The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (1960)
MGM Home Entertainment
Cast: Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson
Extras: Commentary Track, Documentary, Production Stills, Theatrical Trailers

I never thought I’d see the day that "The Magnificent Seven" would arrive on DVD as a full-blown special edition sporting a decent <$PS, widescreen> transfer and both newly remixed 5.1 and original mono soundtracks. All of this priced to move at $19.95. Life is good.

I should probably fess-up and admit that I’m not the biggest fan of Westerns. Sure, I can appreciate the epic grandeur of "The Searchers" and the great fun that is "Rio Bravo" but, taken as a whole, the genre leaves me cold. Ah, but "The Magnificent Seven," now that is a whole other matter. I would almost hesitate to even call it a Western if it wasn’t, well, set in the Old West. Like most other big name directors of the time, John Sturges worked on his fair share of traditional Westerns but there’s something special about "The Magnificent Seven" that really sets it apart.

The film opens in a small Mexican village which is being terrorized by a band of brigands led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). Each time his gang raids the village for supplies they leave behind just enough food to ensure the villagers’ survival so they can return at a later date to plunder and steal again. During the latest attack, a villager is killed and at long last the other men in town decide that something must be done to stop this cycle of terror.

As three of the men ride across the border to buy guns for their cause, they stumble across two men engaged in a battle of wills with the populace of a small town over burying an Indian in the whites-only cemetery. Witnessing their great skill at facing down the bigoted locals, the three Mexican farmers later approach the two gunmen and ask them to come to the aid of their village. Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) is moved by their tale and offers to help while Vin (Steve McQueen) is more inspired by their promises of a meager monetary reward.

Word goes out that a party is being formed to go and fight Calvera and one by one men begin to join the cause. First to offer his aid is young Chico (Horst Buchholz) who is initially rejected because of his age and lack of experience. But his sheer persistence eventually pays off and he becomes one of the seven. Britt (James Coburn) is a skilled knife-thrower who decides that it’s time to do something more than just defend his reputation. Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) is scraping just to get by and sees this opportunity as a way to get some much needed cash. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is an old friend of Chris’s who just wants in on what he assumes will be bountiful spoils. Finally there’s Lee (Robert Vaughn), a gunfighter who has lost his nerve and is now on the run.

The seven men arrive in the village and immediately set about training the locals in firearm usage and constructing fortifications. When Calvera next returns to pillage he finds a determined foe waiting for him. But he is not so easily dissuaded and what ensues is an ongoing battle between the two groups that forces every man — bandit, hired gun, and villager alike — to consider his own role in the events that transpire.

"The Magnificent Seven" is presented in its original 2.35:1 <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen> aspect ratio. Bearing in mind that this is a 40 year old movie, and that a complete restoration was not undertaken, the overall image is much more pleasing than I had expected.

Let’s get the negative aspects of the picture out of the way first. The opening credit sequence is plagued by many nicks and blemishes and, while they do become much less noticeable as the film progresses, these physical imperfections are a frequent presence if you’re looking for them. The first few minutes also suffer from brightness fluctuations but this soon goes away. Film grain is also present although it is only particularly distracting during certain transitional scenes. Rounding out the list of nitpicks is the minor use of edge enhancement which results in a noticeable halo effect whenever a dark foreground object is framed against the bright blue sky.

On the plus side, the image is fairly sharp and colors are well-balanced and consistent throughout. Black levels are quite good as well although they do tend to lose some detail in the darkest scenes. Overall, I found the image to be a fair representation of what I must assume filmgoers in 1960 experienced and this is a very solid effort from the folks at MGM.

