“Magnificent” (or any translation thereof) is a word that would never be used in Seven Samurai, a film peopled by reluctant warriors who are resigned in defeat and humbled in victory. The barely half-dozen men tasked with defending a beleaguered village from a band of roving marauders are said by their leader, Kaibei (Takashi Shimura), to just barely be enough to achieve their aim (the village elders were hoping for several more), and so the title itself comes to symbolize desperate hope in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. There’s hope, yes, but not much. As a response to, and surprisingly close westernization of, Akira Kurosawa’s rightly heralded epic, The Magnificent Seven fights an uphill battle in matching the scope and thrills of its source material. John Sturges’s take on the story thus becomes easier to appreciate when considered on its own terms, difficult though it may be to resist comparing the remake to its unrivaled predecessor. Sturges tackles similar ideas, but does so in a more valorizing, some might say simplistic, way, adding heroism where before there was mostly resignation. If it suffers from a relative lack of thematic depth as a result, it’s only because Sturges set out to highlight adventurous bravery rather than ruminate on slowly dying codes of honor. The film doesn’t mourn the passing of an era; it celebrates its heyday. By all accounts, it was enormously successful: The Magnificent Seven, which is as fun to watch as any other western, spawned three sequels and even a television series within two decades of its initial release.
Led by a reluctant leader (Yul Brynner) who sees such conflicts as this as largely zero-sum affairs, but nevertheless recognizes that his ability to set things right is one and the same with his ability to do the same, the freelance cowboys who are the film’s namesake ride into the unnamed Mexican village unexcited but ready. This isn’t a task he or any of his fellow gunslingers look forward to, but neither is it something they can turn a blind eye to and ignore. The Magnificent Seven is an examination not so much of the constant threat of evil looming over the villagers at the center of the film, but rather of the various reasons—money, duty, adventure, or even bloodlust—that motivate the previously indifferent men to help them defend themselves. “All that is necessary for evil to triumph is that good men do nothing” goes the adage; the seven take this sentiment as a call to arms. Sturges goes to great lengths in depicting the many was they occupy themselves in the lead-up to the film’s climactic battle, focusing on trepidation and even boredom rather than a misplaced sense of heroism. Bravery comes in many forms here, as Bernardo (Charles Bronson) is quick to point out; the villagers who, far from hapless victims, fight alongside the men they’ve hired are simply more used to carrying responsibilities than guns. The film draws a clear enough line in the sand between good and evil, but it’s also careful not to characterize its collective protagonists as overly gallant. Far from fearless, they’re separated from the village’s attackers by the requisite know-how to match their understanding of the fact that, though you can’t stop the flow of evil, you can at least reduce it to a trickle.
“If God didn’t want them sheared,” says Calvera (Eli Wallach), the banditos’ ringleader, in reference to the villagers, “he wouldn’t have made them sheep.” Here Sturges touches on his film’s embedded screed on the plight of the have-nots, a concern that, if not fully realized, keeps the more action-oriented scene in perspective. These villagers—almost none of whose names are mentioned, lending them anonymity in keeping with the fact that they’ve no prospects beyond remaining peasants for the rest of their days—are so wary of the outside world that they hide their women in anticipation of the hired cowboys’ arrival. Trust is hard-won in The Magnificent Seven, and the resultant harmony and goodwill (racial or even fraternal) is less kumbaya than a respectful understanding of one another wrought by a shared struggle.
Good and bad alike are felled in great numbers here, and, as with Seven Samurai, there’s ultimately uncertainty as to what so much bloodshed can truly amount to. The villagers’ cause is clearly a worthy one, and several men lay with no real stake in it willingly down their lives for it, but with no attempt to negotiate or understand both groups’ plight, the violence is often just that: death and dying. Fun (and glorified) as it sometimes is, The Magnificent Seven ends on a sober note which, though essentially a carbon copy of its cinematic forebear, does justice not only its source material, but, more importantly, its many dead.
Visually, the transfer is quite pleasing. Cinematographer Charles Lang's color palette is as vivid as it is varied, and faithfully preserved by 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment. There's something inherent to Blu-ray that makes the detailed-but-grainy aesthetic of older films enormously satisfying to absorb, and The Magnificent Seven is no exception. The same goes for depth of field and any number of other small details hard to notice on their own that, when they mesh as well with one another as they do here, come together to form a beautiful picture. There are, however, occasional lapses in quality, as if the odd frame here and there either wasn't fully processed or (more likely) the original print wasn't quite pristine to begin with. The audio is sufficient but not exactly exceptional, with the dialogue in particular being occasionally garbled. This issue has more to do with the mixing than with the 5.1 DTS HD master track, however, and so the music and sound effects are clear and robust.
Released on the occasion of the film's 50th anniversary (which was technically last year, but okay), this Blu-ray release of The Magnificent Seven is preceded by a region-free release put out last year, so many of these supplementary materials have been seen before. That said, Fox still offers quite a lot for die-hard fans and casual viewers alike. This includes: an audio commentary with James Coburn, Eli Wallach, and Walter Mirisch; a series of previously lost images from the film's recently recovered linen book, accompanied by a 15-minute piece detailing their discovery; original theatrical trailers; and a short featurette on Elmer Bernstein's iconic, Oscar-nominated score. Most worthwhile, however, is the making-of featurette. Key players in the film—actors, producers, and so on—as well as such seemingly random industry figures as Chazz Palminteri and John Carpenter touch on everything from the ways in which Seven Samurai was already something of a western (Kurosawa was, after all, an avowed fan of John Ford) to the enthusiasm and difficulty with which The Magnificent Seven was brought to the screen. To its credit, the 45-minute piece is more of a short-form documentary than a long-form promo and often quite informative.
It's no Seven Samurai, but The Magnificent Seven is worthy of the flag it waves.