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!
After an initial misstep with the first Magnificent Seven sequel (check out that mess here) I was as surprised as anyone when a more aggressive change of cast made a third entry that was surprisingly robust as a stand-alone film. It seemed like a miracle, a decent movie that managed to do something similar but tonally different enough that I didn’t feel like it was ‘just another one of those’ if such a blasé claim could ever be made about a plot that started back with one of the greatest films ever made. Of course that had to be a crazy fluke, a one-off obscure gem tucked between the layers of shit that are sequels to a movie that didn’t need them.
It had to be, right?
The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972)
Chris Adams has turned in his gunslinger’s boots for the tidy life of a marshal’s badge and a young wife, deciding that he wants to settle down and be firmly on the right side of the law now. Unfortunately, when he liberates an friend named Jim from a bandit ambush, he gets asked to come ride across the border to once again tackle a problem with a small Mexican town. The town? Magdalena. The problem? Bandits, as many as sixty, who have come to murder the men and do worse to the women. Jim signed on to help protect them, but he’s in over his head. Someone as famous and successful as Chris Adams, though … well, it’s not like he hasn’t pulled off similarly impossible odds before.
But Chris isn’t ready to ride off in pursuit of foolishly noble causes anymore. He’s older, tired and cynical, running his town with a heavy hand towards even nonviolent crimes. And he’s suffering a man called Noah who is following him around trying to write his biography and make him into a legend. He’s a man who’s seen all his useful days, and is happy to spend his time crushing crime in his tiny little town. Even if people see him as unreasonable. Until, of course, Jim shows up and accuses him of becoming a hard-ass, which is philosophically the opposite of a badass and something no former badass aspires to.
So the young teenaged troublemaker he was going to send to jail for a decade gets a reprieve instead of a one way ticket to prove a point that Chris isn’t a monster. Unfortunately, that kid goes back to his also-awful teenage friends (including a young Gary Busey) they decide that instead of taking this reprieve as a moment to change how they live their lives, they’re still doomed to poverty and a life of manual labor anyway, so they decide to rob the bank and bust out of town heading for Mexico, taking Chris’ wife as an extra ‘fuck you’ tweak on top of it. Which leads Chris and Noah out into the wilds to track her down, a quest that ends in tragedy when they find her body and only one of the three boys (Gary Busey, again), who was headed back to town because he got cold feet, but not cold enough to stop the kid and his buddy from raping and murdering her. Which is when Chris decides that following the rules might be fine for a lawman but not for a gunslinger and shoots the kid before riding off with his biographer in tow to find the other two and get his vengeance.
At this point you’re probably thinking “Wait, I thought this was a Magnificent Seven movie” and … well, you’re right, but we’re still not at that part yet. You see, Chris keeps riding towards Mexico and runs back across Jim, who went back to Magdalena sans help when Chris refused. He’s able to report that the kids Chris is after did ride through, and said they were going to join up with De Toro’s gang, which means that if Chris is going to go after them he’s in the mess he originally refused to be a part of. Still refusing to help Jim, he rides into the desert only to chase after the much faster, better equipped gang of De Toro’s men, riding after them through the mountains and back to where they started, coming across the town Jim was defending, now almost all slaughtered save for a few women who were kept around to keep the bandits entertained. Chris chases them off with his first attack, but knows that they’ll be back once they realize that there’s no real force of men defending Magdalena.
You know what that means? It’s finally time to build a team. But since all of Chris’ friends have a bad habit of ending up dead, he’s left looking in a much less likely place. Riding off to the Arizona state jail, he coerces the warden into pardoning the last five prisoners he captured, and once more puts together his lucky seven men:
Chris (Lee Van Cleef): We’ve already talked a lot about this Chris, who the legendary Van Cleef plays as something between an early fascist-cop archetype and an actual monster, a man who lost sight of why he did what he does a long time ago, with little real concept for the cost of death the way normal people see it.
