"Why do you people all have such long names?"
"I don't know. Perhaps it's because we have such short lives."
Every time someone makes a Western that makes money, be it True Grit, Dances with Wolves or Unforgiven, there's talk of the revival of the genre, but what it really needs is another Magnificent Seven to do the trick. It may not have the intellectual or philosophical weight of, or even as much action as Seven Samurai, but what the Hell, this is the Hollywood western at its most downright exciting and enjoyable, with a nice line in sly humour thrown in for good measure.
It's one of those films that hides the scars of its difficult production exceptionally well. Brynner originally intended to direct with Anthony Quinn (who had directed Quinn in The Buccaneer) in the lead and the Seven originally made up of older Civil War veterans in a darker screenplay by Walter Bernstein, but after much rewriting and an acrimonious lawsuits surprisingly came out a much stronger picture. The rewriting went on through the shoot, partially to beat an actor's strike, partially to placate the Mexican censors, with Walter Newman taking his name off the picture and sole credit going to William Roberts (the finished script is mostly Newman's work). Then there were the constant problems with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Horst Buccholz all vying for attention and feuding all the way only for the studio, disappointed with the finished film, to practically dump the film in the US before giving it a second chance (and three sequels and a TV series) after it proved a huge hit in the foreign markets.
With all that going against it, it shouldn't have worked, but it does, and quite magnificently too thanks to its canny casting, strong script and, of course, Elmer Bernstein's magnificent signature score (complete with John Williams on piano!) that combine to create a great audience picture. Almost a bridge between the old school American western and the sixties vogue for gritty south of the border violence, like Seven Samurai it leaves the impression of a film that is full of movement, largely due to the kinetic action scenes as the camera races alongside men and horses.
Director John Sturges' use of the Scope frame is characteristically outstanding, filling the frame with detail and occasionally making interesting contrast between foreground stillness and background movement, as in the Seven's arrival in the village or their first confrontation with Eli Wallach's bandit chief. Wallach, in the role that inspired John Belushi's Mexican Killer Bee on Saturday Night Live among a hundred other parodies, is more than a tad over the top, brandishing lines like "If God did not want them sheared he would not have made them sheep" with the kind of wild abandon that Alfonso Bedoya would envy, but it works a treat. The rest of the cast are on good form with Brunner, McQueen, Backhauls, Charles Bronson and James Coburn generally getting the best opportunities (sorry Bob, sorry Brad), and their introductory set pieces - not least the ride to Boot Hill - still hold good five decades on.
Very belated sequel Return of the Seven sees Chris (before he turned into George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef) returning to a certain Mexican village with another ragtag band of hired guns to save the locals from being kidnapped for slave labor in what is surprisingly the weakest of the sequels despite having the biggest budget and best production values of any of the followups. If the village looks different, that's because it's moved to Spain to take advantage of the more amenable local censors and exchange rate, and it's not the only thing to have had a facelift since the original. Even though Steve McQueen and Horst Buccholz's characters return, sole returning cast member Yul Brynner ensured they didn't (Robert Fuller and Julian Mateos take their place) and seems to have done his damnedest to ensure none of the supporting players will outshine him: those looking for future stars will have to settle for Warren Oates and Claude Akins. You get the feeling that if Brynner had had his way the film would have been called The Return of the Magnificent Chris: none of the rest of the Seven are allowed much character or any memorable scenes. He even dismisses them as just being there for a fight - "If not this one, they'd find another" - but in reality their sole purpose is to tell him how great he is. You almost expect Fernando Rey's priest to ask "Are you God?" Everyone is in his giant shadow and nobody is going to steal his spotlight this time.
Burt Kennedy's direction has its moments but is mostly solid rather than dynamic and the plotting mostly mundane even though the villain actually has an interesting motive to drive the story. Even recruiting the Seven (actually six since one of them is held prisoner) fails to throw up any memorable set pieces in a film that's light on action and incident until the two big battle scenes, rendering it at times one of those disappointing films that is more interesting for what its cast and crew would go on to do than what they actually do here. Writer Larry Cohen would go on to create The Invaders and direct a string of out-of-leftfield genre films; producer Ted Richmond, one of the pioneers of filming Hollywood pictures in Spain (here shooting in the studios of the practice's most discredited proponent, Samuel Bronston) would go on to make the bonkers cowboys and samurai Western Red Sun and team up again with Brynner on the Sam Peckinpah-Robert Towne scripted Villa Rides; while villain Emilio Fernandez and Warren Oates would face off again two years later in The Wild Bunch. All of which were more memorable than this drawn out and less than action-packed number that's best approached with low expectations and an undemanding mood.
Guns of the Magnificent Seven is set shortly after a negotiating accident left Yul Brynner looking like George Kennedy, and it's not just the star who's changed: not only does he have hair but he's given up on the all-black outfits and the staccato moralising. It's lower-budgeted but considerably better directed than Return, moving into spaghetti western territory as he gets involved in a Mexican revolution when Reni Santoni asks his help to spring Fernado Rey's politician from local sadist Michael Ansara's fortress. Naturally he goes looking for a few good men to help him out - "Not enough to get noticed, just enough to get the job done" - and thankfully they're a more interesting bunch this time round than in the previous sequel. Better still, without Yul Brynner's ego hogging the spotlight they're all given proper introductions and motivations to make it more of an ensemble piece, and there are more familiar faces in the cast this time, with Monte Markham's horse thief, Joe Don Baker's bitter one-armed Confederate sharpshooter `Buffalo Ben' ("I can't whip a six-year-old girl in a fair fight, but I can blow a man's eyeballs out at a hundred yards in a sandstorm."), Bernie Casey's explosives expert, James Whitmore's ageing knifeman and Scott Thomas' dying gunman making up his lucky number.
