Heller in Pink Tights (1960) ****

Sophia Loren is enjoying a swansong with the Netflix feature The Life Ahead (2020), which may well net here another Oscar nomination to add to two wins for Two Women (1960) and an Honorary Award in 1991 and a previous nomination for Marriage Italian-Style (1964). She has dined at the Hollywood high table for over 60 years since taking America by storm in 1957 in a three-film blast comprising Boy on a Dolphin with Alan Ladd, The Pride and the Passion with Cary Grant and Frank Sinatra and Legend of the Lost with John Wayne. She was one of the greatest leading ladies of the second half of the twentieth century, combining style with ability. If you want an idea of how mesmerising she was in her pomp, check out this little number – Heller in Pink Tights.

Taken on its own merits, George Cukor’s western is a highly enjoyable romp. Hardly your first choice for the genre, Cukor ignores the tenets laid down by John Ford and Howard Hawks and the film is all the better for it. Although there are stagecoach chases, gunfighters and Native Americans, don’t expect upstanding citizens rescuing good folk.

Instead of stunning vistas Cukor chooses to spend his budget on lavish costumes and sets. You can see he knows how to use a colour palette, and there is red or a tinge of it in every scene (to the extent of rather a lot of red-haired folk), and although this might not be your bag – and you may not even notice it – it is what makes a Cukor production so lush. The film might start with comedic overtones but by the end you realise it is serious after all.

Sophia Loren is the coquettish leading lady and Anthony Quinn the actor-manager of a theatrical company managing to stay one step ahead of its creditors, in the main thanks to Loren’s capacity for spending money she doesn’t have. Of course, once a gunfighter (Steve Forrest) wins Loren in a poker game, things go askew.  Quinn had never convinced me as a romantic lead, but here there is genuine charisma between the two stars.

Loren is at her most alluring, in dazzling outfits and occasionally in costumes as skin-tight as censors would allow in those days, but with a tendency to use beauty as a means to an end, with the conviction that a smile (or occasionally more) will see her out of any scrape. There is no doubt she is totally beguiling. But that is not enough for Quinn, as she is inclined to include him in her list of dupes.

While primarily a love story crossed with a tale of theatrical woes set against the backdrop of a western, when it comes to dealing with the tropes of the genre Cukor blows it out of the water.  We open with a stagecoach chase but our heroes are only racing away from debt until they reach the safety of a state line. We have a gunfighter, but instead of a shoot-out being built up, minutes ticking by as tension rises, Cukor’s gunman just shoots people in sudden matter-of-fact fashion.

Best of all, Cukor extracts tremendous comedy from the overbearing actors, each convinced of their own genius, and the petty jealousies and intrigue that are endemic in such a troupe. An everyday story of show-folk contains as much incipient drama as the more angst-ridden A Star Is Born (1954), his previous venture into this arena. From the guy who gave us The Philadelphia Story (1940) with all its sophisticated comedy, it’s quite astonishing that Cukor extracts so much from a picture where the laughs, mostly from throwaway lines, are derived from less substantial material.

Quinn (his third film in a row with Cukor) has never been better, no Oscar-bait this time round, just a genuine guy, pride always to the forefront, king of his domain inside his tiny theatrical kingdom, out of his depth in the big wide world, and unable to contain the “heller.” I won’t spoil it for you but there are two wonderful character-driven twists that set the world to rights.

There is a tremendous supporting cast with former silent film star Ramon Novarro (Ben-Hur: A Tale of the Christ, 1925) as a duplicitous businessman, former child star Margaret O’Brien, another star from a previous era in Edmund Lowe (Cukor’s Dinner at Eight, 1933), and Eileen Eckhart. Dudley Nichols (Stagecoach, 1939) and Walter Bernstein, who wrote a previous Loren romance That Kind of Women (1959) and had a hand in The Magnificent Seven (1960), do an excellent job of adapting the Louis L’Amour source novel Heller with a Gun, especially considering that contained an entirely different story.

