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Wednesday, February 28, 2018

Obscusion B-Side: The Most Magnificent of the Seven

The late Akira Kurosawa has been nicknamed "The Emperor", due to this iconic & influential career as a filmmaker, & the film often considered his finest is 1954's Seven Samurai. It's influence was recognized almost immediately, too, as it would only take a scant six years for it to be imitated by another country. That film would be 1960's The Magnificent Seven, which was directed by John Sturgens, of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral & The Great Escape fame. The film transposed the basic concept of a town hiring seven men to protect them from a group of bandits from Sengoku Era Japan & samurai to the Wild West & gunslingers. Sturgens' film was successful in its own right (in Europe, as it bombed in the U.S.), which resulted in it receiving three sequels: 1966's Return of the Seven, 1969's Guns of the Magnificent Seven, & 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride. None of these sequels were anywhere near as successful as the original, & have since become rather obscure & forgotten, only being known most now for being packaged with the original in recent remastered DVD & BD boxsets. In 1980, independent film legend Roger Corman went against his usual low-budget style and spent roughly $2 million to produce Battle Beyond the Stars, a space opera that was intended to be "Seven Samurai in Outer Space"; it wound up earning $7.5 million. Finally, in 2016, Training Day & Southpaw director Antoine Fuqua lead a remake of The Magnificent Seven, which wound up doing what the original couldn't & actually become a box office hit in the United States.

Now, only one question remains: Which of these "Seven" is the "Most Magnificent"?

Just think about it for a moment... We have seven films that are about a group of seven people coming together to save the day & protect the downtrodden, so why hasn't anyone actually tried to rank them & see which of these seven rises to the top? Therefore, I will take that challenge by watching all seven of these films and organize them here, from worst to best. Now, of course, any sort of ranking is going to be inherently subjective & personal, so if you've managed to see all of these films & feel differently about the order I wind up with, then that's perfectly fine; this is MY list, after all. Also, before anyone asks, I am only relying on these seven theatrical-length films, mainly to keep the theme of the number seven intact, so I won't be including longer interpretations of Kurosawa's concept, namely The Magnificent Seven's TV series adaptation from 1998 to 2000, nor PlayStation 2 video game Seven Samurai 20XX or TV anime series Samurai 7, which both came out in 2004 to celebrate the original film's 50th Anniversary; I can vouch that the anime is really damn good, however. So, with all of that out of the way, let's get this started. First, I'll go over each movie chronologically, & then I'll actually rank them, from weakest to "most magnificent".

Seven Samurai
With the threat of another bandit raid for their next rice harvest on the horizon, a small village decides to hire some samurai to defend them, after the Village Elder (played by Kokuten Kodo) explains that other villages have done similar things before. After managing to convince the old & experienced Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the samurai winds up gathering six more to join him: Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), a young & inexperienced man who asks to be Kambei's student; Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba), a skilled archer whose keen senses makes him second-in-command; Shichiroji (Daisuke Kato), an old friend of Kambei's who decides to help out one more time; Heihachi (Minoru Chiaki), a charming & friendly samurai found by Gorobei; Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), a master swordsman who Katsushiro becomes amazed with; & Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), a wild & rambunctious man who claims to be a samurai, but in reality isn't, & effectively forces himself onto the group.

At just shy of 3.5 hours long, the Akira Kurosawa original is by far the longest film of all (not to mention Kurosawa's longest film in general), but it more than earns it's length. Quite simply, this is a masterwork of filmmaking, with magnificent framing, excellently limited use of music, completely engaging characters, & a story that can both make time fly by, as well as pull you in, only to realize that not that much time has passed. Really, the long length, & use of an intermission, makes Seven Samurai feel more like a play than your standard film, & the fact that it's an earlier film results in dramatic shocks, like deaths, feeling not just sudden & unexpected, but also realistic. When a samurai dies here, he dies right then & there (minus one exception), without giving him any final words or drawn out soliloquies; it hits as hard for the viewer as it does for the characters. While Toshiro Mifune's performance as Kikuchiyo tends to get the most focus, due to his magnetic personality & man-possessed delivery, the entire cast is just as great. Shimura's Kambei feels like a true leader, Kimura's Katsushiro is youthful & impetuous, Miyaguchi's Kyuzo is stern yet welcoming, & even Yoshio Tsuchiya's Rikichi (the "main" villager) is outstanding. It definitely is something that's best watched across two sittings, Criterion's DVD release even splits it across two discs, but it's definitely a must watch.

