Tuesday, September 28, 2010

Sorely Underappreciated Movie File #001: The Magnificent Seven

If there's one thing that I've learned from my many film arguments with Adrian, it's that a person's fondness for a certain film can have an enormously big correlation to how old they were when they saw it. This has resulted in a number of explosive debates about old Disney classics in which he insists that the Dutch-dubbed version of Beauty and the Beast is far superior to the English, and when I try to argue he merely says, "Who's Angela Lansbury?" at which point I have to excuse myself from the room.

She's GOD, that's who she is.

So it was with a good deal of defensive incredulity that I gradually came to realize that the rest of the film world did not seem to love John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven as much as I did. It had been a Saturday morning staple of mine since early childhood. I loved everything about the movie--the score, the friendships, the bad guy, the one-liners, the effortless cool with which the cowboys swaggered across the screen.

Though extremely popular upon its release, spawning, among other things, a sequel and a television series, The Magnificent Seven, at least in my experience, is seen by the world of film criticism as the red-headed stepchild of Seven Samurai, the Kurosawa film on which it is based. When I started reading film critiques and delving into Greatest Movie lists, I was shocked to find that the only time Seven was ever mentioned was in reviews of Seven Samurai. And then, usually the only reason it was mentioned was to establish that there was an American remake and to emphasize the superiority of the original.

Now, in talking about these films (and, for that matter, in every other film in the Sorely Underappreciated Movie File series) I am going to try my very hardest not to get too defensive--which is a challenge, since every article is essentially a defense. I'm not going to say that anything in Seven is "better" or "superior" to Samurai since that will get us nowhere. Instead, I'll try to point out the things Seven really has going for it as a completely separate entity.

The plot, by this point in cinematic history, is an old one but a good one. A village of poor Mexican farmers is being harassed by a bandit, Calvera, who routinely comes through, steals their harvest, and takes off. Tired of being pushed around, three villagers go to a border town where they join up with Chris (Yul Brynner) a world-weary cowboy who informs them that it's cheaper to buy men than guns. He helps them recruit six others and the seven return to the village, where prejudices on both sides flare up between the gunmen and the farmers. After a few skirmishes, the cowboys are betrayed by a faction in the village, and are permitted by the bandit to walk free. Once outside the town, the cowboys decide not to walk away from the conflict, and return to the village once more. In the ensuing battle, all but three are killed and the bandits are eliminated. One of the surviving three has fallen in love with a girl from the village and decides to remain, leaving Chris and his friend Vin (Steve McQueen) to ride off into the sunset.

Now, first things first. I'll take you through the things that Magnificent Seven has going for it.

#1: The seven. Let's review the names here: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter, Horst Bucholtz. All of them seemed to have been carved from the woodwork solely to play these sorts of characters. Brynner as the Cajun (?) no-nonsense leader who has seen and done it all sports a swagger and a low growl, and only reluctantly realizes that he still has some sentimentality left in him.

Coburn, as the impossibly tall, thin drink of water who says next to nothing yet is universally agreed to be the most dangerous fighter among them. (Coburn, incidentally, was a great fan of the original film and wound up playing the remake's equivalent of his favorite character from Samurai).

Bronson is a burly, down-on-his-luck mercenary whose gruff exterior hides a definite streak of mother hen.

Dexter, who has a twinkle in his eye and a greedy itch in his fingers.

My fingers are itching greedily!
Bucholtz as the young wannabe who, while definitely lacking the fantastic uninhibited wackiness of Toshiro Mifune, nevertheless manages to annoy both the audience and the other cowboys in equal degree.

And, finally, Vaughn, whose dapper high-stepper is concealing pathological fears.

The interplay between the seven is finely constructed and there are a lot of sidelong looks or nods that pass between them, letting the audience in on the little jokes and decisions that are made.

#2--Steve McQueen.

Thought I forgot about him, didn't you? Parents, if you want to make a McQueen devotee of your children, I suggest you start here. McQueen plays Vin, ostensibly Chris's "sidekick", but who often (quite forcefully) steals the show away. This film was made before McQuen was a bona fide movie star; he was already a hit on TV with his western show Wanted: Dead or Alive (from whose set he played hooky in order to make this movie). In Magnificent Seven you can see, perhaps more than anywhere else, the charisma and star wattage that was going to make him a film icon.

