Well this is slightly belated, but in honour of what would have been Deforest Kelley’s 94th birthday this past Monday I’m looking at a Western. And unlike last year when I reviewed a remake of a classic Western this time I’m reviewing a true classic…that is a remake of another classic.
Despite the fact that that this film is based on The Seven Samurai I will be making no comparisons to that film as I haven’t seen it in full yet. I’m looking at this film all in its lonesome glory. And I really mean that I think this film is glorious in many respects starting with the theme music. The theme builds so wonderfully throughout the film that it compels me to watch it. The film has fantastic music all around. The theme builds up the excitement, the romantic and quiet moments are subdued and slow, and it’s just great.
The look of the film is also really great. The first time I watched the film I was actually surprised at how minimalist it is. There are really only two big sets here the village and the border town, and the rest is the group traveling and training the villagers for the fight with Calvera. Still the way shots are framed from wide shots of the group riding single file against the sky, to the kind of snake trail they make as they cross the river and find the fish that Chico caught looks impressive. The staging really makes the film feel grand and large even though the actual locations used were limited. John Sturges really did a marvellous job with directing here. I love how in the opening scene the story is told almost entirely with the visuals. Calvera and his men ride into town and there isn’t some big exposition filled speech it just shows him and the men going around like they own the place and taking whatever they wish, and the people, with one lone dissenter, offer no resistance. We see how beaten down they are because they just go along with it they know they can’t fight back. The opening lets us know that Calvera won’t hesitate to kill and that he has been ransacking the village for a long time. We are shown rather than told why this is a breaking point and why they go to look for help outside the town they can’t fight on their own with the resources they have.
Another visual that I enjoyed character wise was one that I can’t credit Sturges for and that’s Steve McQueen’s little quirks like checking the shotgun and twirling his hat when he gets on the hearse. Watching the documentary included with my copy of the film I discovered that this wasn’t to enhance the character in anyway this was just so McQueen would draw the audience’s eye. Well mission accomplished there so well done to him! The acting by everybody really is so wonderful it’s so neat to watch a film like this with legends that are at the very start of their careers. Yul Brenner not included of course. He was already successful and the other actors seemed to want that for themselves. Still The chemistry between everyone really seems to jump off the screen it’s great fun to watch. Every one brings something different to the group whether its Horst’s character trying to prove himself, or Lee needing personal redemption, or Harry who just wanted to find gold. That is not to say that there aren’t meta issues involved in the casting and I’m specifically speaking of Eli Wallach as Calvera. Here we have an example of a casting decision done with the social norms at the time, namely having a white man playing a person of colour. This was not a proper decision to make in terms of representation and is certainly problematic when viewed in a modern context. Wallach certainly does a great job in the role and I love that his suggestions of showing what a bandit does with his money like getting a really nice shirt were incorporated because it makes Calvera stand out. He is easy to spot because of the bright red shirt he is wearing. Still that role should have gone to an actual Mexican.
Despite the problem in the casting of the villain I was pleasantly surprised to learn that a lot of this was remedied behind the scenes thanks to an earlier film Vera Cruz. Where the portrayal of Mexicans was apparently so bad the government put their foot down and said no more American films could shoot in the country. This meant that to smooth over relations certain steps had to be taken with a censor during the filming of The Magnificent Seven. This led to a ton of roles for Mexicans both in front of and behind the camera and a demand that the villagers not be portrayed as dirty and lazy. Not only is this good in a larger societal context it also works in the film in that the villagers are almost always in white. They look vulnerable and innocence and so the audience sympathies with them and wants them to be able to succeed in rising up again Calvera’s oppression. I know there was an issue where the censor wondered why the villagers have to go across the border for help. Now of course the meta answer is that Americans were making the film so you have to use the cast actors, but even with the context of the film I think it works. The villagers don’t go initially to find outside help they just want to buy guns so they can fight themselves. They only get protection when Brenner’s character offers it and they learn and fight at the end. With shovels and chairs just like they said they would if they didn’t have guns and hell we even get to see a woman taking down a bandit with a scythe!
Not only is the use of Mexicans in front and behind the camera good in terms of being progressive the film also works progression into the story itself because it questions things that don’t normally get talked about in Westerns. One of the hallmarks of the Western is that the bad guy wears the black hat and the good the white hat. Yet here Yul Brenner while clearly playing a good guy, we see that when he drives the hearse for the Indian’s funeral; and he agrees to help the villagers while basically getting nothing in return, wears a black hat the entire film; as well as black clothes. He has lines about how they might have raped the women in the village. The good guy isn’t supposed to talk like this! Also there’s that great scene with them all talking about how a gunslinger’s life involves no ties, no family, and no home. And of course the ending where he says that only the farmers won they lost. It’s true too they lost four out of the seven during the final fight, and that makes me wonder how the sequels are going to work, but I’m not to those yet. They didn’t get any girl, only Chico did by hanging up his gun. The funeral for the Indian was also a nice touch where they call bigotry exactly what it is when members of the town don’t want to have him buried in boot hill. Good job guys. This also works as a character building moment to show why the villagers go to Yul Brenner’s character for aid, and that McQueen and Brenner are both great shots with a gun.
Personally I love this movie. It certainly has problems based on the era that it came from, but it also took chances with its portrayal of the life of a gunslinger, made positives statements, and worked to be correct as possible even if a censor had to force them to do so. The music is timeless, the look is great, the characters are distinct and memorable thanks to both the writing and the acting, and it tells a good fun story about standing up for others and doing the right thing even at great cost. It has just that right combination to make great lasting movie magic. I think it’s a wonderful film worthy of being the last great western.