First things first: despite what it says on the box, the title of this movie is definitely not Return of the Magnificent Seven but rather Return of the Seven (1966). Under any title this first of three sequels to the 1960 remake of Akira Kurosawa's superlative Seven Samurai (1954) is a misbegotten affair, not half as good as the 1960 film which isn't half as good as the Japanese original, despite its classic Western-movie status. Sequels weren't as commonplace in 1966 as they are in 2011, so in some ways the film can almost be forgiven for making so many bad errors of judgment, but it does just that. Nearly every choice its creators make is a step in the wrong direction. While Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) and The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) are lightweight entertainments in the extreme they are at least very slightly more entertaining.
MGM's Blu-ray of Return of the Seven is okay but hardly spectacular. The first few reels are grainy and unimpressive, to my naked eyes not much better than a good, 16:9 enhanced DVD but - and I'm not certain this is literally true or whether my eyes lowered their viewing standards while watching this - it seemed to me that from about 20-minute mark onward the picture quality improved and, while still a long way from spectacular, the high-def image looked significantly sharper. The lone extra is a trailer, in high-def. You'd have thought HD trailers for the other three films in this series would have been a sensible marketing move, but they're nowhere in sight.
Bad movie but a great poster...by Reynold Brown?
The awkwardness of this movie is readily apparent in its title, which is a little like trying to make a follow-up to The Alamo (1960). Four of the original Magnificent Seven were dead by the end of the first film, making a return in the full sense of the word impossible. (Today, they'd get around that by making a "midquel" instead. Sheesh.) Although Yul Brynner returns as Chris, the leader of the Seven Samur - er, gunfighters, the same role played in Kurosawa's film by Takashi Shimura, he's the only returning cast member.
In the same poor Mexican village where The Magnificent Seven had taken place*, a shock-and-awe-style raid by 50 gunmen takes place and all the men are kidnapped and enslaved, including farmer Chico (Horst Buchholz in the original, Julián Mateos here), one of the original seven. Chico's wife, Petra (Rosenda Monteros in The Magnificent Seven, Elisa Montés in the sequel), makes a beeline into the city, where she finds Chris (Brynner) and Vin, who coincidentally run into one another at a bullfight.
In the original Magnificent Seven, Vin was played by Steve McQueen, and the picture's phenomenal success helped establish him as a movie star. Between Magnificent Seven and its first sequel, McQueen's star status had risen sharply while Brynner's dropped somewhat. Nevertheless, the Mirisch Company, which owned the franchise, and United Artists, which distributed the films, obviously would have loved to have had both Brynner and McQueen in the same picture, the rest of the cast hardly mattering after that.
However, it appears that both stars were monumentally vain and even paranoid about the other, and supposedly Brynner agreed to do the film only on the condition that McQueen wouldn't be involved. On the other hand, it's entirely possible McQueen was asked and he turned it down, which would have been entirely understandable. His thin character in the first film was carried almost entirely by McQueen's charisma, and in Return of the Seven Vin is never anything more than level-headed acolyte. He's utterly subservient throughout, taking orders from Chris and doing almost nothing heroic on his own or even anything to move its plot forward.
Worse, he's played by actor Robert Fuller who, like McQueen, had been culled from the ranks of TV Westerns, chiefly Laramie and Wagon Train. Though a decent enough actor, Fuller has none of McQueen's charisma. Casting him as Vin in McQueen's wake is downright perverse, like assigning Lee Majors to Gary Cooper's part in High Noon, Part II (1980), or David Soul as Rick Blaine, Humphrey Bogart's character, in the 1980s TV version of Casablanca.
The plot, such as it is, is nearly a remake of The Magnificent Seven, repeated again and again in the two sequels that followed. Chris with Vin's help recruit more gunfighters to fight more Mexicans against more impossible odds. Sexual firecracker Colbee (Warren Oates) is in it for the women, while Frank (Claude Akins) has a death wish after mercy-killing his wife in an Indian raid. The less interesting Luis (Virgilio Teixeira) and Manuel (Jordan Christopher) round out the seven.
Which begs a rather obvious question: Why seven? "For luck," Chris says. Yeah, but why content yourself with seven? Wouldn't, say, eight or ten versus fifty guns be better odds? The reason, of course, is obvious: It's just gotta be seven otherwise it wouldn't be Return of the Seven, ya schmuck.**
And so what you're left with is a movie that follows the original's well-worn path with almost no variation, with the same rousing let's-smoke-some-Marlboros-on-the-range music by Elmer Bernstein. But Larry Cohen's script is all too obviously made-to-order.
One side note: There's an unintentional laugh at 6:02 during the raid. As an angry Chico storms out of his home to face the gunman, the camera angle strongly suggests that the door he slams flies smack into wife Petra's face, her head jerking back like a jack-in-the-box. Laurel & Hardy couldn't have done better.
Video & Audio
As described above, the 2.35:1, filmed in Panavision Return of the Seven looks passably okay but barely so, especially during its first few reels, which to me seem weaker than those that follow. And though remixed from its original mono to 5.1 DTS-HD Master Audio, I found the audio notably thin and lacking as well. It certainly has none of the gusto of MGM's fine high-def transfer and audio mix of The Magnificent Seven. The 25GB, region A-encoded disc includes optional English SDH, French, and Spanish subtitles, along with a trailer in HD, its lone Extra Feature.
Fans of the series will want to own this, but on its own terms Return of the Seven, while harmless, is one of the least memorable sequels of its kind. Rent It.
* The first movie was shot in Mexico while this was made in Spain. Nevertheless, the village looks exactly the same. Mirisch obviously kept the original's set drawings.
** Sergei Hasenecz writes, "It's been a while, so I don't remember the exchange, and maybe I don't remember the mood correctly either. [But] seven was enough last time, why not this time? And let's be real. The title of the movie was never going to be The Return of the Seven Plus a Few More to Even the Odds. But my argument [is] that if you criticize Return for having only seven, however badly that is handled, you must level the same criticism at Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. Bandit numbers are always problematic. (Historically, it's still controversial as to how many Genghis Khan had in his Mongol horde. How many geese in a gaggle? How many Mongols in a horde?) I have more than once tried counting, while watching both Samurai and Magnificent, the number of bandits we see killed, but I always get caught up in the movies and lose track. Perhaps it's one of those uncountable things in cinema, like the number of half-smoked cigarettes John Wayne throws away in The Quiet Man. Yes, it's a clumsy sequel. But remember, "They were only seven men, but they fought like seven hundred!" The bandits were outnumbered."
Stuart Galbraith IV's latest audio commentary, for AnimEigo's Musashi Miyamoto DVD boxed set, is on sale now.