In Seven he is funny, friendly, approachable and surprisingly unselfconscious while still maintaining that veneer of unstudied cool. Not as smarmy as in The Thomas Crown Affair, less cold and closed off than in Bullitt or Nevada Smith. Here, he genuinely looks as though he's enjoying himself, comfortable in the role of counselor, comic relief and, when the urge takes him, limelight stealer.

I would now like to propose a new drinking game entitled "Who's Riding Shotgun?" It will take place during the scene where Vin and Chris first meet. Chris volunteers to drive a hearse up a hill to a cemetery where a group of racist protesters will attempt to violently prevent the funeral, and Vin agrees to ride shotgun. What follows is one of the most hilarious scenes of one-upsmanship in film. Gameplayers are encouraged to take a shot every time McQueen upstages Brynner. The legend goes that McQueen's antics so frazzled Brynner that he hired someone to watch the rushes and count the number of times McQueen stole the focus. Watching the movie you can see why.

Brynner lights a cigarette...

...McQueen loudly shakes his cartridge and loads his rifle.

Brynner takes a puff, McQueen raises up his hat to check the sun.

Brynner lights another cigarette, McQueen twirls the rifle around in his hands.

The whole thing must have been infuriating, but onscreen it comes across as friendly competition. McQueen's facial expressions are also pretty classic. There's one scene where he's in the woods training some of the peasants with James Coburn. He looks over to one side and something catches his eye:

His reaction?

#3--The one-liners.

Surprisingly, the script of Seven has more than its fair share of great lines. If you haven't seen the film and you don't want the lines to be spoiled, just move on down to #4.

At one point, Coburn, Vaughn and Bucholtz (the young dweeb) are sent off into the woods after a few bandits that have been spotted in the hills, with instructions to bring one back alive. Coburn easily kills two of them, and then sets his sights on the third. It's an impossible shot. The bandit is incredibly far away, already riding at top speed over the top of the hill, when Coburn fires. The bandit drops. Bucholtz looks as though he's about to wet himself.

Bucholtz: That...that was the greatest shot I've ever seen!
Coburn: The worst. I was aiming at the horse!

When Chris is recruiting men back in the border town, he invites Vin over for a drink at his table. He asks Vin if he has any employment already lined up.

Vin: Guy bouncin' a grocery store across the street. 
Fella told me I'd make a crackerjack clerk. Crackerjack.

Vin and Chris go to visit the old man who lives on a hill bordering the village. They encourage him to move into the village so that they will be better able to protect him. The old man demurs, saying that the farmers' conversation would bore him to death. 

Old Man: Farmers talk of nothing but fertilizer and women.
I have never shared their enthusiasm for fertilizer. And as for
women...I became indifferent when I was eighty-three.

And, of course, McQueen's priceless reaction:

#4, 5, 6--The action, the villain, the score.

These are purely elements of cinematic fun. The action is fast paced, alternating between incredibly tense (Chris and Vin at the cemetery, Britt in the knife-throwing contest that introduces his character) and good, old-fashioned, rip-snorting western shootouts. There are gun tricks, knife tricks and horse stunts, and someone even gets axed in the back. 

Then, of course, there is the villain Calvera, who is played with gleefully slimy aplomb by a gold-toothed Eli Wallach. The film benefits greatly by witnessing the relationship between the villagers and Calvera, making the tension between them all the more heightened in the face of their previous personal interactions. 

Wallach's greasy, heartless bandit is almost the polar opposite of the quiet, elegant Chris, yet there are parallels between them that the film is intelligent enough to sketch out (comparisons completely ignored by Samurai, whose bandit we barely even meet). Both live lives of destruction and violence, and Calvera himself recognizes the similarities between himself and Chris, and appeals to the fact that they both belong to the same warrior caste, high above the lowly farmers. It is this recognition that leads Calvera to make his fatal mistake and let the gunfighters go free, thinking that there is no way they'll return and risk their lives for such a small, insignificant little village. Perhaps at the beginning of the film Calvera would have been right, but the gunfighters' experience in the village has changed them; there is a newfound sense of honor in them. "No one throws me my own guns and says run. No one," Britt growls. So when Chris and Calvera face each other down and Chris shoots first, Calvera looks up at him in disbelief. "You came back - for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?"

He dies with his question unanswered, and in Chris's unspoken reply lies the heart of the movie. 

Any discussion of The Magnificent Seven wouldn't be complete without a mention of the stirring, rousing score. Those first musical hits are alike a Pavlovian trigger in my head--I hear the notes and I'm instantly transported back to the age of ten on a Saturday morning.

#7--The relationship with the farmers.

