The Magnificent Seven (Ultimate Edition) Review
In a small Mexican village, the people live under threat of the annual visit from the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach). His stay is a short one but he only leaves the village enough food and drink to survive, he and his men take the rest. When one man stands up to him, he's shot dead outside of the church and as Calvera rides out, the farmers fret about the coming year - with barely enough to live on, not all of them will see out the winter but no one volunteers standing up against Calvera. With the body of their friend still warm, they have a stark reminder of what happens to anyone who crosses the bandit.
Three men, although only farmers, refuse to accept Calvera's terms any more and they head north, searching for guns. Over the border, they watch as Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) face down a gang of bigots who are refusing to let a Native be buried on Boot Hill and approach them later that evening, asking how they could go about getting guns. But as Chris tells them, guns are expensive and men are cheaper and so he gets himself hired as a mercenary for their offer of $20. Knowing that he'll need more men, he calls on old friends - those that are still alive, at least - and soon leads a posse of seven men south to set up camp in the village and to await Calvera's arrival...
I know what a film reviewer, even one who's really only playing at it as I so frequently do, is meant to say as regards The Magnificent Seven. It is, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai but it's generally accepted that its Western setting simplified Kurosawa's story about the once-great power of the Samurai ways in favour of a rollicking western in which good men and bad are gunned down in the noble defence of a small farming village. Of the two films, The Magnificent Seven is thought to be the poorer relation, it being an uncomplicated feelgood film with none of the complexities of Kurosawa's movie but, in my heart, I can't say that I enjoy The Seven Samurai any more for that. Both are great films but were I to choose one from a burning box of discs, I can't help but feel that it is The Magnificent Seven that I would be holding in my hand as the fire was extinguished.
One can argue that The Magnificent Seven has an underlying theme of a pre-Vietnam America, when military force was seen as the probable answer to any kind of insurgency. It depicts a group of Americans, heavily-armed and travelling across borders with the intention of defending the homeland of another, here being a small Mexican farming village. The seven gunslingers don't aim to talk or to negotiate, simply to build up defences, to set traps and to arm and train the villagers to fight alongside them against Calvera. There is a voice of dissension from the owner of the saloon, who fears even more trouble from Calvera should the Americans fail but Chris warns the villagers that should anyone speak out against them, it is he they ought to fear, promising that he will shoot them in the head before Calvera can do likewise. These are men of the Old West, who shoot straight, drink hard liquor and enjoy catching the eye of a pretty lady.
A decade later, the thought that such soldiers, albeit guns for hire, could accomplish anything outside of their native country would be considered out of place given events in Vietnam but coming fifteen years after Allied success in the Second World War, The Magnificent Seven is, on the surface at least, a crowd-pleasing paean to American military might. But look closer and there's much in The Magnificent Seven to suggest that these are men who know they're on the wane. Britt (James Coburn) is a cold-blooded killer with a knife but even as he's introduced to the audience in a duel, there's an implied dislike of his reputation and what he's called upon to do. O'Reilly (Charles Bronson) befriends three kids in the village and it's shown, even with a face carved from granite, that he's missed having a family. Lee (Robert Vaughn) is a bundle of nerves and neuroses who cracks up in the silence of the village whilst both Chris and Vin (Steve McQueen) realise that their's is a life based on two things, being fast and being accurate with a gun. But they're at a time when the years are catching up with them and sooner or later, someone will come along who's just that bit quicker. It is only Chico (Horst Buchholz) who looks happy to be considered a gunslinger but a conversation between the seven late in the film goes some way to convincing him otherwise. There's no honour in their ways - a rootless existence, without friends or family and when they die, they'll barely even be remembered with a tombstone. As townsfolk start building communities, the gunslingers will be asked to move on or will, as Vin finds out, only be picking up jobs in a grocers, which, as he tells the farmers, pays more than the $20 their offering. The seven's trip to Mexico is their admitting their time has passed and that £20 or a burial is now the going rate for their kind.
That said, the success of The Magnificent Seven on the small screen has little to do with its subtext, more that from the moment Chris and Vin ride the hearse to Boot Hill to the survivors riding back up north to America, it's a difficult film to drag yourself away from. When Elmer Bernstein's score rouses you from an afternoon nap and accompanies the riding of the seven south into Mexico, you'll understand why it scored the Marlboro Man's life in the west, why The KLF under the guise of The One World Orchestra sampled it for The Magnificent on the Help Album and why, should you ever find yourself riding a horse, you'll likely hum it almost without thinking. It's a score that takes a story that's small by the standards of the Western and makes it a widescreen epic - a big, beautiful, sun-dappled film that glistens in otherwise dreary Bank Holiday schedules. It's a score that makes life seem better and for a film that steps carefully between being a rousing adventure one moment and a eulogy for passing legends the next. The Seven Samurai is a great film but the torrential rain that accompanies its finale is incomparable to Elmer Bernstein seeing off the west is such, well, magnificent fashion.
