There are some films that are so classic, such a part of American cinema history, that they have become ingrained in our very culture. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is one of those movies. While I believed that I had seen this movie before, I’m now relatively certain that I had never seen it prior to a few nights ago. Because, quite honestly, I can’t imagine having seen this movie and not wanting to watch it again and again. That’s how good it is.
This was one of the first true Hollywood remakes – THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is essentially a wild west re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI. And for those of you from my generation (or younger) you’ll likely see or feel things that appear to be nodding at THE THREE AMIGOS… this is the first time that I really understood that the Amigos movie was actually based on this film! This is old news, common knowledge, but it bears repeating.
The story begins with the trademark theme song, which you’ll recognize immediately. Setting the tone for the entire film is the Bernstein score. We pan slowly over a small Mexican village as a gang is riding into town. We find out quickly this is a group of bandits who have come to steal food and other items from the village. They are led by Calvera (played by Eli Wallach, who isn’t nearly as out of place as a Mexican bandit as I thought he would be). Calvera has been terrorizing the village for a long time, and some of the villagers are finally ready to bring it to an end. A few of the younger men approach the elder and request permission to go find fighters or guns, and the search begins.
The men quickly meet Chris Larabee Adams and Vin Tanner, played by the captivating Yul Brynner (THE KING AND I) and Steve McQueen (BULLITT), respectively. Chris is a talented gunfighter who has a heart of gold; who takes to the needs of these villagers and decides to help them. He sets out with the men to recruit fighters, but there’s little money and a long commitment, so it’s a hard sell. Each character gets a nice introduction scene to establish who they are and why they should be involved, and soon we have the seven. The men go to the village and over the course of a few weeks help the villagers prepare to stand up to the man who has been oppressing them for years.
The movie is, in a nutshell, something that you’ve seen before, but unless you’re a fan of Kurosawa you’ve probably not seen it done better than you will right here. The cast is absolutely phenomenal. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is like a master class in film acting. Brynner commands attention and truly is one of the last great leading men from the “Golden Age” of cinema. McQueen, who had his off-screen issues with Brynner, in my humble opinion steals the show. McQueen wasn’t a film actor at the time. He’d been involved in some television shows, but film was new for him. Additionally, the other members of the seven were all rising stars, but nobody could have seen how far they would come.
Rounding out the SEVEN, there’s Robert Vaughn (the villain from SUPERMAN III), James Coburn (Academy Award® winner for AFFLICTION, my favorite part of PAYBACK), Charles Bronson (DEATH WISH), Brad Dexter, and little known German actor Horst Buckholz. The only uneven player in the list is Buckholz, with whom Director Sturgess was smitten but who, it appears, was generally considered by the actors as the weak link of the film. In fairness, Buckholz contributes some interesting moments and is an intense presence on screen… but nothing that comes near the other members of the SEVEN.
In short, this is easily the best movie I’ve watched this year. And probably for several years back. It’s the kind of movie that makes me long to act, to direct, and to write. Getting to watch incredible talent run with an engaging story is a great joy to me, and one for which I am very thankful. When you watch this movie (not if, when), just watch McQueen on screen. He listens to other actors and plays his part with more realism than you’ll see in most movies today. It’s a rare joy.
Video: (1080p, 2.35:1 Widescreen) Presented here in Blu-ray for the first time, the movie doesn’t disappoint. In fact, there are moments throughout the movie that you really feel like you’re out in the middle of Mexico with the guys. Sadly, there are a few moments that remind us just how old the movie is… shots that almost appear to be 16mm film blown up; distorted and grainy and completely out of character for the rest of the film. Regardless, the presentation is generally striking.
Audio: (English 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, English 2.0 Mono, Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital) The sound is great and involving, if a little dated. Some of the gun sounds actually sound like lasers or other space guns from more recent movies. Movies at this time weren’t focused on realism in the sense of the sound effects – they are over the top but well done.
Audio Commentary featuring actors Eli Wallach and James Coburn, assistant director Bob Relyea, and producer Walter Mirisch (02:08:06) These four folks get together to talk about this movie AND about the films of John Sturgess. They talk pretty consistently for the duration of the film, but there are some pauses longer than I would like. They share some of the same anecdotes that they’ve already shared in the featurettes. I’m happy to hear Coburn talk about everyone’s perception of Horst Buckholz (Chico). He’s just out of place. (The only thing holding this movie from getting a 10 rating from me.)
Guns for Hire: The Making of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (46:54) This featurette is one of those great “making of” documentaries that gives the good, the bad, and the ugly accounts from behind the scenes. Whether it was the infighting from the cast (McQueen used lots of little motions to draw the eye away from Brynner), the casting of Eastern Europeans as both gunfighters and Mexicans, or Brynner’s marriage (on set!); this is the kind of documentary that can’t exist until the movie has aged. One of the coolest things learned here – Mexico was so upset about the way they were portrayed in another movie, VERA CRUZ (which was also released recently on Blu-ray and reviewed here), that they required a censor be on location during the entire production… The censor required that all people portraying Mexicans be wearing clean clothes at all times (maybe uncharacteristically?).
Elmer Bernstein and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (14:48) A discussion of the vital importance of the Bernstein score. Duh-dit.dit.-duh, duh-duh-dit.dit-duh… They’re not wrong. The score really does set the tone for the film, right from the very beginning. The score is fantastic.
THE LINEN BOOK: Lost Images from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (14:47) Maggie Adams (who works in the MGM photo archive) talks about the “linen book” – a book they used to keep promotional stills. The linen book from THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was discovered in the salt mines near Kansas City. They had forgotten stuff was there – the images are crystal clear in Blu-ray high definition and it’s a nice special feature included on the disc.
Trailer A (02:46) “Seven, Seven, Seven, the Magnificent Seven… they were only seven but they fought like seven hundred…” This trailer features one of the most terrible (but awesome) theme songs that I’ve ever heard…
Trailer B (03:03) Not sure when this one was made… it sounds like they hired Richard Dreyfuss to say the names of each actor. It’s probably not him (wouldn’t he have been like 15 years old?) but I like to think that it was.
Still Gallery (04:05) A collection of shots run slideshow style for four minutes. Not as interesting as the featurettes, and could do with some music, but for folks who love old Hollywood I think you’ll be pleased.