Tuesday, March 19, 2019

Film Appreciation - Only the Dead Are Without Fear

Cody Hamman assembles Film Appreciation for the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven.

Akira Kurosawa's 1954 classic Seven Samurai introduced a concept that could be translated into any setting and genre: the idea of a community being terrorized by outside forces, so they seek protection from a group of experienced fighters. The greatest proof of how pliable the set-up is came along just six years later with director John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven, an excellent film in its own right and one of my all-time favorite Westerns.

Actor Yul Brynner was the driving force behind this remake and also took on the lead role of Chris, a gunslinger who is approached by residents of a small Mexican village that is being terrorized by a group of 30 to 40 bandits led by a man named Calvera and played by Eli Wallach of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. Chris is obviously a noble badass from the moment we meet him, as he's the only man willing to drive a hearse carrying the body of a Native American to the cemetery through a town of people who aren't happy about the idea of a Native American being buried there... And they show their displeasure by shooting at Chris.

Brynner was from Russia, so he had a slight accent. This is explained away within the film with people saying that he's Cajun, the same excuse sometimes given for Jean-Claude Van Damme's accent when he plays American characters (like in Hard Target).

Another character proven to be noble early on is Vin (Steve McQueen), a drifter who volunteers to ride shotgun for Chris on that hearse. Faced with taking a job as a bar bouncer or a grocery store clerk in the latest town he has wandered into, Vin chooses to join Chris on the mission to protect the Mexican village instead. Apparently McQueen would sometimes try to take the spotlight away from Brynner during production, and while he is one of our lost greats he wasn't so successful at stealing the movie. Brynner is very much the lead, and Chris is the leader.

Two men against 30 or 40 isn't going to cut it, so Chris and Vin pull more gunslingers in along the way. An old acquaintance of Chris's, Harry Luck (played by Brad Dexter, which also sounds like the name of a Western character), is the most excited about the job because he's certain there's more to it than simply protecting the villagers. There's gold, silver, jewels, something hidden in the area, he's sure of it. Horst Buchholz's young and high-strung character Chico basically forces his way into the group, despite being freaked out by Chris and unsure of himself. Charles Bronson's Bernardo O'Reilly is used to getting paid up to $800 for his services, but he's so broke right now he'll take the $20 the villagers are offering. Robert Vaughn's Lee is a military deserter on the run. He's plagued by nightmares, and it takes him a while to work up the courage to participate in the battle against the bandits.

I was already an established fan of Young Guns and its knife-throwing character Chavez (played by Lou Diamond Phillips) before I saw The Magnificent Seven for the first time, so I was very happy to find that this movie has its own knife-thrower. That's Britt, played by James Coburn. Vaughn had recommended Coburn for the part because he knew Coburn was a fan of Seven Samurai - such a fan that he had seen the movie 15 times. That was quite an accomplishment in those days before home video, especially since Seven Samurai is 207 minutes long. Britt has a great introduction, nonchalantly taking a knife to a gunfight against a man who is overly eager to prove that Britt can't throw a knife faster than the man can fire his gun. The man loses.

The script for The Magnificent Seven was sort of passed relay style from Walter Bernstein to Walter Newman to William Roberts, with Roberts receiving sole credit. Regardless of who's responsible for what, the script is excellent, with the seven gunslingers at the heart of it being well drawn characters with depth, and several of them being given more to do than you might expect. Lee is well down the rungs of the ladder, but you still have him dealing with his fear. Chico strikes up a romance with a villager named Petra (Rosenda Monteros), Bernardo befriends some of the local kids.

Even the villainous Calvera is a great character, as he tries to reason with the gunslingers and claims that raiding villages is a necessity for him because he has to provide for his men, he has to make sure they're fed. As for the villagers, he says, "If God didn't want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep."

Calvera's "sheep" line is one of many great lines that can be found throughout the film. Another example comes when someone shoots at Chris and Vin. Vin asks Chris if he was hit by asking if he was "elected". Chris wasn't hit, but the bullet took off the end of his cigar: "I got nominated real good."

The assembling of the seven takes up about the first third of the movie's 128 minute running time (79 minutes shorter than the movie it was inspired by!), with a middle stretch focusing on the group getting the villagers ready for the arrival of Calvera and his men, and then confrontations between the gunslingers and the bandits are interspersed throughout the last hour, all building up to a climactic battle in which both sides take casualties. I had grown up watching heroes fall in the climactic battle in Young Guns, so that's another thing the later film primed me to enjoy in this one.

I first watched The Magnificent Seven in April of 2002, when I was 18 years old, and it instantly became a favorite. That was almost half my life ago, and I still love the film just as much now as I did then, if not more. Almost 60 years down the line from its initial release, it holds up as a fantastic piece of entertainment.

When that first viewing came to an end, I was convinced the final line spoken as surviving gunslingers ride away from the village was the greatest final line a movie ever had. Even though the bandits are defeated and the farmers don't have to live in fear anymore, there is no joy in the victory for the gunslingers. They killed people, friends fell in battle, and they haven't gained anything from what they did. So Chris says:

"We lost. We always lose."

That really might be the greatest final line ever. It's certainly up there.

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