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DVD SAVANT

Savant Review:

The Magnificent Seven


The Magnificent Seven
MGM Home Entertainment
1960 / Color / 2:35 anamorphic 16:9 / 128m.
Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Horst Bucholz, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson
Cinematography Charles Lang
Art Direction Edward Fitzgerald
Film Editor Ferris Webster
Original Music Elmer Bernstein
Writing credits Walter Newman (uncredited) and William Roberts
Produced by Walter Mirisch and John Sturges
Directed by John Sturges

Reviewed by Glenn Erickson

NOTE: This review is for the 2001 single-disc MGM release of The Magnificent Seven. A newer two-disc special edition of this film is reviewed at This URL.

John Carpenter said it straight: The Magnificent Seven is neither the best nor the most meaningful of the great Westerns, but it's possibly the most fun.  After a slow start in theaters,  1  it's become one of the most popular television movies ever, and has remained one of the high points of the genre for its clean action, snappy script and wonderful music score.

Synopsis:

A peasant village in Northern Mexico decides to hire Americans to ward off the depredations of bandit chieftain Calvera (Eli Wallach).  Unemployed Gunslinger Chris (Yul Brynner), just in from Dodge City, recruits six more out-of work gun hands.  For twenty dollars in pay and room and board, they mosey on South of the Rio Grande, just seven to defend against Calvera's forty thieves.

Everyone compares The Magnificent Seven with its model, Seven Samurai, when there isn't really any comparison between the two.  The Kurosawa fantasy was considered too American, with its anachronistic 'dialogue' between the farmer and samurai classes.  The John Sturges remake is the perfect John Kennedy fantasy: a world where American knowhow and firepower reaches out to other nations with a good example and a lot of guns, rids them of their oppressors, and earns their eternal respect.  Although the script preaches the nobility of the Mexican peasants, Yul Brynner's statement that, "Only the farmers win", is a bunch of hooey, even if it has remained gospel to the American male.  Americans with guns, it's been proven time and again, cross the border to defend American interests, and not for charity.  The farmers win?  Forget the farmers!  We identify with the ultra-cool, narcissistic gunfighters, the dudes with the great threads and macho attitudes.  At the end, they don't stand forlornly over the graves of their fallen comrades as did the samurai, but instead ride away as heroes, with triumphant music lighting the way to new adventures.  The dead gunfighters will have songs sung over their graves - they're legends, superheroes, where the farmers remain clueless squares.

Westerns really are about politics, and The Magnificent Seven were kind of a Peace Corps /Green Berets combo.  This fairy tale of mercenary killers being elevated and transformed by a noble cause is not an outgrowth of the 'adult psychological' western of the '50s, but a new kind of western where history (even John Ford's history) is irrelevant, and the trappings of style and affectation are all.  Yul Brynner struts around, Steve McQueen acts alternately coy and petulant, Robert Vaughn broods and whines, Charles Bronson is the sour hardass, and James Coburn does a zen act.  Poor Brad Dexter thinks he's in a movie from the '40s, unfortunately, and Horst Bucholz is having fun playing Roy Rogers.  After four years of television packed with Western shows focused on shootin'-iron talents, the Western had finally reached the stage where the star's basic job was to be a mobile weapons platform, in boots.

The Magnificent Seven is extremely well directed by John Sturges, an 'outdoor' director adept at keeping his heroes laconic and cool.  Most every setup could be hung on the wall as a painting; when action happens, it's fast, motivated and convincing.  All of the actors knew well how to seize and hold the camera's attention, and part of the success of the movie is that the half-dozen completely incompatible acting styles on screen never get a chance to clash - all the actors are really emoting in their separate, egotistical little worlds!  The wonderful Eli Wallach has the only character with a personality ... and out-thesps the whole bunch of 'em.


MGM's DVD of The Magnificent Seven is a good show.  The anamorphic 16:9 picture is a huge improvement over the 1993 laserdisc in clarity and color.  Savant has already read a lot of criticism of the quality of the transfer, some of which is debatable and some of which is just misinformed.  The negative to Mag 7 had already faded way back when 1974 reissue prints were made, and up until the early '90s, the only colors to be seen on the bad television prints was brown, reddish brown, and a darker reddish brown.  Some reviews also condemn the graniness, claiming in one case that it looks like a 16mm source was used.

There are granier shots, but if you'll notice, almost all of them are optical sections, adjacent to dissolves or other transitions.  The 1960 film stock used to create these opticals faded at a different rate than the rest of the movie, and had a coarser grain structure.  Timing negatives that have faded unevenly is almost impossible, on film or on tape.  For color and sharpness of picture, Savant has no gripes with Mag 7 on DVD.