Invitation to a Gunfighter (1964) ****

If ever a movie was in sore need of reappraisal it’s Richard Wilson’s western, which encountered both audience and critical indifference on initial release. If you’ve heard of Wilson at all it will, hopefully, either be down to his connection with Orson Welles or from his crime duo Capone (1959) with Rod Steiger and Pay or Die (1960) with Ernest Borgnine.  On the other hand, you may be more familiar with the name from the Ma and Pa Kettle series in the 1950s or perhaps raunchy comedy Three in the Attic (1968). Or because he was an unlikely contender for the triple-hyphenate position (writer-producer-director) held on the Hollywood scene by the likes of Billy Wilder and less-heralded figures such as John Lemont on the recently-reviewed The Frightened City (1961).

Wilson was not first choice to direct since the western had been on the Stanley Kramer company slate since 1957 when it was planned for Paul Stanley before it moved in 1961 into Hubert Cornfield’s orbit with a script by James Lee Barratt and then repossessed by Kramer when Rod Steiger was briefly attached. The film, backed financially by Kramer, barely rates a paragraph in the director’s autobiography in which he describes the picture as “an adult western with a somewhat complicated plot.” There’s no getting past the fact that the plot is complicated, but it’s not the plot but the characters that held me in thrall. Kramer thought the film contained elements of High Noon (1952). But for me the starting point was surely The Magnificent Seven (1960) and not just because Yul Brynner played a gunfighter complete with black outfit and cigar. It wasn’t Brynner’s look in the previous western that brought me to that conclusion, but the scene where the gunfighters sit around talking about where their career has taken them – to precisely nowhere: no wives, no family, no home.

Invitation to a Gunfighter makes more sense as an adult sequel to The Magnificent Seven than any of that movie’s other retreads. Imagine that Brynner, despite the boost to his esteem from beating the Mexican bandits, had not shaken off what we would most likely classify these days as a malaise or a depression. He is trying to make sense of a life that has proved unfulfilled. His options are salvation or suicide. At some point he will come up against a quicker gun, so it is suicide to continue in this profession.

But this Brynner is also close kin to Clint Eastwood’s man with no name, the mercenary who takes full advantage of his power in lawless towns, and especially to the later embodiment of such a character in High Plains Drifter (1973). (Perhaps Eastwood got the idea of renaming the town ‘Hell’ and painting it red from the scene where Brynner, fed up with the hypocrisy of the righteous townspeople, goes on a drunken wrecking spree.) However, Brynner is far from anonymous. His name is so rich – Jules Gaspard D’Estaing – that the locals curtail it to the more peremptory Jewel. And this Brynner is cultured. He plays the spinet (a kind of harpsichord) and the guitar, sings, quotes poetry and cleans up at poker. He is sweet to old ladies, but that is in the guise of righting wrongs. And he is defender of the under-privileged, in this case  downtrodden Mexicans. He was himself the son of a slave. The most compelling aspect of this picture is that despite knowing so much about him he remains mysterious.

Brynner wasn’t the two-fisted kind of action hero, but more the guy who could disarm the opposition with a mean stare, and charm women with his brooding good looks. As mentioned, the plot is complicated so to get the best out of the picture you need to kind of set that to one side. Simply put, Confederate soldier George Segal, returning from the Civil War, finds his farm has been appropriated and his sweetheart Ruth Adams (Janice Rule) has married someone else, the one-armed Crane Adams (Clifford David). Brynner is brought in to get rid of Segal who is causing a nuisance to the town’s immoral hierarchy.

So the story, rather than the plot, is the interaction between these four. Crane Adams clearly wants any opportunity to kill off his rival. Equally, Segal wants to win Rule back. And Brynner finds himself unexpectedly drawn to the sad, pensive Rule, abandoning the Santa Fe stagecoach on catching a glimpse of her, only hired when the townsfolk discover his occupation. Brynner has a fantasy of taking her away from all this, the pair of them riding off together, and there is no doubt Rule is tempted as he implants himself in their household and shows himself to have everything her husband, or Segal for that matter, lacks. Perhaps the best thing about the movie is that nothing is clear cut. Our sympathy shifts from Brynner to Segal to Rule. Even when Brynner brings the town’s hierarchy to heel, there is no guarantee that will be enough to win over Rule. And if he cannot have her, what does he have? The Eastwood loner never seems to care about emotional involvement, he just takes what he wants, but the Brynner character is more sensitive and does not want a one-sided relationship based solely on power.

