Saturday, March 25, 2017

Stubs - Blazing Saddles

Blazing Saddles (1974) Starring: Cleavon Little, Gene Wilder, Harvey Korman, Madeline Kahn, Slim Pickens, Dom DeLuise, Mel Brooks. Directed by Mel Brooks. Screenplay by Mel Brooks, Andrew Bergman, Richard Pryor, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger. Produced by Michael Hertzberg. Color. U.S.A. Run Time: 92 minutes. Comedy, Western.

With the passing of Gene Wilder, one of the films that kept being mentioned was Blazing Saddles. To be honest, when I think of Blazing Saddles, which is hardly ever, I think more of Cleavon Little, but Wilder is very prominent in the film. It had been several years since I had seen the film and it’s one of those films that gets referenced quite a bit, so I thought it was time to watch it again.

There were many things that I had forgotten about the film and others that are hard to forget  (I’m thinking about the infamous campfire scene.) Originally considered as a parody of the Western and perhaps the death knell of that genre, the film was quite a big success, earning $119.6 million on a budget of $2.6 million.

One of the major themes that the film drives home with typical Brooks-ian overstatement is racism and not against the American Indian, but against Blacks and other minorities in the Old West, but mostly Blacks. As anyone who took American History in high school knows, Chinese workers were imported to help build the intercontinental railroad. According to this film, working next to them, if not downright outnumbering them, were recently freed Blacks. And of course, those in charge not only didn’t appreciate them, they freely used the N-word when talking to and about them.

The "N' word flies freely in Blazing Saddles.

It's 1874 when the movie opens and the construction of the railroad has hit a snag. Its planned path, it appears, will take it into a patch of quicksand. Taggart (Slim Pickens) has two of his black workers confirm this, Charlie (Charles McGregor) and Bart (Cleavon Little), being sure to fish out the handcart when it gets stuck, which is deemed more valuable than Bart. In retaliation for the sentiment, Bart knocks Taggart out with a shovel. Such an offense is deemed punishable by death and Bart is taken into custody.

Taggart, with his head still wrapped in a bandage, meets with the corrupt Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) the State’s Attorney General, who also happens to have a financial interest in the railroad. Taggart explains to him that the best alternative route would take the railway into Rock Ridge, a small white township. In order to get them off the land, Lamarr sends Taggart and his crew into the town where they loot the stores, destroy the crops and murder the sheriff.

Taggart (Slim Pickens) and Hedley Lamarr (Harvey Korman) go to visit the governor.

The townspeople meet in the church to discuss what to do next, with the Reverend Johnson (Liam Dunn) encouraging everyone to pick up stakes and flee. But Gabby Johnson (Claude Ennis Starrett Jr.), a wizen old man, gives an impassioned and mumbled speech, Olson Johnson (David Huddleston) praises as “authentic frontier gibberish,” which causes everyone to change their mind. Instead of fleeing, the town demands Hedley Lamarr send them a new sheriff.

Gabby Johnson (Claude Ennis Starrett Jr) gives an impassioned gibberish-filled speech.

But Lamarr gets the idea to send a new sheriff that will surely force the town to back down; a black sheriff, saving Bart from the gallows. With the approval of Governor Lepetomane (Mel Brooks), Bart is sent to Rock Ridge.

Bart (Cleavon Little) is the new sheriff in town, much to the chagrin of the town.

The town has thrown out all the stops in their welcome ceremony for the new Sheriff and is in total dismay when Bart rides up with his Gucci saddlebag. More N-words fly freely and the town seems intent on killing him, that is until Bart turns his gun on himself. Fearing that the sheriff is in real danger, the townspeople back down, laying down their weapons, allowing Bart to escape into his office.

Bart has to pull a gun on himself to get out of this mess.

It is in the jail that Bart finds Jim (Gene Wilder), whom he learns was formerly known as the Waco Kid, a quick-draw gunfighter. The next morning, Bart tries again to win over the townsfolk, but retreats back to the jail when an elderly woman shouts racial epithets at him.

Jim (Gene Wilder) is a quick-draw gunfighter who befriends Bart. 

Later, while enjoying a dinner of beans around the campfire, Taggart gets the idea to send in Mongo (Alex Karras), a near-Neanderthal, into Ridge Rock to kill Bart. But Bart manages to both subdue and befriend Mongo. Likewise, German seductress-for-hire Lili von Shtupp (Madeline Kahn) falls for Bart as well.

Mongo (Alex Karras) is sent into town by Taggart, but ends up an ally of Bart's.

Lamarr, now really mad that all his plans are foiled, hatches an even larger plan including the usual roughnecks supplemented by common criminals, members of the Ku Klux Klan, and if that wasn’t anachronistic enough, Nazi soldiers from the future.

But Bart is not to be outsmarted. With the help of the Black and Chinese railroad workers, who help in exchange for acceptance by the whites in the town, build a fake Rock Ridge three miles east of the real town. To give the townspeople enough time to construct replicas of themselves, Bart, Jim, and Mongo put up the “William J. Le Pétomane Memorial Thruway", which delays the raiding party as they search for dimes for the toll.

Once past the tollbooth, the marauders descend on fake Rock Ridge and wreak havoc. But the dummies are booby-trapped with bombs, which Jim, using his sharpshooting skills, detonates. Following the explosions, the townsfolks descend on Taggart’s gang.

Gunfights in the Old West were never like this.

The ensuing brawl literally breaks the fourth wall, as the fight spills over into neighboring sets, including one in which director Buddy Bizarre (Dom DeLuise) is directing a Busby Berkley-type musical number, of course, not of a subject Berkley would have handled. The fight flows out into the street outside of Warner Brothers’ Burbank studios. Lamarr hails a cab and tells the driver to "get me out of this picture."

Dom DeLuise makes a cameo as a Buddy Bizarre, a choreographer.

Next stop is Grauman’s Chinese Theater, which happens to be playing the premiere of Blazing Saddles. But as soon as Lamarr settles down in his seat, Bart arrives outside the theater on horseback. He confronts Lamarr and, in a spoof of the classic Western gunfight, shoots Lamarr in the groin.

Bart and Jim then go into the theater and watch the movie, in which Bart is telling the townspeople that his work there is done and that he’s moving on. Riding out of town, Bart finds Jim still eating the popcorn from the theater and invites him to accompany him to “nowhere special.” The two ride into the sunset in the back of a black stretch limousine, which drives them off.

Like most of Brooks’ work, post The Producers, Blazing Saddles is filled with verbal and sight gags in a throw-the-spaghetti-at-the-wall-to-see-if-it-is-ready approach to humor; how funny it is depends on how much you think sticks to the wall. Some consider the film to be very funny, in fact. The film ranked No. 6 on the American Film Institute's 100 Years...100 Laughs list. Everyone is entitled to their opinions.

