Friday, April 19, 2019

Worth Mentioning - Cowards Die Many Deaths, the Brave Only One

We watch several movies a week. Every Friday, we'll talk a little about some of the movies we watched that we felt were Worth Mentioning.

Taking a look at the sequels to The Magnificent Seven.


The 1954 Japanese film Seven Samurai didn't get a sequel, but its 1960 Western remake The Magnificent Seven did; one directed by Burt Kennedy from a screenplay by Larry Cohen, a filmmaker who wrote quite a few Westerns in his day, as well as blaxploitation films and enough horror movies to earn the honor of being called a "master of horror". Tasked with writing a sequel to an instant classic and dropped into uncharted territory with no Japanese original to guide him, Cohen crafted a story that is very much like its predecessor's... it just doesn't have quite as much depth.

Yul Brynner was the only actor to return from the '60 film, even though four characters were brought back. The first surviving member of the former seven we realize has been recast is Chico, who was played by Horst Buchholz in the first movie and by Julian Mateos here. Chico decided to leave the live of gunslinging behind him at the end of The Magnificent Seven, opting to stay in the Mexican village the title characters assembled to save from bandits because he had fallen in love with local girl Petra - played by Rosenda Monteros before and now by Elisa Montes. While the first movie was filmed in Mexico, production on the second moved over to Spain, so it was likely a business decision that led to the Spain-based Mateos and Montes getting these roles.

The opening of the film takes us back to the village our heroes fought so hard for years earlier, but the peace they earned is quickly disrupted when a group of men ride through town and kidnap the local men, taking them off through the desert. With her husband now in captivity, Petra knows whose help she needs to save him. She needs to find Brynner's character, Chris.

Find him she does, and when he's located he just happens to be hanging out with another Magnificent Seven character, Vin... But Vin sure seems different this time. That's because he's played by Robert Fuller instead of Steve McQueen. Tired of McQueen's attempts to steal the spotlight from him on the first movie, Brynner would only agree to do the sequel if McQueen wasn't in it. There was no danger of Fuller stealing the movie away from Brynner - he doesn't make much of an impression on me at all when watching the movie. But McQueen is a tough act to follow. If they're weren't going to have him, I would have preferred if they had just replaced Vin with a different character.

As it is, the biggest moment this iteration of Vin gets is when he tells Chris that the life of killing is getting to him. Chris brushes Vin's concerns away because he has "never once shot a man just to see him fall".

I always saw Brynner as the lead in the first movie without question, but he really dominates this one because the cast and characters are weaker across the board. Chris and Vin recruit four men to help them on their rescue mission (so with Chico they'll be seven again), but none of them match up to the characters in the original. Most of them have good introduction scenes, then that's pretty much it. The first had Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and characters had their own subplots. We don't get much of that here. Aside from some quick lines here and there, Frank (Claude Akins), Luis (Virgilio Teixeira), and Manuel (Jordan Christopher) are mostly just along for the ride. The standout of the bunch is Warren Oates as the horndog Colbee, because it's Warren Oates.

Kennedy and Cohen did create a somewhat interesting villain for their seven to face. He is Lorca (Emilio Fernandez), not a bandit but a man who fought bandits in a battle in which two hundred men lost their lives, including his two sons. Now Lorca intends to build a church as a monument to their memory, and he has been abducting men in the area to use them as slave labor. Chris and Lorca have a history with each other that is revealed late in the film, and this mostly serves Brynner because he gets to tell the story and it's his words that tell us more about Lorca, but it gives Lorca more layers as well.

Lorca's fighting force is bigger than the bandits' were in the previous movie, giving the seven a whole lot of men to shoot at in action sequences throughout the second half of the movie. Sequels are usually expected to have bigger action sequences, and Return of the Seven lives up to that expectation.

This is very much a lesser film than what came before, but it's not a bad movie. It's a serviceable one, an entertaining and action-packed Western adventure.


The Magnificent Seven franchise caught a case of sequelitis when it reached the third film and the filmmakers decided to move ahead with it even though The Magnificent Seven and Return of the Seven star Yul Brynner decided not to reprise the role of Chris. Rather than just introduce a new lead, they cast a different actor as Chris. Replacing Steve McQueen in the first sequel was one thing, but replacing Brynner was a step too far. Especially since the replacement they chose was George Kennedy - a fine actor in his own right, but he has a completely different screen presence than Brynner. This isn't the Chris we knew before.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven was directed by Paul Wendkos from a screenplay by Herman Hoffman, and I found it to be rather underwhelming for the most part, even setting aside my complaint about the choice to recast Chris. It feels like it's going through the motions, dispassionately adhering to formula. The previous movies established that you have to start out with people facing an oppressive force in Mexico. Here the people are a group of revolutionaries led by Quintero (played by Fernando Rey, even though he was already in Return of the Seven as a different character), who gets captured by the military and locked up. So one of his followers, Reni Santoni as Max, seeks out the legendary Chris to offer him $600 to bust Quintero out of prison. Chris accepts the job, then spends a good portion of the film assembling the team he'll need for this job. The team will, of course, end up having seven people on it, no matter how many people they'll be facing off with. In this case, there are around 200 soldiers ready to follow the orders of Quintero's captor Colonel Diego (Michael Ansara).

In addition to Chris and Max, the team this time around consists of Chris's right hand man Keno (Monte Markham), who he meets when he saves him from being hanged for stealing a horse; Bernie Casey as strong man Cassie; Scott Thomas as the sickly P.J.; the grandfatherly James Whitmore as Levi, a knife thrower who isn't nearly as cool as James Coburn was in the first movie; and Joe Don Baker as one-armed trick shooter Slater, a former Confederate soldier who still wears his uniform.