For the movie to work at all, Rule needs to engage our sympathies. Having clearly been somewhat mercenary herself in discarding Segal in favor of Crane Adams (presumably not originally disabled), she needs to portray a woman who is not just going to jump at the next best thing.  Rule is especially good, far better than in more showy roles in Alvarez Kelly (1966) and The Chase (1966). Never given the opportunity to verbalize her emotions, nonetheless in scene after scene her quiet anguish is shown on her face. Magnificent Seven alumni Brad Dexter and John Alonzo (later the famed cinematographer) have small parts.

I certainly saw a different picture to the “offbeat but confusing western” viewed by Variety’s critic and possibly, for once, because the passage of time has allowed this film to be seen in a new light. Rather than a morality play in the vein of High Noon, I saw it as a character study of a gunfighter knocking on heaven’s door.

Many of the films made in the 1960s are now available free-to-view on a variety of television channels and on Youtube but if you’ve got no luck there, then here’s the DVD.

How I Came To Write “The Making of The Magnificent Seven”

To round off my week of celebration of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve made a 10-minute video for Youtube (link below). A number of people contacted me to ask why I wrote the book in the first place. As that was quite unusual in itself, I thought i would explain myself.

A decade ago as a treat to myself I purchased an annual subscription at considerable expense to the archive of daily trade magazine Variety. This allowed me to look back at over 100 years of this legendary publication. I used to just pop around the archive wherever fancy took me. At the time I was – and still am – a box office hound. Every week Variety published upwards of three pages of box office stats, listing how movies performed in all the major cities in America. I was poking around the stats for Butterfield 8 (1960) which delivered sensational figures wherever it opened. Every now and then I would come across a listing for The Magnificent Seven and since that was one of my favorite pictures I back-tracked a few months to see how well it had opened in New York.

I must have spent well over a week going over again and again three months of box office figures. Again and again because I couldn’t find any mention of how well the movie had done in New York. I went through the pages with a fine tooth comb, thinking I must just have missed it. But once I had done that, I came to the conclusion that the movie had not opened in New York at all. In those days, every big picture opened at one of the top theaters in or around Broadway. And The Magnificent Seven counted as a big picture. When I got to the year-end results – Variety published an annual chart – I realized the movie had not done well at all. It was, in fact, a flop.

So I began to wonder why a movie that I had always considered a big hit had been the reverse. I judged it a hit because it was reissued several times. It popped up every time there was a sequel, sometimes in a double bill with another from the series, sometimes dualed with a separate picture. For about 15 years after its release it made regular appearances on the reissue circuit – and this was even after being shown on television in the United States as early as 1963.

It didn’t make any sense. Who would reissue a flop? Why would a flop inspire sequels?

So I dug around a bit more and eventually found out all about the tortuous release history of The Magnificent Seven and my research revealed more of its dramatic history. I became fascinated by the flop that became a hit. It took me more than three years to find out as much as I could about the film from a variety of sources – including the United Artists and Mirisch archives held at the University of Wisconsin, and other trade publications like Box Office, Motion Picture Daily and Motion Picture Herald – and conversations with the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and anybody else I could find who had anything to do with the film. And then it took another year to write the book.

The story behind the making of The Magnificent Seven could have been a thriller itself. Filming was delayed for two years and on the eve of the shoot nearly halted by an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, interference by the Mexican government and two million-dollar lawsuits. Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and even Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (then world heavyweight champion) were all considered for roles. Anthony Quinn was fired.