Here I can get a little defensive--Seven is most often accused of having little to no emotional depth, but I think that that is because critics haven't looked past the gunplay to the core beneath. There are deep strains of moral quandary running throughout the movie--the morality of fighting or killing, identity and heritage, class systems, compassion, bravery, honor and what things people are willing to die for. Seven shows a prescient ability not to stereotype--the Mexican farmers are not all brave and righteous, nor are they cowardly and weasely. Some rightfully think that it is irresponsible to risk their lives and the lives of their families by fighting back against the bandit Calvera, others believe that if they don't fight they are doomed as well. They go to seek help across the border not because they are ignorant or weak but because, as one farmer puts it, "We know how to plant and grow. We do not know how to kill." And, just as the gunfighters are guilty of stereotyping, judging or looking down on the farmers, so are the farmers guilty of the same prejudice. They see the gunfighters both as a salvation and as bringers of death and destruction. 

Chico, the young hotshot, stumbles across one of the village girls hiding in a forest and carries her back to the others. "Farmers," he spits disgustedly. "Their fathers told them we'd rape them." Chris considers. "Well, we might," he says equably. "But in my opinion they might have given us the benefit of the doubt."

In Chico, we find the most explicitly presented take on the class differences between the farmers and gunfighters. Chico is the son of Mexican farmers much like the ones in the village And, whereas the futures of the other gunmen are already set in stone, his is still open to be written. At one point, Chris taxes him about his hatred for the farmers, and Chico spits back (in a line almost directly taken from Seven Samurai) "Yes, I'm one of them. But who made us the way we are? Men with guns. Men like Calvera and men like you." His fervent rejection of his heritage and the intensity of his worship of the fighters makes his final decision to remain in the village all the more poignant. It takes the horror of battle and the wastefulness of death to turn him around, and the small action of his removal of his gun belt is the major triumph of the film. 

Part of why the protagonists' struggle is so appealing is that they all seem to be consumed with some degree of self-loathing, which only gradually is stripped away as during the course of the conflict they realize that they are still capable of self-sacrifice and compassion. In the beginning of the film, Chris attempts to turn away from helping the farmers. "Everything we own," insists one villager. "Everything of value in the village." Chris pauses for a moment. "I have been offered a lot for my work," he says quietly, "but never everything." 

Vin, too, at first tries to deflect. "Nah...it wouldn't even pay for my bullets," he murmurs after Chris tells him what the job pays.

All of them seem to want to be simple mercenaries bought for their services, but it's almost as if the very hopelessness and impossibility of the situation is what draws them to it (with the notable exceptions of Chico, who's crazy, Lee, who wants to find somewhere to hide, and Harry, who is convinced that there is gold somewhere nearby). The audience knows, long before they do, that they are at heart good men, and watching their gradual realization take hold is one of the joys of the film.

Another current runs through the character of Bernardo O'Reilly, played by Charles Bronson. He is, as he himself puts it, "Mexican on one side, Irish on the other and me in the middle."  He is adopted by three young boys from the village, who tag along behind him, keep watch with him and helpfully inform him that if he is killed they'll take the rifle and avenge him, and always keep fresh flowers on his grave. "That's a mighty big comfort," he says dryly. 

At one point, the boys talk about their role in the conflict and one boy shamefacedly calls his father a coward. In a shockingly violent moment, the normally gentle Bernardo seizes him, gives him a wallop and releases him.

"Don't you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there's nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That's why I never even started anything like that... that's why I never will."

The boy is deeply abashed and the scene passes, but it an incredibly beautiful and honest moment that would probably not have existed in a lesser  movie. Another telling segment exists in a scene between Vin and one of the Mexican farmers a few moments after the villagers have experienced their first successful conflict against the bandits.

Hilario: The feeling I felt in my chest this morning, when I saw Calvera run away from us, that's a feeling worth dying for. Have you ever felt something like that? 
Vin: Not for a long, long time. (smiles) I...envy you.

And that smile sums the whole film up. The crux of the conflict is that these gunfighters only now, now that they've lived and fought and killed, recognize that the farmers' life, the one they initially shunned, as the sort of existence they long for. It's sort of an Orphic revelation; the life they desire is just beyond their grasp and it brings a distinct wistful sadness to their interplay with the farmers. They recognize that the only thing they can do is to try and preserve that other way of life as best they can. The world-weariness is most evident when Chris and the others begin to discuss their philosophies on life and the farmers.

