Wednesday, 26 November 2014

The Magnificent Seven.

People often asked what are my favourite movies and my normal answer is that I watch so many that I could not really say. But I going to let you into a secret, I do have three films that I saw at the cinema on their initial release and since have seen them many more times than I care to remember!
Chris Adams
I knew when I came out of the film theatre in Enfield some thirty-five years ago that I had just witnessed something really special. Since then I have watched the 1979 original and the 2000 Redux many times at home. In 2011 I had the privilege to watch Francis Ford Coppola’s restored and remastered Apocalypse Now (1979) on the big screen again at the Robert Burns Centre Film Theatre and after all these years it had finally been confirmed: this is my all time favourite movie the one I hate to love! It’s an American epic war film set during the Vietnam conflict, directed and produced by Francis Ford Coppola and starring Marlon Brando, Martin Sheen, and Robert Duvall. It deals with the psychology of war and follows a special operations officer sent to kill a U.S. Army Colonel who had gone ‘native’.
Vin Tanner.
Then of course there's Quentin Tarantino's  ‘cool universe’, a place that is hard and fast, funny, stylish and filled deliberately with some clever references to other cinematic works. Pulp Fiction (1994) is a film that defined American cinema in the 90’s. A piece of cinematic work that is central to its age, influencing many films that followed. A film that veers back and forth between humour and violence, a film where your never sure if you should be laughing or cringing.
But the film I’ve seen the most over the years is a western, which as a wee boy was my favourite genre. I first saw The Magnificent Seven in 1960 when it was released and have lost track of how many times I've seen it since. Revisiting  A Fistful of Dollars (1964) recently gave me an inclination to see the John Sturges movie one more time. For some strange reason it has never lost its appeal from seeing it at the Angel Islington cinema as a schoolboy some 54 years ago. For me it has a familiar, comfortable feel but is still totally engaging and manages to bring an emotional lump to my throat from the first time we meet Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) and Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) taking a dead Indian in the hearse up to the towns Boot Hill to be laid to rest. There they meet armed opposition which is quickly dispensed with by these two gun fighters, then up comes the now familiar Elmer Bernstein score, the hearse is driven at speed back to the undertakers office much to the enthusiasm of the towns inhabitants and passing travellers. This brilliant scene sets the tone for the rest of the film.

Harry Luck.

I'm sure your familiar with the story that was specifically adapted from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece (and I don’t use that term lightly) Seven Samurai with Sturges adapting it to fit into the western genre with the Ronin, master less Samurai, replaced with gunfighters.
We are south of the border in Mexico, in a small village where its farmers are being harassed by the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallace) and his men who invade the village and steal some of the crops that’s have been stored following their harvest, threatening to return and take the rest. Some of the more adventurous villagers want to buy some guns and fight the bandits next time they pay them a visit. To this purpose they travel across the border into America and set about buying the weaponry they require. Witnessing the successful conclusion to the burial of the Indian they approach Chris and ask him to buy the guns for them. Although dressed in black and an obvious gun fighter he seems an honest man and when he offers them the advice that it would be cheaper to buy men with guns, rather than just guns they readily except his help in hiring the gun fighters they require to carry out the task that the farmers are not really competent to carry out themselves. Thus begins the recruitment of men to join Chris in this crusade back across the Mexican border.

Bernardo O'Reilly.

Obviously the handsome drifter Vin, who has since riding shotgun on the hearse lost what money he had on the gaming table in a Saloon Bar, joins Chris in his recruitment drive. The next to join is Britt (James Coburn) a man with little to say who is as good with a knife as he is with a gun, a man whose not interested in money (the farmers are only offering $20 for a six week contract!) only the challenge. Next up is Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) a very old friend of Chris who believes there’s more to it than it than just $20!  Next they find Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) chopping wood for food, he is a veteran gunfighter who has taken part in the range wars for money but has fallen on hard times.  After killing the Johnson Brothers in a gunfight the smartly dressed Lee (Robert Vaughn) is on the run and looking for somewhere to hide, what would be better than to hide out in the middle of a small war? What Chris doesn’t know is that this slick combatant is having a crisis of confidence!  The final and seventh member of the group is the young, good looking, ex dirt farmer Chico (German actor Horst Buchholz) who is trying desperately to prove himself.  This miscellaneous collection of human kind then set out across the border to our small village in Mexico scare away the Bandidos and the fun really starts.


Filmed in Cuernavaca and EStudios Churbuso Mexico this was alleged to be the last great western before Leone reinvented the genre (see A Fistful of Dollars and the Spaghetti Western). John Sturges had directed westerns prior to this film including Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957 where Burt Lancaster teams up with Kirk Douglas to gun down some bad men. Although nearly all the main cast in The Magnificent Seven are now household names, at the time only Brynner was well known having recently won an Academy Award for The King and I (1956) and was also starring opposite Charlton Heston in the biblical epic The Ten Commandments the same year. But other than perhaps Brad Dexter all the rest went on to enjoy very successful careers in the movie industry. McQueen, Coburn and Bronson would team up with the director again in 1963’s The Great Escape, which made Steve McQueen a superstar.  With the death of Eli Wallach in 2014, Robert Vaughn is the last living main cast member.


Other than to say that this magnificent western is the one to pass down to your children, as I did with my son, I will end by paraphrasing the film notes that are included with the “ultimate DVD edition”. It explains that what sets The Magnificent Seven apart from the westerns that preceded it is the fallibility and fatality of the characters.  It’s the end of an era, and they are painfully aware that there breed is become obsolete. They also recognise too late what they have missed out on along the way, a permanent home, someone to settle down with, and even perhaps children. Quite simple, they have no place in a world that is rejecting their kind. They take the job of defending the village not merely because they are broke, but because this is there life, their very identity. And they will sacrifice themselves rather than be any less than they have always been - what noble thoughts are these; certainly they would not be found in the spaghetti westerns that followed the making of this memorable movie.  For western fans of all ages, this is the film to watch as a prime example of what was sometimes a great tradition: the American Western movie, never has it been done better.


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