The Magnificent Seven [1960]
After a small village in Mexico sees its corn & chickens stolen by a gang of bandits lead by Calvera (Eli Wallach), some of the farmers take the advice of the Village Elder (Vladimir Sokoloff), & head over the border to purchase some guns. After seeing the talents of a Cajun gunslinger named Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), however, the farmers wind up asing Chris to help them gather together other gunslingers to help them. In turn, Chris finds six more to join him: Vin (Steve McQueen), a drifter who Chris saw the talents of earlier; O'Reilly (Charles Bronson), a professional hitman in need of money; Harry (Brad Dexter), an old friend who believes that Chris is secretly after a hidden gold mine in the mountains nearby; Britt (James Coburn), a gun & knife expert who can't be beat; Lee (Robert Vaughn), an outlaw on the run whose prior trauma secretly haunts his ability to fight; & Chico (Horst Buchholz), a young & wild man who effectively forces himself onto the group.

While I do agree that it is a classic western film, The Magnificent Seven is definitely a tale of two halves, which results in it being in conflict with itself. The first half of this ~2 hour movie is where it feels the most like its credited inspiration, right down to many plot beats, scenes, & even environments being copied; O'Reilly, for example, is found chopping wood, just like Heihachi was. In fact, you can easily match most of the seven gunslingers to their samurai counterparts; Chris is Kambei, Vin is Gorobei, O'Reilly is Heihachi, Harry is Shichiroji, & Britt is Kyuzo. Chico is, interestingly enough, a fusion of Katsushiro & Kikuchiyo, which leaves Lee to be an original creation, & he does wind up having some nice, subtle development. Unfortunately, the second half, which starts with Calvera's bandits meeting the Seven, is where I feel this movie drops the ball by taking the original story into its own direction. While I didn't want to simply see a straight retelling of the same overall story, the way that screenwriter William Roberts handles things actually results in both the farmers & some of the Seven looking less likable on the whole; Harry, for example, loses all interest in helping upon thinking that there isn't actually any gold. Not just that, but the gunslingers' deaths seen here don't have any of the impact that the samurai's deaths had. Admittedly, some are sudden, yet they still mostly feel downright "Hollywood" in execution; I could tell when a character was about to die, sadly. Still, the film as a whole is enjoyable, the entire cast is strong (Horst Buchholz admirably tries his best to imitate Toshiro Mifune's madcap spirit), Elmer Bernstein's Oscar-nominated musical score is great (especially the theme song), & it is still a neat reimagining of Kurosawa's original... I just wish the script treated its heroes better.

Return of the Seven
Some time after the Seven fought off Calvera's gang, the Mexican village gets attacked again, this time by a group lead by Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernández). All of the men are kidnapped by Lorca & turned into slave labor to help build a church, and the men includes Chico (Julián Mateos), the youngest of the Seven who stayed behind to stay with Petra (Elisa Montés), a farmer's daughter he fell in love with. Petra, in turn, finds Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) & asks for his help in saving Chico & the others. Chris agrees, and finds some help: Vin (Robert Fuller), another survivor of the original Seven who's more than happy to ride again; Frank (Claude Akins), a old friend of Chris' who's more than happy to find a fitting place to die; Luis Emilio Delgado (Virgilio Teixeira), a Mexican bandit planned to be killed by firing squad the next day who wants nothing more than to have his name remembered; Colbee (Warren Oates), a womanizer, & another of Chris' acquaintances, who joins after hearing that the village is filled with nothing but women; & Manuel (Jordan Christopher), a young cockfighter who has no personal home or identity. Together with Chico, they make a new Magnificent Seven.

