Thursday, June 05, 2003

The Magnificent Seven
Metaphorical Marlborough Man meets the Seven Samurai and kicks 100 Mexican banditos' butts

"We lost. We always lose." says Yul Brynner in the last line of one of the last great "classic" western tales. A great line from a great film that will stick in the gray matter long after watching it. Sandwiched in-between the fantastic THE SEARCHERS and THE WILD BUNCH, this 1960 American remake of the classic film THE SEVEN SAMURAI launched the careers of a number of Hollywood action stars including Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. Director John Sturges' film about seven men who kill for hire, battling banditos to protect a helpless Mexican village, is a study in economy of words and movement. It is also an exploration of the hero's code, alienation, male bonding, and evil.

Apparently Sturges took Kurosawa's script, had it modified by William Roberts, matched it scene for scene basing the film in a peasant Mexican village. As a director Sturges was taking a great risk, setting himself up for critics' derision, but it all coalesces into an entertaining, intelligent and moving film enhanced by an incredible score by Elmer Bernstein. Some may argue that this version of the story is not as good as Kurosawa's but The Magnificent Seven is well worth the trek to the video store- especially in light of the onslaught of the crap coming our way this summer at multiplex theaters. Also, having Elmer Bernstein score the music wasn't a bad idea either.

Perhaps the magic of this film is the superlative casting of virtual unknowns. Like later films such as M*A*S*H, THE DIRTY DOZEN, THE OUTSIDERS, and PLATOON this film was a great career start for relatively unknown actors. At the time McQueen had done THE BLOB (1958) and Vaughn THE TEENAGE CAVEMAN the same year. Yul Brynner, clean shaven even then and dressed all in black, stands out as Chris, the leader of the group. Other highlights of the cast are McQueen as laconic side-kick Vin, Vaughn as Lee, Bronson as Bernardo O'Reilly, and, especially, James Coburn as Britt the Knifethrower, perhaps the most compelling of the Seven.

Britt is a character with no conscience, no sentimentality, who displays no romance about killing- he is a brutal killing machine. He accepts death and deals with it, as my friend Micah commented to me with "an honesty that some could be described as evil." I see him as an attractive menace- Coburn was born for this role. His physicality is such that every angle of his lean, colt-like body punctuates any utterance or action he makes—most notably when he kills.

Another great casting decision was Eli Wallach as Calvera, leader of the bandits. An exchange between Vin and Calvera yielded another classic line: "We deal in lead, friend," says Vin menacingly when Calvera offers to make them all partners.

So, the point is go rent this film and soon. And, by the way, a tip for when you venture out to the multiplex to see the sequels this summer (and we all know how unruly and loud multiplex audiences can be): my mom and her best friend Sister Pat (a Sister of Mercy nun) went to see some film a while back. During the film someone behind them was talking non-stop. So my mom, being the lovely lady she is, politely turned around a few times indicating her annoyance and to no avail—the folks would not stop talking. Well Sister Pat (who is a force of nature as nuns can be) stood up in front of the annoying talker saying to them with arms akimbo, "If I can't hear, you can't see." It shut them up quick. Try it next time you are at the multiplex.
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