Chris: It's only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.  
Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn't that true? Hmm? Well, isn't that true? 
Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name, maybe two hundred of 'em. Rented rooms you live in--five hundred. Meals you eat in hash houses--a thousand. Home, none. Wife, none. Kids... none. Prospects are zero. Suppose I left anything out?  
Chris: Yeah. Places you're tied down to, none. People with a hold on you, none. Men you step aside for, none.  
Lee: Insults swallowed, none. Enemies, none.  
Chris: No enemies? 
Lee: Alive.  
Chico: Well. This is the kind of arithmetic I like.  
Chris: Yeah. So did I at your age.

At one point, it looks as if the farmers have decided to give in to Calvera and Chris furiously stalks off. Vin follows, recognizing that there is something else going on underneath.

Vin: You know the first time I took a job as a hired gun, fellow told me, "Vin, you can't afford to care." There's your problem.  
Chris: One thing I don't need is somebody telling me my problem.  
Vin: Like I said before, that's your problem. You got involved in this village and the people in it.
Chris: Do you ever get tired of hearing yourself talk? 
Vin: The reason I understand your problem so well is that I walked in the same trap myself. Yeah. First day we got here, I started thinking: Maybe I could put my gun away, settle down, get a little land, raise some cattle. Things that these people know about me be to my credit - wouldn't work against me. I just didn't want you to think you were the only sucker in town. 

It's a bit like a Greek tragedy, however--the fates of all the characters are foretold from the beginning and the gunfighters are all too aware that the destiny they've chosen is to die and to die bloody. The only question, really, is where or how. So at the end of the film they go back to save the village and there is the climactic final shoot-out. One by one, the fates are sealed and there is almost a sense of poetry in the deaths. Bernardo dies protecting the children. Britt is gunned down, leaving his switchblade jutting out of a wall. Harry dies protecting Chris and Vaughn finally faces his fear and stages a brilliant rescue for some farmers. As he hesitates, contemplating his personal triumph, he is shot. When the smoke clears, only Vin, Chris and Chico are left, and the final scene has the three standing at the top of a hill looking down on the farmers as they once again begin to sow the next crop. Chico looks between the gunfighters and the farmers, then tips his hat to Vin and Chris and rides back down into the town, undoing his gun belt. Vin and Chris watch with rueful smiles from the hill, seeing in Chico the part of themselves that has been lost, the inevitability of their own fates, and the hope that goes along with Chico's decision to remain and live the life of peace they now wish they had chosen.

"The old man was right," Chris says wistfully. "Only the farmers won. We lost. We'll always lose."

And with that, the two friends turn their backs on the village and ride off into the distance as the music swells and draws to a close.

In some ways, the film's score is the key to truly understanding and appreciating The Magnificent Seven. The film is often overlooked, I think, because its spirit is ultimately that which is contained in the musical theme--one of adventure and fun and pure entertainment. Unlike its predecessor, Seven doesn't aspire to be high art. It is instead a fantastic example of the kind of film I first saw it as--a Saturday morning western, albeit one whose moral core and emotional depth can be all too easily overlooked by those who choose to watch it without divorcing it from Samurai. It is unfair to judge either Samurai or Seven in light of one another; the two are extremely different films--Samurai as an example of fine filmic art, and Seven as a specimen of sheer intelligent entertainment. Neither film may be for everyone and both have their positive and negative points. Scoff all you want at Seven, but good luck trying to get your ten year old (or my mother, for that matter) to sit through the three-hour-plus running time, the long quiet periods in the film and the often comically overwrought acting style of Samurai. On the other hand, the extra hour of time affords Kurosawa the opportunity to inject a number of wonderful dramatic, comic and human nuances into his film, and Toshiro Mifune's searing performance completely obliterates the comparatively weak character portrayed by Horst Bucholtz.

But is it fair to say that Samurai is "better" than Seven? No. The following is something that I firmly believe and will probably be the thesis for a number of these articles: to turn one's back on the value of entertainment is to look away from the reason the medium was invented in the first place.  Nor should Samurai be dismissed simply because modern viewers may find it more difficult to approach and more challenging to watch.

Seven is crippled as well by being the "remake". If Samurai had come after Seven, I believe that there would be a larger dialogue about the qualities of Seven instead of its immediate dismissal (ironic, too, since Samurai owes its inspiration and style just as much to movies like Seven as Seven does to Samurai). To me, The Magnificent Seven is a wonderful story with more than its fair share of acting talent, and remains an outstanding example of the western film genre, which definitely deserves a closer, more unbiased appraisal by its detractors. If you've seen it before, give it another watch. If not, you're in for a treat.


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