawa's masterpiece to appreciate it (though by all means, you should SEE Seven Samurai).  Director/producer John Sturges and screenwriter William Roberts adapt Kurosawa's tale to fit the ideas of the Old West, with all the trappings of the genre not interfering with the story itself.

We also are allowed a few moments where either individually or as a group, the members of the Seven are not just given moments, but also display their character.  In the film, the seven are enjoying a good meal when Bernardo points out that the villagers are not eating the same lavish dinner.  Without making much of it, the seven quietly begin distributing their meal to the villagers.  The scenes with Bernardo and the children also reveal the humanity underneath the tough hombres.

It's a battle of who gets our attention between Brynner and McQueen, with each determined to be in the spotlight.  It's clear that McQueen is determined to upstage Brynner by making small actions to take attention from Brynner, but I don't think McQueen manages to outshine Brynner. Each manages to shine in the various scenes, and neither takes away from the other.

Out of all the other seven, I wonder the most about Buchholz.  It's one thing to cast Eli Wallach as a Mexican (though he seems to have been the go-to guy for "Mexican" given The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly), but Buchholz's performance (complete with German accent) makes it all the more bizarre if not downright laughable.  Not that Wallach wasn't more on the camp side of things with his Calvera (as a side note, 'Calvera' sounds similar to the Spanish word for 'skull': calavera). 

A performance I never understood was Vaughn.  It's not so much that he gave a bad performance so much that I never got his character or what he was doing there.  He was pretty much floating about, fearful of using his weapons but that part was not widely explored.

One thing that I enjoyed greatly about The Magnificent Seven is the more positive portrayal of Mexicans.  It was the Mexican censors who insisted that the villagers not be seen as weak (thus the gun-buying element) and the Hispanics did not have an exaggerated accent. 

Another brilliant aspect is Elmer Bernstein's iconic score.  It is surprising that he lost Best Original Score (though given he lost to the equally iconic music from Exodus, maybe not a surprise). Still, the music richly captures the thrill and courage of our heroes.

The Magnificent Seven is not the exact equal to the original Seven Samurai, but in its own way the film works so well that it does not have to compete.  Instead, The Magnificent Seven serves as a compliment to the Japanese epic, working on its own as one of the finest Westerns made...and a tough act to follow. 


HE is a more believable Chico 
than Holtz Buchholz!

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