The book also reveals how Brynner became the biggest independent producer in Hollywood, why United Artists hated it and denied it a prestigious premiere in New York and why it subsequently flopped at the box office. Also revealed is the truth behind the Brynner-McQueen feud and the scene-stealing battle among the actors. The landmark study also forensically examines the screenplay and shows for the first time who – out of the seven screenwriters involved – wrote what, as well as providing a critical examination of the direction.

Youtube Link below.

Guns of The Magnificent Seven (1969) ***

Tomorrow is the 60th anniversary of the release of the original The Magnificent Seven, and this marks the end of my week-long tribute to the picture and its impact on the American western.

Timing was the biggest obstacle standing in the way of the second sequel. This was the year of masterpieces such as The Wild Bunch, Once Upon a Time in the West, True Grit and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid as well as 100 Rifles, Support Your Local Sheriff, The Undefeated and Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here. I reckoned – as I explained in my book The Gunslingers of ’69 – that it was the best-ever year for westerns. But in the face of such competition there was little room for a retread of a retread.

The budget had been reduced even further from the first sequel, now down to a paltry $1.36 million. Director Paul Wendkos had only made two movies in the previous five years, low-budget programmers Johnny Tiger (1966) and Attack on the Iron Coast (1968), and was best known for the innocuous Gidget (1959). Yul Brynner ruled himself out and his place was taken by George Kennedy, making the step up from supporting actor to star, who had gained acclaim – and an Oscar – for Cool Hand Luke (1967).

As before, being cast in the film presented opportunity. James Whitmore (Chuka, 1967), who had the second lead, was the best known but that wasn’t saying much. Apart from Joe Don Baker (Walking Tall, 1973) and Bernie Casey (Hit Man, 1972), none made a subsequent impact. Monte Markham and female lead Wende Wagner were both drawn from television, the former from The Second Hundred Years (1967-1968), the latter The Green Hornet (1966-1967). Making up the numbers were bit part players Reni Santoni (Anzio, 1968) and Scott Thomas (The Thousand Plane Raid, 1969).

The script by Herman Hoffman follows the same lines as previously. This time around imprisoned Mexican revolutionary Fernando Rey (who had played a priest in Return of the Seven) funds the recruitment of the mercenaries. As before, each recruit is afforded an introductory scene. There’s an expert in hand-to-hand combat (Markham), a former slave who is a dynamite expert (Casey), a one-armed gunslinger (Baker), a knife-thrower and a chronically-ill wrangler (Thomas). On arriving at their destination, the mercenaries become less mercenary. A village boy is adopted. The villagers can’t make up their minds whether to welcome or oppose the mercenaries. Wagner provides the love interest as a peasant girl.

Instead of defending the village, the gunmen and trained villagers storm the citadel where Rey is imprisoned. This is well-executed with the help of a Gatling gun and explosives. However, Kennedy was miscast as an ice-cool killer. The picture also suffered from a dumbing-down of the violence. With a better cast and a stronger director, the material might have produced better results. However, as with its immediate predecessor, what’s mostly wrong about the second sequel is its inferiority to the original. Take away those comparisons and like Return of the Seven it remains a very watchable oater.

Return of the Seven (1966)***

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.

Lone gun – Brynner was the only member of the original cast who returned for the sequel.

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.

Pressbook – Selling The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Employing the marketing tools provided by the Pressbook were the main methods a cinema had of selling a movie to the public. In the case of The Magnificent Seven, the Pressbook comprised twelve A3 pages. As well as a range of advertisements, this contained plot summary, press releases, lobby cards, stills and material that could be marketed to television (a one-minute highlights spot and two 20-second ads) and radio (a double-sided record including jingle and interviews with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen).

While the posters on display outside a theater would be in color, those for use as advertisements in a local newspaper would be in black-and-white. Different typefaces and letter shading were used to ensure advertisements were as arresting when seen in black-and-white as well as color. Unlike today when one image and tagline is used to sell a movie, in the 1960s a studio would produce several different posters/advertisements with a variety of taglines.

