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January 22, 2008 |

By Miscellaneous | Film | January 22, 2008 |

Seven men, all killers by profession. Warriors whose time was coming to a close. All of them searching for meaning in their lives.

A small village of farmers and their families. Men and women of the land, all trying to find a way to survive one more season.

A gang of ruthless bandits, parasitically feeding off of the farmers while holding them in disdain.

We all know the story by now. The warriors are hired by the desperate villagers to rid them of the bandits, as one would call an Orkin Man to free a home of fire ants. The warriors find a new purpose, and reluctantly allow themselves to feel a connection with the townspeople. Trust gives way to betrayal, and that gives way to heroism and sacrifice.

It is a classic story, told many a time over and never losing its meaning. It is the story of a movie that was born of a great film, and became a classic in its own right. It is the story of The Magnificent Seven, the movie I chose for Classics Week.

But I have a confession to make.

Before this past weekend, I had never seen The Magnificent Seven. Or the original Seven Samurai, either.

I mean, I had heard about them, and understood the basics. I had read several critiques and analyses and reviews. I knew that it was the inspiration of such directors as John Carpenter and Lawrence Kasdan. I even knew it was the movie Three Amigos was spoofing.

But I had never seen it before.

My reason? I was scared of it. I was afraid I would hate it. I mean, who am I to say The Magnificent Seven sucked? This is a classic piece of cinema, and I was scared its grandeur would be ruined for me. But when given a chance to face said fear and finally watch it, I took it gladly. And now, several hours and four straight viewings later, I don’t regret my decision a bit.

It was like a harmonic convergence, planets coming into alignment as you saw the actors come on screen. I mean, look at this lineup: Yul Brynner playing Chris Adams, the stoic leader of the seven gunmen, all decked out in black. Steve McQueen as Vin, Chris’ right-hand man and sly jokester of the group, his face speaking the volumes the script did not. Charles Bronson filling the role of Bernardo O’Reilly, the reluctant brother figure to a trio of village boys, admiring the villagers for their sacrifices. James Coburn as the mysterious Britt, a master of both gun and knife, which did all the conversing he needed. Robert Vaughn in the role of Lee, a wanted man who feels his best days are behind him. Brad Dexter as the conniving Harry Luck, who likes to think he was only out for the money, but by the film’s climax showed his true colors. And even the relative newcomer Horst Buchholtz as Chico, the wannabe gunfighter, whose prejudice covers a deep shame. If you didn’t get a twitch in your nethers watching these guys at work, you were either lying or an asexual paramecium made to look human.

(Mini-Diversion: who would you cast in a hypothetical modern version? I have a few guesses as to who might dominate, but I would rather here it straight from the Eloquents.)

The script, penned by many hands but currently credited to William Roberts, was economical and utilitarian. Few actual words were uttered, and those that were present didn’t waste time, but both propelled the plot and strengthened the personalities of the characters. Even such unscripted and seemingly unrelated events, such as Chico pretending to bullfight a milking cow, managed to put personal flourishes on these character that helped connect them to the viewer.

This movie succeeded where so many other remakes failed, and the reason for this is so dirt simple, it’s amazing so few seem to get it: true love and respect for the source material. Nearly everyone involved with the picture had seen Seven Samurai several times, and loved every frame of it. Many of the cast and crew made it a point to meet Kurosawa, and the script was practically a full English translation of the original. They were not in it to make a quick buck, or to “improve” on a classic. They did it because they wanted to be in that movie, but they couldn’t. There were lawsuits filed and friendships tested, and Steve McQueen even wrecked his car in order to fake an injury (so that he could film the movie while “out sick” from his television show). That was how much dedication and emotion was put into this movie. Have you ever heard of anyone willing to do that nowadays, putting their own health on the line, just so they could be in a movie that had no guarantee of being successful?

If Magnificent Seven ended up even half as well as Samurai, they would have been ecstatic. Everyone involved wanted to be in a great movie and that desire and love came forth in the celluloid. True, there was some showboating and goofing around (McQueen in particular), but they never let it get in the way of the story. Even when the Mexican government sent censors to change the scripts (so that the villagers wouldn’t seem as pathetic and so in need of the Americans’ help), the story was so strong, it survived their edits, and in some ways made even stronger.

The issue of adaptations of popular works has been discussed extensively here. One excellent point made was that a film adapted from another medium, such as a book, should be viewed differently than the source. One could not truly judge a film by the same standards as the book it is based on, due to the different ways the story is told to the audience. As long as the film was accurate to the spirit of the book, if not the letter, then it can be considered a good adaptation. Well, the same should be said for remakes as well. And, I would add that a truly great adaptation should stoke curiosity in the material, and Magnificent Seven does that in spades.

True, there are some differences between The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai, and there are going to be folks that feel that those differences, plus the fact it is an American remake, are grounds for dismissal. But the spirit was still there, making it in my opinion the best remake ever. And coming from a neophyte, it is a great film all on its own. Besides, if it was good enough for Akira Kurosawa, it is more than enough for me.

Claude Weaver III, aka Vermillion, is a mild-mannered college student and part-time flame-war diplomat. Due to the confusing feelings that arose seeing so much awesome MAN in this movie, he has entered rehab. He promises to give Isaiah Washington a punch in the face. You can read more of his ramblings on his sometimes-updated blog, Vermillion’s Brain Receptacle.

Best Remake Ever?

The Magnificent Seven / Claude Weaver III

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