An early example of a mainstream film with gross-out humor, a trend I’m afraid has only grown geometrically, Blazing Saddles doesn’t have the shock value it once may have had. Passing gas on film has come to be standard fare even for so-called children’s films. It was an easy gag for Brooks to use; the low hanging fruit of comedy. Given his writing background on television and film, I would have expected something a little more highbrow. 

The humor is a sort of Catskills meets Burlesque mix here with farting, women’s breasts, a man caught in mid-coitus running around with his pants down, a man punching a horse and racial epithets carrying the load. So much for raising the bar on the discourse.

Mel Brooks plays Governor Lepetomane in this "raunchy" comedy.

While there were five writers, including the late stand-up comedian Richard Pryor, credited on the film, as director, Brooks made the final decisions on what to include. Brooks got his start as a writer on television, perhaps best known for his work on Sid Caesar’s Your Show of Shows, which also featured Carl Reiner and Neil Simon on its staff. Reiner and Brooks also partnered for their now famous 2000-Year-Old Man act on The Steve Allen Show and on record, the latter which sold a million copies in 1961. In 1965, Brooks would team with Buck Henry to create The Man From U.N.C.L.E. spoof, Get Smart, which starred Don Adams.

Following the success of his first film, The Producers (1968), Brooks made The Twelve Chairs (1970). Loosely based on a Russian 1928 novel The Twelve Chairs by Ilf and Petrov, the film was not a critical or financial success. Brooks found no takers for his next script, another adaptation, this time of Oliver Goldsmith's She Stoops to Conquer.

Brooks, with the help of agent David Begelman, set up a deal with Warner Brothers. Brooks was hired along with Pryor, Andrew Bergman, Norman Steinberg, and Al Uger as script doctors for an unproduced script, Tex-X (a play on Black Muslim leader, Malcolm X), written by Bergman. Brooks posted a sign in the writer’s room, "Please do not write a polite script". (He apparently got his wish). Pryor, who was Brooks’ first choice to play Bart, left the writing process after the first draft. The film title changed, finally settling on the title, “Blazing Saddles.”

When it came time to cast the roles, the studio, citing his public issues with drugs, refused to approve financing if Pryor was the star. Other casting issues included the role of Hedley Lamarr, which was turned down by both Johnny Carson and Gene Wilder. His luck changed with his ad looking for a Frankie Laine type to sing the opening song and Laine offered his services.

But Brooks’ troubles with the studio over the picture continued. Warner Bros. objected to the constant use of the word “nigger,” the scene of Lili von Shtupp seducing Bart in the dark, the flatulent campfire scene and Mongo’s punching out of a horse, amongst other issues. But Brooks had approval over final content and refused to make many of the changes the studio wanted. Actress Heddy Lamarr would later sue Warner Bros., claiming the running gag on her name infringed on her right to privacy. She settled out of court for a small sum and an apology.

The film features a large cast of movie, television and even music stars. Count Basie and his orchestra play “April in Paris” out in the desert, when Bart is on his way to Rock Ridge the first time, one of the several anachronisms that populate the film.

Harvey Korman, perhaps best known for his role as sidekick to comedienne Carol Burnett on her long-running TV variety show, plays the lead villain here. I don’t think this film shows Korman at his best. I don’t think anyone really comes off at their best. I found myself feeling a little sorry for Slim Pickens, especially in those scenes where he has to grovel to Korman’s Hedley character.

While this film was often cited in Gene Wilder’s obituaries, again one of the reasons for us watching the film in the first place, his character is really almost superfluous to the story. His blue eyes and bright demeanor are not really enough to justify his presence in the film. Oh, his character’s supposed skills with a gun comes in handy at the very end, but it wouldn’t have taken much to have given Bart those skills.

Madeleine Kahn was apparently a little weary of Brooks in the beginning, balking at his request during the casting session to show her legs. But she would not only appear in Blazing Saddles, but also in Young Frankenstein (1974), High Anxiety (1977) and History of the World, Part 1 (1981). In this film, she’s playing a character based on Marlene Dietrich’s Frenchy character in Destry Rides Again (1939). While Kahn would receive a second consecutive Academy Awards nomination for Supporting Actress for the role, she does play it over the top, something that she would continue to do while she worked with Brooks.

Madeleine Kahn plays a Marlene Dietrich inspired role in Blazing Saddles.

The film’s star, Cleavon Little, seemed like a choice a little out of left field when he was cast as a replacement for Richard Pryor. Little, who had appeared on Broadway and on television, had never appeared in a film prior to Blazing Saddles. While he would receive a BAFTA Awards nomination for the most promising newcomer as a result, Blazing Saddles would be the most successful film he would ever star in. While Little does an okay job in a slightly awkward role, one can only imagine what Pryor might have done with the role. It may not have been enough to save the film; it might have made it more memorable. If Pryor had made the film, it would have been the first pairing with Wilder; the two would make four movies together, starting with Silver Streak (1976).

When the film was released it got mixed reviews. Some like Vincent Canby wrote that Brooks “With his talent he should do much better than that.” On the other hand, critic Roger Ebert gave the film four stars, calling it an audience picture.” It has a 90% rating on Rotten Tomatoes for anyone who cares about such things.

This was the second viewing for me and I honestly can’t remember how I felt about it the first time I saw it. However, my subsequent viewing did not make me a fan. While I like good slapstick, I draw the line at gross-out humor. They are truly the cheap laughs that are guaranteed to tickle funny bones, except now they seem to be the preeminent form of comedy. Why try to be witty when you can just cut to a bunch of cowpokes farting around a fire or have a man punch out a horse? I guess I prefer my humor with a little more thought and finesse, two things Blazing Saddles is sorely lacking.

Also working against it is that the bits aren't new anymore. No doubt there was a shock value when the film was released. I’m sure no one thought that Brooks would have stooped so low, but I don’t believe anyone has such illusions anymore. While he is a very funny man, Brooks will also do or say anything that he thinks will get a laugh. Again, I go back to my throw spaghetti on the wall; some sticks, some doesn’t. On a second viewing, I found that most of the gags didn’t land.

Saturday, March 18, 2017

Stubs - Westworld

Westworld (1973) Starring Yul Brynner, Richard Benjamin, James Brolin. Directed by Michael Crichton. Written by Michael Crichton. Produced by Paul N. Lazarus III. 88 minutes. U.S. Color, Science Fiction, Western.