This time round they can't quite manage the job on their own and have to rely on a distinctly unreliable bandit to swell their numbers, allowing for a bit of under-developed tension in the ranks, as does Joe Don Baker and Bernie Casey's racially-challenged adversarial friendship subplot that would later be very obviously reworked by Hardy Kruger and Winston Ntshona in The Wild Geese, itself very obviously inspired by the original Magnificent Seven. The script's sharper than you might expect, with good dialogue and some memorable little moments like Kennedy getting his information about the garrison's strength from a casual conversation about women with one of the guards, and it benefits greatly from a strong villain who is given a memorable mass execution scene. Director Paul Wendkos has an excellent eye for the Scope format, and though it's not the most action packed of the series it makes its mark and keeps things interesting while you're waiting for it, setting it out as easily the best of the sequels
Final big-screen outing The Magnificent Seven Ride sees Chris, who now looks like Lee Van Cleef, settled down as a small-town sheriff with his own would-be Ned Buntline dime novel biographer in tow until an act of mercy results in the death of his wife and sends him on a manhunt below the border where he finds another village in need of seven good men. The village is one that Ralph Waite, one of an earlier Seven (evidently Chris made more trips below the border than they filmed), tried to recruit our hero to defend only to be turned down, but it's not so much guilt that drives him to go recruiting hardened convicts in the local prison to defend the raped womenfolk from the returning bandits after their men folk are all killed. Having ruthlessly disposed of his partners in crime ("Him for what he did. You for what you didn't do"), Chris is pretty much just using them as bait for the remaining one of his wife's killers who is riding with the bandits...
The plot certainly takes the scenic route, the first half a revenge Western, the second a men on a mission picture, a sort of The Dirty Dozen Meets Guns of Fort Petticoat. The segue is handled neatly enough, but the film never rises above the average. The biggest problem is that despite, or perhaps because of being played by two actors (Rodolfo Acosta and stuntman Ron Stein) we never see the villain until the final battle, simply the dead bodies he leaves in his wake. No confrontations, no banter, no sense of who he is or why he's a threat, just a guy on a horse. (The best exchange is with a priest who only has one scene: "God works in strange ways." "Yeah, I know. He's got me confused most of the time too.") The new recruits to the side of the angels don't fare that much better despite their employer coming up with neat way of ensuring the loyalty of men who want to kill him. Ed Lauter as usual does a lot with very little, but only James B. Sikking really makes an impression, leaving most of them fairly bland cannon fodder. Chris makes few bones about regarding them as such either: the film's best scene has them discussing strategy and predicting losses on both sides, and for once the strategy actually makes sense - this is planned out as a battle, not a gunfight. When it comes it's a decent enough showdown for a B-movie but nothing to stick in the memory for long.
Which goes for the film as a whole. George McCowan's direction is efficient but uninspired, the film's use of backlot sets and overused locations giving it the look of a 70s TV show, something not shooting in Scope but a more TV-friendly 1.85:1 only emphasises. Even Elmer Bernstein's score, at times more in the style of an episode of The High Chaparral rather than his iconic original, sounds like he could only round up seven less than magnificent musicians from some dead-end border town to play it. Still, if you're in an undemanding mood it's an okay outing even if it falls far short of being a grand finale to the series.
Released twice in two special editions on DVD, the DVD boxed set of all four films includes an audio commentary by James Coburn, Eli Wallach, Walter Mirisch and Robert E. Relyea, 45-minute documentary Guns For Hire (slightly abridged from the longer version that showed on Channel 4), stills galleries, two theatrical trailers and trailers for the three sequels on the first film. (A subsequent two-disc release added an audio commentary and featurette with film historian Christopher Frayling and a featurette on Elmer Bernstein's score.) Unfortunately the UK DVD releases dropped the original mono soundtrack option on the first film in favour of a remastered stereo score that didn't do Bernstein's score any favours, particularly in the main title sequence, though both stereo and mono options were on the US DVD and Blu-ray releases.
The US Blu-ray set of all four films is thankfully region free and well worth picking up despite losing some of the extras from the first film - most notably Frayling's contributions - while the sequels are limited to remastered trailers in the correct ratio (these were crudely cropped in the UK boxed set) but sadly losing such gems of hyperbolic narration as "Seven men to free a nation of peasants from an army of madmen!" on the Guns of the Magnificent Seven trailer.
Unlike the Dollars films there's been no excessive use of Dolby Noise Reduction, avoiding the unnatural waxwork look that plagued that Blu-ray set. The transfer for Return of the Seven is for the most part decent, though has better detail on the studio-shot scenes than some of the big outdoor stuff, and unlike the UK DVD and TV prints bears the original title, Return of the Seven rather than Return of the Magnificent Seven. Annoyingly every time you pause you get a menu picture over the picture while any time you use the subtitles another menu box also appears in the corner of the screen to inform you you've selected subtitles, both taking too long to disappear, but the discs do have excellent playback memory even if you remove the discs. Despite these niggles, it's often found going fairly cheap at Amazon.com, making the US Blu-ray the best presentation around.