It was the favorite movie of “Cheers” barflies Norm and Cliff, who “na-na-na’ed” the theme song every time they marched off to watch it together. Along with “Jaws,” “Star Wars,” “The Bridge on the River Kwai,” and “Rocky,” the movie theme by Elmer Bernstein is one of the most instantly recognizable. It’s also one of the most rousing Western movie songs ever made, but only a part of why this film has achieved the degree of fame that it has.
“The Magnificent Seven” acknowledges in the opening credits that it’s based on the legendary “Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa, but it’s reached iconic status all its own as one of the grand American Westerns. IGN rated it Number 9 on their list of the 25 best Westerns of all time, and as DVD Town’s John J. Puccio pointed out in his DVD review, “The Magnificent Seven” became the second most-played movie on American television.
The action seems tame, now, compared to “The Wild Bunch” or Westerns made in the last several decades, but this film by John Sturges captures the romance of the Western hero (times seven) and makes us care about the characters. And darn it, that rousing music really helps us “get” that this is one rousing Western. What’s more, anyone who’s ever seen “A Bug’s Life” or “Three Amigos” will appreciate instantly where the inspiration came from.
It doesn’t take long for the iconic theme to kick in, as we’re introduced to gunslinger Chris (Yul Brynner), who watches as a stranger tries to pay for the funeral of a man who died on the streets in front of him. But the town won’t let the funeral hearse go to Boot Hill because the deceased was an Indian. When Chris learns that no one is brave enough to drive the hearse, he says, “I’ll do it.” And Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), also watching from the sidelines, borrows a shotgun so he can ride along as an extra gun. It’s one of the most stirring segments in any Western, and proof to the poor peasants from an oppressed village south of the border that Chris is the man to hire to fight Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his banditos. Year after year Calvera and his men have helped themselves to the peasant farmers’ food, clothing, drink, and anything else they’ve wanted–but no more, a village elder warns the village leaders. Unless you fight them, they’ll continue to pick on you and feed off of you, he says.
The first third of the film follows Chris as he recruits Vin, and then the pair of them go after more talented guns: a knife-thrower named Britt (James Coburn), a roughneck named Bernardo (Charles Bronson), a fancied-up gunman (Robert Vaughn) who lost his nerve and is trying to find it again, and a burly gambler ( Brad Dexter) who bets there’s more to the job than the $20 per man that Chris said it pays. But it’s the seventh who adds the most interest. Horst Buchholz plays Chico, a young man who wants to be a gunslinger like these men, but is turned away when Chris embarrasses him with a quick-draw game that proves to him he’s not ready.
Of course, this kid can’t take no for an answer, and the seven of them end up taking on roughly 100 guns. That theme is as much a part of American culture as the myth of the Western hero. Long before the Alamo there were stories of brave Americans going up against superior forces. But the Alamo solidified the idea of outnumbered heroes fighting tyranny. “The Magnificent Seven” reinforces that archetype in a big way–another reason why it’s become such an iconic Western.
Why it’s grown in stature is another story, and, in addition to extensive TV exposure, one probably best explained by the emergence of the cast as individual stars. At the time it was filmed, only Brynner was well known as the king from “The King and I” (1956) and Pharaoh from “The Ten Commandments” (1956). McQueen had starred in “The Blob” (1958) but mostly had done bit parts on television. Same with Charles Bronson, who, after “The Magnificent Seven,” would be a part of such big projects as “The Great Escape” (1963), “The Dirty Dozen” (1967), “Once Upon a Time in the West” (1968), and the “Death Wish” films. James Coburn, meanwhile, would go on to play a Bond-spoof agent in the popular “Our Man Flint” and a sequel, while Robert Vaughn would go on to be TV’s “Man from U.N.C.L.E.” In retrospect, to see them all in the same film is kind of fun.
“The Magnificent Seven” already came to Blu-ray via “The Magnificent Seven Collection,” which included three sequels, none of which are very good, and the AVC/MPEG-4 transfer to a 50GB disc seems to be identical. It’s an older film, and 1960 wasn’t a good year for color stock. But while there’s considerable grain, at least there’s very little noise and no evidence that the studio used DNR or edge enhancement. So purists can breathe a sigh of relief. Colors are true-looking, and black levels are good enough to hold detail in low-lit scenes. “The Magnificent Seven” is presented in 2.35:1 aspect ratio.
Boy, what a rousing soundtrack. When Bernstein’s theme kicks in, it gives you goose bumps. The featured audio is an English DTS-HD MA 5.1, and while it’s not what I’d call a dynamic soundtrack—rather, one that comes alive during bursts of gunfire and music—it’s still a pretty good mix. Dialogue is clear, and the effects and ambient sounds come alive just enough to remind you that you’re listening through six speakers. Don’t expect much bass, though, because “The Magnificent Seven” seems more comfortable in the mid-ranges. The original English 2.0 Mono is included, as is a Spanish Dolby Digital 5.1, with subtitles in English SDH, Spanish, and French.
For a classic, there aren’t a ton of bonus features. “Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven” (47 min.) is a carryover from the DVD release and it’s in standard definition, but it does a nice job of combining cast and filmmaker interviews with behind-the-scenes tidbits that make the moviemaking experience come alive. There’s also attention paid to how the film grew out of “Seven Samurai.” Then there’s “Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven” (15 min.), with film historian Jon Burlingame offering his take on the score. The most unbelievable extra is “The Linen Book: Lost Images from The Magnificent Seven” (15 min.), in which MGM’s photo archivist shares a photo book that was miraculously discovered in a Kansas salt mine, of all places.
Several commentary tracks have appeared over the years, but only the one with producer Walter Mirisch, actors James Coburn and Eli Wallach, and assistant director Robert Relyea is included here. Their memories aren’t as sharp as you’d have liked, but the group has a fun time going back to when the film was made.
Rounding out the bonus features are a still gallery and trailers.
“The Magnificent Seven” is one of the most iconic Westerns, and fans should be pleased with this 50th Anniversary Blu-ray presentation.