Whenever a film is remade or reinterpreted, there is some justifiable concern among those fond of the original that there will be a general lack of care to the mythology of the first for the sake of making a shoddy remake that will generate a bunch of cash. And there have been a lot of cases to the former. There are some films can find the sweet spot of creating their own space while paying homage to their predecessor. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that The Magnificent Seven is better than its source material (Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai), on its own it makes for entertaining viewing.
William Roberts (The Devil's Brigade) adapted the screenplay which John Sturges (The Great Escape) directed. In a small Mexican farming town, the place is run roughshod by a Mexican outlaw named Calvera (Eli Wallach, The Godfather III), and the farmers have reached a breaking point. They go into a larger town to see if they can pay anyone who will train them on how to buy and use guns to protect themselves from future attacks. They find a gunfighter in Chris (Yul Brynner, The Ten Commandments) who is mean but willing to handle the task. He manages to find six similar mercenaries willing to help him on this task. There is Vin (Steve McQueen, Bullitt), the knife throwing Britt (James Coburn, Payback) and the slightly retired Bernardo (Charles Bronson, The Dirty Dozen). Lee (Robert Vaughn, Baseketball), Harry (Brad Dexter, Von Ryan's Express) and Chico (Horst Buchholz, Life is Beautiful) round out this fearsome septet designed to help the farmers fight for themselves.
What continues to impress me about The Magnificent Seven is just how the characters own their development through the story. Seeing how Chris is impressed by the purity of the farmers' intentions is visible through the stoicism that he exudes, and the friendship his character seems to have with Vinn is fun to see onscreen (it's no secret that McQueen's performance helped further elevate his stardom at the time). Additionally impressive are Coburn and Bronson, whose collective work in the film saw them return to Sturges (with McQueen) in The Great Escape. Collectively the bunch is tough to tangle with as Calvera finds out, and the battles between his men and the Seven are interesting both from an action shot perspective as well as from a strategic one in the story. Calvera underestimates the Seven and loses some men, brings back replacements (and then some), leading to an exciting finale.
The performances aside, seeing how the characters adapt to having positions of importance and/or responsibility among the farmers and each other is almost poignant to see. Upon hearing of the town's sacrifice of substantial meals for themselves, the Seven decide to give back, as it should because they are likely leaving when they're job is done. Perhaps it's simply seen in that lens by some, but in a greater picture the gesture means much for both sides. Sturges' capable direction of the quieter moments and the larger action-packed ones remains impressive. Consider that within an eight-year period that Sturges directed this, The Great Escape, Bad Day at Black Rock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. He provided a touch of whimsy, humor and emotion within the war and western genres, two films that is tough to find that in, and did it easily.
It's the balance that makes The Magnificent Seven fun. In watching this again with my wife (who saw it for the first time), about 15 minutes in after the scene where Chris and Vin take the coffin to the cemetery, she leans over to me and said, "I can see why you like this movie." McQueen being onscreen aside, she said it again a couple more times through the movie and enjoyed it a lot. Regardless of whether she's seen the Kurosawa one or not (and if she's reading this, that's coming soon), on its own, The Magnificent Seven remains repeated viewing material regardless of what inspired it.
The Blu-ray Disc:
Fox trots The Magnificent Seven out in an AVC-encoded Blu-ray presentation that is the same one used in the The Magnificent Seven Collection that was released on Blu-Ray last year and repackaged for standalone release. Not having seen the film in a while, it does look quite good in high-definition, with colors and flesh tones looking accurate and black levels appearing natural. Film grain is present during viewing and the detail is surprising for a title of this age. All in all it looks good after all these years.
The DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 lossless track afforded to the film is a slight surprise considering its age, but the track holds its own during listening. Dialogue sounds consistent throughout, and all of the action occurs in the front of the soundstage, with no action from the rear channels or subwoofer. As such, no channel panning or directional effects could be discerned, but more ambient things like insects buzzing in the night could be picked up. Bernstein's score sounds clear as can be and the soundtrack doesn't have any hissing or mosquito noise to distract. It sounds as good as it's going to for a film that's a half century old.
Most of the extras from the two-disc standard definition edition are here, though the commentary track with Sir Christopher Frayling has been dropped. Again, this is a simple repackaging of the first disc from the set.
And as a standalone release the extras on the disc are decent. Wallach, Coburn, producer Walter Mirisch and assistant director Robert Relyea join up for a commentary track which is intriguing and jovial when the parties aren't watching the film. Each has one story or another that fondly remember Sturges, McQueen and Brynner (among others no longer here to participate on the track), and original casting ideas and the now-infamous supporting cast nuances to get some attention behind or (in McQueen's case) next to Brynner. Coburn recalls his time getting the knife throwing down off set and the actors recall the old days when stars had a great deal of clout on set, more than they seem to now. There is some shot and production recall, and they discuss their thoughts on what a remake might bring. Altogether a pleasant track to listen to.
From there, "Guns For Hire" (46:54) serves as a retrospective making-of look at the film, with interviews by many of the same participants, along with interviews with surviving family members of the cast and in Brynner's case, vintage interview footage. Modern day actors (Chazz Palminteri), directors (John Carpenter) and writers (Lawrence Kasdan) talk about their love for the film before the discussion on adapting Kurosawa's film begins. The battle for the film's rights is recounted, along with initial drafts of the screenplay. Casting choices are talked about, including the conscious decision to include Latino actors and actresses. The cast behavior on and off set is mentioned, along with the legacy of the film. It's a nice complement to the commentary track. "Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven" (14:48) is an interesting breakdown of the memorable score, how it's used in the film and even includes some biographical information on Bernstein. This might be one of the more interesting looks at a score that I've seen. Moving on, "The Linen Book" (14:47) makes for more recollection but also shows us the promotional stills used for the film and recounts how they were discovered. A separate stills gallery follows, along with two trailers to complete the disc.
Two different things are at play for the double-dippers; if you've got the standard definition disc and want to keep the other extras, then it's worth it to buy for the presentation. Having this as a standalone title and affordable price makes it easier. For those who don't have it or have never seen the film, with an enticing story, better than expected technical merits and solid supplements, The Magnificent Seven is a must-watch at the very least, with an eye to adding to your high-definition library.