The Magnificent Seven is one of the most notorious American remakes in film history. An adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (a top contender for most film lists of the best movie ever made), it seems almost baffling looking back that taking that idea and totally Americanizing it not only worked, but created a great film in its own right. The Magnificent Seven was not only a success, but over the years has grown into a true action classic, a rogue’s gallery of leading men who created such an indelible movie that it spun off into its own series of parodies and homages, as much as the original Seven Samurai.
It also, bafflingly, spawned three sequels of its own, with a rotating cast of characters (some playing the same roles) and creating a franchise out of a movie based on a movie where nearly everyone dies at the end. I was so delighted at the idea of there being four Magnificent Seven movies that I was inspired to create this project: A Series of Sevens, taking a look at all four movies, a descent down a dead end of Western adaptation and a nice, depressing look at how a surprise action classic gets exploited into a franchise. Don’t think you have a monopoly on that, modern Hollywood!
Last time we got nice and comfortable with the first movie, a smart adaptation of an already great movie, an account of which you can find HERE. After that movie came out and hit it really big, the question became not if that would be capitalized on, but when and how. Surprisingly, it took six years for them to actually get around to it, and a change in location, subgenre, and even cast. But never doubt the determination of franchise film making, which can overcome even the most obvious divine intervention to bring you sequels long after you’ve stopped caring about the original concept in the first place.
The Return of the Seven (1966)
In the small Mexican village in which the last film ended, a bunch of farmers work in the fields and go about their modest lives when they’re interrupted by a threat from the wilderness. Dozens of gunmen pouring from the hills assault the town, capturing all of the men and dragging them off. Among the men in the town who try to fight back is Chico, former youngest member of the prior seven men who defended the town, torn from his young wife when he dares to pull a gun on the bandits and dragged out of town on the end of a lasso. The town, now populated only with women and children, don’t have the manpower to farm and survive.
Chico’s wife Petra, hoping to repeat past successes, rides to the nearest big town to find gunmen who she can hire to help reclaim the men and fight the abductors in order to restore peace to the town. Thankfully, she doesn’t have to look hard, as she soon comes across Chris and Vin (the only other surviving members of the first group of seven), who have just met up again after years apart. Chris, being the noble guy he is, agrees to help assemble as many men as he can find in a single night in town, and at dawn set out with Petra to go rescue Chico. And thus the second not-quite-magnificent seven are created:
Chris (Yul Brynner): The only returning cast member, Chris is older and even more weary than before. Brynner dictated a lot of the casting choices in this movie, including the replacing of Steve McQueen as his co-star after the two famously didn’t get along on set during the first movie. Also, apparently, Chris is a popular guy, as we’ll soon see.
Vin (Robert Fuller): Chris’ old gunslinging partner and friend, who seeks out Chris and finds him during a bull fight at the beginning of the movie. Vin claims to be a bounty hunter looking for Chris, but mostly just seems bored and ready for another adventure.
Frank (Claude Akins): the taciturn one, and an old friend of Chris’, pulled from a jail cell by Chris after paying for his release.
Luis (Virgilio Teixeira): A famous bandit who Chris finds in the jail cell next to Frank. Chris arranges an escape with the guard, as Luis is too famous to release via bribe, and is scheduled for execution at daybreak.
Colbee (Warren Oates): A womanizer who Chris knows from way back, who literally falls in Chris’ path during a gunfight with the husband of a woman he was bedding. He mostly follows Chris after Chris points out they’re going to a town with no men (more on that later).
Manuel (Jordan Christopher): A young cockfighter who Chris recruits mostly for being compassionate in stopping a cockfight and getting beaten up for it. Manuel can’t even speak English, and mostly becomes the Chico surrogate in this movie, the young kid who seems to get in the way as much as he helps.
And finally Chico (Julian Mateos replacing Horst Buchholz): the young gunfighter turned farmer who will supposedly round out the seven when they’re able to release him from captivity and give him his gun back.