Back before the days of movies airing on television or being available for rent or purchase on home video, most people would only be able to see a movie when it ran in theaters, and therefore most audiences may only properly remember who the lead actor was in a film. At least, that's why I think only Yul Brynner actually returned to reprise his role as Chris for the sequel, even though both Steve McQueen & Horst Buchholz were still acting & could have theoretically reprised Vin & Chico, respectively. Regardless, & seemingly against the actual reviews of its time, I honestly enjoy Return of the Seven more than the original. Yes, the plot is rather standard, and the new characters can be considered clichéd, but what puts this movie over the original, in my eyes, is that it's much more consistent with who its characters are. For example, in the original there was Harry, who started off as a reliable hand, only to change into a gold-seeking jerk who isn't "magnificent" in the least, even up until the end. In comparison, the new members of the Seven may have their flaws, but they actually make up for or even change because of those flaws. Frank just wants a proper place to die, but feels that doing so by protecting others benefits everyone. Colbee both finds fear in death after the first skirmish, yet still stands strong for what he feels is the right thing to do. Luis admits that he could have simply ditched everyone after escaping his death sentence, but feels like he should do at least one thing for other people, & if he dies doing so, then at least his death will have meaning behind it. Hell, even Lorca's reasons for being the villain have some relatability to them. Overall, Return of the Seven feels like a true evolution of the Seven Samurai story concept, and that's awesome.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven
When Federales, lead by Col. Diego (Michael Ansara), capture a revolutionary named Quintero (Fernando Rey), bandit chief Lobero (Frank Silvera) begrudgingly allows the $600 Quintero gave them to be used to hire Chris Adams (George Kennedy) for a rescue operation, in place of guns & cannons. Chris agrees, & in turn gathers a brand new Seven to help him: Keno (Monte Markham), a horse thief Chris recently saved from the gallows; Levi Morgan (James Whitmore), an old friend & knife expert who takes on the job to help support his wife & kids; Cassie (Bernie Casey), a former slave & explosives expert who's an acquaintance of Chris'; Slater (Joe Don Baker), an ex-Confederate soldier & another acquaintance of Chris', whose bum arm has left him a sideshow shootist; P.J. (Scott Thomas), a mentally broken friend of Chris' who's willing to help, in spite of him suffering from tuberculosis; & Maximiliano (Reni Santoni), the man Quintero gave the $600 to before getting captured.

While Yul Brynner was fine with coming back after six years for Return, he didn't feel like doing a third movie, so in his place for Guns we have the similarly-excellent George Kennedy, though the fact that Chris Adams now has a suddenly full head of hair is instantly disorienting; amusingly enough, though, Fernando Rey played the priest in Return, only to now play someone else. Not just that, but Monet Markham not only delivered a Steve McQueen-esque performance as Keno, but he was even given the same exact outfit as what McQueen wore as Vin in the original Magnificent Seven! Aside from those two neat bits of trivia, though, the third film in the this series definitely feels very "standard", but much like the last movie, Guns of the Magnificent Seven manages to still be rather enjoyable because of the Seven themselves. Slater becoming a crippled "freak" resulted in him doubting how good he can still be, and it's Cassie who actually winds up befriending him & helps him realize that there's still meaning to be found in his life. Levi winds up becoming a second father-figure for a boy named Emilio (who's supposed to be a reference to real-life revolutionary Elimiano Zapata), which makes you really hope that Levi becomes one of the survivors, especially since he's doing this for his family more than anything. Not just that, but Emilio actually is a rather smart kid, asking questions deep enough to make Chris, Max, & Levi repeatedly state that he "Asks too many questions," because they're questions about life, death, & honor that they don't want to think about. Granted, this is evened out by having Col. Diego be a blatant villain, & Lobero's greedy behavior makes you wonder why his men simply don't ditch him, so in the end Guns only matches Return, in my opinion... But I guess I'll have to choose one over the other when we get to the end of this piece, right?

The Magnificent Seven Ride!
Years have passed since the battle to save Quintero, & Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has gone on to become a U.S. Marshal in Arizona, as well as having recently gotten married to a woman named Arilla (Mariette Hartley). After saving his old friend Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) from an ambush, Chris is asked by Jim to help him protect a small border town called Magdalena from a bandit named Juan De Toro (Ron Stein); Chris declines, though, saying that he's moved on. A pardon Chris gives to a young thief named Shelly (Darrell Larson) comes back to bite him, though, when Shelly robs a bank, kidnaps, rapes, & kills Arilla, & then runs off in the direction of Magdalena. Chris vows to take revenge for his wife, only to get strung up in the battle with Del Toro, who left Magdalena with nothing but women & children. To protect them from the next raid, Chris gathers together one last form of the Seven. First is Noah (Michael Callan), a journalist who Chris agreed to let write an article about him, and the other five come from Tuscon's prison, with promises of pardons if they agree to help: Skinner (Luke Askew), a wild card gunner; Pepe (Pedro Armendáriz, Jr.), a Grade-A jerk; Walt (William Lucking), a quiet giant; and Scott (Ed Lauter) & Captain Andy (James Sikking), two former compatriots of Chris' whose violent actions got them jailed.