On the audio side, the DVD offers English, French, and Spanish mono mixes as well as a new English <$DD,Dolby Digital> 5.1 soundtrack. The <$5.1,5.1 mix> doesn’t try to do too much with the limited source materials and offers up a decent musical front soundstage with intermittent surround usage for sound effects, especially gunshots. Dynamic range is rather constrained with no low end to speak of and a somewhat strident sound if cranked to high volume levels. Dialogue is always clear and the track is devoid of all but the slightest hiss and distortion. The original mono soundtrack is of similar fidelity although it of course lacks the surround effects. It’s a real toss-up as to which mix I prefer as both are quite clean and offer their own strong and weak points. The <$5.1,5.1 mix> allows the musical score to open up a bit but most of the rest of the soundtrack collapses to the center speaker. The mono mix offers no stereo separation but the fact that it is output through the left and right front speakers allows for the track, and dialogue in particular, to sound a bit wider.

And let’s take a moment to comment on Elmer Bernstein’s amazing score. The "Magnificent Seven Theme" is an immediately recognizable piece of music and I can’t think of a Western made since that hasn’t liberally borrowed from its themes. If I have any real quibble with the DVD’s soundtrack it’s that it doesn’t do this score justice. The lack of dynamic range constrains the music and never allows it to truly open up. Be that as it may, hearing the first few notes as the film begins never fails to bring a smile to my face.

MGM is advertising "The Magnificent Seven" as a special edition and by golly it is. First up is an audio <$commentary,commentary track> featuring producer Walter Mirisch, assistant director Robert Relyea, Eli Wallach, and James Coburn. Their various individual comments come together to form one, cohesive look at this great film. From the nuts and bolts of creating the movie to the legendary battle of wills between the multiple co-stars, the commentary leaves no stone unturned and is immensely informative and entertaining throughout.

Next up is a new 45-minute long documentary entitled "Guns for Hire: The Making of ’The Magnificent Seven’" which, like the feature film, is presented in <$16x9,anamorphic> <$PS,widescreen>. Many of those involved in making the movie show up and offer their comments while those who are no longer with us are presented through the use of older interview snippets. Other folks such as director John Carpenter and actor Chazz Palminteri also appear to offer their opinions on the place of "The Magnificent Seven" in cinematic history. This feature is surprisingly in-depth and is a great accompaniment to the <$commentary,commentary track>.

The disc also offers up a fair number of publicity and behind-the-scenes still photographs as well as two theatrical trailers. While there are certainly many special editions packed with more extras, there aren’t too many 40 year old movies that have been graced with such uniformly excellent and enlightening bonus features as "The Magnificent Seven."

Coming out in 1960, "The Magnificent Seven" marked the beginning of the end for the classic Hollywood Western. But if a tried and true genre is going to bite the dust then it might as well go out in style. John Sturges’s cinematic masterpiece offers up all the old standards — men in blacks hats, banditos, blazing six-shooters — but presents them in a much more ambiguous light. Good and bad are no longer as clear as black and white and the seven anti-heroes are all complex men who, for varying reasons, find themselves fighting for a common cause. But that’s not to say that the "The Magnificent Seven" is nothing more than a heavy-handed morality play. In fact, its use of dry humor is part of its enduring charm and the on and off screen jousting between the main actors translates into a very entertaining interpersonal dynamic.

John Sturges certainly deserves credit for juggling these multiple egos and his experience in this department would serve him well a few years later when his classic, "The Great Escape," went into production. Incidentally, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson all appeared together again in that later film.

While the film certainly owes a debt to Akira Kurosawa’s highly-acclaimed "The Seven Samurai," it has itself become one of the most imitated films in history. From its three sequels and subsequent television series to such widely disparate feature films as "Battle Beyond the Stars" and "A Bug’s Life," the story of a band of individuals who come together — sometimes reluctantly — to serve a common cause is now a Hollywood staple.

After a long wait, "The Magnificent Seven" is finally available on DVD and MGM is to be commended for the fine work done on this special edition. Video and audio quality are more than acceptable for a film this age while the high-quality bonus features are a most welcome addition. Considering that they’re practically giving away this disc, there’s no excuse for any self-respecting DVD collection to be without a copy of "The Magnificent Seven." Very highly recommended.