By the 1970s, MGM was no longer the dream factory it had previously been. Kirk Kerkorian had purchased the studio in 1969 and was more interested in using the name for a Casino in Las Vegas than in making films. He placed James Aubrey “The Smiling Cobra” as the head of production and Aubrey went out of his way to change the culture at the studio. The Thalberg Building, named after the former production head, was renamed the Administration Building. He introduced a production budget cap and canceled two high-profile productions, Tai-Pan, which was supposed to have been produced by Martin Ransohoff and Carlo Ponti, and Man’s Fate, which was supposed to be directed by Fred Zinneman.

In 1970, the great MGM auction took place, selling off props, costumes, cars, and boats used in past MGM productions. The MGM British studio, the foreign theaters, and the MGM camera department were all shuttered. The famous MGM backlots were all sold off. A litany of filmmakers such as Paul Mazursky, Robert Altman, Blake Edwards and Sam Peckinpah all had negative experiences with the new regime.

Daniel Melnick was hired in 1972 to help turn things around, but there was only so much he could do with Aubrey still in charge. Three notable films would be axed at MGM and find their way to Universal: The Sting, American Grafitti, and Jaws.

It was into this mess that Westworld came about. The screenplay, written by noted author Michael Crichton, was shopped around to all the majors and subsequently turned down by all the majors. Only MGM’s Melnick was willing to take a chance. Crichton was aware of the studio’s reputation but assured by Melnick that the production wouldn’t be subjected to the MGM treatment. Still, the studio demanded changes to the script up until the first day of production and the stars weren’t committed until 48 hours before. Crichton had no say on casting and MGM still kept a tight rein on the budget.
Production would begin on March 5, 1973, last 30 days and take place at such diverse locations as the Mojave Desert, the Harold Lloyd Estate, MGM sound stages, the Sherwood Lake Ranch and on the Warner Bros. backlot.

The film takes place sometime in the future and opens with an ad by a company called Delos, which offers vacationers a choice between three distinct and gigantic theme parks: Westworld, Medieval World and Roman World. For $1000 a day, tourists are invited to indulge their fantasies of living in the past.

The film opens with an ad from Delos "The Vacation of the Future".

The three theme parks are located far from civilization and reached by a hovercraft ride across the desert land. It is on this trip that we’re introduced to Peter Martin (Richard Benjamin) and John Blane (James Brolin). Peter, we learn, is a recently divorced lawyer and is going at the recommendation of John, who has already made the trip to Westworld. John explains to Peter that the worlds are inhabited by robots in human form. In fact, they are so lifelike that the only way to tell them apart is by their hands, which Delos has not yet perfected.

After the hovercraft lands, tourists are segregated by their final destinations. John, Peter and a banker (Dick Van Patten) arrive at Westworld and are immediately outfitted with clothes, hats, and six-guns. They arrive in the park by way of a stagecoach and are taken to their rooms in the Grand Hotel. Peter complains about their accommodations, but John assures him this is realistic to how they were in the 1880s West.

Friends Peter (Richard Benjamn) and John (James Brolin) get to pretend to be cowboys.

Their first stop is a local saloon, where John orders whiskey. Peter originally orders a Vodka martini, but John corrects him. The whiskey is harsh-tasting, but Peter pours himself a second belt. But before he can drink it, the Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) bumps into him, causing him to spill it. Peter is mad and John encourages him to shoot the Gunslinger. The Gunslinger continues to taunt him until Peter decides he’s had enough and gets into a shootout with him, supposedly killing him.

The Gunslinger (Yul Brynner) taunts Peter.

After dinner at the hotel, John and Peter end up at a brothel, where they pair off with prostitutes. At first, Peter is reluctant to have sex with her but changes his mind when his prostitute, Daphne (Anne Randall), takes off her clothes and gets in bed with him.

After dinner, Peter beds Daphne (Anne Randall), a robot prostitute.

In the dead of night, as vacationers sleep, technicians come through the park collecting the robots who have been shot and/or need refurbishment. The bodies are taken to an underground lab where they are repaired. The Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) is alarmed by the recent and growing number of robot malfunctions.

The Chief Supervisor (Alan Oppenheimer) is concerned about growing robot malfunctions.

The next morning, while Peter is taking a bath, the Gunslinger enters their hotel room. Peter hears him threatening John, breaks down the door and shoots the Gunslinger repeatedly until he falls back through the window and falls to the street below. Even though John will testify that Peter shot the Gunslinger in self-defense, the sheriff (Terry Wilson) jails him until the hanging judge comes through town next week.

The Gunslinger enters their hotel room and threatens John.

But John has different plans. He sends an Indian girl into the jail with a plate of food for Peter. Under the covering cloth is a bomb, which Peter uses to blast his way out. John is waiting outside with a pair of horses. After shooting the Sheriff, the two ride out of town acting like they are desperados. While they discuss going back into town, a rattlesnake robot attacks John. That’s not supposed to happen and the technicians are duly alarmed when a guest has been hurt.

John and Peter shake off the incident and go to the bar and get involved in a knock down drag out bar fight between robots and guests, though there don’t appear to be any malfunctions this time.

That night while the technicians work on the robots, the Gunslinger’s optics and sound perception are upgraded.

The Gunslinger is taken apart at night and his optics are examined.

But the robots continue to malfunction. Over in Medieval World, a guest posing as a knight (Norman Bartold) has his sexual advances rejected by the server girl robot, Daphne again. When they bring her in for examination, they can find no evidence of malfunction.

Daphne shows up again in Medieval World.

But things go from bad to worse, when the same guest knight is challenged to a duel by the Black Knight robot (Michael Mikler) and killed.

The technicians panic and shut down the power grid, but many of the robots run on batteries and are not affected. However, the technicians can’t turn the grid back on and find themselves trapped; the doors and life-support for them also run on the electric grid and so they are trapped and running out of oxygen.

Peter and John wake up in the bar from the night before and start to make their way back to the Grand Hotel. But on the way, they encounter the Gunslinger in the deserted streets. Neither is in the mood for a gunfight, but John takes this one. This time, though, he is actually shot in the heart and Peter watches helplessly as his friend dies in the streets.

The Gunslinger shoots ...
... and kills John, while Peter watches.

Peter makes a run for it and takes a horse and rides out into the desert. The Gunslinger follows after him on his own horse.

The technicians themselves are trapped with the heat rising, no oxygen and little hope. All around the Delos complex, the robots are out of control and visitors are being slaughtered.

Peter comes across a technician (Steve Franken) stranded in the desert and tries to get some help, but the technician is far from encouraging. With the Gunslinger’s upgraded audio and visuals, he basically tells Peter that acid might blind the Gunslinger, but there is little hope to make it out alive.

