Thursday, May 10, 2012

The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven, in addition to being a rollicking good adventure, holds a place of importance in the landscape of world cinema. Or at least, I think it does. In 1954, with his Seven Samurai, director Akira Kurosawa redefined the samurai movie genre by infusing it with the visual style and values of a John Ford western. Six years later, in 1960, Hollywood would come full circle by remaking a Japanese Western into a Western Western.

The world of cinema was getting increasingly smaller, as international films had an increasing influence on filmmakers of the time. The directors of the French New Wave looked to Hollywood auteurs such as Alfred Hitchcock for inspiration. Not long after, the next generation of Hollywood directors, (Coppola, Malick, Scorsese, Lucas, etc.) would look to Kurosawa and the French New Wave. Nowadays, directors draw their influences from around the world and throughout the last century.

Directed by John Sturges, The Magnificent Seven follows the structure of Seven Samurai fairly closely, though in a faster paced, more truncated way. While Seven Samurai is an epic, The Magnificent Seven is a thoroughly enjoyable piece of popcorn entertainment. Sturges clearly has a lot of reverence for Kurosawa, and shows it in his work, with many direct nods or homages to his source material throughout the movie.

The seven in question are led by Yul Brynner, probably cast just as much for his bald head as for his screen presence (the character in the Japanese version shaves his head). He is recruited by a farming village in Mexico to form a posse to help rid them of an army of 40 bandits bent on stealing their crops. Rounding out the posse are such icons of manliness as Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson (the youngest I've ever seen him, still looks 70), and James Coburn.

The movie doesn't try to mimic Seven Samurai entirely. The seven don't all have the same motivations and personalities as their counterparts, for example. Also, the bandits are given more of a presence; rather than just being faceless bad guys, they are led by Eli Wallach.

Two of the samurai are sort of collapsed into one, in the case of Chico, played by Horst Buchholz. He takes both the role of the eager, hotheaded drifter who shoehorns his way into the group, and the young, naive kid learning the ropes who finds love with a peasant girl. I didn't really care for this. Buchholz would have worked fine as the kid, but he wasn't fit to fill the shoes of the great Toshiro Mifune, in what was possibly his most memorable and iconic role. They should have looked at that character as just as important a role as the Yul Brynner character, and found an appropriate actor.

The Magnificent Seven is as enjoyable as a streamlined remake of a longer, better foreign film can be. It's fun to watch so many superstars sharing the screen together. The score by Elmer Bernstein is tremendous and memorable, and is still referenced in Western movie scores. Also, I was glad to hear that Akira Kurosawa was a fan of the movie.

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