The Magnificent Seven Franchise: A Retrospective (1960-2016)
The Magnificent Seven is one of the all-time great American Westerns and as we all know is a remake of Seven Samurai from Akira Kurosawa. It spawned various sequels, a TV series and even a remake in 2016 so while we’re still in lockdown I decided to go through the entire series and do a retrospective. So put on your finest oversized cowboy hat, saddle up your horse and prepare to be bored as I ramble on about the epic Western series.
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Plot: A Mexican village is at the mercy of Calvera, the leader of a band of outlaws. The townspeople, too afraid to fight for themselves, hire seven American gunslingers to free them from the bandits’ raids. The professional gunmen train the villagers to defend themselves, then plan a trap for the evil Calvera.
As I mentioned above The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai; Yul Brynner was interested in buying the rights as he saw the potential in making Seven Samurai into a Western and he was right but there were all kinds of behind the scenes issues with this film. One of them being Anthony Quinn was initially meant to star but didn’t get it and he ended up suing Brynner and ultimately losing. The DVD has a fascinating documentary about the making of the film and even features interviews with the likes of John Carpenter making it even more of a must-see.
Directed by John Sturges The Magnificent Seven has arguably the best Western cast ever including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Eli Wallach.
Eli Wallach could be relied upon to play a memorable villain and Calvera is one of my personal favourites as he wasn’t being totally unreasonable. He wasn’t exactly a good guy, but he showed mercy allowing our seven heroes the option to walk away from the village after a nighttime ambush caught them off guard. He had a far bigger role than the antagonist of Seven Samurai and is frankly more interesting as a character.
Yul Brynner brings his usual quiet authority as Chris Larabee Adams, the leader of our group and he is as charismatic as ever; he is younger than his counterpart Kambei Shimada in Seven Samurai, but it works for this tale so he gets plenty of action.
There was apparently a huge amount of testosterone on the set which shouldn’t come as a surprise as everyone was trying to one up each other. Horst Buchholz (who played Chico) didn’t seem to have many kind words about Steve McQueen who sounded like he behaved like an ass on the set but he was Steve McQueen… so it’s fine. The cast were for the most part just starting out in their careers so this was their big break and it’s hard to pick a standout but as Charles Bronson is my all time favourite actor then I have to go with him.
The story of Seven Samurai translates well into a Western with a lot of character traits and arcs still intact. The script still holds up today with some classic dialogue like Coburn’s “I was aiming for the horse” (recently referenced in The Mandalorian) but my favourite line is of course Bronson’s “I’m an eccentric billionaire” which makes me laugh every time. I’ve seen this movie a million times and yet it still bothers me that Bronson dies at the end. It’s an outrage!
Coming along towards the end of the “Great American Western” period The Magnificent Seven proved there was still life in the genre yet giving us memorable characters and rather than glorifying their lifestyle it’s a morality tale on the gunslinger and how they essentially have nothing – no wives, no children and no enemies… alive which was also one of the primary themes of Seven Samurai.
It is a little slowburn for the first half but the sheer magnetism of the cast shines through so you can never take your eyes off the screen. There are still several shoot-outs and the finale is suitably epic but it’s not entirely a happy ending with Brynner stating “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose” once again similar to the final line in Seven Samurai. By the time the end credits roll the life of the gunslinger seems a little less glamorous and demonstrates the realism of what it would have been like.
In terms of personality nobody quite matches Toshirô Mifune’s Kikuchiyo who stole the show in Seven Samurai with his antics but I feel like it would have maybe not worked with the tone of this movie.
The theme from Elmer Bernstein is so iconic that any time you hear it you just immediately think of the Wild West. It’s the theme tune that is arguably the most recognisable of the genre only matched by Ennio Morricone’s work.
Overall, The Magnificent Seven still stands out as one of the greatest Westerns of all-time with a winning cast, memorable dialogue and a surprising tone which was different from a lot of American Westerns at the time. If you’ve never seen The Magnificent Seven then it needs to be on your bucket list as it’s a classic.
Return of the Seven (1966)
Plot: After Calvera’s defeat in The Magnificent Seven (1960), the love-smitten member of the original Seven, Chico, has started a family with his wife, Petra, in the now-liberated Mexican village. Three peaceful years later–as sixty gunmen of the tyrannical rancher, Lorca, round up the farmers to construct a church and a monument for his two dead sons–once more, it’s up to Chris to assemble a septet of protectors and defend the villagers. However, can the new Magnificent Seven do the impossible and restore peace?
