Saturday, September 24, 2016

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

One of the great American westerns, one chosen for preservation by the Library of Congress’ National Film Registry, and just a crackling good yarn with a strong cast, exciting action sequences, and an iconic Oscar-nominated score by Elmer Bernstein (TO KILL A MOCKINGBIRD). Much of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s lasting success is due to its cast, many of whom became international movie stars, but at the time were familiar, solid character actors in television and movies. Steve McQueen was still on WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE when THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN came out and was just two years removed from THE BLOB. Likewise, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn were very busy in episodic television, though Vaughn had been nominated for a Best Supporting Actor Academy Award for THE YOUNG PHILADELPHIANS a year earlier.

Of course, Yul Brynner was a major movie star with THE KING AND I, THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, SOLOMON AND SHEBA, and many other Hollywood productions on his resume, though THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was his first western. Bald, Russian, and not a tall man, Brynner would seem an unusual cowboy, but he carries the picture on both shoulders and later sent up his MAGNIFICENT SEVEN role as a robot gunslinger in WESTWORLD. Though Brynner and McQueen shared an uneasy alliance on the set, each threatening to upstage the other, their rivalry translated into a tight chemistry that serves the picture well, particularly in a standout suspense scene in which their characters agree to transport an Indian corpse to a cemetery against the wishes of bigoted townspeople.

The screenplay by CAT BALLOU’s Walter Newman and THE DONNA REED SHOW creator William Roberts is, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI. A tiny Mexican village is terrorized by bandits led by the colorful Calvera (the not exactly perfectly cast Eli Wallach), who threatens to return. Unable to defend themselves, the town recruits gunfighter Brynner to help. Brynner, in return, recruits six other gunmen — McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, Vaughn, Brad Dexter (HOUSE OF BAMBOO), and young Horst Buchholz (ONE, TWO, THREE) — to fight Calvera’s army against depressing odds.

At 128 minutes, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN allows time for each actor to breathe and expand their characters. Memorable are Bronson’s bonding with the Mexican children, as well as his amusing recruitment while chopping wood, Vaughn’s re-occurring PTSD, and Coburn’s withering knife fight against heavy Bob Wilke, in which you learn everything you need to know about Coburn’s character, even though the actor doesn’t utter a word.

Director John Sturges (BAD DAY AT BLACK ROCK) handled the expensive production with a sprawling, macho cast and complicated action scenes so well that executive producer Walter Mirisch and United Artists asked him to make THE GREAT ESCAPE for them three years later (McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn were in that one too). Three sequels followed (Brynner returned for the first one, RETURN OF THE SEVEN), as well as a CBS television series and an MGM remake starring Denzel Washington (GLORY).

1 comment:

David Hanson said...

Don't forget that Vaughn basically played played the same character in another remake-and one of my favorite childhood movies-Battle Beyond the Stars.
I've recently coincidentally read two pastiches of this particular "few against many" story: Pale Horse Coming by Stephen Hunter, in which the seven are ersatz real people who hunting and/or gun enthusiasts would easily recognize (and Audie Murphy), and the second story arc of the old Marvel Comics Star Wars comic book from the 70's-80's, in which Han and Chewie get sidetracked on their way back to pay off Jabba the Hutt. They even do the bit at the beginning where they have to escort a corpse to boot hill. While they didn't manage to recruit Frank Sinatra's lifeguard, they did manage to find a six-foot-tall, green, meat-eating rabbit. That oughta count for something.