If that seems like a far lest interesting set of men, that’s because it is. I mean, outside of Robert Fuller, there really isn’t much more than an assembling of character actors and forgotten names here. But then, given the rest of the film, it’s no surprise. I have no idea how much money went to Yul Brynner for him to be in this movie, but I assume it was a sizable amount, because they obviously didn’t spend it on much else. This feels like a quick and dirty sequel, and coming six years later is pretty baffling, all things considered. By 1966 Westerns had changed, mostly falling out of favor aside from the spaghetti variety. Leone was already deep into the Dollars ‘trilogy’ when this movie was made.
It’s no surprise then that The Return of the Seven is a Spanish production, with the mountains of Spain and locals filling the roles of Mexico and Mexicans. It’s painfully obvious to anyone who has ever seen movies shot in Mexico and Spain that they do not stand in well for one another, and it’s spaghetti roots show in nearly every shot, from the inappropriate mountain features to the European heritage of the locals. It’s jarring, but in a fun sort of way, watching them try to make it pass and failing pretty spectacularly. Which is fine. Part of the charm of the spaghetti western as an aesthetic is how slightly-wrong everything looks, an imaginary American southwest via Europe that only exists on film.
Sadly, that’s kind of the only good part about this movie, as the script is relentlessly uninspired and contrived. The same village attacked and people carried away? I thought they trained the farmers to fight, and had Chico there to help back them up? One night to gather the team? Good thing Chris seemingly knows everybody who has ever slung a gun, and they’re all on good enough terms that even without the promise of pay they run off to likely die in a pointless battle. Hell, even the villain’s motivations are stupid, as he turns out to be a rancher who is capturing slave labor to help rebuilt a desert village to memoralize the two sons who died there during a battle. There are two baffling parts to this, though: a) he seemingly knows and was once on good terms with Chris, who seems generally opposed to things like casual slavery and b) if he’s rich enough to afford the tools and to hire 50 gunmen to enforce the labor, why didn’t he just hire laborers? That’d be cheaper than guns, and he’d get better work out of them. Sadly, nobody asks him to defend his employment practices, though I would have liked to have heard the answer.
On the whole the entire script feels like a retread of the ideas that came before, lesser in imitation and less inspired in execution. The great series of routs from the first film becomes Chris & co. successfully driving the gunmen out of the constructed village and then defending it for no discernible reason. The training of the farmers from the first movie was apparently completely forgotten in six years, as they’re all worthless and fearful and admit to as much before mostly disappearing. Even the climactic gunfight manages to be far worse for wear, taking place mostly in a single setpiece where the bad guys run in, everyone gets shot, and then someone starts throwing dynamite (one of the best, least used Western tropes, if you ask me) and blows up all the bad guys. There’s just no narrative momentum to the whole thing, and it ends up feeling like a boring 10 minutes of gunfire because that’s what happens at the end of a movie.
Most importantly, all the themes and messages are horrifically muddled. I went on at length last time about how I felt like The Magnificent Seven was an early examination of US foreign policy. Well, this movie seems to never even get that far, aside from the part where it’s a retread of the first movie’s plot, though it does feel incredibly imperialistic in exchange. The class issues that drive the villain (no matter how silly) are routed by the Americans who ride in not for money but because it’s right, though even that isn’t necessarily true. They ride in because one of their own is at risk, otherwise nobody would probably have lifted a finger. And even then it took Chris dangling vulnerable foreign women in front of one of his men to get them to agree. The first film went out of its way to establish that the original seven we’re there to pillage or rape after the farmers tried to hide their women out of concern for the brutality of gunmen, but apparently six years is enough time to fall so far morally that Chris has changed his mind about why they’re risking their lives.
It’s no surprise that a sequel to The Magnificent Seven isn’t very good, but it’s amazing how spectacularly not good it is. It’s boring, scatterbrained, and just plain lazy throughout most of its run time. There’s always something to be enjoyed in the eternal cliche of building a team to go do a job, but that’s the first half hour and after that you’re treated to a third rate western that probably wouldn’t even be remembered if not for the film that preceded it. I don’t know how they managed to drag two more movies out of this premise after this, but I sure hope they’re better than this one was, or this is going to be a damn depressing trip.