Peter rides off and the technician, who is trying to fix his vehicle, is shot dead by the Gunslinger. Peter continues to ride until he leaves Westworld and ends up in Medieval World. Trying to use the creek bed to hide his trail, Peter only momentarily slows down the Gunslinger. When he arrives in Medieval World, Peter finds that there are only the dead bodies of guests lying about. Running looking for some place to hide, he comes across a capped entrance to an underground tunnel. Peter pries off the heavy lid and climbs down the ladder, but because he couldn’t put the lid back, you know it’s only a matter of time before the Gunslinger finds him.

The Gunslinger relentlessly follows Peter into Medieval World.

Peter finds the control room and sees through the still-locked door that all the technicians are dead.
The Gunslinger, using his thermal optics, follows Peter’s footsteps to the tunnel and also descends into the corridors below.

Peter ends up underground and where the robots were repaired as he runs from the Gunslinger.

Peter can hear him coming and keeps running. In the lab where they work on the robots, and where the lights are still on for some reason, Peter finds various jars of acid. Grabbing one of the bottles, Peter lies down on one of the operating tables and pretends to be a robot. When the Gunslinger senses him, Peter throws the acid into to the robot’s face.

The acid bath only slows down the Gunslinger.

While the robot is temporarily incapacitated, Peter runs on, entering the banquet room of Medieval World. There we see the immobilized robots and the dead tourist knight. When the Gunslinger arrives, his vision is affected and the torches on the wall help to hide Peter from his thermal reads.

Peter senses the Gunslinger’s weakness and when he charges, sets the Gunslinger on fire with one of the torches. Continuing into the dungeon, Peter hears a woman’s cry for help. After setting her free, he offers her a cup of water, which she tries to refuse. But Peter insists and the woman shorts out; she was a robot.

The Gunslinger, now charred by fire, reappears and makes one more try for Peter. But he falls instead. Even though the Gunslinger tries to get up, his face plate now gone, it’s finally over.

Westworld was released on November 21, 1973, and ended up being MGM’s biggest film of that year, eventually earning $10 million at the box-office. There would be a sequel, Futureworld (1976), released by American International Pictures and once again starring Yul Brynner. There was also a TV Series Beyond Westworld, but it only last five episodes in 1980 before being canceled.

Warner Bros. has been planning a remake of the film since 2007, but so far that hasn’t come to fruition. But in the never-give-up-on-a-failed-concept approach, a new TV Series, Westworld, has been airing to great praise on HBO, but then again almost everything on HBO gets high praise.

Even though Yul Brynner gets top-billing, his Gunslinger character is little more than an homage to his character Chris Adams in The Magnificent Seven (1960). In fact, the costume he wears here is a near duplicate to what he wore in that film. He has very few lines and is about as one-dimensional as a character can get.

Westworld is a precursor to Michael Crichton’s biggest novel to film, Jurassic Park (1993), turned into a movie by Steven Spielberg. Both stories deal with a futuristic amusement park that carries with it a sense of controlled danger for tourists and for which the safeguards fail. In both, the loss of power stymies the control room and unleashes a bloodbath of destruction by a seemingly unstoppable foe. Make the Gunslinger into a Velociraptor and you’re halfway to Jurassic Park.

Another thing both films have in common is the use of digital image processing; in fact, Westworld was the first film to use the technique to pixelate photography to simulate an android's point of view. Computer Graphics, to which this is a forerunner, would be used to greater effect recreating dinosaurs next to live-action human actors in Jurassic Park.

Westworld is one of those films you need to see so that you can get the allusions made to it in other films and TV shows. The Simpsons, as an example, have used the androids run amok when the family visits Itchy and Scratchy Land.

On its own, it is an interesting mashup of genres. Old West meets Sci-Fi had been tried before, but the idea seemed fresh when the film was first released. Not that the film is worth going out of your way to watch, but it does make for a mostly entertaining hour and a half.

Saturday, March 11, 2017

Stubs - Shane

Shane (1953) Starring: Alan Ladd, Jean Arthur, Van Heflin, Brandon de Wilde, Walter Jack Palance. Directed by George Stevens. Produced by George Stevens. Screenplay by A. B. Guthrie Jr. Based on the novel Shane by Jack Schaefer (Boston, 1949). Run Time: 118 minutes. U.S.  Color, Western.

As we’ve discussed here before, Westerns were at one time very popular and every major actor seemed to appear in at least one. Add Alan Ladd to that list. After a decade in films, appearing in uncredited roles in such films as The Goldwyn Follies (1938) and Citizen Kane (1941), Ladd would finally become a star by playing a gangster, Raven, in This Gun For Hire (1942). Ladd became known for gangster and film noirs like The Glass Key (1942), Lucky Jordan (1942), Blue Dahlia (1946) and Appointment with Danger (1951). While he would also star in such films as The Great Gatsby (1949), he would find Westerns later in his career.

He would star in such westerns as Branded (1950), Red Mountain (1951), The Iron Mistress (1952), Saskatchewan (1954) and Drum Beat (1954), though none would be bigger than Shane (1953). But despite his stature, Ladd was not the first choice for the role of Shane. Montgomery Clift was director George Stevens’ first choice. But Clift and Steven’s other choice for parts, William Holden for Joe Starrett and Katharine Hepburn for the part of Marian Starrett were not available. The film was nearly abandoned, but Stevens asked Paramount Pictures studio head Y. Frank Freeman for a list of actors under contract and chose Ladd, Van Heflin and Jean Arthur for the parts.

Jean Arthur had retired from films when her contract with Columbia Pictures expired in 1944. She had only made one film since, A Foreign Affair (1948), directed by Billy Wilder. Even though she was 50 at the time Shane went into production in 1951, she agreed to make the film as a favor to Stevens. They had worked together twice before, The Talk of the Town (1942) and The More the Merrier (1943). Stevens considered her "one of the greatest comediennes the screen has ever seen"; perhaps not a ringing endorsement for casting her in a serious western, like Shane.

In the film, Arthur plays Marian, who along with her husband Joe (Van Heflin) are homesteaders in Wyoming. Their son, Joey (Brandon de Wilde), is outside playing when he sees a lone rider dressed in buckskin approaching, Shane (Alan Ladd). He tells Joe that he’s just heading north. When Joey cocks the rifle he’s been playing with, Shane draws his gun with the speed of a gunfighter, which disturbs Joe. He sends Shane on his way.

Just then, a group of armed men rides up led by Rufus Ryker (Emile Meyer), a cattle baron who accuses Joe of squatting on his grazing land and orders him off. When Joe refuses, Ryker’s men start to intimidate Joe until Shane reappears at Joe’s side. The men leave, but nothing has been settled.

Shane (Alan Ladd), right, stands by Joe (Van Heflin), Marian (Jean Arthur)
and Joey (Brandon de Wilde) against Ryker's intimidation.

