The Magnificent Seven (1960) Review

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Director: John Sturges

“The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”

★★★★★

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The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s amazing re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Seven Samurai (which was, itself, inspired by classic John Ford Westerns). John Sturges offers a star-studded and grippingly simple tale about seven individual veteran gunslingers who are hired to defend a rural Mexican farming village from a brutal bandit who is extorting their food supply. In watching the film we are asked to contemplate the stories and personalities of each individual gunman (i.e. what motivates him to defend these remote farmers) and also we are invited to contrast the bandit, Calvera, with our seven heroes. What is different? Why is Calvera, a profit-seeking warlord, considered evil; whereas the gunslingers, many of whom are also profit-seeking mercenaries, honored as heroes? When is a hero forced to choose the noble path?

“The fighting is over. Your work is done. For them, each season has its tasks. If there were a season for gratitude, they’d show it more…Only the farmers remain. They are like the land itself. You helped to rid them of Calvera the way a strong wind helps rid them of locusts. You are like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on. Vaya con Dios”
-closing words from the village elder to the hired gunmen.

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The lead actor, Yul Brynner, initially approached producer Walter Mirisch with the idea of acquiring the rights to the story from Toho Studios in Japan (Brynner was late unsuccessfully sued by friend and fellow actor, Anthony Quinn, who claimed they worked on the idea together). The Magnificent Seven was shot on location in a variety of Mexican locales and interestingly enough Yul Brynner was married on the set while making the movie.

The film is about a small Mexican farming village that is being extorted by a ruthless group of bandits led by a man named Calvera (Eli Wallach who also memorably appears as “the ugly” in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). Calvera steals food from the farmers under threats of death. After a villager is killed, several men consult the village elder (played by Russian actor Vladimir Sokoloff) who advises them to fight back against Calvera. So they ride north to a town across the United States border. Initially, they intend to barter for weapons, however they soon witness a remarkable scene. A veteran Cajun gunslinger named Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner) offers to deliver the body of a recently dead Indian to the cemetery on the hill, which is guarded by a group of racist cowboys who prevent Indians from being buried in the cemetery. Chris is then joined by another gunslinger, Vin Tanner (played by Steve McQueen). Apparently Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen had quite a rocky relationship offscreen, though they play compatriots in the movie. McQueen was upset with his minimal dialogue, and as recompense he would use various tactics to distract the audience while Brynner spoke -such as by lowering his hat, flipping a coin, or rattling his shotgun shells. Also, the actors battled over their height on camera. Brynner was slightly taller than McQueen and he would build a small mound of dirt to stand on just before a shot to highlight his height advantage, but McQueen would often kick the dirt away before the take.

At any rate, returning to the story, the villagers hire Chris and Vin, who recruit Chris’s friend Harry Luck (played by Brad Dexter) who only joins because he believes there may be riches hidden out in the hills; Bernardo O’Reilly (played by Charles Bronson), an Irish-Mexican gunslinger in need of money; Britt (played by James Coburn), an expert knife-fighter and gunner who handily wins a random duel using only a knife; and a well-dressed gentleman named Lee (played by Robert Vaughn), who is haunted by fears that death is chasing him after many gunfights over the years. En route they are drunkenly confronted by a hot-headed young man named Chico (played by Horst Buchholz) who demands to join the group, and when denied he follows them to the village and ultimately earns their respect.

Upon arrival in the village this ‘magnificent seven’ begins training the farmers to fire guns and build fortifications and traps for Calvera when he arrives. Chico discovers the women in hiding, out of fear that the gunslingers might rape them, but they are invited to join the group again. One day, three scouts visit the village on behalf of Calvera, but the seven gunslingers kill the scouts. So Calvera, himself, surrounded by a large force arrives but this time he is scared him off into the hills. In the evening Chico infiltrates Calvera’s camp and learns that Calvera’s men are starving and struggling. However when the seven plan a raid on Calvera’s camp they return to the village to find they have been betrayed by some of the farmers. Calvera confiscates their weapons and he banishes them from the village, but fearing reprisals from their friends, he lets them live and returns their weapons several leagues from the village, mistakenly believing they have learned their lesson, only for six of them to return with a vengeance (the seventh later joins). In the end, three of the seven survive the shootout: the original compadres Chris and Vin, and also the young buck, Chico, who stays behind in the village with his young lover (played by Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros).

“The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”

Elmer Bernstein composed this inspiring score -one of many including To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Ten Commandments among many others. The Magnificent Seven spawned several unsuccessful sequels (and a remake in 2016 that I refuse to see as a protest against more recycled unoriginality from a lazy, contemporary Hollywood).

