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Featured Blu-ray Review: The Magnificent Seven and Return of the Magnificent Seven

September 10th, 2011

The Magnificent Seven - Blu-ray: Buy from Amazon and Return of the Magnificent Seven - Blu-ray: Buy from Amazon

At the beginning of August, the first two installments in the The Magnificent Seven franchise arrived on Blu-ray. It took a while for the screeners to arrive and they showed up at the same time as the first two installments in Sergio Leone's The Man with No Name Trilogy on Blu-ray. There are a few similarities between the two franchises, hence the cut and paste job at the beginning. I enthusiastically recommended the earlier movies, so does this mean I will do the same here?

The Magnificent Seven

One of the first similarities between the two franchises is their origins. The first installment in both films are remakes of Akira Kurosawa films, in this case Seven Samurai.

The film begins with Calvera and his gang raiding a small Mexican village and vowing to return to steal more money and food. The townsfolk don't know what to do. Some think they should leave, some think they should just bear the extra burden, but the wise old man of the village says they should fight. Desperate to defend themselves, three of the villagers travel into town to sell what little valuables they have to buy guns. There they meet Chris Adams, who suggests instead of buying guns and ammunition, they hire gunslingers like himself to defend the town. It would be cheaper and they would be skilled fighters and not novices. They still can't pay a lot of money, so it's hard for him to recruit a large force and in total only seven men agree to defend their town. Chris Adams is the leader. The first to join is Harry Luck, and old friend of Chris's who's convinced there's a lot more money at stake. Why else would Chris agree to help seemingly poor farmers? Vin's a gambler with debts to pay. Bernardo O'Reilly is a high priced mercenary who has faced long odds in the past. Normally he's paid hundreds of dollars for his service, but he's so short on cash that he's willing to take $20, just the same as the rest of them. Britt's not as much of a gunslinger as he is a good with a knife, but he's really, really good with a knife. Lee's got a past, one that's he's running from. Finally there's Chico, who's young and courageous with a lot to prove, but that's a dangerous combination. And Chris doesn't think he's fit to join the group. Eager to prove himself, he follows them into the village, even if he's uninvited.

They know they will be outnumbered by a large margin and will face off against 30 bandits and the villagers will not be able to help in battle. But, they think they will be able to avoid a life and death final confrontation. They think that once they show Calvera he's in for a fight, he'll just back off and find another village to plunder. The first fight seems to confirm their strategy as the right one, as Calvera and his bandits retreat after just a brief exchange. Bernardo, being part Mexican as well as part Irish, is able to blend in with Calvera's men and sneaks into their camp to learn their plans. But what he learns is not good news. Calvera's men are just as poor as the villagers and they too are close to starving. If they don't get the food from the village, they too are finished. When the villagers learn the bandits are willing to fight to the death, their will to fight wavers and Chris realizes they will have to do something quick, before the villagers lose faith.

The similarities between this film and Fistful of Dollars extends to its quality. Director John Sturges had a long career making movies and by the time he filmed The Magnificent Seven, he was very experienced with the genre. (In fact, he had recently earned an Oscar nomination for Bad Day at Black Rock.) He manages to take the setup of the original film and translate it into the western genre with ease. He was blessed with an impressive cast. Of the eight main cast members, four were nominated for an Oscar during their careers, while Yul Brynner and James Coburn both won. Because there are so many leading men in the film, there's not a lot of time to introduce the characters and give them a lot of depth, but the script is skillfully written so each character is given enough to stand out. The pacing is also strong, for the most part. It's a little choppy as the team is assembled, but considering the number of characters that needed to be introduced and and how quickly, this is not a terrible shock. Once the climactic battle starts, it's packed with action that still stands up today, for the most part. (The action scenes sometimes lack tension and are too frenetic instead.) Finally, the Elmer Bernstein score is great. It's no surprise that he earned one of his 14 Oscar nominations for this film.

It's not as good as Fistful of Dollars is, but it is still a great example of the genre.

The Extras

Extras start with an audio commentary track with Walter Mirisch, one of the producers; Eli Wallach; Calvera; James Coburn, Britt; and Robert Relyea, assistant director. There's good chemistry between the participants and there's plenty of information and on location anecdotes shared. Guns for Hire is a 47-minute long making of featurette. There's a 15-minute featurette on Elmer Bernstein, who composed the score for this film and its sequel. The Linen Book is an 15-minute featurette on the MGM archives that were kept in a salt mine. Huh? I guess it kind of makes sense, as there's very little moisture and no direct sunlight, and those are the biggest threats to photographs and other documents. It just sounds weird.