This Pressbook came with a bundle of promotional ideas, many revolving around the film’s titular number. Cinema owners were encouraged to develop tie-ups with local retailers that might include the gimmick of a seven-day, seven-hour or seven-cent sale or one that ran from 7am to 7pm. Or in conjunction with the local law enforcement agency, come up with “The Magnificent Seven rules for Safety” or, with travel agencies, a “Magnificent Seven-day Holiday,” Mexico the obvious location. Radio station disc jockeys might come up with the seven best tunes and play the rousing Elmer Bernstein theme music. Stores were encouraged to put up displays of the record sleeves. There was even potential for a fashion link with department stores after adverts had appeared in Esquire and Gentleman’s Quarterly of Eli Wallach modeling menswear.

Publicists did not let the facts get in the way of a good story. Horst Buchholz apparently spoke seven languages. According to the Pressbook it was John Sturges who taught the actors how to draw. The Pressbook also gave the misleading impression that it was Brynner who was in love with the female lead Rosenda Monteros. Another article commented on the difficulties Brynner had on rolling a cigarette one-handed – even though he smoked cigars throughout.

The main tagline was: “They were seven…and they fought like seven hundred.” And there were endless variations of this. Sometimes “they fought like seven hundred” was sufficient. Other times this idea was expanded: “seven notches above the ordinary,” and “the matchless seven.” On occasion, there was tagline that summed up the entire picture: “the renegades among them came for gold…the firebrands came just to taste the excitement…and all seven came to wipe away the past.” In this same advert, each of the gunfighters was defined – Brynner “the leader,” McQueen “the deadly one,” Buchholz “the young one,” Bronson “the strong one,” Vaughn “the vengeful one,” Dexter, “the greedy one,” and Coburn “the rugged one.”

Some exhibitors came up with their own taglines and cut-and-paste images to create their own adverts. In San Bernardino audiences were wooed by “Savage hordes of kill-crazed bandits (hungry for women, gold and blood lust) against the flaming guns of the Seven.” Elsewhere, moviegoers were expected to respond to “a message picture handsomely mounted.” Among the self-made posters was one with women in a provocative pose, something that did not occur in the picture.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) *****

For an action-packed western, The Magnificent Seven begins with a piece of such subtlety that you probably won’t notice it. The credits appear over what looks like a tableau – mountains in the background, ricks of corn in the foreground. After a minute-and-a-half, the tableau comes to life, a tiny figure walking out from behind a corn stack and a few seconds later tiny horsemen – the Mexican bandits about to terrorise the village – enter  from the opposite side of the frame. This is a far more subtle picture than generally given credit for. Although the protagonists often verbalize their intentions, it is the visual that gives away hidden emotions. Charles Bronson hands a child a whistle, Steve McQueen looks wistfully at women doing laundry by a stream, Robert Vaughn braces his back against a wall to avoid combat, young villager Rosenda Monteros displays her true feelings for Horst Buchholz by soundlessly dumping food on his plate.

It is a violent film that questions the nature of violence. Whether being a gunman is fulfilling or detrimental. It is a film about standing up or giving in. Those new to bearing arms take the optimistic view, the villagers at first exhilarated by being able to tackle the invaders before falling prey to age-old fears, the young Mexican played by Buchholz idolizing the gunfighters. But the gunfighters themselves are a disillusioned bunch. Their calling has brought them neither wealth, roots nor satisfaction. When we first encounter Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, they are drifters, and impoverished at that. Charles Bronson chops logs to pay for his breakfast, Robert Vaughn is on the run without the wherewithal to pay for his room. Brad Dexter is the stereotypical cowboy, looking for one last big score. Only James Coburn appears self-contained. All are so poor they are willing to take on a job lasting six weeks for a paltry twenty bucks.

