[22 August 2011]
PopMatters Contributing Editor
Risky doesn’t begin to describe it. It was a losing proposition from the start. Though not as unanimously or universally beloved as it is today, the notion of remaking Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece The Seven Samurai into a standard Hollywood horse opera must have caused quite a commotion among critics and foreign film fans alike. With a track record that, today, looks shoddy at best and a desire to alter the narrative to be a bit more “heroic,” the story of a small village hiring some hit men to protect them against marauding bandits was not beyond adaptation—just not necessarily the kind Tinseltown typically envisions. Luckily, the cinematic stars were aligned somewhat properly, allowing a terrific cast, a focused script, and a Western journeyman director to create an amazing masterwork all its own.
Indeed, from its iconic theme to its stellar cross section of talent, The Magnificent Seven (now on Blu-ray from Fox/MGM in a stand-alone 50th Anniversary Edition) represents the biggest and best of the often undersized genre. In retrospect, there should never have been a question regarding such an adaptation. There are so many similarities between samurais and cowboys, the old West and Feudal Japan that it’s odd that there weren’t more re-imaginings like this. Of course, when you’ve got the formidable Yul Brynner leading the way, along with such stalwarts as Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson on board, the star power alone would drive a copycat to distraction. Aside from all the viable moviemaking mythology on display, this is a terrific action adventure, true to Kurosawa while solidly stuck in the legacies of the fictionalized American West.
A small Mexican border town is under the constant threat of a bandito named Calvera (Wallach) and his horde of looting desperados. Tired of having their meager means undermined by the villains, they head to America looking for help. Aid eventually comes in the form of a band of mercenaries: Chris (Brynner), his buddy Chico (Horst Buchholz), Harry (Brad Dexter), Vin (McQueen), Bernardo (Bronson), Britt (Coburn) and Lee (Robert Vaughn). Between them are old friendships, untold secrets, and suspect motives. Vastly outnumbered by Calvera and his men, the seven begin training the townsfolk to stand for themselves. Of course, when push comes to shove, Chris and his compatriots must do what’s right, even when it looks like they won’t come out of it alive.
At its core, The Magnificent Seven is a film about sacrifice. It’s not the selfless kind of surrender however. Instead, it’s a forfeiture made up of fate, a defeated sense of purpose that plots out and supplants all other ideas and themes. From the village that is giving up its food and its funds in order to try and save itself to the cowboys who come along and lay down their life for them, the hopeless optimism that fills the air is undeniable. If you look closely, you can almost see the fatalism settle in on each of the character’s worn faces. Later on, when we discover the real reason behind Calvera’s campaign, another delicious dimension of defeat is added. By taking the simplest structures and situations and adding in the gunslinger swagger we expect, The Magnificent Seven goes from everyday to epic.
One of the reasons we are willing to follow such a pessimistic path is the movie’s ability to create compelling characters. Though we’ve seen these types before, we get small swatches of dimension which add up to something beyond the cliché. This is especially true for Vaughn, who is tormented by thoughts of his own inadequacy and Bernardo, who comes to embrace the Hispanic part of his mixed race heritage. Along the way, heroism is replaced by hard knocks, evil evaporates into desperation, and the whole black hat/white hat dynamic is blurred to make room for real people making realistic decisions about often unrealistic circumstances.
And then there are the actors. Brynner and McQueen alone generate so much motion picture panache that their considered cool almost threatens to freeze out the rest of the performances. These dudes look ready for a fight - and the eventual outcome, either favorable or foul. Similarly, Coburn and Bronson make you believe in their wounded, world weary philosophies while Buchholz and Dexter more than hold their own with their soon to be mythic co-stars. Even Vaughn and Wallach work magic with roles that are more routine and revelatory. Thanks to these set-ups, the ample action direction of John Sturges delivers pay-offs that we’re prepared for, if not necessarily happy to see.
Indeed, the dark and dour finale of The Magnificent Seven does a great job of differentiating it from other Westerns of the time. As with the spaghetti version of the genre, which would play with each and every convention of the category, this is a movie that offers a stereotypical set up, only to then conclude on a sad, somber note. When the dust settles and the blood dries, we are left realizing the futility of it all, as well as the nobility of those involved.
It’s true to Kurosawa’s story, and such an approach was discussed prior to the movie being made, as we learn from the excellent added content contained on the disc. Ported over from previous DVD and high definition releases, the commentary considers what to, and what not to adapt, while the Making-of maneuvers through the tricky tract of who lives and who dies. There’s some esoteric discussion regarding the life of a gun for hire and what compels people to put their life on the line for others, but for the most part, the depth dissolves into a far more practical analysis.
Yet, considering the source and its stance as one of the greatest films of all time, The Magnificent Seven would seem doomed. After all, how could anything based on such a celebrated masterpiece measure up? The truth is, what is created here by Sturges and company more than holds its own. It’s exciting, entertaining, and earnest in its devotion to the source. There’s even an evident cynicism that seeps in, suggesting where the slowly dying Western archetype would go from here. As one of the last great American oaters ever, The Magnificent Seven more than lives up to its name. It’s a great piece of filmmaking folklore and that rarest of rarities - a seemingly unnecessary adaptation that actually works, and works well.