This movie pisses me off... And I almost feel like this piece of crap isn't worth explaining why it's so terrible, because doing so just reminds me of what was put to film. First & foremost, this movie is NOT a Magnificent Seven story whatsoever, and that's because the main character is Chris Adams in name only. This Chris only decides to actually do stuff once his wife is taken from him, and it's only because of cold blooded revenge... Especially when he & Noah find Arilla dead, with Noah telling Chris that she's been "used". Yes, this movie uses rape to accentuate something as overly used (even for the 70s) as a dead loved one; if this was the only time it was used, though, I would have given it a slight (if lazy) pass. However, the movie doubles down on the idea of rape, as when Chris & Noah arrive in Magdalena, a widower named Laurie (Stefanie Powers) outright says, "Oh, I hope none of us get pregnant!" when asked how the women are doing! Then you combine that with the fact that Chris & Laurie wind up falling in love with other, even though both widowers only lost their significant others only about a week or so ago by the end of the movie, and you start to realize just how exploitative this movie is, only it doesn't really reach the levels that exploitation films of its time went towards. Therefore, instead of feeling fun in an absurd way, it just feels mean & depressing.

This also applies to the Seven themselves, who are either utterly unlikable (Pepe) or simply there (Skinner, Scott, & Andy), with only Naoh & Walt coming off as actually likable & worth rooting for; hell, the Seven themselves even have issues liking each other, but with little to no improvements. Finally, the movie is just boring & badly paced, not to mention filled with red herrings in the first half. Shelly being Chris' reason to take action? He's killed off by Mackay off screen, and Mackay's group dies before Chris & Noah arrive in Magdalena. The movie tries to make Chris redeemable by having him take Mackay's job in return for Shelly being killed, but it's too late to care for him by then. Not just that, but it takes nearly half of the film for the situation in Magdalena to be properly established & for Chris to decide to make a new Seven, and even then creation of the Seven here is absolutely lazy & stupid. Seriously, I'm generally not one to board the "This movie offends me on a personal level!" train that seemingly most people online tend to do, but The Magnificent Seven Ride! is a really damn powerful exception.

This movie can just rot in Hell... And even that place seems too good for it.

Battle Beyond the Stars
The Malmori Empire, lead by the ruthless Sador (John Saxon), have come to the farming planet of Akir, with plans to conquer it. After showing a small example of their power, the Malmori say that they will return after a week to properly conquer the planet. An Akira named Shad (Richard Thomas) decides to try his luck & gather together some mercenaries to help fight back against Sador, & in the end comes back with six "forms" to assist the Akira: Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel), a young technology expert who has known nothing of the universe but the lab she has grown up in; Space Cowboy (George Peppard), an Earthling transporter who decides to give Shad his shipment of weapons, because Sador blew up the planet he was paid to transport to; Gelt (Richard Vaughn), a notorious mercenary who wants nothing more than "a meal and a place to hide"; Cayman (Morgan Woodward), the sole survivor of the lizard-like Zymer, who only joins in order to get revenge against Sador, who killed the rest of his kind; Nestor (Earl Boen, John Gowens, et al), a quintet of beings who act as a collective consciousness, who help out to stave off boredom; & St. Exmin (Sybil Danning), a member of the Valkyrie warrior race who wants nothing more than a good fight, & effectively forces herself onto the group.

After the horrible dreck that was the final Magnificent Seven movie, I needed something fun & enjoyable, like this Roger Corman production. Though it is heavily inspired by Akira Kurosawa's original film, even naming Shad's race & planet after the man himself, Battle Beyond the Stars simply uses Seven Samurai as a basic plot concept & does its own thing from the start, opposite of what The Magnificent Seven originally did. Because of that, I feel that this is the superior movie when compared to the Western classic, with the story by John Sayles (Passion Fish, Lone Star) being able to be its own work immediately. Every member of the group of seven here is immediately memorable, whether it's Shad changing from unsure pacifist to determined hero, Cowboy being a reliable hand (even if he doesn't really want to fight), Nestor taking advantage of its collective identity (like having one get captured, and when Sador has an arm grafted onto him, the other Nestor try to make Sador slit his own throat with it!), or Gelt always hiding a sense of a sad past deep within him. Yes, Robert Vaughn effectively plays the same character he had 20 years ago in The Magnificent Seven, Lee, but it's just different enough to not be a simple repeat. Not just that, but John Saxon plays an absolutely evil & detestable villain in Sador, so much so that you want to see him defeated, and his final scene is enjoyably cheesy.