Marian who has been observing everything from inside the cabin, urges Joe to invite Shane for dinner. Joey is excited to have Shane stay for dinner. Shane doesn’t want to talk about his past, but after eating, goes out to chop wood for the family as a way of paying back their kindness. Joe joins in and the two men seem to bond.

Shane chops wood for the family.

Shane spends the night outside and is awakened by Joey playing nearby. Joey tells Shane that his parents want him to stay and mentions his father’s concern about Ryker’s threats. Shane decides to stay and goes into town to buy some work clothes at Sam Grafton’s General Store.

Soon after Shane leaves, another homesteader, Ernie Wright (Leonard Strong), arrives to inform Joe that Ryker had his men destroy his wheat, so he and his family have decided to pull up stakes and leave. But Joe convinces Ernie to stay long enough for the other homesteaders to meet that night.

Back in town, Shane purchases his clothes and then goes next door to the adjoining saloon to buy Joey a bottle of soda pop. Ryker and his men, including Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), are hanging out in the saloon and they try to intimidate Shane, calling him a sodbuster and tossing whiskey on his new shirt. But Shane doesn’t bite and walks out.

Chris Calloway (Ben Johnson), one of Ryker's men, tosses
whiskey on Shane, while Ryker (Emile Meyer) watches.

At the homesteaders’ meeting, Fred Lewis (Edgar Buchanan), who was in the saloon, tells the group about Shane not standing up to Calloway. Joey, whoever hears this, thinks Shane is a coward. Marian reassures Joey that Shane isn’t a coward, but tells her son not to become too attached to him.

The homesteaders decide to hang together and as a group, they go into town to shop for their Fourth of July celebration. Back at Grafton’s, Galloway again confronts Shane in the saloon, but this time Shane fights back. After a long fistfight, Shane knocks Galloway out. Ryker, who is there, offers Shane a drink and a job, but he turns him down. Next, Ryker accuses Shane of lusting after Marian. Despite Joey’s pleas, Shane gets into a fight with all of Ryker’s men in the saloon. Joe goes in and fights next to Shane, until Grafton, who owns the saloon, demands a halt to the action.

Joe and Shane fight back to back in the saloon against Ryker's men.

But Ryker isn’t through and sends for a notorious gunslinger from Cheyenne, Jack Wilson (Walter Jack Palance).

Back at the farm, Joey gushes about Shane to his mother, who is having her own romantic feelings for him as well.

The next day, Joey admits to Shane that he took a peek at his gun. Shane gives the boy some pointers on shooting. Marian, who is impressed by Shane’s marksmanship, doesn’t want Shane encouraging Joey’s fascination with guns.

Shane demonstrates for Joey his marksmanship.

Ernie complains to one of his fellow homesteaders, Frank “Stonewall” Torrey (Elisha Cook, Jr.), that because Ryker killed his livestock, he’s leaving. Stonewall then goes into town and criticizes Ryker for running Ernie off. Jack Wilson is already there.

Frank "Stonewall" Torrey (Elisha Cook Jr.) plays a homesteader who decides to stand up to Ryker.

At the Fourth of July party, which coincides with Joe and Marian’s 10th anniversary, Marian shares a dance with Shane. Stonewall arrives and tells everyone that Ryker has hired a gunslinger. From the description, Shane figures out it’s Wilson.

Later, back the house, Ryker’s brother Morgan (John Dierkes), accompanied by Wilson, confronts Joe. Claiming that his brother wants to seem reasonable, he offers to buy Joe out. Joe rejects the offer, pointing out that the government already recognizes the homesteader’s’ claims. Morgan points out that because Ryker fought the Indians and worked hard to make the land livable that he is entitled to a fence-free range, after which he and Wilson depart.

Back in town, Ryker tells Wilson to do whatever it takes to beat Joe. To start that process, Wilson provokes Stonewall, who has accompanied another homesteader into town. When Stonewall half-heartedly reaches for his gun, Wilson shoots him down in cold blood, killing him instantly while making it look like self-defense.

In town, Torrey confronts Wilson and is quickly in over his head.

Hired gun Jack Wilson (Walter Jack Palance) kills Torrey in "self-defense".

At Stonewall’s funeral, the Lewis family announces that they are leaving, but when a fire is spotted at the Lewis place, they decide to go back to their homestead and the others offer to help him rebuild.

The Lewis family announces they're leaving at Stonewall Torrey's funeral.

That night, Ryker sends for Joe, who is anxious to bring this to a conclusion, despite Marian’s pleas not to risk his life. Meanwhile, Calloway, who is leaving Ryker, informs Shane that Joe is being set up. Shane trades in his work clothes for his buckskins and puts on his gun. But Joe is determined to go and fights Shane for the privilege. The only way for Shane to stop Joe is to knock him over the head with the butt of his gun. When Joey sees this, he yells hateful things at Shane, but Marian is relieved Joe won’t die. She is obviously sad to see Shane leave. Knowing she’ll never see him again, she shakes his hand goodbye when she really wants to kiss him.

She may have romantic feelings for Shane, but it's a handshake instead of a kiss good-bye. 

When Shane rides off, Joey trails after him. He arrives at the saloon in time to watch Shane confront Ryker and Wilson. Shane manages to get Wilson to draw first and then kills him. He then shoots Ryker when he draws his gun. Morgan draws a bead on Shane with a rifle, but Joey sees it and shouts to warn Shane. Shots are fired and Morgan, too, is killed.

Shane outguns Wilson, killing him before killing Ryker.

Outside the saloon, Joey apologizes to Shane for his angry words and asks him to come back to the homestead. But Shane tells him that he can’t stop being the man he is and can’t go back. Joey notices that Shane is bleeding, but Shane insists he’s okay. Shane rides off into the night while Joey yells after him to come back, even proclaiming that his mother wants him to come back.

Shane says good-bye to Joey before riding off.

Shane would mark Stevens' first Western since Annie Oakley (1935) and would prove to be his last. It was shot on location in Jackson Hole, Wyoming against the backdrop of the Grand Teton Mountains. An entire Western street was built as well as a cemetery. Stevens also worked with artist Joe DeYoung (credited as DeYong) to create authentic costumes and decors. The two apparently traveled together and conducted research in order to achieve the most realistic look they could.

Shane was in production between June and October 1951 but was not released until 1953 due to Stevens' extensive editing. With a budget of over $3 million, Paramount wasn’t convinced the film would make back their investment. They considered selling the film, prior to release, to Howard Hughes for his RKO studio to release. While the deal fell through, Hughes’ enthusiasm for the film is said to have convinced Paramount to treat this film as more than just another Western. Despite Paramount’s initial misgivings, the film would also prove to be a financial success as well with a reputed box-office of $20 million.

