Perfunctory is the operative word for Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) the third of four Westerns adapted from Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai (1954). Taken in the right spirit, as an unassuming programmer and with low expectations, the film can be enjoyable if acutely predictable fun. The picture hit theaters in July 1969 -- the very same time as The Wild Bunch; the two films have somewhat similar stories but, needless to say, Sam Peckinpah's landmark film is otherwise light years ahead of this unambitious rehash.
This installment finds Mexican peasants terrorized by a sadistic anti-revolution militarist, Colonel Diego (Michael Ansara). After revolutionary leader Quintero (Fernando Rey, slumming between Bunuel films) is imprisoned, the revolutionaries dispatch handsome Maximiliano (Reni Santoni) to hire gunslinger Chris to help break Quintero out of the jail dubbed "the cave of the rats."
Chris, now somewhat beefier but sporting a full head of yellow hair (and played by George Kennedy), accepts Maximiliano's offer of $600, and predictably decides to hire five more gunmen to aid them. Along for the ride this time is Keno (Monte Markham), an enigmatic drifter who refuses to discuss his past; Levi (James Whitmore, an odd casting choice), an expert knife-thrower; Cassie (Bernie Casey), a strong but angry black man; P.J. (Scott Thomas), a Doc Holiday type who coughs a lot, though we never learn much about him; and Slater (Joe Don Baker), a racist gunslinger who lost his arm in the Civil War and reduced to touring the country as a sideshow performer named "Buffalo Ben." Baker's injured Reb is more than a bit unstuck in time considering the film is set around 1890.
After The Magnificent Seven (1960) became a big hit, a sequel seemed inevitable, but there was really nowhere for the story to go. Return of the Seven (1966) ended up little more than a remake of the first film. Yul Brynner, who played Chris in the first film, reprised his image-remaking role here, but by 1966 co-star Steve McQueen had outgrown his second banana status, and his part went to Robert Fuller, an actor not known for his scintillating screen presence. In Guns of the Magnificent Seven, busy TV actor Monte Markham plays Keno, a thinly-disguised McQueen clone given the same wardrobe McQueen wore in The Magnificent Seven.
Similarly, Whitmore's expert knife-thrower, who becomes a father figure to a Mexican child (a young Emiliano Zapata, no less) recalls the original film's James Coburn, an expert knife-thrower, and Charles Bronson's character, which becomes a father figure to a village of Mexican orphans.
Kennedy's Chris reads like it was written with Brynner in mind, though the recent Oscar-winner (for Cool Hand Luke, 1967) works to make the part his own, and Kennedy's natural likeability goes a long way to achieve this. The same holds true with Whitmore, hardly Western hero material, though a favorite with kids ever since Them! (1954).
Most of the characters are slim at best, however. Markham's Keno is like a hole in the screen, and Thomas's P.J. does little more than cough and fire a gun. Slater's tormented veteran is embarrassingly overplayed, complete with hilarious voice-over taunts ("I'm a freak...freak...FREAK!")
In a sense, the big star of all four films is Elmer Bernstein's seminal Western theme music, which gives it a badly needed shot in the arm, and is nearly expected to carry it through its weakest patches. The picture was shot in Spain, and DP Antonio Macasoli uses the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to its fullest effect. When Macasoli's more inspired images, like a terrific shot of the seven riding in silhouette, is matched with Bernstein's cues, the picture comes to life, however fleetingly.
The film has a vaguely condescending attitude toward the Mexicans. There are dozens of armed revolutionaries, yet the seven are hired because the tequila-guzzling Hispanics, according to Maximiliano, are "quick with the guns, slow with the brains." Ansara's Diego also subjects the peasants to all manner of torture, which is shown with a vague air of titilation. Their bodies are left to rot dangling from telegraph poles, dragged to death by horses, while some of the prisoners are buried up to their necks in sand and trampled.
The film was directed by Paul Wendkos, a prolific TV director, and written by Herman Hoffman, another television name. Neither brings much to the material. An opening set piece, clearly meant to delight audiences, falls flat due to bad direction and sloppy scripting. Keno is accused of stealing another man's horse, and it's decided to place the horse in the center of town and see which man it will come to. Keno, it turns out, really did steal the horse, but it comes to him just the same because on this hot day he cleverly positions himself next to a trough of cool water. Unfortunately, Wendkos gives the punch line away by cutting to a tight close-up of the water early on, thus deflating all mystery and suspense.
Video & Audio
Filmed in Panavision, Guns of the Magnificent Seven is presented letterboxed with 16:9 anamorphic enhancement. The image is sharp with strong color, though beginning at about the 37-minute mark hairline negative scratches frequently appear across several reels, sometimes running down the middle of the frame. This isn't a major distraction, but it is a minor one. A single shot during the climatic shootout is horribly damaged, but it looks like it was probably stock footage from another picture. The English mono track is okay if unimpressive. A second, Spanish mono audio track is offered, along with English, Spanish, and French subtitles. There are no Extra Features, not even a trailer.
Just as The Magnificent Seven was entertaining if several notches below the film that had inspired it, so too is Guns of the Magnificent Seven to the two earlier pictures that inspired it. Instantly forgettable but not bad, its main fault lies in its inability to break away from a proven formula.
The Magnificent Seven Ride! followed three years later.
Stuart Galbraith IV is a Los Angeles and Kyoto-based film historian whose work includes The Emperor and the Wolf -- The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. He is presently writing a new book on Japanese cinema for Taschen.