Thursday, October 2, 2008
FILM REVIEW OF ''RETURN OF THE SEVEN" (1966)
No, Burt Kennedy's "Return of the Seven" (***1/2 out of ****) doesn't surpass the classic John Sturges western "The Magnificent Seven." Remember, however, the Sturges film itself constituted a remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's "The Seven Samurai." First, I contend that "The Magnificent Seven" is one of the top ten best westerns. Second, I get a kick out of watching "Return of the Seven" for its own modest virtues. This sagebrusher came about as a result of the sequel craze that hit Hollywood in the early 1960s. After the tension on the set of "The Magnificent Seven" with Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen refused to play second fiddle again to 'the King.' Anyway, McQueen's star was ascending, while Brynner's stardom was going into eclipse. The theatrical title of the Kennedy film is important, too, because it is "Return of the Seven" with the omission of the adjective "Magnificent." Indeed, Brynner is the only one who made it back for the sequel. McQueen refused to and Horst Buchholz had disappeared in Europe making other movies. Everybody else is practically brand new, except Emilio Fernández who had worked behind the scenes on the Sturges oater.
Mind you, around this time, the Europeans had spawned the so-called 'Spaghetti' western craze. Moreover, the Franco government in Spain was subsidizing filmmakers, and the rough-hewn Spanish scenery substituted more than adequately for the frontier American Southwest. When the scenery is more interesting to look at, the music stands out, and the corpses outnumber the horses ten-to-one, you know that you're watching a 'Spaghetti' western. Oh, yeah, if the dialogue isn't lip-synched, you know you're watching a 'Spaghetti' western. Consequently, the Mirish Production company must have felt that they could knock out a sequel very inexpensively in Spain. Reportedly, the Alicante location where they filmed "Return of the Seven" had not been used in a picture. Unquestionably, "Return of the Seven" looks like an epic western, and "Battleground" lenser Paul Vogel's cinematography is a feast for the eyes. Everybody looks really picturesque when they shoot their guns in this vigorous western. The moving camera scenes when Lorca and his gunmen charge the ruins of the church are cool. Burt Kennedy's "Seven" surpasses Sturges' "Seven" only in terms of its rugged, breath-taking scenery, Vogel's ace cinematography, and the lavish production values. Burt Kennedy stages some exceptional gunfights, but he cannot top the vintage Sturges shoot-outs.
"Return of the Seven" picks up years after the Sturges epic. An insane rancher decides to honor the memory of his two dead sons by abducting the farmers of several villages and having them build a shrine—a church—to commemorate his sons. Right off, "Return of the Seven" differs from "The Magnificent Seven." Francisco Lorca (Emilio Fernández of "The Wild Bunch") looms above all as a law unto himself, whereas Calvera (Eli Wallach) was a cunning, ruthless bandit that lived outside the law. These films have different villains. One of the villages that Lorca's men raid and enslave is Chico's village. Julian Mateos takes over the role that Horst Buchholz created.
The worst scene is the first between Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Robert Fuller of "Laramie") at a bullfighting arena. Vin sidles up to Chris during a bullfight and makes up a story that he is looking to collect bounty on Chris. Scenarist Larry Cohen of the "It's Alive" trilogy could have contrived a better reunion scene. Although Cohen received credit for writing the screenplay, all the dialogue sounds like something that Burt Kennedy would have written for Randolph Scott on those Budd Boetticher westerns of the 1950s. My favorite line is when Chris and Vin meet again during a cockfighting tournament and talk about their luck rounding up candidates. Vin asks, "Are they any good?" Chris retors, "They're alive." Staying alive is what "Return of the Seven" is all about. Meanwhile, Cohen replays themes from the original. The villagers huddle in a rainy church and admit their fear of anything.
The cast differs obviously and so do the characters. Burt Kennedy's "Seven" is harsh, definitely less sentimental than the Sturges' "Seven." Some of these guys don't get along and grate on each other. Chris averts a gunfight between the loquacious Colbee (Warren Oates of "In The Heat of the Night") and the tight-lipped Frank (Claude Atkins of "A Man Called Sledge")during one campfire scene. "Is he faster than you, Chris," Frank asks. "I'd hate to have the live on the difference," Chris observes. I'd heard this line in "Rio Bravo," but it fares better here. Another great scene occurs earlier when Chris bribes the jailor (Ricardo Palacios) to let Frank out of jail. "He killed five men in a gunfight," complains the jailer about the amount of Chris' bribe. "I could make it six," growls Frank. The bargain is sealed. The dialogue in this scene compares with the dialogue in the Charles Bronson scene in the original "Seven."
This time the Seven face at least fifty gunmen, twenty or so more than in the first picture. Later, Lorca calls on the rest of his men at his faraway haciendo to come and the number rises to 200 guns. Interestingly, Chris gets not only Frank but also Luis Emilio Delgado (Vergílio Teixeira of "The Seventh Voyage of Sinbad") from the local jail. This anticipates the classic Lee Marvin war movie "The Dirty Dozen." Another scene that matched the original is the initial hero and the villains confrontation. Chris rides boldly into the construction site and demands the release of Chico and everybody else to the incredulity of Lorca's second-in-command Lopez (Rodolfo Acosta of "Rio Conchos") who replies, "I could have you shot like that." Lopez snaps. "There are six Winchesters pointed at your head." Chris is far more audacious here than he ever was in "The Magnificent Seven." Emilio Fernández is a splendid follow-up to Eli Wallach. In real life, Wallach was gentle, whereas Fernández was violent, handy with a gun, a gangsta of sorts. He looks like he means business as the villain in "Return of the Seven."
The core of the plot of "Return of the Seven" is pretty complicated stuff, too, There is nothing like it in "The Magnificent Seven." The theme here is an abusive father determined to have his way no matter what. Lorca has abducted hundreds of villagers to rebuild a church to honor the memory of his dead sons. The padre (Fernando Rey of "The French Connection") disagrees with Lorca's methods. Lorca and his men have shot villagers who fled from the project. As it turns out, Lorca's two sons hated their father. They were gentle and weak, not strong and brusque like their overbearing father. Indeed, Chris reveals in an expository dialogue scene with Vin that Lorca's sons had hired him to kill Lorca. On the other way, there is one scene that is clearly lifted from "The Magnificent Seven." Frank infiltrates the enemy camp like Horst Bucholtz did in "The Magnificent Seven" and brings back the bad news that Lorca has called on more men and guns. Like Yul Brynner, Elmer Bernstein encores his original Oscar nominated orchestral soundtrack and amazingly he received another nomination for it. If you haven't seen the first "Seven," you could swear that Bernstein created the score for the sequel!