Yul Brynner is the only cast member to return for this sequel and although it lacks the star power of the first Magnificent Seven it’s still very well paced and has more action than its predecessor.
The character of Chico returns but is now played by Julián Mateos and he has matured into a responsible man after playing a reckless (and usually drunk) young man in the first movie. Robert Fuller also takes over the role of Vin which was played by Steve McQueen in the original. It is a little jarring to have these characters come back and then have totally actors play them but you do get used to it and it does after all happen a lot with movie franchises.
Although set in the same village as the first film this was actually filmed in Spain whereas the first was in Mexico but due to the interference of the censors it was easier for them to make it in Spain.
The villain named Lorca is played by Emilio Fernández and is almost sympathetic once again as he lost his sons and wants to rebuild a church in their honour; there is more to it than that but it makes him feel a little more human even if his methods aren’t exactly nice.
Other new cast members include Warren Oates, Claude Atkins and Virgilio Teixeira; they all bring their own personalities to their respective characters but you do miss Bronson, McQueen and Coburn.
At 95 minutes long this is a much shorter movie which helps keep the pacing brisk and there is a shoot-out every few minutes so it’s never dull for a moment.
Elmer Bernstein returns to give us more of that classic theme tune which is every bit as thrilling as it was in the first picture.
Storywise it’s more of the same and doesn’t offer anything new to the genre; the script also lacks the memorable dialogue and spark but it has its moments.
There is a glaring goof early on during the bullfighting scene when the animal is killed it cuts and you don’t see the body anywhere around the bullfighter which was always a little jarring.
Overall, The Return of the Seven is far better paced than The Magnificent Seven with a lot more action but you do miss that iconic cast making it a little more forgettable.
Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969)
Plot: When Quintero (Fernando Rey), a Mexican revolutionary leader, is left to rot in jail by the forces of President Diaz, it’s up to his subordinate, Max (Reni Santoni), to bust him out. With $600 in hand, he crosses the border into America and hires Chris Adams (George Kennedy), a mercenary of considerable skill, who uses the rest of the cash on more hired guns. After the team is rounded out by experts on close-combat fighting, explosives and knife-throwing, they set off to free Quintero.
Guns of the Magnificent Seven is another entertaining entry sticking to the familiar formula of the previous movies: we’ve got a small village in trouble and Seven heroes are brought in to save the day.
George Kennedy takes over from Yul Brynner in the role of Chris and despite not quite matching Brynner’s intensity he makes the role his own. Chris is very sympathetic and Kennedy always looked the part in Westerns. The rest of the Magnificent Seven are all new characters with a cast that includes James Whitmore as Levi, Reni Santoni as Max, Monte Markham as Keno, Joe Don Baker as Slater, Scott Thomas as P.J. and Bernie Casey as Cassie.
The two standouts here are Bernie Casey as Cassie and Joe Don Baker as the one-armed Slater; they start out generally disliking each other as Slater makes racist comments to Cassie who is sick ad tired of being treated like a second-class citizen. As the story progresses the two bond a little and get a better understanding of each other.
Levi is the loveable grandfatherly character who becomes a surrogate parent for the young Emil (Tony Davis) whose father has been taken prisoner. Emil has some of the best lines asking questions like “how old do you have to be when you die?” which leaves Chris dumbfounded.
Michael Ansara is the most hateful villain to date as the sadistic Col. Diego; this time he isn’t someone you can empathise with as he is simply a monster. He buries prisoners in the sand and gets his men to trample them with their horses in one of the most shocking scenes of the franchise. The tone is generally darker and by the end you are left wit very little as Diego is stopped but the price was high.
As much as I love to hear Elmer Bernstein’s theme tune at times it feels a little out of place; there is a scene when the Seven ride up and see a group of villagers hanging from poles dead. They started in disgust for a moment then the jaunty music starts up and it feels rather jarring. It’s like they are saying “oh well, never mind”.
There are the usual impressive gunfights and the finale leaves quite the bodycount so there is still plenty for us action fans to enjoy. It’s well paced and each of the characters gets a moment to shine but I do wish a few more survived…
Overall, Guns of the Magnificent Seven is another sold entry in the franchise with George Kennedy bringing his own personality to the character of Chris; you do miss Yul Brynner but the rest of the cast are awesome especially Joe Don Baker and Bernie Casey.
