Sunday, October 5, 2008


Although it's neither as classic as John Sturges' "The Magnificent Seven" (1960) nor as striking as Burt Kennedy's "Return of the Seven" (1966), director Paul Wendkos' "Guns of the Magnificent Seven" (*** out of ****) qualifies as a solidly-made, beautifully-lensed horse opera that takes our heroes south of the border again, but this time the seven are fighting with the peasants in a greater cause to topple a draconian political regime. "Cool Hand Luke" Oscar winner George Kennedy steps into Yul Brynner's boots as Chris who heads-up the septet in all four theatrical features. Mind you, Kennedy's a fine dramatic actor, but he looks miscast. He looks like he had a tough time getting around on-screen. His dialogue deliveries are letter-perfect and he looks rugged enough, but he lacks the charisma of a Saturday Matinée hero. He fared a lot better as the villain in "The Sons of Katie Elder." Meanwhile, this "Seven" differs in several respects from the first two. First, the end of the frontier and the decline of the gunfighter as a theme is never mentioned in Wendkos' "Seven." In "The Magnificent Seven," Chris tells Vin that they lost and the farmers won, while in "Return of the Seven," Chris refers to himself as 'damned.' Second, the heroes don't take time out to bitch about the tragic life of a gunfighter. They don't dissuade young Max from leading his people into the hills to continue the revolutionary struggle. Third, George Kennedy's Chris isn't as dark or as remorseful as Yul Brynner's Chris. Fourth, the inventive Herman Hoffman screenplay emphasizes elements usually found in the Spaghetti westerns of the day. This time around Chris and company dynamite a Mexican political prison and liberate a crusading leader of the revolution. Neither the peasants nor the bandits in the hills could have achieved this feat without the seven. Fifth, the ethnic composition of Wendkos' "Seven" has grown more complicated. Bernie Casey as Cassie emerges as the first African-American to appear in a "Seven" western, and the broad hint is that James Whitmore's Levi Morgan is Jewish. Sixth, a handicapped character joins the seven; Joe Don Baker plays Slater, an ex-Confederate soldier with a useless left arm, a character rarely seen in westerns but quite popular in martial arts epics, like Chen Chang's "One Armed Swordsman" (1967). Seven, though they are paid a hefty $100 for their services--they are the highest paid "Seven" in history, none of them collects a dime. George Kennedy and James Whitmore ride off without a word about their money. Eighth, the Mexican bandits that the seven fought in the first two films are now on their side and serve as the cavalry function. Ninth, this is the first "Seven" movie to employ a Gatling gun as a part of the villain's arsenal.

Chris gathers one of the least memorable line-up of characters in "Guns." Keno with his "No questions" motto is straight out of prison. Interestingly enough, he dresses a lot like the Steve McQueen character in "The Magnificent Seven." Cassie has been fired from a mining company where he used dynamite blast holes in the mountain so that the miners could dig ore. Slater puts on a marksman's act at a carnival and calls himself "half-man, half-gun." Levi has already settled down with a wife and a family but needs a new well. P.J., the most enigmatic of the crew, is a consumptive who dresses in black like Yul Brynner's Chris. Finally, Max is a mealy-mouthed Mexican twenthysomething who doesn't know the first thing about fighting but is willing to learn. There are no moral degenerates like Warren Oates' Colbee or suicidal maniacs Claude Atkins's Frank in "Return of the Seven." Unfortunately, the death scenes for the four ill-fated gunfighters aren't as memorable as those in the first two "Seven" movies. Slater appears to throw his life away and Cassie dies without getting his gun out of his holster. P.J.'s death scene is no great shakes either. Only Monte Markham's Keno achieves some dramatic statue in his demise.

Chris' first scene in town where the people are going to hang Keno (Monte Markham of "Hour of the Gun") for stealing a man's horse is a visual delight and a dramatic triumph. Wendkos uses clever camera set-ups to anticipate which person that the horse will inevitably respond to. The introduction even before that scene of the evil prison warden, Colonel Diego (played with slimy urbanity by veteran heavy Michael Ansara) is powerful. A prisoner is dragged into the warden's presence and deposited at his booted feet. We don't see Ansara at first; all we see is his ominous shadow hovering over the prisoner. The off-kilter camera angles in the shoot-out between Slater and the loud-mouthed cowboy enhance the dramatic tension of the showdown. Wendkos stages each of the gun battles with verve. The scene where Whitmore hits the tower guard with a knife in the back and the peasant that he has trained hits the same guard in the chest is good, too. The explosion that destroys the gates of the Rat Hole is composed so that we see the violence of it sweep across the screen from left to right is visually invigorating. The showdown between Chris and Colonel Diego compares favorably with the Yul Brynner & Eli Wallach showdown in "The Magnificent Seven." The chief difference is that whereas the Wallach villain couldn't understand why a man like Chris came back to such a lowly village, Colonel Diego believes that Chris is an indifferent mercenary who has no passion for the revolution and will allow Diego to live. The outcome of the Chris & Diego showdown, however, was sealed during the human rights violation scene where Diego let his soldiers gallop their horses around the prison yard where the tongue-tied inmates had buried up to their chins in the ground.

"Guns of the Magnificent Seven" is a good western, not as good as the first two "Seven" movies, but definitely better than "The Magnificent Seven Ride!"

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