Given United Artists’ predilection for speedy sequels – the Bond films, the Pink Panthers, the Beatles movies – Return of the Seven took an age to get out of the blocks. Production was in part held up because of abortive plans to make a Broadway musical with Brynner reprising his leading role. At one point it look edas if the sequel would again pair Brynner and McQueen. And at another point it was set as a 1965 shoot with first Larry Cohen (creator of the Branded television series) and then Walter Grauman (633 Squadron, 1964) in the director’s chair.
Production finally got underway in February 1966 in Spain with Burt Kennedy (The Rounders, 1965) in command. But where the budgets for the Bond films increased with every outing, this was on a reduced budget compared to the original. The film was less of a sequel than a remake (even to the extent of re-using Bernstein’s score). The three survivors recruit four others to save a village from a ruthless Mexican rancher. Brynner returned with Robert Fuller from television’s Laramie filling McQueen’s shoes and Spanish actor Julian Mateos making his Hollywood debut standing in for Buchholz.
A decent attempt was made to recapture the magic of the original by casting unknowns who could have a shot at stardom. Jordan Christopher was the pick of the wannabees. Although he had only The Fat Spy (1966) under his belt, he would go on to star alongside Hollywood veteran Jennifer Jones in offbeat drama Angel, Angel Down We Go (1969). While Christopher had the looks Warren Oates (The Shooting, 1966) was half a decade away from top billing although already his off-beat screen charisma brought an unpredictability to the characters he played. Making up the numbers were Claude Akins from television’s Rawhide and veteran Portuguese actor Virgilio Texiera, the former filling the gap left by the broody Charles Bronson, the latter as suave as Robert Vaughn. Perhaps as intriguing for western aficionados was Fernando Rey and Emilio Hernandez who would both become famous screen bad guys, Rey as the drugs kingpin in The French Connection (1971) and Hernandez as Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969).
Certainly, if cast was anything to go by, the ingredients were there and Kennedy would go on to a distinguished career in the genre (The War Wagon, 1967, Support Your Local Sheriff, 1969). But where The Magnificent Seven was a trend-setter, the sequel had nothing new to say. The market in mercenaries had been taken over by The Professionals (1966) and the western revival had been reshaped by movies as varied as Shenandoah (1965), Major Dundee (1965) and Nevada Smith (1966) – the “Dollars” films not released in America until 1967. Part of the problem, of course, was that critics who had buried the original had revised their opinions and were now gunning for something that might trample on that august legend.
But it’s far from suffering from, as Variety maintained, a cliche-ridden script and limp direction. The scenes with the villagers, herded away like slaves, are far grimmer than before and there are some interesting nods to the original. Where Brynner and McQueen rode shotgun on a hearse, here Fuller (the McQueen) character is asked if he will pay for a funeral. While none of the introductions can match The Magnificent Seven, this is altogether a more down-and-dirty world, a country of ruins and cockfighting. The quality of the recruits is lower, Brynner trawling the prison. Honor is in short supply, too. But in chopping pretty much half an hour off the running time, it moves along a fair clip.
Brynner is the standout and the sight of the man in black reaching for his gun still commands the screen. Neither has he lost this humanity and the sense of loss at having left the village is apparent. And while Emilio Hernandez cannot match the panache of Eli Wallach, you cannot help but admire his misplaced sense of honor. The battle scenes are well handled without reaching Sturges’ peak. Had the other actors stepped up to the plate, or if Kennedy had been accorded a bigger budget, it might have been a different story. However, most sequels suffer if all you do is compare them to the original. If you come at this without much reference to its predecessor it still stands up as a good Saturday afternoon matinee.
Return of the Seven is available as a stand-alone DVD but for little more than that cost you might as well get the whole set. Note: here it is called The Return of the Magnificent Seven.