While Shane was shot in the Academy ratio of 1.37:1, it was presented in Paramount’s new 1.66 widescreen format in an attempt to give moviegoers something they couldn’t then get on television.  Paramount’s decision to choose Shane was based on the fact that the film was made up mostly of long and medium shots it would not be compromised by the cropping of putting a newly cut aperture plate in front of the projector.

The film was well received by critics when it was released, some considering it one of the best Westerns ever made. The film was nominated for several Academy Awards for Best Picture, Best Director, Best Writing (Screenplay), Best Supporting Actor for both Palance and de Wilde, winning for Best Cinematography (Color). Stevens would be awarded the Irving J. Thalberg Memorial Award for “high quality of production for the current award year and preceding years.”

So beloved, the film was one chosen by President Dwight D. Eisenhower to Soviet Premier Nikita Khrushchev when he visited Camp David in 1959. The film was also one of five pictures chosen to tour China after that country lifted a boycott on American films.

While Alan Ladd was the star of the film, perhaps the actor who made the biggest impression was Jack Palance, credited as Walter Jack Palance. He is long, lean and dressed in black as the depiction of evil in the film. He seems to enjoy talking Stonewall into a gunfight, egging him on verbally while slipping on a glove on his shooting hand prior to gunning him down in cold blood. Palance got his first break in acting, as Marlon Brando’s understudy on Broadway in A Streetcar Named Desire, eventually replacing him on stage.

Palance’s first film role was in the film noir, Panic in the Streets (1950). He would thrice be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Sudden Fear (1952), Shane and City Slickers (1991), winning for his portrayal of Curly Washburn in the latter. He would also achieve some fame for hosting the TV Series Ripley’s Believe It Or Not (1982-86).

Brandon de Wilde would also be nominated for an Academy Award for Best Actor in a Supporting Role for Joey Starrett. Mostly known as a TV actor, Shane was only his second film. He was about nine when they were shooting the film. He had been acting since he was seven, winning a lot of attention for his role on Broadway in The Member of the Wedding and eventually playing the same role in the film version in 1952.

While de Wilde was acclaimed for his performance, I frankly find him to be a distraction when watching the movie. The frequent close-ups are so tight they seem to make him look cross-eyed. I know we’re supposed to see this story through his eyes, but I think Stevens hits us over the head with this a little too much.

Is it just me or does de Wilde almost look cross-eyed?

Like many child actors, de Wilde had trouble transitioning to adult lead roles, but unlike others, de Wilde wanted to get out anyway. Music had become his new interest and he tried to put together a record with the help of his friend Gram Parsons, then with the Byrds. According to those in the know, de Wilde and Parsons harmonized very well and even Parsons wrote a song with Emmylou Harris, “My Hour of Darkness” which refers to de Wilde’s death at 30 in a motorcycle accident.

Van Heflin, the other male lead, is remembered mostly as a character actor. A Broadway actor, he made his film debut for RKO in A Woman Rebels (1936), a film starring Katharine Hepburn. Heflin made Westerns almost from the start, appearing in The Outcasts of Poker Flat (1937) and Santa Fe Trail (1940). He also appeared in crime dramas such as the film noir Johnny Eager (1941), for which Van Heflin would win the Academy Award for Best Supporting Actor. He would star in Kid Glove Killer (1942), the feature-length directorial debut of Fred Zimmerman.

Adept at a variety of roles across different genres, Heflin appeared in such films as: the comedy/mystery Grand Central Murder (1942), the film noir The Strange Love of Martha Ivers (1946), the historical drama Green Dolphin Street (1947) and the Western, 3:10 to Yuma (1957). His last film was Airport (1970), in which he plays D. O. Guerrero, the man who brings the bomb aboard the airplane. (For everyone who has only flown in a post-9/11 world, this was possible at the time.) He would die of a heart attack in 1971.

I think I’ve seen Shane three times now. The first was in a college class and despite the professor’s claim that we would love the film, I don’t think I was the only one turned off by the prominent placement of de Wilde throughout the story. I remember the professor making the point that even though there were sexual sparks between Marian and Shane, she gives him a hearty handshake because of the production code.

In the intervening years, my opinion of de Wilde’s performance sadly hasn’t changed and I still find it annoying. However, I am now able to see past his character and appreciate the film as a whole more now. Still, I don’t hold it in the same high regard as say Woody Allen who is quoted as saying Shane, " a great movie and can hold its own with any film, whether it's a western or not."

I do see that it is a pretty good Western and tells a pretty interesting story about the struggles of homesteaders against the cattle ranchers that was a major part of settling Wyoming. If you’re a fan of Westerns, then you will no doubt like this film.

Saturday, March 4, 2017

Stubs - The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Starring: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen. Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Horst Buchholtz. Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman. Based on the Japanese film Shichinin no samurai, written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni (Toho Company, Ltd. 1954). Produced by John Sturges. Executive Producer: Walter Mirisch Run Time: 128 minutes. U.S. Color, Western

Hollywood has long had a fondness for taking foreign films and remaking them. Case in point Shichinin no samurai aka The Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. Released in 1954, the film was an International success for Kurosawa. The film opened in the U.S. on November 19, 1956, and would be nominated for two Academy Awards in 1957 to go along with the three BAFTA nominations from 1956. By May 1958, actor Yul Brynner’s Alciona Productions, Inc. had secured the rights to The Seven Samurai with Lou Morheim to co-produce and by October had registered the name The Magnificent Seven.

Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai was the inspiration for The Magnificent Seven.

Brynner was originally slated to direct the film and Anthony Quinn was set to star. Walter Bernstein was hired to write the screenplay and there was talk of the likes of Clark Gable, Stewart Granger, Glenn Ford and Anthony Franciosa to star. In April 1959, Martin Ritt replaced Brynner as the director and the actor took the lead role in the film. Later that year, Brynner sold his rights to the Mirisch Company, who hired Walter Newman to write the screenplay. Development continued with Dean Jones being considered for a role and Steve McQueen actually being hired. McQueen was already a Western star on TV’s Wanted Dead or Alive.

Early in February 1960, Anthony Quinn, who was no longer a part of the project, sued. He would lose that case but would file suit again in 1964.

Shooting began on February 26, 1960, at Estudios Churubusco, Mexico City, but things were far from smooth sailing. Morheim, who had been replaced as a co-producer, filed suit but settled for a share of the profits rather than on-screen credit. And there was the Screen Actors Guild strike from March 7 to April 18, 1960, which delayed things. According to his then wife, Neile Adams, McQueen even faked a car accident to get time off Wanted Dead or Alive so he could shoot the movie.

Publicity photo taken during the filming from left to right: James Coburn (Britt),
Robert Vaughn (Lee), Steve McQueen (Vin), Yul Brynner (Chris Adams), Horst Bucholtz (Chico),
Charles Bronson (Bernardo) and Brad Dexter (Harry).

