Friday, August 29, 2014

Summer Cinema: The Magnificent Seven

Living in Los Angeles for nearly 10 years I've been fortunate enough to see some of my favorite films on the big screen that I missed the first time around or wasn't born for yet.  Repertory screenings of The Terminator, Aliens, Big Trouble In Little China, Bloodsport and Masters of the Universe had my 80's awesomely quirky science fiction tinged action quotient covered while my next favorite era, the macho 50's/60's has been sated with fare like Spartacus, The Crimson Pirate and The Great Escape.  I was very, very sad to have missed a screening of 1957's Gunfight at the O.K. Corral complete with Kirk Douglas introduction as I was attending an out of town wedding.  Gunfight director John Sturges is one of my all time favorites and westerns one of my most watched genres.  Behind The Great Escape, Sturges' The Magnificent Seven has long been a flick dear to my heart but I'd never seen it or even heard of it being on the big screen around Los Angeles.  The Great Escape has played several times over the years and with the newly produced 4K digital print, I'm sure it will be playing with even more frequency.

I kind of figured after the passing of the late, great, Eli Wallach, that someone with any kind of knowhow would put The Magnificent Seven on a tribute to the legendary performer of stage and screen.  The American Cinematheque came through as The Magnificent Seven would show as a rare single feature at their Aero Theatre in Santa Monica.  It was an interesting crowd as there were older folks who probably grew up with the cast, people my age who I'm guessing discovered the flick on pre-commercial AMC or in film school then a surprising number of youngsters who I have no clue would discover the purported 2nd most played movie on television in history.  The print was a little rough in spots but overall the 54 year old film looked and sounded marvelous.  The Magnificent Seven starts with the amusing yet dangerous thief Calvera (Wallach) riding into a small Mexican town ahead of 40 bandits.  They take what they want and leave just enough for the villagers to survive and produce more for later taking.  Tired of suffering, three villagers set off to buy guns and fight back.  Arriving at a border town, the trio come across Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen), gunfighters looking for work who reluctantly sign on to "shoo some flies" away from the village.  They're soon joined by the broad chested and smiling schemer Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), broke gun for hire Bernardo O'Reilly (Charles Bronson), quiet yet deadly Britt (James Coburn), debonair and mysterious Lee (Robert Vaughn) and overzealous wannabe mercenary Chico (Horst Buchholz).  Together they prepare the town for Calvera's return while pondering the lifestyle they've lead that has robbed them of the seemingly normal life of having a family or real friends.

Watching the film on the big screen, I noticed how multi-faceted the characters were in what seems to be a straight ahead action shoot'em up.  Wallach's Calvera is like a father trying to feed his family, sympathetic and systematic to a degree before his survivalist cutthroat nature emerges.  I also noticed how big the opening set is as it's a fully built town complete with a hill full of buildings, bar and cemetery.  With a simple story and 2 hour run time, after dozens of viewings I realized how character driven the film is and that everyone gets their time to shine.  Headed by Oscar winning Yul Brynner, his bombastic voice, odd accent, strong presence and walk make him a natural leader with panache and humanity dressed in all black.  It's also funnier than I remember as Steven McQueen gets to play weirdcool yet tough before there was weirdcool with his pink shirt, poor gambling skills, sensitive musings and random lines like "gently, boy, gently..." and jokes about people falling off buildings or jumping into cacti.  Brad Dexter gets some laughs as the cynical yet gregarious Harry Luck who has a twinkle in his eye looking for a payday.  He might be a scoundrel but he's not a good for nothing type.  Fresh faced Horst Buccholz gets a lot of attention and makes a good impression as the young gun but he's just not quite as cool as others in the cast who went on to have terrific leading men careers.  I applauded at the introduction of Charles Bronson's O'Reilly because he's just so macho and cool as the broke gunfighter with a soft spot for the kids.  His part arguably has the greatest arc and the most touching death.  Spoiler?  You've only had 54 years to see it!  Then there's James Coburn as Britt who is just the cool silent badass that throws knives faster than men can shoot and is really, really lanky.  Lastly, hot off an Academy Award nomination, Robert Vaughn shows up in some very nice haberdashery as the seemingly slick, hardcore killer desperately hiding his crumbling confidence and soul.

Surprisingly, there's only a handful of action scenes throughout, you're kind of tricked into thinking there's more as the film opens with a gunfight, there's some small bits of excitement to introduce the characters, a big party scene and of course a couple of confrontations between the 7 and Calvera's men.  Elmer Bernstein's score really elevates the whole thing, punctuating scenes both exciting and calm in nature as well as providing one of the most memorable movie scores of all time that people were whistling on their way out.  The emotional backbone of the film isn't heavy handed at all with the grizzled characters who have seen it all muse on what might have been if they weren't gunfighters.  Unlike The Expendables series where nobody dies, 4 of our 7 stars don't make it, adding weight to the whole thing.  Now to watch those 3 sequels...

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