Wendkos and Hoffman give the characters some things to do during the build-up to the climactic action. Levi befriends a kid like Charles Bronson did in the first movie, P.J. gets a love interest like Chico did, Chris has to deal with a revolutionary fighting force doubting his motives and abilities. The most interesting stuff in here are the interactions between the Confederate uniform wearing Slater and Cassie, an African American. At one point Slater asks Cassie if his uniform bothers him. Cassie says it doesn't, as the Civil War is history at this point and the Confederacy doesn't exist. "It's dead. You're wearing a shroud."

There's also a memorable scene involving the villainous Diego, who has several revolutionaries buried up to their necks in the ground while he interrogates Quintero. When Quintero won't answer his questions, Diego has men on horses trample the heads of his buried collaborators.

That's the best of what Guns of the Magnificent Seven has to offer, then we get the final battle between revolutionaries and soldiers, that not all seven of our heroes will survive. Because they never do.

When taken on its own this is a fine time waster, but it's a step down from Return of the Seven, which was a step down from The Magnificent Seven, and it's disappointing when there's a decline in quality from movie-to-movie like this.


The fourth and final of the initial run of Magnificent Seven movies finds Chris having settled down. He's serving as marshal in a small Arizona town, has recently gotten married to a woman named Arrila (Mariette Hartley), and has even gotten himself a new face again - this time he's not played by Yul Brynner or George Kennedy, but by spaghetti Western icon Lee Van Cleef. Early on his old friend Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) offers him the chance to do the exact same thing he did in the first movie: travel down into Mexico and protect a town from a group of bandits around 50 men strong. Jim even talks like he was part of one of Chris's "magnificent seven" groups at one point, even though this character wasn't in any previous movie. Chris declines the offer, and it looks like married life has made him a bit soft: he even gives young farmboy-turned-thief Shelly (Darrell Larson) a "get out of jail free" opportunity at the encouragement of Arrila, who has been won over by the kid's sob story.

Chris is going to harden up quick, as The Magnificent Seven Ride! turns into the darkest film of the bunch when Shelly goes right back to crime. Aided by his pals Hank (Gary Busey) and Bob (Robert Jaffe), Shelly robs the local bank - and when they come out to see Chris and Arrila nearby, they shoot Chris and abduct Arrila. Soon Arrila's body is found dumped in the desert. As Chris puts it, she was "raped, killed, and left for the buzzards".

Chris sets out on a mission of revenge, which takes him back down into Mexico. Hank and Bob don't make it long, but Chris's desire for vengeance is stoked even further when Shelly joins the bandits and helps them ambush Jim and the men who were trying to protect that Mexican village. Jim is dead, every man from that village is dead, and the seventeen women from the village were rounded up and raped by the bandits. Then the mission of revenge is dropped when Chris finds that Jim managed to kill Shelly in the battle. So now he has a different deed to focus on: the bandits are going to come back for the women, so Chris needs to assemble a team of men to fight them off. Of course, this team is going to consist of seven people.

Chris's main sidekick is Noah Forbes (Michael Callan), a writer who wants to tell Chris's life story. The other six are men Chris is familiar with from work; he goes to the Arizona Territorial Prison in Tuscon and has six convicts paroled into his custody. They are quick draw Skinner (Luke Askew), former Confederate Captain Hayes (James Sikking), the mostly silent Walt (William Lucking), dynamite handler Elliot (Ed Lauter), and Pepe (Pedro Armendariz Jr.), who comes off as being the coolest of the bunch.

The team has been assembled 50 minutes into the 100 minute running time, then the new magnificent seven ride - just like the title promised they would - down into Mexico for their battle with the bandits. The bandits are led by a man named De Toro (Ron Stein), who really isn't much of a character in the movie, so the seven start off by raiding the bandits' stronghold while most of them are out, looting their weaponry and abducting "De Toro's Woman" (Rita Rogers). One guard is spared so he can go tell De Toro that Chris and his cohorts "degrade his woman".

As the seven prepare to protect the village from the bandits, the seventeen women of the village are paired off with them. It will be their job to feed and take care of the men while they're getting the village ready for the arrival of the bandits, and once the enemies show up the women will be reloading the seven's weapons for them. These women were just gang raped days earlier and every man in their lives was killed, so it's pretty odd when some of them are shown making eyes at members of the seven like they're ready to happily hook up with them. Some do. New widower Chris finds romance with newly widowed mother of two Laurie (Stefanie Powers), while Skinner strikes up a polyamorous relationship with three of the women, explaining that he's a Mormon.

Then it's time for the climactic confrontation, during which a whole lot more people die.

Directed by George McCowan, The Magnificent Seven Ride! is actually a decently entertaining Western to watch, but there are some seriously questionable elements in the screenplay by Arthur Rowe. You have to be giving very little thought to the scenario you're putting your characters through when you're having them move on from these terrible events and hook up with each other so quickly.

The cast did what they could with the material, though, and the film moves along at a decent pace. The first half takes some unexpected twists and turns before ending up right back in the same territory as the previous movies. It's easy to see why the series ended here for several decades, because you can only do the exact same thing so many times before viewers need a break from it. The franchise was eventually revived with a television series that ran from 1998 to 2000 and a remake in 2016.

That's it, for now, for this particular take on the concept Akira Kurosawa brought to us with Seven Samurai, but that set-up has been used for other films outside of the Magnificent Seven franchise, and in different genres. The idea was taken into outer space for Roger Corman's Battle Beyond the Stars (starring Sybil Danning and The Magnificent Seven's Robert Vaughn), got the "sword and sandal" treatment in The Seven Magnificent Gladiators (starring Sybil Danning and Lou Ferrigno), and served as the basis of multiple martial arts and action films.

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