They might have a code of honour – but then again they might not. Mexican bandit chief Eli Wallach sees them as no different to himself. The villagers fear them as much as the bandits, to the extent of hiding away their women.  Of the seven, Brynner and Coburn are the only two willing to stick to the letter of their contract. The climax of the film might appear to be the battle royal at the end, but, in fact, the emotional highpoint has taken place some time earlier when the hyped-up Buchholz is brought down to earth by the gunfighters’ tally of their achievements – no wives, no children, no homes. The village, a nothing place in the middle of nowhere, has become more than a job, it has turned into a fantasy, a place where Bronson is adopted by children, where Buchholz is seduced into the life he abhors, and where the gunmen will give up their own food to the starving villagers.

The picture is surprisingly full of twists and turns.  The bandit leader is far more affable – a benevolent dictator – than such a role normally demands. And he is pretty savvy, so that at points the movie becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. The villagers go from despising the gunmen to hailing them as heroes to betraying them. The seven trap the bandits only to be trapped in turn.

And it is all held together with terrific verve. The tracking camera had never before been used with such skill in a western. There are two brilliantly choreographed knock-‘em-dead battles, added to which are several outstanding sequences. The 20-minutes recruitment section contains three such scenes. Confronted by an act of racism, Brynner and McQueen team up to drive a hearse taking a dead Native American to a graveyard, their sole reward a few swigs of whisky. Then there is the initial dismissal of the callow Buchholz who cannot draw his gun before Brynner has clapped his hands. And there is the knife-throwing expertise of  James Coburn.

While the hiring of the others – Harry (Brad Dexter), Bernardo (Charles Bronson) and Lee (Robert Vaughn) – is more prosaic, time is taken to establish their characters. Most movies do not waste time introducing secondary characters, but in taking all the time in the world Sturges gives the audience investment in these men. Courtesy of their actions, Chris, Vin and Britt have nothing to prove to the moviegoer, Harry is set up as the greedy one. Young Chico is most likely to get his head blown off. But that still leaves mystery about the shifty Lee and the inscrutable Bernardo.

Although roughly sticking to the source material, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven lacked its epic running time of three-and-half-hours. Cutting the film back to a trimmer two hours created a western with its own rules.  Yul Brynner dressed all in black, chomping on a cigar, barking orders, strode around as if he owned the place. But at the same time displayed the world weariness of his profession.  McQueen brought a new kind of persona to the screen. Coburn’s screen charisma was in its early stages but his easy lope and self-assurance stood out. Bronson demonstrated a taciturnity that could have spelled the end of a career never mind the start of one. Buchholz and Robert Vaughn had the hardest parts. The former had to bridge the gap between immaturity and responsibility and to shoulder the picture’s sole romance. The latter was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.

The Magnificent Seven was the link between the classic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and the more violent offspring of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. In previous westerns, cowboys raced to rescue for love, revenge or out of a sense of duty, never for anything as shabby as money. But this was a more realistic example of the genre and a study of the type of man who ends up as a mercenary. Civilization has  driven mavericks down to the border. The past has caught up with them.  Perhaps all the future holds is the prospect of one last stand.

At the time few recognized the terrific job director John Sturges had done in marrying action with the psychological and the philosophical. The only Oscar nod was for Elmer Bernstein’s bracing score. Sturges had become something of a western specialist. Six of his last ten films had been westerns. These included modern western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with Spencer Tracy, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) with Douglas again. But this was without doubt his masterpiece. He moved the camera with aplomb, he allowed time for characters to develop, he built up the tension, and he handled the three big action scenes with the skill of a proven battle master. Although the stand-offs against the Mexicans tend to hog the action praise, the hearse sequence deserves equal attention. For a start it is hell of a slow. The horse is going, understandably, at a funereal pace. And the hearse is headed uphill so we have no idea what lies ahead. In terms of structure and execution it is beautifully handled.

This month marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the film. It is supposed to be available on Amazon Prime. But if not there are no shortage of DVD options. You might also like to know that I wrote a book about the making of the film which is available on Kindle and Amazon.

The Appaloosa (1966) ****

High expectation can kill a picture. Low expectation can have the opposite result. I came at The Appaloosa with the latter attitude in mind. I knew the picture had been a big flop and that critics had carped – as they had done through most of the 1960s – about the performance of Marlon Brando.

