|Magnificent Seven, The (Special Edition)|
|Written by Abbie Bernstein|
|Tuesday, 08 May 2001|
One of the more interesting qualities of "The Magnificent Seven" is that it will likely seem familiar even to a first-time viewer. This is at least in part because composer Elmer Bernstein’s theme has become the quintessential Western introduction – TV stations have used the music for what seems like eternity to promote their sagebrush sagas. And why not? Bernstein’s composition seems to sonically embody those traits of all good Westerns – brisk, exciting bursts interspersed with more contemplative, wistful stretches.
The basis for "The Magnificent Seven" evidently ricocheted around the globe. The film is derived directly on Akira Kurosawa’s "The Seven Samurai," which in turn was reportedly inspired by the westerns of John Ford. However, the film is very much its own assured creature. Mexican villagers, tired of being robbed at regular intervals by a team of bandits headed by the murderous Calvera (Eli Wallach), determine to hire gunslingers to defend their town. After seeing an act of heroism – and expert shooting – by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), the peasants ask for his help. Although initially reluctant, Chris soon has assembled a group of six others (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Horst Bucholz) who take on the dangerous job with bad pay and worse odds for a mixture of motives. The villagers rise to the occasion to assist in their own salvation; Calvera doesn’t take the hint and becomes even more brutal; shootouts ensue.
The script credited to William Roberts (the supplemental material also talks about the uncredited Walter Bernstein, laboring under the blacklist then in force against some members of the Hollywood community, and Walter Newman) is gratifyingly well-structured, with solid behavioral illustrations of what we need to know about the characters that also ensure that action arrives at regular intervals. Director John Sturges has a punchy style that doesn’t call attention to itself but keeps up a dramatic, anticipatory flow – we’re either in the midst of a major incident or sense from the building tension that another one is about to occur. Sturges is very shrewd at staging – there’s a moment in Chapter 13 when Calvera springs a trap on the gunslingers that is accomplished with awesome verisimilitude. We don’t physically see it coming and we understand why the Seven don’t anticipate it, either, yet it’s executed with perfect plausibility. It happens so swiftly the first time that a viewer (like this one) may well be tempted to run the sequence backwards and forwards in slow-motion to check out when and how characters enter the frames; closer scrutiny just proves how seamless the section is.
The acting is a trifle stylized, in the manner of ‘50s-‘60s Westerns, but everybody is in synch. Brynner is cool and commanding, McQueen is even cooler, and Wallach is expansively evil. It’s startling to see the young Bronson (whose performance is much more emotive than the stoic style that would later become his signature) and note how much he’s changed over time; likewise, it’s intriguing to see how little Vaughn has altered.
The print used for the DVD of "The Magnificent Seven" is in pretty good shape, with sharp images and color that looks like a new DeLuxe (the process used on the original) release. However, there are little white splotches that appear now and then, most noticeably in the blue sky and sandy earth of Chapter 1. The sound mix for 5.1, when taking into account that the film was made in 1960, is a valiant effort that achieves its best dimensional effects where it counts – in the gunfights, with bullets spitting out of the guns in the mains and impacting in the rears (or vice-versa, depending on who’s shooting at whom), notably in Chapters 2, 8, 9 and 15. The subwoofer wakes up for the enlivening Chapter 1 theme that plays under the opening credits and positively jars the floor for a menacing passage in Chapter 9. In Chapter 5, what at first seems to be a case of suddenly raspy ambience turns out to be just the vibration of an onscreen train waiting at the station. However, the dialogue levels in this scene aren’t entirely consistent, a problem that recurs in Chapter 13. Certain sound mix elements – onscreen firecrackers in Chapter 7, music score maracas in Chapter 8 – create a bit of buzz in their wake.
Supplemental elements are fun. The newly-made making-of documentary is satisfyingly long and features interesting commentary from a variety of people involved in the film, like Lou Morheim, the associate producer who initially acquired the remake rights to "Seven Samurai," although Brynner remembers it otherwise. The incorporation of an interview with the late Brynner is a nice treat. Walter Bernstein, executive producer Walter Mirisch and a number of surviving cast members (and ex-spouses of the deceased) also speak up. The documentary includes comments from filmmakers who were inspired by (as opposed to participated in) "The Magnificent Seven," like John Carpenter and Lawrence Kasdan, who weigh in on the movie’s groundbreaking aspects. There’s some intriguing dirt, like the flurry of lawsuits careening around pre-production and the race to get the movie cast before the Screen Actors Guild went on strike. There’s also reminiscences of pure satisfaction, such as Coburn’s tale of how he got his role and discussion with composer Bernstein and others about his emblematic music. An enthusiastic-sounding audio commentary track with exec producer Mirisch, assistant director Robert E. Relyea and actors Wallach and Coburn likewise provides lively insight.
Practically everybody who loves Westerns will love "The Magnificent Seven," and anybody who loves "The Magnificent Seven" will want this edition for its informative add-ons.