When I first started writing this, I was going to do my typical review, but as this wore on, I realized some things. First, this is a shadow of Seven Samurai; second, that shadow isn’t quite as good. If you’re not aware, Seven Samurai is an Akira Kurosawa epic from 1954. Fun fact: it was also from Toho, who produced the Godzilla films. I guess I didn’t realize how extensive their library was. Anyway, Seven Samurai is the tale of some villagers being tormented by bandits who seek out the titular samurai to defend them. The film runs nearly four hours and is an emotional roller coaster. I highly recommend watching it if you haven’t already. To get the Magnificent Seven down to two hours, a lot was sacrificed. I’ve only watched Seven Samurai the one time, but it stuck with me.
This film starts by showing the bandit gang riding in to steal supplies. They also threaten the villagers and the leader guns down one of the townspeople who tries to charge him. There’s even a speech from the leader complaining that the church goers don’t tithe enough so he doesn’t get to steal as much! However, I feel like Seven Samurai did a lot more to develop the villagers as people. This film runs through that part in about ten minutes; I believe the samurai version ran a good thirty minutes or so. That extra time gets you engaged with them so you don’t just see them as fodder later in the film.
I don’t recall the bad guys in Seven Samurai, though. I’m not sure if they were just generic or overshadowed by the villagers and heroes. Here, Eli Wallach is a particularly good villain. His henchmen are kind of just there in the background, but at least he’s a decent bad guy.
Both films see the villagers go off to town in order to find some heroes to save them. In this case, the villagers arrive at a border town in time to witness Yul Brynner escort an Indian body up to the cemetery. Apparently, the local bigots don’t want him buried with their kind. The guy fell over and died in the street, but he can’t even get a decent burial. Yul’s character takes it upon himself to get the job done and Steve McQueen joins him to ride shotgun. The villagers see this and decide to go hit up Yul’s character for help. In turn, Steve McQueen’s guy gets recruited, as does Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and James Coburn. There is also the young guy, Horst Buchholz, who I’ve never seen in anything else. His career must not have gone far.
So the cast is pretty remarkable and while I’m not that versed on the western genre itself, I know enough to know this is a good collection of heroes. Brynner is definitely the leader of this outfit. McQueen is a bit more than the trusty sidekick to Brynner. I’d almost say they were double-billed. Bronson is the usual quiet, but violent, guy I’m used to seeing. James Coburn was unrecognizable to me. I’m used to old man Coburn from Mel Gibson’s Payback. Robert Vaughn was his usual cool character and Brad Dexter looked familiar, but I couldn’t think of anything else I’d seen him in.
The thing with Seven Samurai, is that it was long enough to really dig into the back stories of the various heroes. Magnificent Seven largely glosses over much of that. When Brynner’s character is asked where he’s from, he merely points. Then when asked where he’s going, he points again. There is a bit more details between him and McQueen’s character, but not a whole lot other than both are looking for the next thing to go do. Coburn’s character does get a bit of development where we see his throwing knife abilities, but that part gets left behind as soon as its done. In Seven Samurai, the one guy that was featured this way had more of a role in the big battle at the end. Coburn really doesn’t.
Charles Bronson gets to be the cool, quiet guy that the kids want to emulate. There are a couple good scenes in the big battle, but that’s about the extent of him. Brad Dexter participated. So that isn’t saying much. Most disappointing was Robert Vaughn. His character was kind of a coward, or maybe just shell shocked from all the violence he’d seen. So his guy does have a bit to do, but that gets squandered. I really felt like he needed to be more of a part of things. Then again, I just wanted to see more of him anyway. He was in quite a few TV shows I watched as a kid and I’ve always liked his style.
Horst Buchholz is very close to being the most developed character. In Seven Samurai, there was the young and inexperienced guy who was eager for action and wanted to be part of everything. Buchholz is that same guy here and he does well. I enjoyed his interaction with Brynner when he’s trying to join the group and his speech to the cowardly villagers was pretty well done. He also gets a decent share of the latter parts of the film ,too.
So the cast is good and the western backdrop is a fitting change from the samurai backdrop of the source material, but how does this fail? It’s just too short. There wasn’t nearly enough time to get invested in all the heroes. So we get short bits and explanations for them rather than a good feel for who that person is and that is why the nearly four hours you spend on Seven Samurai makes it the masterpiece it is. Time is spent there to invest you in the villagers and their plight. You get to know each of the heroes, their skills, and their motivations. The Magnificent Seven largely glosses over things to get going. That isn’t to say this is a bad movie. After all, we’re comparing a remake to an absolute masterpiece.
So far I’ve really beaten this thing up comparing to the original, but I think it’s time to go over its merits. First and foremost, I’ve already mentioned the cast. This seems like a who’s who of the western genre from the time period. I’d liken this cast to the Expendables of the modern age. The story borrows heavily from its source, but there is a bit of a twist after the first big battle in that the heroes here get captured. The bandit leader sees them as equals in the bandit game and decides to release them without their weapons. Of course, these are the good guys so they head out like they’re supposed to, but end up coming back and finishing things off. That part feels distinctly from a western.
When the credits rolled, I was satisfied. It really was a bit of a disappointment compared to Seven Samurai, however, and I feel that detracts from it. I expected a bit more of a rubber stamp of the source material; however, the twist worked well. I’m glad to see that it has its own identity. All in all, I give this one 3.5/5 stars. The Magnificent Seven is a decent cowboy film for sure, but I think it could have used a lot more character development.