NOTE: This review is adapted from an older notice for a 2001 Special Edition of The Magnificent Seven.
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, 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.
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 Japanese considered Kurosawa's fantasy too American, with its anachronistic 'dialogue' between the farmer and samurai classes. The John Sturges remake is the perfect John Kennedy fantasy, a world in which 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, 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, whereas 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 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 serious improvement on the 2001 version. A new transfer has found more color and detail, and much better encoding renders a far cleaner image. The enhanced picture has clearly gone through several digital polishings because almost all the dirt and image damage has disappeared. To Savant's eye it looks as if the original's dirty optical title sequence has cleaned up by using still frames of the various title cards - the live-action behind the last few title cards now pops into motion much more noticeably. A side-by-side comparison of the two transfers shows the newer to be far more pleasing.
Some of the improvement may be due to the 2-disc format, which allows disc one to hold nothing more but the beefier transfer and the two audio commentaries. The first is ported over from the earlier disc and features 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 and offers a constantly changing set of viewpoints and anecdotes on the making of the film.
A new commentary was recorded in England by Sir Christopher Frayling, noted Western expert and specialist on the films of Sergio Leone. Frayling demonstrates the English love for American westerns and an exhaustive knowledge of the film, its stars and makers. His analytical approach pulls in references, relationships and insights about The Magnificent Seven from every conceivable direction.
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. That 5.1 track is also available in Spanish and French, along with the original mono English track.
Disc two starts with Guns for Hire, a 46-minute reworking of a fine show already produced for the BBC in 2000. More details on it can be read in the Savant review of the 2001 Magnificent Seven disc. Three new featurettes produced for international disc releases are also offered. Christopher Frayling on The Magnificent Seven allows the author/expert to present his thoughts on the film in a docu format, analyzing the characters and expanding on his political interpretation. Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven allows music professor and soundtrack historian Jon Burlingame to profile the late composer and examine his lively, Aaron Copland- inspired themes for the film. The Linen Book: Lost Images from The Magnificent Seven uses the thousands of original set stills from the movie as a springboard for Robert Relyea and Eli Wallach to once again wax nostalgic with stories from the filming.
There is also an added photo gallery, but despite the presence of several promos and trailers, the trailers for The Magnificent Seven have gone missing. Completists wanting the two trailers will need to hang onto the 2001 disc. The first is a corny embarrassment organized around a terrible song, that can by itself explain why the film opened poorly in its first release. The disc's VAM producer was Michael Arick; the attractive packaging holds a multi-page insert booklet with publicity facts on the film.
On a scale of Excellent, Good, Fair, and Poor,