Despite receiving mixed reviews, John Sturges got the one vote of approval that mattered – when Akira Kurosawa saw the film he was so impressed that he reportedly sent a ceremonial sword to Sturges.

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Stagecoach (1939) Review

Stagecoach (1939) Director: John Ford

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★★★★★

Stagecoach brought about a revival in the Western genre, which had largely fallen out of favor in the late ’20s and ’30s. The Western is a mythic depiction of the Western country and prairie, a largely historically untrue heroic story of courage and goodness in an amoral land of savages and wilderness. It reaffirms the American cultural mythology of hard work and rugged individualism. In the late ’20s, after the end of the silent era, Westerns had lost popularity as a flood of “B Pictures” came in and brought about a kind of cheapness to the Western genre. John Ford’s previous silent Western was 3 Bad Men in 1926 (he also made the notable The Iron Horse in 1924). He didn’t return to making Westerns until he made Stagecoach in 1939.

The plot of the film is based on a short story called “The Stage to Lordsburg” by Ernest Haycox, an American Western writer. Ford purchased the rights to the story shortly after its magazine publication in 1937. It tells the story of a group of strangers in the 1880s who each board a stagecoach for a dangerous trip from Tonto, Arizona to Lordsburg, New Mexico. The tight narrative keeps the Chaucerian purpose from wandering too far. Two riders (one a Cheyenne) approach an army camp from out of the vast and desolate terrain of Arizona/New Mexico. A telegraph arrives with only one word: “Geronimo,” the vicious Apache warlord. The scene casts a dark shadow over the film. Each character plays a classic Western trope, an archetype we think we understand, but in Stagecoach, not everything is as it seems. Each character has considerably greater depth than initial impressions allow. The rugged outlaw “Ringo the Kid” only ever killed to defend his family, the high society woman who gives birth to a child that the prostitute ends up being the best caregiver for, the shady gambler is actually descended from a high-class Southern family, the drunkard who is a doctor who winds up sobering up to deliver a baby and stand up to the Kid’s enemies; the pillar of the community banker winds up being an untrustworthy thief; the hard-nosed marshal changes his tune at the end of the film with the doctor by letting Ringo escape to his ranch in the name of true love.

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The film is a vision of a unified America – in which Americans of all classes and backgrounds with differing perspectives on the Civil War or morality – can join together against a common enemy and reach their destination. All characters are complex, none are above ill-repute. They are all a part of civilization with different reasons for embarking on the journey. It is a film of redemption, told by reframing the heroes of the Western genre. In the end, the U.S. cavalry overcomes their duty to return to Tonto and they rescue the stagecoach from impending doom against attacking Apaches, bolstering the American value of the “greater good” (i.e. the cavalry managed to overcome their social demands and limiting bureaucracy to defend those in need). Ringo kills his enemies in Lordsburg, and he is freed by the marshal with the doctor so that he may settle down with his paramour, the call-girl turned caregiving wife, while the banker is arrested for thievery. As Ringo rides off into the sunset, the doc says: “Well they’re saved from the blessings of civilization.” In the end, only the timid salesman, whose name no one seems to remember (“Peacock”), is shot by an Apache arrow, and Hatfield, the son of a former Confederate judge is killed (moments before he attempted to mercy kill the high-class lady with his final bullet, thus sparing her of torture by the Indians). This notion of chivalry is another common theme in the film – each of the characters (men of all persuasions) greatly avow and respect chivalry toward women, the Confederate toward the high-class woman, and the outlaw for the prostitute.

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It was the first of many films shot by Ford in the “Monument Valley” in Arizona, close to the border with Utah. Ford had a difficult time re-introducing the “Western” genre which had gone out of fashion in the ’30s, and he was obstinate in his demand that John Wayne play the lead, who was largely unknown at the time despite acting in other movies. It was a request that Ford’s producers were not fond of. He also requested Claire Trevor, who was paid nearly five times as much as John Wayne for the film. Ford followed Stagecoach with Young Mr. Lincoln, also released in 1939, as well as The Grapes of Wrath in 1940 (read my review of the film here) and How Green Was My Valley in 1941 (read my review of the film here).

Stagecoach is surely one of the greatest movies ever made (a tag that can be given to a number of films made in the year 1939). Orson Welles claimed it was a textbook-perfect film. He preferred the “old masters” meaning John Ford, John Ford, John Ford. Ford’s style was simple, moving the camera sparingly, shooting only what was necessary. Dialogue is limited in the film, as Ford prefers to let the action tell the story, with long shots of panning the camera, or extended shots of actors’ faces. Gordon Douglas attempted an inferior remake of the film in the ’60s.

