Friday, July 18, 2014

Classic Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven

There are great parallels between the 19th century American West with its lawlessness, gunslingers, and vigilante justice and feudal Japan and its share of samurai warriors. Codes of honor are similar as are the general sense of open and unconquered land, small villages vulnerable to the strength of an oppressor, simple farmers trying to scrape by. The Japanese samurai films of the fifties borrowed and lifted tropes from the American western genre. Then a funny thing happened and the westerns started mimicking the samurai films. Seven Samurai was and still is one of the greatest of its kind. It was popular (as much as foreign films could be popular at the time) in the U.S. and it was ripe for picking by a Hollywood studio. And so the 1960 semi-classic The Magnificent Seven came to fruition.

The basic premise is identical: tiny farming village is made to give a large portion of its harvest every year to an outlaw band led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). Frustrated by this arrangement, some of the villagers seek out hired gunmen to reel the bandits. Why do the gunslingers do it when their pay hardly justifies their risk? Sense of honor and responsibility are the guiding factors just like the Japanese titular septet.

I love westerns and I love movies about a small group of dedicated professionals setting out on a mission. So The Magnificent Seven is right up my alley. The first two the farmers find are Vin and Chris (Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner). They are strangers who team up to help a man receive a proper burial in spite of protestations that his Indian blood precludes rights of being interred. The farms are duly impressed with their honor being strong enough they’d risk their lives for someone they don’t even know. The German actor Horst Bucholz plays Chico, the hotshot kid who wants to be part of the group and deeply admires the skill he sees in his elders, particularly in James Coburn’s character, the knife master. He is this film’s equivalent of the master swordsman in Seven Samurai. Charles Bronson has the Toshiro Mifune role, that of the brash but lovable lug who is pestered incessantly by the boys in the village. Brad Dexter and Robert Vaughan play the final two gunslingers.

The film is probably most memorable for Elmer Bernsteins’ score that today has such an iconic theme that even if you didn’t know exactly what movie it came from, you’d recognize it and identify it as a western score. It’s enjoyable and exciting with gunfights and action sequences that are still pretty good if a bit hokey at times what with the lack of blood and the dramatic death scenes. I just wish William Roberts’ screenplay had done a better job of developing the characters. The relationship between Crhis and Vin should be the central friendship, the linchpin that holds everything together. But we don’t know enough to see why they are drawn to one another. And when some of the seven are killed, we could do without them. Chris and Vin should have one of the all-time great Hollywood friendships, but it sort of fizzles.

My judgment this time is that The Magnificent Seven is an entertaining western romp that holds up over time as pure excitement, but hardly as anything significant or groundbreaking. It’s probably maintained its minor classic status principally for its cast and the Bernstein score. From a period when filmmakers were looking for ways to redefine the genre, John Sturges was a steady hand who had made some standard westerns throughout the 50s. A few years later he would go on to make The Great Escape, in which he had to handle a much larger cast of big stars. The Magnificent Seven stands as a testament to the basic traditions of good versus bad and heroism in contrast to opportunism and cowardice. It doesn’t quite measure up to the stature of its source material, but it’s not really meant to and therefore it retains its charm.

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