The Magnificent Seven / Return of the Seven Blu-ray Reviews: MGM Reissues Half of a Previously-Released Set

The best U.S. western ever to be inspired by a Japanese flick (and its lousy first sequel)
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It's really not something that's bound to come up in most history classes, but America has this odd tendency to remake anything that's vastly superior to what it churns out. Take, for example, the field of electronics: Japan makes these killer gadgets and doodads, which are in turn copied and produced by manufacturers in the States. The same goes for automobiles. The reasoning behind it all is simple: why would you even think about being a dirty Commie rat and shelling out the big bucks for some fancy-pants import when you can buy the much-cheaper, far inferior US equivalent (which, interestingly enough, is comprised of goods that are usually exported from China and Mexico) and support our own non-national laborers abroad?

We do it with movies, too. We tend to obtain more filmic inspiration from movies and literature hailing from Australia, Germany, Canada, Spain, Italy than we employ the thoughts of aspiring American writers. The minute a Hollywood exec sees even a semi-great moving picture that was made internationally, he goes about buying the rights for an American remake. Hell, all a filmmaker in France has to do is make one remotely-interesting feature in their entire life and they can write their own ticket from thereon in once the folks in Tinseltown see it and come-a-callin'. Action flicks, comedies, science fiction; you name it, we remake it. The reasoning behind all that is just as simple: we don't like reading subtitles or seeing foreign folks.

And, while the whole "remaking" thing really isn't something you would necessarily complain about (though some people do just that), it's frankly very amusing to think that one of our own "indigenous" genres -- the American western -- owes a great deal of debt to the Japanese once again. It's almost completely unfathomable when you stop and think about it. But then, I suppose art imitates life, eh?

The film in question is 1960's The Magnificent Seven, which is a reworking of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai from 1954. While there are numerous, conflicting reports as to who had the idea to remake the classical Japanese drama (as well as who bought the rights for the remake), the end-result is something that just about any admirer of fine film -- no matter what side of the Pacific Ocean they're on -- can agree on.

We open with a small Mexican village being looted (as it frequently is) by a none-too-sympathetic bandito named Calvera (Eli Wallach as a Mexican -- that's just smart casting). The village leaders, fed up with the regular raiding once and for all, travel across the border into the States to recruit some gunmen who will, hopefully, take them up on their offer of what little they have left to give. Reaching a tiny town in the US Territory, the villagers meet Chris (Yul Brynner), a veteran gunslinger who is just as adept in using his wits as he is with his gats. Soon, Chris has recruited six more men to help the besieged farmers south of the border, including Vin (Steve McQueen) and young, petulant Chico (Horst Buchholz as a Mexican -- more smart casting).

Their petite posse of peace fully formed, The Magnificent Seven head south (the movie was filmed on location in Mexico) to ward off the dangerousness of Calvera and his army. Charles Bronson plays an Irish-Mexican resistance fighter named Bernardo O'Reilly (and whose casting is only half as smart as Wallach's or Buchholz's), the inimitable James Coburn gets to fling a mean switchblade towards the opposition as Britt, and the great Robert Vaughn -- a few years from achieving immortality in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. shines in a sublime performance as Lee: the once ferocious gunfighter whose personal demons have caught up with him.

While the film's initial reception was greeted with mixed reviews, The Magnificent Seven has since gone on to be hailed as a masterpiece, earning itself a slot on several American Film Institute lists as well as going down in history for one of the most memorable themes courtesy of Elmer Bernstein. Most of its titular actors went on to become household names and box office biggies.

And then they had to go and make Return of the Seven in 1966 and ruin everything.

That isn't to say that Return of the Seven -- the first of three movie sequels to the popular hit -- is bad. It very well could be bad, but I can't say for certain. Why? Well, every damn time I try to sit through Return of the Seven, I wind up becoming immeasurably uninterested in it. It bores me. Big time.

Brynner is the only actor here to return from the previous film, reprising his role as Chris. Several familiar characters -- as well as places -- are also here, such as Vin, Chico and the Mexican village. However, for whatever the reasons were (and, once again, the accounts conflict) Vin is now played by Robert Fuller and Chico is portrayed by Spanish actor Julián Mateos (Spanish, Mexican -- what's the difference, right?), while the village from the prior picture has somehow moved from Mexico to Spain (where this entry in the series was filmed, as there were numerous problems between the gringos and the locals).

Filling in for the other four magnificent fellers are Warren Oates, Claude Akins (and his patented broadened backside), Portuguese actor Virgilio Teixeira (Portuguese, Spanish, Mexican -- what's the difference?) and newbie Jordan Christopher -- the latter of whom never really went on to do anything else. Fernando Rey co-stars as a priest, while Emilio "El Indio" Fernández turns in one of the forgettable film's few interesting performances: a part that is only as appealing as it is since his demise (spoiler!) is coated with a teeny bit of gore as the film draws its conclusion. This was just a few years before The Wild Bunch (which also featured Warren Oates) hit screens, and around the same time Herschell Gordon Lewis was stirring the waves of an otherwise conservative film industry by making his infamous gore flicks.

Previously released in The Magnificent Seven Collection Blu-ray set, both The Magnificent Seven and Return of the Seven (which is titled Return of the Magnificent Seven on the box art) are now available as separate standalone releases. Anyone that already has the earlier-issued set (which also includes the latter two entries of the series, Guns of the Magnificent Seven and The Magnificent Seven Ride!, which don't even benefit from Yul Brynner's presence, and star George Kennedy and Lee Van Cleef as Chris, respectively) has no need to pick these two titles up, as these discs are identical to the ones found in the franchise collection.

Both films boast 1080p/AVC transfers and are presented in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. The video quality here is a vast improvement over the old Standard-Definition DVDs I saw when the sequels were first released on disc in the early '00s. Colors are bright, details are crisp and the contrast is near-perfect on the first film, while Return of the Seven sports a slightly less impressive video transfer: it's nice, but it's nowhere near as awe-inspiring as the video presentation on the first disc. Each film has a new DTS-HD Master Audio 5.1 soundtrack at the aural helm, both of which deliver quite well. Only the first film features any other audio options: an English 2.0 mono mix and a Spanish 5.1 Dolby Digital track. Optional subtitles in English (SDH), French and Spanish are available on both titles.

Since these discs are the same as those included in the 2010 Blu-ray set, the same array of special features are present. The Magnificent Seven includes an audio commentary with select (living) cast and crew of the film, and has been carried over from the 2006 Two-Disc Collector's Edition DVD. Several featurettes -- "Guns For Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven," "Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven," and "The Linen Book: Lost Images from The Magnificent Seven" -- as well as a couple of trailers have also been ported over from the 2006 DVD release. Return of the Seven only carries a theatrical trailer.

While the whole purpose behind these standalone Blu-ray re-issues are as questionable as those American-made knockoffs of Japanese electronics, I suppose that the re-release of The Magnificent Seven is ideal for people who only want to own the first film in High-Def and don't want to splurge on the Blu-ray set. But as to why in Hell they put out Return of the Seven on its own, too, is utterly beyond me.

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