Looking at the screenshots below, there's not a great of difference between this Ultimate Edition and the old MGM Special Edition, which, though now deleted, can still be picked up in supermarket sales for less than half the price of this release. This Ultimate Edition boasts a slightly sharper picture and more detail but with less colour in the image. Both are framed in exactly the same way and although you might suspect the UE, having a disc to itself, would show less noise, that's not the case and both look pretty much the same when playing on a television.
The MGM Special Edition (2000)
The MGM Special Edition (2000)
The MGM Special Edition (2000)
The MGM Special Edition (2000)
The MGM Special Edition (2000)
As for the audio tracks, the DTS mix on the Ultimate Edition does seem rather a pointless exercise, even odder a choice than the DD5.1 mix that was included on the Special Edition as well as here. The Magnificent Seven was originally released with a mono soundtrack and these remixes do absolutely nothing for the film - there may well be some use of the rear channels but there isn't a great deal and what there is doesn't sound to be much more than the occasional gunshot or musical cue. That said, the Dolby Digital and DTS tracks aren't bad and one can certainly see the commercial interest in having them but if the archive releases from Warner Brothers have shown us anything, it's that a good mono track is worth more than any number of stereo or surround remixes and it's a shame that MGM/Sony don't feel the same.
What with The Magnificent Seven already having a very good release in the shape of the MGM Special Edition from 2000, it shouldn't be surprising to find that all of those features have been brought across onto this Ultimate Edition. The Commentary is a good one as stars Eli Wallach and James Coburn as well as producer Walter Mirsch and Assistant Director Robert Relyea enjoy a good chat about the film that lasts for the length of the feature. Having never known anyone not to like The Magnificent Seven, it's a pleasure to hear that the cast and crew are equally as fond of it and their enjoyment of the film is infectious as they tell stories from the production an
The main feature on the Special Edition, Guns For Hire (44m57s), has also been brought over onto this Ultimate Edition but there's little to complain about as regards its quality. Like the film, it dwells for a long time on the various casting decisions, including the odd one of have Horst Buchholz as Chico - John Carpenter is particularly confused at that one - but the cast have good memories of the production and it's hard not to laugh at hearing how everyone tried to upstage Yul Brynner during the production. As Robert Vaughn recalls, "We wanted to take the picture away from Brynner...Steve would come in after a day's shooting and say, "Hey, man, did you see how big Brynner's gun is?"...The next day, he'd say, "Hey, Brynner's got a horse - did you see the size of it? It's gonna make all of us look silly""
Finally, there is a Photo Gallery - Behind The Scenes (1m56s), Classic Production Art (2m14s), Off The Set (35s), Portrait Set (2m56s) and Poster Art (11s) - as well as Trailers for this film and its sequels - Original Theatrical Trailer (3m01s), Theatrical Trailer - Seven (2m37s), The Return of the Magnificent Seven (2m27s), The Guns of the Magnificent Seven (2m03s) and The Magnificent Seven Ride! (2m18s).
New to this Ultimate Edition
The Linen Book (14m10s): Subtitled Lost Images of the Magnificent Seven, this ties in with the Photo Galleries that are also on the disc by having Maggie Adams from the MGM Home Entertainment Photo Archive take us through the linen book, which was used as an archive/album of photographs from behind-the-scenes and of publicity shots. Once Adams explains that it was found in a salt mine in Kansas that MGM were using to store archive material, Eli Wallach and Assistant Director Robert Relyea take over, covering some of the same ground as they do in the commentary but with the added bonus of some great stills from the production.
Elmer Bernstein and the Magnificent Seven (14m10s): Jon Burlingame is our host for this feature, which looks at Bernstein's development as a composer under the tutelage of Aaron Copeland before examining the use of his use of variations on the main theme throughout the film. Burlingame is, as you would expect, fond of Bernstein's score for this film - he says late in the feature, "If The Magnificent Seven had been written as a symphonic statement, a piece for a concert hall, we would revere that today in the same way we revere some of Copeland's works." He may well be right and he builds the case for it here but, as he also explains, for a long time it was known more as the music used in Marlboro commercials than as the score to The Magnificent Seven, which, he admits, may have tainted our appreciation of it.
If you don't a copy of The Magnificent Seven, there's no real reason why you shouldn't pick up a release of it anytime soon. Along with the previous year's Rio Bravo, The Magnificent Seven is one of Hollywood's most entertaining westerns that, though two hours long, certainly doesn't feel like it, picking up a pace with Chris's hiring of the six mercenaries that's sustained throughout the film. But there are quite a few versions out there and in summarising them, the current Region 1 Two-Disc Collector's Edition looks the best with it having a commentary and a feature by Sir Christopher Frayling as well as the original mono soundtrack.
As for this, it may be all that you can find in high-street or online retailers what with the old Special Edition having been deleted but if you have a copy of the 2000 release, I can see no good reason to upgrade. Of course, cost may be a deciding factor but when Play have the Magnificent Seven boxset at only £2 more than this two-disc release, I'd be tempted, were I buying any of them, to go for that and to enjoy not only the old Special Edition of The Magnificent Seven but also its three sequels. It's hard, after all, to ever really get enough of that theme.