The Magnificent Seven

"It was the beginning of the end of the great American Western," John Carpenter says of 1960's The Magnificent Seven, which he describes as the genre's "last hurrah" before television and Sergio Leone revamped it. It's hard to claim the classic American Western survived the '60s intact, but it went out on a high note. Well-crafted, star-driven entertainment doesn't come much better. But even as a Western, The Magnificent Seven is unusual. It adapts Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai—a film deeply inspired by American Westerns—and its stars include a Russian playing a Cajun and a German playing a Mexican. It's the kind of thriving mutt of a film only Hollywood could make.

Yul Brynner headlines the cast with a regal air as the first gunslinger enlisted to protect a Mexican village from a ruthless bandito (Eli Wallach, naturally). Soon to join him: Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn, all near the beginning of their careers. And director John Sturges gives them room to let their characters breathe. Though memorable action scenes erupt throughout, he smartly remembers that the samurai themselves made Kurosawa's original memorable. Probably the least-respected director to turn out a handful of classic films, Sturges stages the action with an eye toward the Panavision screen, but zooms in tight to capture Vaughn's angst at his failing powers and Bronson's reluctant friendship with three village boys who worship him. Sturges is no Kurosawa, but he makes Seven into the cinematic equivalent of a catchy cover tune that loses some of the original's depth, but adds a snap all its own.

The rollicking action leads to a not entirely happy ending, which, along with a deep ambivalence under the surface, anticipates Sam Peckinpah's Westerns. The film opens and closes with two of its protagonists acting to make the West safe for civilization, then turning their backs on it. Cowboys have no use for nice little towns, after all, and regardless of whether The Magnificent Seven capped the era of the great American Western, the genre has always had its own ending written for it.

Key features: This two-disc edition expands the 2001 disc, keeping an informative Coburn-narrated making-of and an engaging commentary with Coburn, Wallach, and others, while adding a sharp commentary by Western scholar Christopher Frayling.

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