Thursday, 3 September 2009

Discovering Classic Movies: No 2 - The Magnificent Seven

Let's get something straight. I don't do westerns. I just ...don't. I can count on the fingers of one finger the number of Westerns I've watched all the way through ('Open Range' with Kevin Costner and Robert Duvall, curiously enough). Yes, I've seen episodes (or bits of episodes) of 'Bonanza', 'The High Chaperal' and even 'The Virginian' and I've seen photos of John Wayne sitting on a horse; but as rule I just don't do westerns. I don't really know why, either. Maybe it's because the western is such a part of American tradition, a traditon I've just never wilfully exposed myself to, a genre I feel a bit distanced from by history and geography. Men on horseback with big hats and guns and stuff just aren't part of my culture, they're not icons I can identify with or recognise from my own upbringing and my own environment. But then I don't have much personal history with bug-eyed monsters and giant spaceships either but that's never stopped me liking a bit of sci-fi. I suppose, in the end, it's just down to the fact that my imagination is fired a bit more by laser guns than Colt 45s and I'd rather have a Police Box than a horse any day of the week, thanks all the same. Odd then - if not perverse - that my second 'classic' DVD should be 'The Magnificent Seven', in many ways the western to end all westerns. But that's me. Perverse is my middle name (except it actually isn't).

History records that John Sturges' 'The Magnificent Seven' is a (virtually scene-for-scene, I'm told) remake of Akira Kurosawa's 'The Seven Samurai' (I've not seen that either and it's not on my to view list, frankly) so I'm judging this one on its own merits, as a film, a story, a western, dammit. And as westaerns go, 'The Magnificent Seven' seems...well, it seems like a western. It's hailed and lauded as a classic, a benchmark Hollywood movie but to me it's just a western, a film full of moody gunslinghers and sneering bad guys with the inevitable gunfight at the end. So I tried to look beyond the surface, beyond the western trappings, to see if I could discover what the 'magic ingredient' the film has which sets it apart fromn a thousand other barely-remembered cowboy movies which, to these eyes at least, probably look exactly the same as 'The Magnficient Seven.'

The film's story is a familiar one even to the uninitiated. The inhabitants of a small Mexican village close to the US border are a bit cheesed off with being continually raided by the black-hearted Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang, leaving them barly able tyo surviove above subsistence level. Three villagers set off to find help in the nearest town - and their luck's in as they meet up with black-clad, baldy cowboy Chris Adams (not, as you might imagine, an itinerent estate agent) who decides to help them despite the meagre financial rewards they can offer. Chris sets about recruiting a gang of gunslingers to help him - forming a 'magnificent seven', if you will - and together they set off for the village and their date with destiny and celluloid immortality.

The greater part of the film tells - at great unhurried length - of Chris's efforts to get his little team together. They're quite a bunch. Where Chris himself is a bit monosyllabic (probably because Yul Brynner isn't the most gifted of actors), knife-wielding Britt (James Coburn) makes him seem like a one-man debating society. Then there's nifty gunslinger Vin (Steve McQueen in the role which set him on the road to superstardom) the most charismatic one of the lot, the only one with a twinkling sense of humour. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is the avaricious one, moody Bernardo (Charles Bronson) is the strong and largely silent type and Lee (Robert Vaughn) is the one who might be a bit of a coward. The team's rounded off by young, hotheaded Chico (Horst Buchholz) who gets to join the group by simply wearing them down with his youthful enthusiasm. Once back at the village - and it seems to take forever for them to get there - the Seven finally have their first skirmish with Calvera and his men. the bandits are chased off to lick their wounds - but now they're seriously pissed off and ready to launch a final devastating assault on the village and its new protectors.

'The Magnficent Seven' wasn't really what I was expecting but then, not hugely familair with the genre,I wasn't entirely sure what to expect. .But perhaps I wasn't expecting not to be blown away by a film so often regarded as a classic of contemporary cinema. I don't know if I expected some Damascan revelarion and a sudden new love for and appreciation of the western movie but as the credits rolde and that rousing Elmer Bernstein score struck up again (and the score is probably the best thing about the movie) I couldn't help feeling that all i'd been watching for the last two hours was a perfectly competene tna dreasonmably-enjoyable Wild West movie. I think the problem i had with the movie is that, despite its themes of the underdog vs the oppressor and the triumph of right vs wrong yada yada I wasn't able to feel any particular kinship with the characters. There really wasn't much to any of them. Black-clad Chris (Brunner) cuts a charimsatic jib and Steve McQueen's star quality tages out of the screen but the rest...well, they were pretty much just generic cannon fodder and (spoilers ahoy!!) I couldn't really give much of a damn when half the cast bit the dust in the last reel because I didn't know anything about them other than the rather sketchy characterisations they were lumbered with from the start. Similarly we're not really given much to work on with Calvera who's just The Bad Guy; we're given no idea why he's bad, what his agenda is...he's just there terrorising the locals because that's what he and his men do. Ultimately there's a very bald, simplistic black-and-white nature to the characters and the situation, there's little light and shade and little to get your teeth into. Maybe it's because this is a film made back in 1960, the absolute fag end of the Western era, and it's probably hard to judge 'The Magnificent Seven' against others of its type without seeing any of the others. It's not a shoot-'em-up; there are only two real shoot-out scenes and they're done competently, if not particularly spectacularly, but it's not really much of a character piece either. That's really what surprised me most about 'The Magnificent Seven' - ultimately it didn't really surprise me at all. Despite its stellar cast and its epic reputaiton, it still presents itself to me as a servicable but fairly routine western movie, telling a simple story unhurriedly and efficiently. It's certainly not made me a western convert and suffice to say I won't be rushing out to track down any Audie Murphy DVD boxsets in the near future.

Classics coming soon: Blade Runner, Casablanca, One Flew Over The Cuckoo's Next, Annie Hall, King of Comedy, The Godfather, 2001.

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