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Magnificent perfection

The best movie of all time

September 1st, 2003

BY CATE GARRISON

hollywood.jpgAll writers, rumor has it, fancy themselves as movie critics. What could be easier, after all, than expressing one’s viewpoint after a trip to the cinema? Doesn’t everyone do that naturally? Imagine the joy of opining for a living!

Me, I’m the proverbial exception, especially when it comes to my favorite film. I know why I like it, of course, but a list of splendid qualities hardly makes for interesting reading. What, after all, can be said about perfection? The best example of the best genre, the best casting, the best dialogue, the best music, a classic story line, a seminal role in cinematic history, along with all the usual best director, producer, leading and supporting actor categories — these are but a few of the attributes of my personal Oscar winner.

The genre, of course, is the western, America’s most spectacular contribution to the cultural history of the known world. Even as a child in the Northeast of England, I thrilled at the celluloid sight of men on horseback kissing their women goodbye as they ventured bravely into the unknown, meeting dangers at every turn, conquering outlaws, spearing rattlesnakes. When the other kids in the school playground formed chanting groups of “Who wants to play Cowboys and Indians (no boys allowed)?” I ran to join them, even when I knew they’d cast me as the villain, or the stay-at-home wife.

Now that I live in Oregon’s high desert, one of my greatest joys on the vast empty drive from town to town is to people the canyons and brushy plains with cowboys of the imagination. It’s impossible to make the winding descent to the Deschutes River between Madras and Warm Springs, for example, without seeing the cavalry or a lone Indian brave appear over the crest of the basalt rim rock. No wonder such dramatic landscapes became backdrops to the reenactment of life’s greatest moral issues: good versus evil, love versus hate, life versus death, the perpetual struggle of humankind against the powerful forces of nature. The western is America’s answer to ancient Greek tragedy, born of the times, mores, beliefs and countryside of its citizens, subject to rules and conventions, telling the same story again and again (the tragic flaw for one, the triumph of the good guy for the other), yet, in the hands of the masters, always original.

The genre, then, a given. The prime example… I hesitate, only because I know from experience that the title will provoke an outcry. It is without doubt The Magnificent Seven, directed by John Sturges and first released in 1960. Immediately I hear the voices raised in protest! “A mere copy!” they cry. “A remake!” “Nothing compared to the original!” The protesters refer, of course, to Akira Kurosawa’s so-called classic The Seven Samurai, on which my movie (as acknowledged in its opening credits) is based.

My answer to such criticism is simply that despite matching Kurosawa almost scene for scene, Sturges has created a masterpiece in his own right, or rather, has reclaimed a kidnapped masterpiece (Kurosawa himself admitted his debt to vintage Hollywood, and particularly to John Ford) and returned it to its rightful home. Sure, Samurai is more brooding, oppressive and subtle; with a running time of over three hours (compared to two) and a script in Japanese (a language I don’t understand), that subtlety can grow tedious. Sure, Seven’s youngest groupie, Horst Bucholtz, never, as an actor, reached the heights of the great Toshiro Mifune, his Samurai equivalent; here, though, Bucholtz’s naïve, high-spirited performance (more brawn than brains) suits the genre far better than Mifune’s poignantly comic, clownish sadness (more Belmondo than Borgnine).

And what of the other Six? I defy the average Samurai defendant to reel off their names. In my corner, apart from Yul Brynner as charismatic leader Chris (proving you can be a tough guy despite a wimpy name) and Eli Wallach, funny and ferocious as gangster Calvero, all the leading men were unknown at the movie’s inception. Their names now sound like a Who’s Who? of Hollywood’s brightest. I speak of Steve McQueen as laid-back Vin, Charles Bronson as the strong, silent Bernardo, Brad Dexter as avaricious Harry, James Coburn as knife-throwing Britt, and Robert Vaughn as tortured, tormented Lee — almost all of them destined to become giants in their own right. Here, together, they not only raised a last hurrah for the western heroics of yesteryear, they set the tone for later “buddy” movies about desperate men who cling to vestiges of honor in a world that repudiates their kind. (Sam Peckinpah’s brilliant 1969 The Wild Bunch would pursue this theme to its logical extreme.) More than any other of its kind (or any Japanese imitation), The Magnificent Seven is both a rollicking adventure and a turning point in the life of the Old Western genre.

Can anyone remember the Samurai score? I didn’t think so. Elmer Bernstein’s incredible tunes have become the musical equivalent of a household name, instantly recognizable, much imitated (even used, alas, in Marlboro ads). Can anyone quote a line from Samurai? No, really? Every Seven fan has a favorite from William Roberts’ and the uncredited Walter Newman’s impeccable script: “Never rode shotgun on a hearse before” (McQueen); “Was a time I woulda caught all three” (Vaughn, catching a fly in his gloved fist); “We deal in lead, friend” (McQueen again). Could anyone really describe the Samurai landscape? Charles Lang’s photography ensures that the beauty of Seven’s Mexican village and its inhabitants is indelibly printed on the audience’s minds. In Sturges’ efficient hands, no line of dialogue, no frame is wasted; the pace is quick, the moviegoer involved.

The story needs no telling: a group of gunslingers defend a village against a bandit. But in addition to classic Good vs. Evil, The Magnificent Seven brings us complexity. As the bad guy Calvera, Eli Wallach shows brilliantly how closely associated he is with the members of the Seven. They are all outlaws; the only difference between them is where they stand in this particular situation. Simple distinctions are blurred; we side with the good guys, yet we are always reminded that they are criminals, with no family ties. Calvera has his problems too, his needs, his men to feed. Harry, on the good side, dies believing that riches lie in them thar hills. Subtle as Samurai perhaps not; yet we come away from Seven with an unmistakable Anglo-Saxon angst.

Other movies attain near perfection. Some Like It Hot comes close. What about Bob? is a strong contender. But neither of those mere comedies can touch the glorious tragedy, the sheer, well, magnificence of The Magnificent Seven. Without it, not only later westerns (all of Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti offerings, as well as much of Peckinpah’s oeuvre) but offerings from other genres, from war movies to cartoons, would never have had their day.

The Magnificent Seven is perfect. •

Posted by: The Editors
Category: All Movie Issue, Garrison | Link to this Entry

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