Neither was director Sidney J. Furie’s style to everyone’s taste. And it seemed an odd subject – Texan takes on Mexican warlord to recover a stolen horse.

It is surely a slow burn, but it certainly worked well beyond my anticipation. First of all, Brando’s performance came across as natural, not mannered. Secondly, this was a real character. He was not a John Wayne striding into action to protect the underdog or a woman or out of some goddam principle.

At first it did seem odd that he placed so much importance on the horse given that said warlord (John Saxon) had offered him a more than fair price for it. But in one brilliant two-minute scene, expertly directed and with virtually no close-ups – the actor caught mostly with his back to the camera or in silhouette – we discover why. Brando has been such a disappointment to his father that bringing home such an animal was proof that he had made something of himself. 

The second aspect of this intriguing picture was that the warlord placed so much importance on this particular horse when he could easily buy any horse he wanted. But he was faced with losing face. His wife Anjanette Comer had tried to escape from him on the horse and the only remedy was to persuade the watching federales that Brando had previously sold him the horse.

When Brando refuses, Saxon takes the horse by force. Brando, in retaliation, and to save his own sense of pride, tries to take it back. He is not represented as a superhuman John Wayne  or savage Clint Eastwood, but an ordinary guy who soon finds himself out of his depth. The first time he fires his rifle he misses by a mile.

Nor is he burdened with an over-enlarged empathy gland. He not only refuses to help Comer, but steadfastly refuses to take her with him, not even as far as the border, until in another of the film’s lengthy scenes she explains the reasons for her escape attempt.

Few films have exceeded it for atmosphere. This Mexico is grim, pitiless. Hostility and suspicion are endemic. Women are abused and discarded. The standout scene is Saxon and Brando arm-wrestling over scorpions, played out against a soundtrack of scraping chairs and the poisonous insects scrabbling on the table. 

This is a brooding western played out by the actor with the best eye for brooding in the business. Furie is gifted – or afflicted depending on your point of view – with an eye for the unusual camera angle. Here I think the gift not the affliction is on show.

It was just happenstance that I watched this and The Chase (1966) back-to-back and I can’t for the life of me see what on earth got the critics so rattled about Brando’s mid-decade performances. This is realistic acting at his best. Where John Wayne or Clint Eastwood present a superhuman screen persona, even if for part of a picture they are downtrodden, Brando was happy to play very human characters. In both pictures he is just an ordinary joe – forced into action by circumstance.

This sometimes turns up on TCM. Otherwise there’s a very decent DVD.

Alvarez Kelly (1966) ***

It says a lot about stardom that Oscar-winner William Holden virtually single-handedly redeems Edward Dmytryk’s Civil War western. And this was at a time when the actor’s career was in freefall, not having had a hit since The World of Suzie Wong (1960). Although his good looks personified him as a matinee idol, many of his best performances came when he was playing against type, as a shady character, such as in this instance.

Dmytryk whose career encompassed The Caine Mutiny (1954) and The Young Lions (1958) was on an opposite career trajectory after box office hits The Carpetbaggers (1964) and Gregory Peck thriller Mirage (1965). Between them, Holden and Dmytryk just about save what was a misconceived project, an original screenplay by Franklin Coen (The Train, 1965). That it was based on a true story did not make it any better an idea.

The essential narrative is that Holden has driven a couple thousand head of cattle from Mexico to deliver to Union troops. Holden plays an “Irish senor” (as defined in the title song) whose Mexican origins provides an excuse to consider the United States an enemy, positioning him as a neutral in the conflict, allowing him to justify his profiteering. Confederate colonel Richard Widmark plans to steal the herd.  Had Holden been a patriot the story would have knuckled down to him trying to thwart such plans, but since he’s a free agent with no allegiance except to himself the film has to take another route. So this involves Holden being captured by Widmark in a bid to turn the Confederate soldiers into cowboys capable of driving the stolen herd.