Noah (Michael Callan): The supposedly famous newspaper writer who shows up with an offer to turn Chris into a legend now that the West is mostly over and the big heroes of the time are already old and turning into more myth than reality. He’s not much of a fighter, but follows Chris into his quest for vengeance anyway.
Pepe Carral (Pedro Armendariz Jr), Walt Drummond (William Lucking), Scott Elliott (Ed Lauter): Not to put too fine a point on it, but these guys are kind of disposable. We’ll get to this later. They’re just some criminals that Chris put away, one of them is kind of dumb (Walt, I think, though don’t hold me to that) and … that’s about it. Yeah, I know, that’s like half the team.
Andy Hayes (James Sikking): A former confederate Captain put into jail for still inciting rebellion, it seems like. He’s a leader of men, with actual battle experience and the capacity to plan large-scale engagements, which makes him something of a rarity in this world of gunslingers.
Mark Skinner (Luke Askew): A knife-fighter who Chris had in jail along with the boy who would eventually kill his wife, so he’s aware of just what’s going on and why Chris is doing what he’s doing, which is the only reason he seems to want to put to rest a long-standing grudge the two men seem to have.
So Chris unleashes five people he put in jail, though they’re willing to at least hear him out since he’s dangling a full pardon in front of them. All they have to do is ride with him into Mexico and deal with De Toro and his gang. All of them decide this sounds like a pretty great deal and agree to put up with Chris in the meantime, and ride with him straight into Mexico to one of De Toro’s homes, a rich villa that they proceed to trash and plunder at Chris’ urging. It’s only afterwards do they realize that Chris names all five of the men to one of De Toro’s men who he lets escape, meaning that De Toro knows they’re enemies and they have no chance of jumping sides. Meaning that they’re stuck with Chris one way or another, as to betray him and flee into the wilds of Mexico means getting gunned down by De Toro, and fleeing to the US means becoming a fugitive again.
This is a lot of set up, but I wanted to lay out this concept in full for you. This is two thirds of the entire movie, and normally I wouldn’t go into so much detail, but you know why I did? Because this is amazing. The actual movie might not be great (it isn’t, but we’ll get to that) but this whole concept of a tyrannical lawman who creates an oppressive culture that leads to violence that drives him to vengeance and requires him to team up with a motley crew of men he put away? This is brilliantexploitation cinema ground, rife for riffing on and stealing and making better. If this movie was made by different people (say Roger Corman’s folks, a few years down the line from 72?) it would have been a grindhouse classic, a violent suicidal quest about recognizing the end result of violence even for social good, a kind of nihilistic take on the Magnificent Seven concept. I’ve never seen a movie that had me so conceptually interested in seeing this idea revisited and enriched and adapted into something that more fully embraces the impact of these ideas and how much conflict could come out of them.
The problem, of course, is that the actual movie in question doesn’t. It takes so long to set up that by the time we get to the team-building the group is fairly inconsequential. And for all the potential excess the narrative offers, the movie is still a fairly low budget western holding onto too many of the genre trappings to go too far off the deep end. That I feel is the trap of the legacy of the Magnificent Seven name, something that if someone ever re-adapted this idea I hope they’d throw out the window immediately. If you had a group of interesting people on this crazy upside down team-building story? You could end up with something like Inglourious Basterds in terms of lunacy, a lawman who puts an array of colorful monsters into jail and then has to work with them when he gets in over his head. It’s so rife with potential it makes me wish the actual movie was better than it was.
It’s not, though. Aside from Lee Van Cleef and the whiffs of potential, it’s just the 4th move in a rundown series. Which is okay, I suppose. It’s not actually offensive in how bad it is, and someone wrote a story with potential, which is more than you can say for 99% of franchise sequels. So as the Magnificent Seven ride off into the sunset, ready to be remade at some point in the future (and certainly there’s been plenty of Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai derivatives between then and now) it’s actually with something resembling fondness. One great movie, one good one, an interesting failure and only a single mess. That’s not too shabby for a story that never left much room to be expanded upon.