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Wednesday, August 31, 2011

Blu-ray Review: The Magnificent Seven and Return of the Magnificent Seven

Posted by Ned Lannamann on Wed, Aug 31, 2011 at 10:58 AM

magnificentbluray.jpg

Earlier this month, MGM released 1960's The Magnificent Seven on Blu-ray, along with its 1966 sequel, Return of the Seven (retitled Return of the Magnificent Seven on the Blu-ray cover). The Magnificent Seven was a Hollywood remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, and in more than a few ways it marked a turn of the tide for the American western. The era of good-guy-in-white-hat versus bad-guy-in-black-hat was coming to a close, making room for darker, more ambiguous protagonists and more graphic violence. Plus, the advent of spaghetti westerns was just around the corner, and it signifies something that The Magnificent Seven—which could be viewed as one of the last major westerns in a specific American tradition—took its inspiration from a Japanese movie.

Despite its advancement from the John Wayne/John Ford/Howard Hawks classic mold of western, The Magnificent Seven still feels a little dated. The primary hero wears black, and he's played by Yul Brynner. His character's name is "Chris"—not exactly the toughest name in the west, and it gets funnier each time someone in the movie calls him by name. I think he's meant to be Cajun, but Brynner plays him as a sort of ethnicity-less wanderer who could just as easily be alien, or Brazilian, or (as Brynner was) Russian.

But what makes The Magnificent Seven memorable is its supporting cast, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn—most of them in their first major roles. (Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, and Brad Dexter round out the Seven.) And this guy plays the Mexican bandit, which is hilarious, but then you remember Eli Wallach was also in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly a few years later.

The Seven all band together to save a small Mexican village from Wallach's character. If this sounds familiar, that is because Three Amigos is the same exact movie—indeed, the number of movies that borrow liberally from The Magnificent Seven (and Seven Samurai, for that matter) is endless; these movies virtually invented genre conventions. The best part of the movie is when Brynner and McQueen put the posse together. They find Bronson chopping wood; they find Coburn in the middle of a knife fight. They're all a bunch of tough guys, and the movie isn't quite big enough for all of them. It feels crowded at the seams and a few characters seem underwritten—especially to make room for Brynner's bald-headed ego leading the pack. (McQueen, for his part, transparently mugs for the camera every shot he's in.)

Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven
  • Steve McQueen in The Magnificent Seven
So yes, this is an incredibly likable adventure movie, even though it's not as fully satisfying as you either imagine or remember. The gunplay is fine, but there's not much in the way of suspense, and Wallach seems more like a crotchety uncle than a ruthless bandito. Shot in Mexico, it feels very formal, very clean, very stylized, and much stiffer than the western would become in the hands of virtuosos like Sergio Leone a few short years later. Still, all the seeds for the tough-guy cinema of the second half of the 20th century can be found directly in The Magnificent Seven.

This Blu-ray transfer is clean and bright, often gorgeous with crisp detail. Reports suggest it's more or less a Blu-ray dumping of the digital transfer they used on the previous DVD edition. The remixed soundtrack is solid (although the DTS track played out of sync with the picture on my system, a not uncommon problem) and the making-of documentary, also a leftover, is informative. There was a commentary track on the previous edition from film scholar Christopher Frayling which is nowhere to be found on this disc. This is a true shame, since it offers insightful and comprehensive analysis on both the film as a whole and its place in the western genre. The commentary that does appear on the disc, recorded some years back with Coburn and Wallach, is fine and all, but the absence of the Frayling commentary is baffling.

The new Blu-ray edition for the 1966 sequel, Return of the Seven, is totally barebones, without any special features at all. The print is noticeably dirtier, too—I bet The Magnificent Seven got a full scrubbing when they put it on DVD some years ago, but Return of the Seven apparently got no such treatment. That's okay, though: the picture is more than adequate and at times it's still downright beautiful to look at.

Brynner was the only one from the original to make it back for Return of the Seven. (Brynner notoriously butted heads with McQueen, who here is replaced by some guy named Robert Fuller; Buchholz is replaced by Julian Mateos; and the remaining Seven were—spoiler—all dead at the end of the first one.) It's a pretty poorly regarded sequel, especially in light of the original, but it is not without its charms. It was shot in Spain by director Burt Kennedy, and while its plot is almost completely uninteresting, it has a few sorrowful, gracefully moving passages that bring to mind Leone and the best of the spaghetti westerns that were being shot in Europe around that time.

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Still, it's a very good looking movie, making the most of the dramatic Spanish scenery (which really, it must be said, looks nothing like the Mexico in the first one). The best part of Return of the Seven is the amazing, enormous sombrero of Lorca, the bad guy played by Emilio Fernandez. It's rendered in sharp detail on the Blu-ray disc, and it is absolutely mesmerizing. It's so big! And so finely woven. The image on the right doesn't begin to do it justice.

There were two more sequels to The Magnificent Seven, and I was a little disappointed to learn they weren't being reissued either—until I learned that last year MGM released a four-disc Blu-ray set with all four movies, including 1969's Guns of the Magnificent Seven and 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride! In fact, from what I can tell, the two new discs that I've just reviewed are identical to the first two discs in the set. Real western fans will want to splurge for that one instead, because the last two movies in the series are not without their merits.

George Kennedy in Guns of the Magnificent Seven
  • George Kennedy in Guns of the Magnificent Seven

Brynner didn't return for Guns of the Magnificent Seven—he was replaced, oddly enough, by George Kennedy, who does a fabulous job without being anything at all like Brynner. (I just recently saw Kennedy in Thunderbolt and Lightningfoot, and man he is great. He is long overdue for reappraisal as one of the most underrated American actors—he's just incredible, even more so when you remember most people know him from The Naked Gun.) Guns of the Magnificent Seven is actually a really good, dark western that stands on its own two feet. If it had been released under another name, and if they had dropped its minute references to the first two movies, I have no doubt it would be well regarded as one of the best late-'60s westerns in the Zapata style. It's more political than the other two, and more world-weary. It's got a waaaay better supporting cast than Return of the Seven, too, including Bernie Casey and Joe Don Baker.

1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride! is widely derided, and like others have said, it looks like a TV movie. But it stars Lee Van Cleef in the Brynner/Kennedy role, which therefore ups its cool points by about nine zillion. In this one, Cleef puts together a band of convicts to help a village of women from being raped by a bandito. It's totally trashy, and I think it's actually pretty watchable: There's a sequence where they prepare the village for siege which is pretty great, and what's more, a young Gary Busey makes an appearance as a bad guy.

Still, most people will only be interested in the first Magnificent Seven, and missing commentary aside, the MGM Blu-ray is a fine way to see the movie in all its glory. The sole constant through all four films—since Brynner only made it halfway through the series—is Elmer Bernstein's excellent music. You know it, you've heard the theme countless times, and it sounds fantastic in every movie. It's best suited for the first one, of course; its broadly heroic sheen doesn't quite match the darker tones of the second and third film, and by the fourth film the budget must have been decimated because instead of symphonically swelling, the theme sounds relatively rinky-dink, as if they couldn't afford enough musicians to do it justice.

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