The Covered Wagon (1923) Review

The Covered Wagon (1923) Director: James Cruze

★★★☆☆

Billed by Paramount as the next big budget film after D.W. Griffith’s Birth of a Nation (1915), The Covered Wagon is often regarded as the first great epic Western film. I am a sucker for a film that captures the true beauty of the American countryside, and in this respect few films can compete with Westerns. In all, The Covered Wagon is a fun adventure following a band of pioneers across the country, however in my view the film ultimately falls short in certain respects.

The story was adopted from the 1922 novel of the same name by the American Western writer, Emerson Hough. We begin in 1848 as a caravan of wagoners await departure from Kansas to travel westward to Oregon. Jesse Wingate is leads the main caravan, but soon the brash, young Will Banion (played by J. Warren Kerrigan) joins the caravan. He falls for Molly Wingate (played Lois Wilson), daughter of Jesse Wingate and fiance of Jesse Wingate’s right-hand man, Sam Woodhull. They attempt to ford the rushing Kaw river, though Banion disputes this decision. In fact, this was a highly dangerous scene for the actors, reportedly two horses drowned during filming.

Further ahead, Woodhull’s wagon train is fatally attacked by Indians. Once across the river, they hunt for buffalo meat. Eventually, Molly rejects Woodhull for Banion, but she is injured by a stray arrow in an Indian attack. As the caravan proceeds, Banion leaves for California in search of gold, distraught about a misunderstanding with Molly, however she sends men to find Banion while she remains with the Wingate group traveling to Oregon. One year later, Woodhull catches up to Banion and tries to kill him for taking Molly away, but he fails and is killed. Banion leaves Oregon to reunite with Molly at their new pioneer home in Oregon.

Appropriately, a Western was one of the biggest blockbusters of the silent era (the budget was a risky $782,000 in 1923). It was shot in various locations: Palm Springs, CA; Utah; and Nevada, and it required a cast of thousands. In the scenes where thousands of buffalo appear, the director employed chains of mechanical buffalo –sadly by this point in time the buffalo had been nearly hunted to extinction. However aside from mechanical buffalo, at least authentic wagons were used from real pioneer families, these family heirlooms were borrowed on behalf of the production crew. In an earlier cut of the film, Director James Cruze appeared as an Indian, but he was later cut out of the film as he didn’t appear authentic.

The following are a few notes I gathered upon watching this film: J. Warren Kerrigan was a silent film actor who starred in several early films, most notably The Covered Wagon and Captain Blood (the 1924 version). He was perhaps better known for his off-screen controversies –making unfortunate comments about “lesser valuable” people being sent to war, and controversially living with his gay partner (fellow actor James Carroll Vincent) at his mother’s home from 1914-1947 until his death. The other star, Lois Wilson, was a former Miss Alabama beauty pageant star who appeared in many now lost films from the 1920s-1940s. She never married.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) Review

The Good, The Bad and the Ugly (1966) Director: Sergio Leone

★★★★★

Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo is perhaps the most famous “spaghetti western” of all time. It is the third and final episode in the Dollars Trilogy starring Clint Eastwood, with A Fistful of Dollars (1962) and For A Few Dollars More (1965). Sergio Leone later asked Eastwood to work as the star of Once Upon In The West (1968), but he refused, angering Leone who criticized Eastwood’s acting. Most of the actors spoke Italian in the film, and were later dubbed over in English, excluding Clint Eastwood. The film was internationally produced in Europe and the United States, and much of the shooting took place in rural Italy and Spain.