Looking at the video and audio quality, I was pleasantly surprised. The film is 50 years old, so there are some problems with the print such as the occasional shot that's a little soft or has a little too much grain. (This is especially noticeable in transitions.) However, for the most part, the level of detail is high, the colors are strong, and this is easily the best it has looked in a long time. The audio is not quite up to that level. The dialog is front and center and for the most part clear. The surround sound speakers are used mostly for random gunshots and the score. It's solid, but uncomplicated.

Finally we get to the price, which is just $12.99. This is an excellent price for a catalog title.

Return of the Magnificent Seven

Return of the Magnificent Seven is a bit of a misnomer, as not only do half the characters die off in the first movie, but the only cast member that returns is Yul Brynner. Unfortunately, in order to talk about the plot of this film, I do have to spoil some of the plot of the first movie. So if you haven't seen the first film, skip the next part.

Here be spoilers! In the first film, all but Chris, Vin, and Chico are killed. After the battle, Chris and Vin ride off, but Chico sticks around and marries one of the women from the village, Petra.

The film begins with Chico still living in the small Mexican village with Petra. When bandits ride into town and kidnap all of the men, his wife goes off to find the rest of the survivors of the Magnificent Seven, Chris and Vin, and asks them to assemble a new team to rescue her husband. They of course agree and go about assembling their team. The first man they recruit is Frank, an old acquaintance of Chris who is prison for killing four gunfighters. While buying Frank's release, he meets another prisoner, Luis Emilio Delgado, a famous bandit who is condemned to firing squad first thing in the morning. He's killed dozens of men during his crimes, but his only regret is that he will be executed for killing just one man. It's an insult. Next up is Colbee, whom Chris sees escaping from a vengeful husband after Colbee was caught with the man's wife. He agrees to join after he hears about a village full of women and no husbands. Finally, there's Manuel, a cocky would-be bullfighter who is actually the first of the new recruits Chris and Vin see. Before Petra shows up, he jumps into a bullfight. He agrees to join after Chris saves him from a fight. If you count Chico, that makes seven.

Chris and the men ride in search for the missing villagers and discover they were kidnapped by Francisco Lorca, a rich rancher. He's using the men to rebuild a village in honor of his sons, who were killed fighting bandits in this spot years ago. Initially Chris and his men are able to get the jump on Lorca and his men and run them out of town without any bloodshed. But it isn't long before they return, and while the new Magnificent Seven are ready, the captured prisoners have no will to fight.

I mentioned that The Magnificent Seven franchise and The Man with No Name Trilogy had a few similarities. They also have some major difference. Prime among those difference is the quality of the sequels. While The Man with No Name Trilogy kept getting better as the series went on, there is a massive drop-off in quality from the classic The Magnificent Seven to this film. With The Return of the Magnificent Seven, there are very few elements that are even close to on par with the original. Elmer Bernstein's score is one of them, as is Yul Brynner's acting. (Although he has much less to work with in this movie.) Aspects of the first film that I had issues with are even worse here. The choppy nature of gathering the team feels even less organic here. Most of the characters have little depth, and lack of depth was a problem before. The action is shot in a competent way, but has even less style and isn't able to build any tension, even more so than in the first film. They do try to compensate with pyrotechnics, but it doesn't work. The main villain doesn't have the same charisma as before, which is arguably the biggest let down here.

The weakness in the movie is amplified by the fact that it is practically a remake of the original. It is impossible to watch this movie and not compare it to the first film, and since it is weaker in nearly every regard, it's better just to watch the original again.

The Extras

The only extra on the Blu-ray is a trailer, and I don't even consider that a real special feature.

The transfer has a lot of the same problems as the first one. It's an old movie, so there are some problems with print damage, but nothing too distracting. Transitions are strangely blurry at times. The scene will suddenly turn blurry and a fraction of a second later there will be a scene change, it will remain blurry for another fraction of a second, and then it will be clear again. These changes are quite abrupt. There's also an inconsistency with details, colors, black levels, etc. Some scenes look amazing, but are then right next to other scenes that are soft with muted colors. The audio is uncomplicated and doesn't have the full range I would expect. It needed a bit more bass, for instance, while the surround sound speakers are underutilized.

The Blu-ray is cheap at $12.99, but it is also a bare bones catalog release, so I wouldn't want to spend more than $10 on the disc.

The Verdict

The Magnificent Seven was released on a Box Set earlier this year and if you love all four films, it's the better deal. However, I think The Magnificent Seven is the only one worth owning and Return of the Magnificent Seven is weak enough, and similar enough, that it's only worth a rental if you are a fan of some of the new cast. Otherwise, just watch The Magnificent Seven one more time.

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