It is frustrating to see all new transfers of older movies compared to the zowie job done by Warners on North by NorthWest, a title behind which must have been placed a tremendous restoration cash outlay.  A lot of the beauty of NxNW lies in the fact that extensive digital cleanup was applied to the video after mastering - removing flaws, scratches, dings, blemishes, and bits of debris.  It is an extra expense, but it is true that Mag 7 could have benefitted greatly from this, especially in the title sequence.  The second possible point of contention is the fact that some studios are using straight minimum compression bit rates on all of their transfers.  Even when they get away with it, the authored disc can be left with a subtle, digitally grainy look, softening hard lines and lowering the contrast zing of the image.  On a normal monitor, Mag 7 looks terrific.  On a large projection monitor, it looks far better than any previous presentation, but not as snappy as the original digibeta tapes - almost, but not quite.

The disc has a commentary track with producer Walter Mirisch (who is proud as pumpkins over this goldmine of a movie), a jovial James Coburn, the youthful-sounding Eli Wallach, and assistant director (& later Steve McQueen producing partner) Robert Relyea.  The track is an easy listen, doesn't bog down in details, yet offers a constantly changing set of viewpoints and anecdotes on the making of the film.  The disc comes with two trailers and has MGM's insufficient 16 chapter stops.  2

Savant participated in the production of the extra content on the Magnificent Seven disc, which should be noted in judging the fairness and objectivity of the following comments.  The 46-minute docu was originally meant to be a minor reworking of a show already produced for the BBC in 2000.  Then it became known that clearances were unavailable for almost all of the show's film clips, photos, and even newspaper clippings.  So the original PAL interview tapes were brought to Los Angeles and the show recut from top to bottom, retaining most of the interview bites and replacing all of the clip sections with more exciting montages.  The only major excision were an interesting couple of minutes spent on a close comparison of the Sturges and Kurosawa films, that had used unclearable Toho film clips.  Cutting around these omissions without dropping mention of the Kurosawa version was a major difficulty - even showing a vhs box of The Seven Samurai on a video rack was a legal no-no.  Elsewhere in the show, new sections were added to bolster the presence of Horst Bucholz, who in the BBC version was made the butt of jokes and then dismissed as not having the 'right stuff'.  The ending was recut, to soften some awkward claims that themes in the movie had never been seen before in Westerns.  And the BBC show had overdubbed actress Rosenda Monteros (Horst Bucholz's love interest) with an English translation, that had effectively inverted the meaning of her words in Spanish.   These sections were retranslated and replaced.  Also, the English crew's tapes had a nice interview with the recently deceased actor/cameraman John Alonzo, but had not used any of it.  He was an enormously warm and respected Hollywood veteran, and we found space for him right away.  Savant tried to punch up the montages to compensate for the loss of dozens of interesting stills in the BBC version that could not be used.  Collectors with tape copies of the original English show, which was wisely shot 16:9 and had great art direction, should hang on to them.

Lisa McGuire of MGM tech services was the agent who engineered the great film restoration of The Magnificent Seven.  The very active Dolby Digital remix is actually a clever Chace Productions concoction, as the only track to be had in the vaults was a mono composite.

Oh, and by the way, after watching the docu, in which Horst Bucholz admits to shooting himself in the leg with a blank, take a close look at the lightning-fast draw that Steve McQueen performs in the first faceoff with Calvera.  Steve's first shot clearly goes off a split-frame after clearing the holster - straight into the ground!


On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,
The Magnificent Seven rates:
Movie: Excellent
Video: Good
Sound: Good
Supplements: Docu: Guns for Hire, still section, commentary track
Packaging: Keep Case
Reviewed: May 13, 2001


Footnote:

1. Check out trailer #2, the one with the gawd-awful title song, in the added value section of the disc.  No wonder Mag 7 had boxoffice grief the first time around.  The trailer's a hideous piece of work that would sink any movie)
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2. P.S.: Savant actually has a suggestion for the MGM DVD producers who, for the sake of uniformity, are restricted to 16 chapter stops in the menu, even though a movie like this one really needs a lot more.  The laserdisc had 43!  If 16 is the limit, so be it - go ahead and restrict the menu chapters to 16, but add an unlinked, untitled chapter stop for every scene change, so that one can still step through the movie a scene at a time instead of having to jump to some arbitrary point 2 and 2/3 scenes ahead!  In The Hallelujah Trail there's a chapter stop for the overture music, and the first scene, but none for the beginning of the movie!
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