The plot takes place during the American civil war, in the southwest. It follows three gunslingers as they seek $200,000 of Confederate gold buried in the ground, while trying to avoid the Civil War battles of the New Mexico Campaign in 1862. The audience learns of each of the three primary characters: First, “Angel Eyes” (a.k.a. The Bad) who is hunting down the confederate gold for a man named Bill Carson, killing those who stand in his way. Second, Tuco, a Mexican Bandit (a.k.a. The Ugly), is constantly finding himself in trouble. The film actually opens with a brief scene where two men approach an old pioneer town when they come upon a third man (the audience believes they will duel) when suddenly at the last moment they enter a building, shots are fired, and Tuco escapes having shot the three men. Another cowboy, “Blondie” (a.k.a. The Good, wearing a signature Poncho, which Eastwood later gave to a friend in Carmel who owned a Mexican restaurant where it hung for years), rescues Tuco from some bandits, only to turn him into a local sheriff for his $2,000 reward, but also frees him so they can move from town to town claiming the reward and saving Tuco from the noose. Eventually, Blondie gets tired of Tuco’s whining and abandons him without water in the desert. In seeking revenge, Tuco tracks Blondie to a town being vacated by Confederate troops and tries to force Blondie to hang himself, but Blondie is rescued by a bombshell from Union forces which destroys the building, allowing him to escape. However, again Tuco catches Blondie and forces him to march through the desert where he nearly dies of dehydration, however a stage coach filled with dying Confederate troops comes upon them, and one (named Bill Carson) speaks the location of the burial site of the $200,000 in gold – he gives the location to Tuco and the name on the gravestone to Blondie. Thus, the two must travel together if they are to find the gold, despite their hatred of each other. Tuco takes Blondie to a nearby mission called “San Antonio” where his brother is a friar and they allow Blondie to heal. Together, they leave the mission in old Confederate uniforms they find, only to be captured by Union forces. At roll call in the Union prison, Tuco identifies himself as Bill Carson, however “Angel Eyes” is now disguised as a Union sergeant. He tortures Tuco for the name and location of the gold, but Tuco reveals that only Blondie knows the true name of the location. Angel Eyes makes an agreement with Blondie for them to ride out together to find it, while he handcuffs Tuco to one of his guards and sends him away on a train to be executed. Blondie and Angel Eyes arrive in a burnt out town, Tuco frees himself by leaping off the train with the guard and breaks the cuffs when an oncoming train approaches. He arrives in the same town as Angel Eyes and Blondie. Tuco is caught by surprise while taking a bath by a bounty hunter, whom he promptly kills. Tuco and Blondie resume their old partnership and kill all Angel Eyes’s men, while Angel Eyes escapes. Tuco and Blondie head toward the Sad Hill cemetery where the gold is said to be buried, but they are interrupted by Union forces who are in conflict with Confederate troops opposite them. A bridge divides them. The three cowboys decide to wire the bridge with explosives and blow it up, freeing them from the ensuing armies. In the ensuing chaos, Tuco crosses with a horse and heads to the cemetery to take the gold for himself, finding the grave of Arch Stanton, which Blondie told him was the location while they were wiring the bridge, in case they both died. However, Blondie shows up and tells him to keep digging, but then Angel Eyes shows up and demands that they both dig at gunpoint, however Blondie refuses because there is no gold. He says only he knows the true name, and that he will write it on the back of a rock, and they can duel for it. He places it in the middle of the vast cemetery. The film closes with a paranoid and suspicious shoot-out scene which builds the tension amidst large spacious views, followed by tight close-ups of faces and increasingly quick cuts. Blondie kills Angel Eyes in the famous three-person Mexican stand-off and then he slowly approaches Tuco, who realizes his gun has no ammunition, from Blondie. Blondie forces him to dig at the “Unknown” gravestone next to Arch Stanton’s grave, where the gold is buried. Tuco digs up all the gold, 8 bags full of them, but Blondie hangs a noose and makes him stand on the grave and ties the noose around his neck. He takes four of the bags and leaves, while Tuco fears for his life and screams after Blondie. Shortly before the end, Blondie shoots the noose, freeing Tuco as he once did in their various plots to claim money for Tuco’s arrests. The film ends with Tuco cursing Blondie while Blondie rides off into the distance.

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While Hollywood Westerns were very polished and clean at the time, Spaghetti Westerns were more gritty, dirtier, more violent, and they often featured anti-heroes, like Clint Eastwood’s Blondie, who is clearly the “good” hero, but also he ironically kills the most people in the film (11 kills), while Tuco kills only 6. We are left to ask, what exactly is “good” about Blondie? The film challenges a number of stereotypes of the traditional western film, and it delivers masterfully.

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is not only one of the greatest Westerns of all time, but also one of the greatest films of all time. The sweeping landscapes of Spain and Italy, styled as the American West, are extraordinary; the iconic soundtrack of Ennio Morricone is unforgettable; and the cinematography is as unique as it is powerful with its huge open views of the west, and the ability to slowly build interest and tension until something unpredictable happens. Throughout the movie the audience is intrigued and left guessing. The tone is lawless and greedy, amidst a backdrop of the great American Civil War, yet The Good, The Bad and The Ugly is playful and even picaresque. The film belongs on every list of great films.