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The Magnificent Seven: Collector's Edition

Usually, remaking a classic film is an exercise best left alone, and for every truly remarkable movie in world cinema there are a handful of imitators, and just as many disappointing sequels. But when John Sturges decided to translate Akira Kurosawa's 1954 Seven Samurai to the American West, he actually hit paydirt. His 1960 The Magnificent Seven was not an instant box-office success in the U.S., but it played very well in overseas markets — so much so that it eventually earned renewed screenings in America and gained a following that has continued to this day. But among its earliest fans was non other than Kurosawa, who, after seeing the film for the first time, sent Sturges a ceremonial samurai sword as a token of appreciation. Surprising? Not really — Kurosawa's career blossomed in the postwar Japanese film industry, starting with his 1950 Rashomon, and he readily admitted he was a great admirer of American westerns, and in particular the films of John Ford. The Magnificent Seven began one of the most famous cultural exchanges in world cinema — westerns that inspired samurai films would once again become westerns, illustrating not only the universal qualities of cinema, but the worldwide appeal of archetypal drama as well.

Yul Brynner stars in The Magnificent Seven as Chris Adams, a gunfighter adrift in the American southwest with a great deal of ability but little sense of purpose. However, when members of a small Mexican village cross the border looking for protection from a group of bandits — led by the menacing Calvera (Eli Wallach) — Adams agrees to round up a group of men to defend the farming community. And as it turns out, there's a few gunslingers around with little going for them but spare time — including the hard-nosed Vin (Steve McQueen), quiet Bernardo (Charles Bronson), knife-expert and sharpshooter Britt (James Coburn), outlaw-on-the-run Lee (Robert Vaughn), and mercenary Harry Luck (Brad Dexter). One young man Adams had rejected, Chico (Horst Buchholz), decides to tag along, eventually earning acceptance from the group. But the greatest trouble lies ahead, as their number is only seven and Calvera has 40 armed men with horses at his disposal. And as the bandido needs to loot the village's harvest to feed his men for the winter, he will not turn away without a fight.

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A common response whenever The Magnificent Seven is mentioned is that it's not nearly as great of a film as Seven Samurai, which must be admitted. Trimmed down from Kurosawa's nearly three-and-a-half hour running-time to a little over two, and with two supporting characters melded into one, it retains a great deal of Seven Samurai's themes, if not its epic scope. Put simply, watching The Magnificent Seven is not an excuse to overlook Seven Samurai (but then again, is there any valid excuse not to see one of the greatest films in history?) Nonetheless, The Magnificent Seven, while unable to stand completely on its own merits, does have several things to recommend it, in particular the performances. Brynner — famous at the time for his role on stage and screen in The King and I — offers a subdued, complex turn as the team's leader, rarely letting any setback ruffle his icy exterior. Most of the remaining cast (in particular McQueen, Bronson, and Coburn) had gained some attention working in television westerns, but none had yet to become major box-office stars — The Magnificent Seven is an enjoyable opportunity to see these actors just prior to when they would become leading men in their own right. But most interesting is the place that The Magnificent Seven holds in the Hollywood Western genre. Prior to 1960, the majority of American westerns dealt with iconographic conflicts — forces of good aligned against forces of evil, with honorable men fighting the good fight and winning (cf. the paragon of classic westerns, Shane). But by the mid-'50s, the western began to turn inward, and films from such directors as Anthony Mann surveyed inner dramas as much as external conflicts. The Magnificent Seven, with its scofflaws-turned-heroes, formed a cinematic turning point that led to such later fare as the Sergio Leone spaghetti westerns, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch, and Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven. Always a reflection of contemporary American society, the nature of western heroes had come under scrutiny, often in films that refused to draw clear lines between heroes and villains. Indeed, in one of the final scenes in The Magnificent Seven, the malicious Calvera makes a pragmatic appeal to reason, asking Adams why he has chosen to fight with little chance of survival and less profit. Typical of the western heroes who would follow in the '60s and beyond, Adams has no answer — an existential wanderer freed from all social codes of conduct, he's not entirely sure himself. Discovering a personal set of values has become his journey across the western frontier.

Sony/MGM's two-disc "Collector's Edition" DVD release of The Magnificent Seven offers a solid anamorphic transfer (2.35:1) with both Dolby Digital 5.1 and the original monaural audio. The image looks largely similar in color and tone to the previous single-disc "Special Edition" DVD release, although some collateral damage appears to have been digitally removed — it's nice, but perhaps not enough of an improvement alone to warrant an upgrade for fans who have the Special Edition. Returning from the original release is the commentary with James Coburn, Eli Wallach, producer Walter Mirisch, and assistant director Robert Relyea, while Disc One offers a second commentary, new to this edition, by film historian Sir Christopher Frayling. Disc Two kicks off with the documentary "Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven" (46 min.), which was on the original DVD release; also returning are five stills galleries. New to the second platter are three featurettes, "Christopher Frayling on The Magnificent Seven" (20 min.), "Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven" (14 min.), and "The Linen Book: Lost Images from The Magnificent Seven" (14 min.). However, missing from this re-issue are the two theatrical trailers found on the Special Edition. Also on hand are previews for other MGM western titles on DVD, and the dual-DVD digipak with paperboard slipcase includes a color booklet featuring additional notes, photos, and promo art.

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