The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972)
Plot: Erstwhile gunslinger Chris Adams (Lee Van Cleef) has put his rowdy days behind him, settling down with a wife (Mariette Hartley) and serving as the sheriff of his town in the Arizona territory. So when his old pal Jim Mackay (Ralph Waite) asks for help defending the border town of Magdalena, Mexico, from a marauding bandit named De Toro, Chris refuses. It’s only after De Toro’s gang kidnaps Chris’s wife that he changes his mind, enlisting a cutthroat gang of prisoners to help him.
The fourth and final Magnificent Seven movie (before the remake) this time has the legendary Lee Van Cleef taking over the role of Chris; I’m not sure why they can’t just make him a different character as there aren’t many connections to the original at this stage. By now Chris has retired from his gunslinging days and is a Sheriff of a small town living a quiet life with his wife. This doesn’t last long however, when his wife is kidnapped, raped and murdered so Chris sets out to find the man responsible and his cutthroat crew.
The Magnificent Seven Ride! makes a few changes to the usual formula with Chris teaming up with untrustworthy criminals that have their own reasons for hating him; this gives the film an underlying tension as you wonder if/when someone will try something. Chris is always one step ahead of his enemies and of course comes out unscathed but as usual it’s only him and a couple of the others that survive.
The villain De Toro (Ron Stein) only shows up for the final showdown so he is shrouded in mystery, but his reveal is rather anti-climactic making him a non-entity and not remotely memorable.
The supporting cast this time includes (a sadly underused) Ralph Waite, Michael Callan, Luke Askew, Ed Lauter, Stefanie Powers, Pedro Armendáriz Jr., William Lucking and a young Gary Busey in a small role.
This is Lee Van Cleef’s show as no one matches him for sheer screen presence in this movie; his confident swagger and effortless stoicism shine in every scene and I like that he genuinely doesn’t want to get involved but forces beyond his control make it inevitable.
There are the usual shoot-outs and the finale is filled with explosions and gunfire making for a suitably bloody climax to the series.
Elmer Bernstein’s score is starting to get repetitive at this stage, but I still love it and any time the crew are riding on horseback it’s hard not to get swept up in it all.
As this came out in 1972 it is that bit gritter using lots of blood squibs and it has a tougher edge making it the darkest of the franchise.
Overall, The Magnificent Seven Ride! lacks a memorable antagonist but Lee Van Cleef chews the scenery and there is no shortage of action making this another entertaining entry in the franchise.
The Magnificent Seven: TV Series (1998–2000)
Plot: Seven men from the western United States band together and form the law in a town that, for better or for worse, needs their protection from the lawlessness of the west.
There was a TV series of The Magnificent Seven which ran from 1998-2000 and it starred the legendary Michael Biehn as Chris (Yul Brynner’s character in the original movie), Eric Close as Vin (played by Steve McQueen in the original) and a supporting cast that includes Ron Perlman, Laurie Holden, Dale Midkiff, Rick Worthy and Anthony Starke.
Although some of it is very 90’s and comes off as quaint at times (especially some of the humour) the TV series is surprisingly entertaining with each episode working like a mini movie. Biehn is perfectly cast as Chris and makes him tough as nails and not someone to trifle with but he will help people out when he sees them in trouble.
What I like is aside from Vin and Chris the majority of other characters weren’t in the original movie we have some from Return of the Seven and Guns of the Magnificent Seven so the creators of the show are clearly fans of the movies.
There is some fun banter between the cast but it also isn’t afraid to show the racism of the time period making it grittier and more believable than you’d first expect. It also has a decent bodycount and impressive production values with lots of shoot-outs and action scenes.
There are several nods to the original series of movies like having Robert Vaughn (who was Lee in the original movie) play a Judge and he showed up for 6 episodes. We also have Ed Lauter make an appearance and he played Scott Elliot in The Magnificent Seven Ride.
Other great guest stars include Kurtwood Smith as a crazed Civil War Colonel, Art LaFleur, Tim Thomerson, Brion James, Brad Dourif and many more.
The classic theme tune returns although it’s admittedly a crappy synth version which never matches the lofty heights of Elmer Bernstein but this was a TV series so it’s understandable there would be a lower budget.
I was reading on IMDB that “an Internet fan campaign was partly responsible for CBS’ decision to renew this series. A team of fans organized and coordinated their efforts through a Web site, recruiting the internet fandom in e-mailing CBS executives and affiliates and raising $5,000 of their own money for ads in Variety and USA Today thanking the producers, the cast, and the extended crew members. Patti Kleckner, a Chicago-based fan, who was part of the team who organized the campaign, offered her services as a contact on behalf of the effort. She was offered a free trip to California by executive producer John Watson to make her television debut with a walk-on part in the “New Law” episode which started the second season.” That’s quite an awesome story and it’s nice to see companies like CBS actually pay attention to the fans.