That would set the film down a fairly standard narrative route of training raw recruits such as Holden would follow in The Devil’s Brigade (1968). But this film evades such a simple format. All we ever learn about the intricacies of handling cattle is that you need a hat and have to be able to sing. Instead, this is a more thoughtful picture about honor versus self-interest, about the human casualties of war. Unlike most westerns it’s not about shoot-outs and fairly obvious good guys and bad guys. In the main it’s a drama about conflicting interests and often how good guys will do bad things in the name their beliefs.

The film doesn’t take sides. Do we root for the Union soldiers fighting to free slaves or the romantic version of the Confederacy? Do we root for the immoral selfish Holden because he’s had a finger shot off as a way of bringing him to heel or do our sympathies lie with the upstanding one-eyed Widmark who has given so much for his cause?  

Holden is excellent, easing into the world-weary character he would project more fully in The Wild Bunch (1969). And I like his delivery, the pauses between words as if they are occurring to him for the first time rather than rattling them off as is the way of so many stars. Janice Rule is good as the errant girlfriend who feels let down by Widmark’s honor – and who is open to seduction by Holden – and has her own ideas about what she deserves from the war.  Although it’s tempting to say we’ve seen this craggy Widmark characterization too many times before, here he adds a further emotional layer as a man who eventually faces up to the personal sacrifices he has been forced to make.     

Action fans will be amply rewarded by the ending as Holden attempts to outwit Widmark.

You might also be interested in how this movie was marketed – see the Pressbook/Marketing section article published in tandem with this.

There’s a fair chance you can catch up with this movie for free on one of the Sony Movie channels but if you don’t want to wait or want to enjoy it at its best check out the DVD.

The Unforgiven (1960) ****

Largely ignored at the time and since due to similarities to The Searchers (and not to be confused with Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven)  this is worth a second look because it actually bears few similarities to The Searchers.

The overriding thrust (or threat) of the tale is, yes, forcible repatriation but this is a long way from John Wayne’s obsessive twenty-year hunt to kill an innocent girl. While it does ask questions about race and race hatred, it is as much an involving portrait of frontier life – breaking-in horses, cows on the roofs of houses, meals with friends – and a natural cycle of life, young girls bewailing their marital prospects, young men adrift in the wilderness agog at the prospect of visiting a town to see a saloon girl.

Audrey Hepburn plays a foundling, rumored of Native American blood, but brought up under the matriarchal gaze of Lillian Gish and fraternal protection of Burt Lancaster. But she doesn’t “play” a foundling, and certainly not someone unsure of her place in the world. She plays a skittish teenager on the brink of adulthood, on a spectrum between gauche and vivacious, who can’t make up her mind between a young suitor or an Native American horse expert and her suppressed feelings towards Lancaster. She is as apt to leap on an unsaddled horse as jump fully clothed into a river.

Lancaster has a more considered role than usual, a calming influence, sometimes an intermediary, sometimes taking control. Though some characters’ reactions to Native Americans are stereotypical, Huston does not go down that line.  Following the truism that action reveals character, there is a wonderful scene breaking in the horses: while white men struggle, being thrown off or otherwise injured, the Indian simply talks gently to the horse and climbs on board and rides it, revealing that Lancaster, who hired him, saw natural dexterity beyond the stereotype.

What caught my eye most was Huston’s fluidity with the camera. In many scenes, something interesting is developing in the background, in others characters move into frame or their reaction is momentarily captured as the camera busies itself on a more central activity. There are virtually no cutaways to subsidiary characters as you would find in Ford or Hawks. When an unarmed Lancaster confronts a small group of Native Americans at his ranch the camera tracks him as he goes out and then tracks him as he comes back, tension mounting as we wait for the Native Americans over his shoulder to possibly take action. 

The thoughtful and even-handed manner in which Huston handles the material is a bridge to his more mature later works. My only gripe was Lillian Gish’s very white face, as if she had never strayed from her silent film origins or never spent a minute in the sun. Otherwise, this is absorbing and rewarding stuff, and quite unlike anything else from the period.