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!
We’ve already covered the original film and it’s wildly derivative, disappointing sequel. I was warned going into this that we would be spiraling down a hole of despair, to come out on the other side wondering why I started in the first place. It’s the reason I did this project: I write a lot about movies I enjoy, or at least find worth in, and there’s nothing to throw a hilarious bucket of cold water on your love of movies than do have to suffer through a bunch of really terrible sequels. And there’s always the strange chance that you’ll be surprised, that somewhere in the middle of an otherwise dimly remembered franchise you’ll find a gem of a movie. Something that reminds you why you can’t just watch classics.
Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969)
It’s nearing the dawn of the 20th century, and Mexico is once again a lawless nation where the rapidly diminishing romantic West still thrives in lawlessness, corruption, and heroism. Even there, though, the march of modernity continues on, and the Mexican government is coming along to stamp out any revolutionary fervor, killing or capturing anyone who would try to speak out against the current regime. As the movie opens, Federales round up a whole group of rebels in a ramshackle church, only to realize that among their number is the leader of the resistance himself, a man named Quintero who can unite bandits and farmers alike under the same banner.
All that’s left of the resistence is Quintero’s lieutenant Maximiliano O’Leary, a young man entrusted with the $600 that makes up the entirety of the rebellion’s finances, and Carlos Lobero, the leader of the bandits, who is ready to take that money, load up on supplies, and get out while the getting is even possible. Thankfully for the resistance, Maximiliano decides to go off instead and to find the fabled Chris Adams, whose legend has begun to take hold even in far off places as a miracle-worker, a champion to the downtrodden if the price is right, capable of doing what armies cannot. So off he goes into the American west, quickly finding Chris, still getting involved in other people’s business and at that moment saving a man from being hung by a mob through fast words and faster guns. As might be expected, Chris agrees to put together a team of gunmen, and a new group of Seven is born.
Chris Adams (George Kennedy): Yul Brynner finally packs it up and Chris gets recast with the more avuncular George Kennedy. He’s not a bad choice, but they’re surprisingly iconic boots to fill and Kennedy’s Chris feels more like a fatherly type than a commander of men. It’s not a problem, and once the movie gets going he ends up being a pretty solid choice, but honestly they could have made him a new character and nobody probably would have noticed.
Keno (Monte Markham): the horse thief and brawler that Chris saved from getting run out of town. Like seemingly everybody in the world, he’s heard of Chris Adams but never met him, and seems happy to sign up to go fight and die in exchange for Chris’ efforts to free him. He’s probably the closest thing this movie has to a Vin stand-in.
Cassie (Bernie Casey): A freed slave who works as a demolition’s expert for mining operations, typically laid back but aggressive when confronted with the still-simmering racial tensions of a post-Civil War America.
Levi Morgan (James Whitmore): Whitmore, who I’ll always think of as the old guy from The Shawshank Redemption, is already old in this movie, playing a retired knife-fighter who Chris encourages to come out of retirement to provide a better life for the young wife and small child that he has now. He signs up mostly out of loyalty to Chris, over his wife’s protests that he’ll never make it back home to her.
Slater (Joe Don Baker): Baker’s second role after a small part in Cool Hand Luke, Baker is almost unrecognizable for someone who knows his more modern output as a one-armed sideshow sharp shooter. He’s slick and fancy, decked out in a Confederate uniform he still wears long after the war, like a showbiz Jonah Hex. He’s also the most troubled of the group, suffering what is probably PTSD from the war and a chip on his shoulder about his disability.
P. J. (Scott Thomas): A black-clad gunfighter with tuberculosis, coming as a sort of last effort to make something of himself before his illness lays him low.
Max O’Leary (Reni Santoni): The second hand man of the Mexican resistance, who ends up as part of the group, learning quickly under the tutelage of the six other men.
This is already a more interesting group than the seven of the second movie, if only because they’re a more diverse set in backgrounds and talents and Chris doesn’t pick them all up in a single night. Especially since Cassie and Slater spend much of their time together trying not to kill each other, with Slater holding onto the idea of the romantic South and Cassie being predisposed to blowing up people who would fight on the side of slavery, even if they themselves aren’t particularly interested in the issue one way or another.
If that sounds a little more exploitationy, then I’m glad you’re paying attention. The crazy thing about Guns of the Magnificent Seven is that it seems like it’s coming right up to the line where it isn’t much of a Western anymore, brushing against a prison break movie and the man-on-a-mission action subgenre. Especially with the racial tensions played rather explicitly in a movie series that has been deathly afraid of them before, and the general viciousness of the movie. This is a much more aggressive film, and its imagery is changed to match: on the way into Mexico to play the liberation of Quintero, the Seven see endless numbers of Mexican rebels hanging from telegraph poles, left to rot in the desert as a warning to anyone else who might rise up against the government.
That revolutionary fervor gets even weirder when the Seven reach the camp of the few remaining rebels and they befriend a young boy whose father has been captured by the soldiers. His name? Emiliano Zapata, future head of the actual Mexican Revolution that broke out proper in 1910 and is still revered as a martyr for the people even today, as Mexico still struggles with a lot of the political corruption that he fought against. That puts the Seven of this movie in a weird, grindhouse context, the men who trained a man who would go on to make history even if they were ‘forgotten’, the kind of fake legacy that would seem at home in something like Inglourious Basterds, which seems in some ways to be of a similar genre-exploitation tone.
I don’t want to pump it up that much, though. This is still an on-the-cheap spaghetti western B-picture that only exists because there was money to be made off of the franchise still. It follows the same arc, with the team built in the first half and then everyone planning out how to handle overwhelming odds before almost everyone dies in the final fight (including Cassie getting shot first, because ‘black guy dies first’ is a very real trope for a reason). That said? It’s surprisingly good. The action is more nuanced than the second film, and like I said, it’s full of new ideas that take it in weirder, less typical Western directions. It feels very much like a film that tries and manages to successfully stand on its own as a pretty fun riff on this type of team action movie. If it wasn’t named after The Magnificent Seven it would still be worth watching, and I feel like that’s probably the nicest compliment I could pay to one of these movies.