Overall, The Magnificent Seven TV series may seem a little 90’s at times but Michael Biehn’s effortless cool and near constant stream of fantastic guest stars make it a fun watch. The action is well done and every episode climaxes with an epic shoot-out.
The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Plot: Looking to mine for gold, greedy industrialist Bartholomew Bogue seizes control of the Old West town of Rose Creek. With their lives in jeopardy, Emma Cullen and other desperate residents turn to bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) for help. Chisolm recruits an eclectic group of gunslingers to take on Bogue and his ruthless henchmen. With a deadly showdown on the horizon, the seven mercenaries soon find themselves fighting for more than just money once the bullets start to fly.
It feels like every generation gets a new iteration of this tale; from Seven Samurai to the original Magnificent Seven, then the various sequels, TV series and now the most recent version from action maestro Antoine Fuqua the tale of seven men who are willing to sacrifice themselves for the good of others is an idea that will always be relevant.
I remember thoroughly enjoying this 2016 remake the first time I watched it and it’s still entertaining, but it is a little soulless and strangely forgettable never quite reaching the heights of the 1960 classic. It still has one of the best casts of recent times including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Vincent D’Onofrio, Ethan Hawke, Byung-Hun Lee, Cam Gigandet, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Peter Sarsgaard and Martin Sensmeier.
It’s beautifully shot with some spectacular sweeping vistas and moves along at a brisk pace rarely slowing up. That is actually one of the film’s biggest problems is that a lot of the interesting moments were left on the cutting floor including a wonderful scene between D’Onforio and Pratt where they talk about faith; then we have another scene with Manuel Garcia-Rulfo reprimanding a boy who called his father a coward. You’ll remember Charles Bronson had this scene in the original so I’m baffled as to why it was cut as once again it would have added a little more depth to it.
I liked how the cast all played different characters from the 1960 movie, so it wasn’t just a direct remake; it was respectful and referenced a few lines of dialogue but did enough that was new to keep things fresh.
One of my favourite characters was Jack Horne played by the consistently reliable Vincent D’Onofrio; he’s a man of faith with a high-pitched voice and mountain man demeanor but comes across as surprisingly gentle… unless you’re his enemy.
Byung-Hun Lee’s coolness should never be underestimated, and he is the most badass character using knives as his weapon of choice.
Chris Pratt essentially takes over the Steve McQueen role playing a character named Josh Faraday; he had a few funny lines but wasn’t the one-liner spewing comic relief which he regularly portrays. I liked how he still had the “so far, so good” line from the original.
Ethan Hawke’s awesomely named Goodnight Robicheaux feels like a mixture of several characters and although his story is a little predictable, he is never less than magnetic and is one of the most under appreciated actors working today.
Denzel Washington is never bad in anything and Sam Chisolm is essentially the Chris character (Yul Brynner) from the original; he has his own reasons for agreeing to this mission and wanting to take down Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard).
The story is a little different from the original but Bogue is your typical one note Western villain; Peter Sarsgaard never disappoints however, and always makes for a menacing presence even if he doesn’t have much to do. Watching him get what he deserves at the end is incredibly satisfying.
The score features ethereal choirs and hints of the original classic theme tune but for some reason we don’t hear the main theme until the end credits which is the biggest failure of this movie. The theme is literally the most iconic thing about The Magnificent Seven so felt like a missed opportunity. I find with so many filmmakers these days they either forget or just don’t care about the importance of the music score.
Antoine Fuqua has always been masterful at shooting action sequences and The Magnificent Seven is plentiful in that department; whereas the original is more slowburn, this wastes no time with getting to the shoot-outs and the movie is pleasingly violent too. I don’t think anyone will find the climactic battle disappointing as it keeps things old-fashioned. Despite looking very modern and glossy it still feels like a classic Western doing the majority of explosions practically too which is always a plus.
Overall, The Magnificent Seven may be a little less engaging than the 1960 classic but the cast are all clearly enjoying themselves; the action scenes are genuinely spectacular and arguably the best of the entire franchise. It’s too bad the theme tune is underused but considering how much I’ve heard it over the past few weeks that’s probably for the best as my brother is ready to kill me now if he hears it ever again.
So that was my lengthy retrospective on The Magnificent Seven franchise; it has always been consistently entertaining and has themes of courage and honour that will never go out of fashion so I imagine it’s only a matter of time before we get a new entry for the next generation.