The Mexican government wanted and got a Mexican depicted as one of the seven heroes. The character Chico was played by German newcomer Horst Buchholtz. But the Mexican government was completely satisfied. A Mexican censor was present on the set and caused further changes to be made. William Roberts was hired to doctor the screenplay on location. Newman took offense and lobbied to get his name removed from the credits.

Budgeted at $2,000,000, the film wrapped on May 3 and was released on November 23, 1960, featuring a score by Elmer Bernstein.

The film opens in the small village of Ixcatian. The farmers are poor and barely making ends meet. At harvest time, bandit leader Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his band of forty men descend on the village and plunder, taking food and goods. This is a common occurrence and the men in the village, with the exception of one, do nothing to stop the bandits. The one farmer who is fed up is shot dead by Calvera.

Eli Wallach plays Calvera, a bandit who leads a band of 40 men.

After the bandits leave town, the farmers finally decide they have to do something and seek the advice of the Old Man (Vladimir Sokoloff), a village elder. He tells them to go to the border and buy guns to defend themselves. When they tell him they don’t have the money, he gives them a gold watch to sell.

Three villagers head into a border town looking for help for their village.

Three villagers, led by Hilario (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos), travel to a border town but get caught up in the spectacle going on. Two traveling salesmen (Val Avery and Bing Russell) have paid Chamlee the Undertaker (Whit Bissell) to bury a stranger, an Indian, they found dead on the sidewalk. Chamlee tells them that he can’t go through with it, as the driver of his bigoted carriage refuses to take the casket to Boot Hill.

Traveling salesmen (Bing Russell and Val Avery) are told by Undertaker (Whit Bissell)
that the funeral they paid for can't go through.

Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), a drifter in town, offers to drive the carriage and Vin (Steve McQueen), another drifter, volunteers to ride shotgun. On the way, they’re shot at but kill the shooter. At the cemetery, a group of villagers tries to block their way. When two of the men draw guns, Chris shoots and wounds them both. The funeral can then go forward.

Drifters Chris Adams and Vin volunteer to take the casket to Boot Hill.

The villagers approach Chris and tell him about Calvera. He asks if they’ve gone to the federales, but they explain they can’t guard their village indefinitely. Rather than help them buy guns, Chris offers to help them round up a team of gunfighters. The villagers agree, but can only afford $20 for six weeks work, though they will also feed and house the men.

Chris spreads the word he’s looking for men. One of the first to apply is Chico, who, like the villagers, had admired the way Chris and Vin handled the funeral procession. He’s young and impetuous and is embarrassed when he fails Chris’s test on his quick draw. Soon afterward an old friend of Chris’ and a treasure hunter, Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), joins up. Vin also joins as well.

Vin joins the group that will eventually number 7.

The next day, Chris and Vin recruit half-Mexican half-Irish Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson) to join the team. Chris then observes Britt (James Coburn), an expert knife-thrower and gunman, win a draw with a deadly knife throw and considers him worthy as well.

Britt, an expert knife-thrower, is challenged.

That night, Chico shows up at the bar where the men have gathered and holds Chris at gunpoint, ordering him to draw. But Chris refuses and eventually the drunken Chico passes out. Britt joins the group and when they return to his room, Chris and Vin find Lee (Robert Vaughan) waiting for them. Well-dressed, but destitute and on the run, Lee needs the $20 to get himself out of debt.

When the six men ride with the villagers to Ixcatian the next day, they are shadowed by Chico. Softened by the young man’s resolve, Chris allows him to join the group.

Arriving at the village, there is no reception for the men. Chris accepts the villagers' reluctance, but Chico openly rants about their cowardice. But the next day is the anniversary of the village’s founding and the seven attend the celebration but notice the absence of the village’s women.

During the fiesta, Chris learns that three of Calvera’s men are nearby and sends Britt and Lee to bring the men back alive. However, Chico follows and inadvertently ruins the plan by shooting and killing one of the bandits. This forces Britt to kill the other two, one of who is about to escape on horseback, with a long distance shot. When Chico compliments Britt about his marksmanship, Britt complains “I was aiming for the horse.”

Trying to teach the villagers to shoot.

Back at the village, Chris readies everyone for the expected raid by Calvera. Over the next few days, the Seven use the dead men’s guns to train the farmers how to shoot. One day, while practicing his skills as a bullfighter with tame farm animals, Chico spies Petra (Rosenda Monteros) watching him. He learns from her that the villagers have hidden their women, fearing the gunslingers would rape them. Convinced that they have more to fear from Calvera then from them, Chris convinces the villagers to return the women.

Petra (Rosenda Monteros), a village girl, catches Chico's eye.

That night, the women prepare a feast for the Seven, but when they learn that the villagers subsist on beans, the Seven share their food with the villagers.

The next day, Chris is warned by the boys standing guard that Calvera and his men are approaching. When Calvera arrives, he is greeted by Chris, Vin, and Britt. Rather than flinch, Calvera offers to share the village with the Seven if they stand down. But when Chris orders him to ride on, a gunfight erupts. Unprepared for the gunfighters, Calvera and his men try to escape but are trapped by the newly built walls and nets erected by the villagers, thus allowing the Seven and the villagers to kill many of the banditos before Calvera and his remaining gang can escape.

Chris and the seven confront Calvera and his men when they ride into town.

That night, the villagers celebrate their success and toast the Seven, but gunshots interrupt the festivities and Chris sends O’Reilly, Vin and Sotero (Rico Alaniz) to find the sharpshooters. While they are searching, Sotero tells Vin that he is committed to protecting his family. Vin, in return, lets him know that he envies his familial bond, which he nor any of the other six have in their lives.

Even though her father forbids her, Petra is love-struck for Chico and begs him to be careful. But instead, in an effort to prove himself to the others, Chico sneaks into Calvera’s camp, hiding his face under a sombrero.

Meanwhile, back at the cantina, where the gunslingers and villagers congregate, Harry tries to get the villagers to admit there is a stash of gold or silver treasure, rumored to being buried in the nearby mountains, that is really behind Calvera’s raids, but there is no gold.

No one in the banditos' camp recognizes that Chico does not belong, not even Calvera. When Chico returns to the village, he informs the others that Calvera will be attacking soon because his men are starving. This news sets the villagers against each other as some would rather surrender to save their families than continue to fight.

The next evening, Chris and his men find that Calvera’s camp is empty, but when they return to the village, they find that Sotero has let the banditos back into the village. The Seven are surrounded. Calvera allows Chris and his men to leave, as long as they surrender their weapons. He tells Chris that he could kill them, but he doesn’t want the U.S. to learn about his operation. He offers to return their guns once they’re out of town. Calvera asks why they got involved with the villagers in the first place, Vin replies with a joke about a When someone asking a man why he threw himself into a prickly pear cactus, to which the man replies that it “seemed to be a good idea at the time.”