Of course, in true Roger Corman fashion, this movie also acted as an early jumping point for some who are now notable names in the industry. There was John Sayles, who I mentioned earlier, but James Cameron was an art director here (& the environments are really damn good), George Peppard would later get his most iconic role as Hannibal in The A-Team, & music composer James Horner had his second ever film here, among other people. While it's not exactly the "Most Magnificent" of the Seven, Battle Beyond the Stars is easily the most fun of them all.

Oddly enough, though, this is the most fatalistic of all of these movies, with only two of the "Seven" surviving here... Well, that was unexpected.

The Magnificent Seven [2016]
When robber baron Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) gives the small frontier town of Rose Creek three weeks to sell the town to him, so that he can mine the nearby mountain clean, townsfolk Emma (Haley Bennett) & Teddy Q. (Luke Grimes) decide to find some people who can help them fight off Bogue & his forces. They wind up finding Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington), an African-American "duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas," who agrees to help, partially due to his own past with Bogue. To help out, Sam finds six more more to assist him: Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler/shooter who helped protect Sam during a bounty he was claiming earlier; Goodnight "Goody" Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a fellow warrant officer who is secretly haunted by his past as a Confederate soldier who fought in Antietam; Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a Korean immigrant whose gun & knife-throwing skills prompted Goody to make him his partner; Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican bounty of Sam's who's offered amnesty (at least towards Sam) in return for helping; Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), a legendary tracker who was famed for scalping Native Americans; & Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), an exiled but skilled Comanche warrior who the group comes across on their way back to Rose Creek.

Unlike John Sturgens' film, Antoine Fuqua's Magnificent Seven behaves more like Battle Beyond the Stars, i.e. it uses the same general concept as that of Seven Samurai, but overall doesn't try to copy it too much; Billy's introduction, however, is an outright copy of Britt's from Sturgens' film. The result of going in its own direction allows this film to, in my opinion, be better than the "original", and that's mainly because the Seven here lead by Washington are an overall better group that the one lead by Yul Brynner. Again, my biggest issue with the original Seven is that some of them don't come off as, to put it simply, "magnificent", whereas this (very multicultural) Seven all feel like heroes. Unlike Harry, who only joined the fight because of his own greedy delusions, a character like Goody is flawed & has reservations about actually fighting, but still joined up in the first place because he felt it was a cause worth fighting for; yes, Goody is more like Lee, but the point still stands. Granted, Fuqua's film is very much a popcorn flick more than anything, but the characters are well-intentioned & enjoyable, the writing is well done & witty, & the music (which sees James Horner return, in a tangential sense) is fittingly dramatic & tense when needed. You won't find anything original or different here (if anything, it might be a little "safe"), but it's still an enjoyable take on the concept, and the overall execution is still one of the best.
So, now that I've covered all seven of these films, how would I rank them? Remember, this is simply my opinion, and your's more than likely will differ. Anyway, let's finish this up by starting with the worst of them all:

The Magnificent Seven Ride!: A decent cast can't prop up a terrible & offensive script that goes against everything that The Magnificent Seven movies are about. It's shameful that it's even worthy of being a part of this list.

The Magnificent Seven [1960]: It more than deserves its status as a classic Western, and when it's copying Akira Kurosawa's original it's downright excellent. Unfortunately, the second half kind of drops the ball just enough to let the remaining films surpass it.

Return of the Seven: The replacement actors don't quite reach the quality of the originals, and the plot is a retread in some ways. Still, the rapport between the characters is good, the villain is given some depth, and it does advance the original concept in some fun ways.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven: George Kennedy doesn't follow up Yul Brynner in any way visually, but his take on Chris Adams is still very good, and the character does advance a bit, developmentally. Combine that with a rock solid cast for the Seven & another interesting use for the general concept, and this is actually my favorite of the original four films.

The Magnificent Seven [2016]: While it does pay a couple of obvious homages to both Seven Samurai & the original Magnificent Seven, this reimagining goes in its own direction, and for the better. An excellent ensemble cast, great action, & well done writing all help to make this the best film with the "Magnificent" titling.

Battle Beyond the Stars: The only film to truly take Kurosawa's original concept & do something very different with it, including technically having more than seven people join up... But who's counting? Sure, it's not the most technically sound of them all, but it's a total blast from start to finish, and an excellent example of the kind of concentrated fun that Roger Corman films are generally known for.

Seven Samurai: Sometimes, you just can't beat the original. Simply a masterclass in so many different ways, from filming to writing to pacing to dramatic flair, and the cast is filled with excellence; Toshiro Mifune is far from the only star here. It's a long film, to be sure, but it's also well worth the watch.

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