Before he leaves, O’Reilly explains to the boys who have been shadowing him that they should respect their fathers, who are truly brave for carrying out their family responsibilities, something he does not have the courage to do.

After the Seven are escorted from the village, they are given back their weapons. Chico explodes with anger at their treatment by the villagers, but Chris reminds him that he feels that way because he is the son of a similar Mexican villager. At this point, Harry, who is now convinced there is no treasure, decides he’s had enough and leaves.

The Magnificent Seven in action.

The next day, the six remaining go back to the village and engage in a shootout with Calvera’s men. Harry returns unexpectedly but is shot and later dies. Lee, who has been unable to draw his weapon, pulls his gun for the first time and kills four of Calvera’s men, before being killed himself. Inspired by the Seven, the villagers, including the women, come out of hiding and attack Calvera’s men. Calvera, wounded by Chris and dying, still can’t get over the fact that the Seven would return.

Lee overcomes his fear and joins in the fight.

Britt, who kills four banditos with perfect shooting, dies from wounds he suffered in the battle. O’Reilly is found dying by his boys and with his dying breath tells them to emulate their fathers and not him.

In the end, four of the seven are dead and those remaining of Calvera’s band have fled. As the three remaining, Chris, Vin and Chico, are leaving town, it is obvious to Chris that Chico can’t stop thinking about Petra, who is working nearby. Chris turns to Chico and tells him “Adios” and he and Vin watch Chico return to Petra and remove his gun belt, symbolizing that his short-lived gunslinging days are over and he’s ready to settle down with Petra to be a farmer.

After that, Chris and Vin ride off, leaving Ixcatian behind them.

Judging by the box-office, the film was not a runaway hit. Film rentals, not box-office gross, were $2.25 million, so the film was profitable. And as much as Hollywood likes to remake foreign films, they love a sequel more. This film spawned three: Return of the Seven (1966) starring Yul Brynner and Robert Fuller and directed by Burt Kennedy; Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) starring George Kennedy and James Whitmore and directed by Paul Wendkos; and The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972), starring Lee Van Cleef and Stefanie Powers and directed by George McCowan. Not surprisingly, none of these films were as successful as the original, but isn’t that usually the case with sequels? But good stories never die, especially when a studio already owns them. M-G-M, which bought up United Artists, produced a 1998-2000 television series, The Magnificent Seven, starring Michael Biehn and Eric Close, with guest star appearances by Robert Vaughn. The film was remade in 2016 by M-G-M and Columba Pictures with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett and Peter Sarsgaard starring.

At the time of release, the original film was met with less than stellar reviews, being compared as inferior to the Japanese original. The film was to quote Howard Thompson of the New York Times as “pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original". We’ll come back to the overlong criticism later. Kurosawa apparently liked the film so much that he sent the director Sturges a sword. The film’s reputation since its release has only gone up and it is the second most televised film in U.S. history behind only The Wizard of Oz (1939).

Criticized as being overlong (see above), The Magnificent Seven clocks in at a little over two hours. For a film with an epic sweep, the film is very well paced. John Sturges deserves a lot of credit for pulling this production together, given its location shooting, the egos on the set and the interference of the Mexican government. As far as length, given the story and in comparison with big films of today, The Seven’s runtime is not overly long.

This is a male-dominated cast, but unlike say The Expendables, these are actors who have yet to reach the peak of their careers. With so many “stars” not all of them get equal screen time, but there doesn’t seem to be anyone that you feel gets slighted. For the most part they play the sort of iconic characters they would make their careers playing. Bronson’s O’Reilly is the tough, muscle-bound man of few words he would make famous. Steve McQueen, one of the coolest actors to flicker across the silver screen, seems as right at home on a horse as he does on a motorcycle or behind the wheel of a Mustang.

But even though they are given varying amounts of screen time, I feel that we get to know a little something about each. As an example, Vaughan’s Lee is afraid he’s lost the touch, McQueen’s Vin would secretly like to settle down and Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck is always looking for the gold and treasure that he assumes is hidden somewhere. Even O’Reilly gets to have a few scenes with some village boys who are observing him and getting in the way. Their relationship is brief but both comedic and touching.

Yul Brynner stands out. The obvious lead in the film, Brynner was a sort of prototype for Hugh Jackman, an actor comfortable in a stage musical as he was playing a tough on screen. Brynner’s Chris Adams is so iconic that he essentially played the same character in the sci-fi Westworld (1973) and its sequel Futureworld (1976).  In those movies, he’s an unnamed gunslinger on the wrong side of the law, but he is wearing the same outfit as he did in Seven, so the reference is clear.

Eli Wallach seems like an odd choice to play a Mexican bandito, sort of like the casting of Sam Jaffe as Gunga Din. The son of Polish Jews, Wallach was born in New York and played a variety of roles throughout his long and illustrious career. A graduate of the University of Texas, Wallach would study acting under Lee Strasberg and make his Broadway debut in 1945. His first film role was as a Southern man in Elia Kazan’s controversial Baby Doll (1956). He would go on to make over 90 films and is considered one of the great character actors of all time. Eli certainly could disappear into a part as he does here as Calvera.

Horst Buchholz, who played Chico, is another interesting actor. German-born, he began appearing in films in 1954, but was new to English-language films. He gets an Introducing credit here, as this is, while not his first English language film, was his first in Hollywood. Again, an odd choice to play a Mexican, Buchholz’s Chico doesn’t really emphasize his background. He is the love interest in the film, being the only one of the Seven to have an onscreen romantic interest. Buchholz would appear the next year as a Russian communist in love with a Coca-Cola executive’s daughter in One, Two, Three (1961), opposite the great James Cagney. In a career that might have been, Buchholz had scheduling conflicts so he had to turn down roles of Tony in West Side Story (1961) and Sherif Ali in Lawrence of Arabia (1962). And he can blame his agent for turning down the lead in A Fistful of Dollars (1964).

While we don’t usually spend much time talking about music, this film has one of the great themes, written by Elmer Bernstein. For anyone old enough to remember cigarette ads on television, the theme was used to sell Marlboro cigarettes and their Marlboro Man symbol. You cannot hear this theme and not think of the West and perhaps now, lung cancer. The score received the film's only Academy Awards nomination.

The Magnificent Seven has so much going for it. While there are Westerns that I like more than this one, you would be hard-pressed to find a better one. The epic story still comes down to the good guys versus the bad guys, which is at the essence of every great Western. An Americanized version of a foreign story with one of the great testosterone-laden casts ever assembled, The Magnificent Seven is an enjoyable and satisfying film.