Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen set out to bring justice to the west in John Sturgis’ iconic American Western The Magnificent Seven. A remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the film changes setting, character tropes, and some themes for a domestic audience but is every bit as majestic as the original film. Now on 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a gorgeous Dolby Vision transfer, multiple audio options, and a trove of worthwhile archival extras - Highly Recommended
Life has never been easy for a small Mexican village. With barely enough food as is, their lives are made harder by the sinister Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his bandits. After the latest raid, the villagers decide to pool what little they have to barter for weapons at the border. There, they see the cajun gunslinger Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) in action. Approaching Chris he agrees to help them hire some gunfighters willing to work for food and $20. With the gold-in-his-eyes Harry (Brad Dexter), the professional fighter Bernardo (Charles Bronson), the lethal but traumatized war veteran Lee (Robert Vaughn), the fast-as-lightning knife-fighter Britt (James Coburn), and the hot-blooded youth Chico (Horst Bucholz), Chris and Vin just might have a chance at standing down Calvera and living to tell the tale.
John Sturges had a storied career. Hot out of the Army making documentaries and training films for the war effort, like so many young filmmakers Sturges found himself making B-movies using recycled sets and costumes left over from the bigger shows. It wasn’t long before he was rising in the ranks throwing together major efforts with flair and style scoring his first Best Director Oscar nomination and Palme d'Or nomination with 1955’s neo-western Bad Day at Black Rock starring Spencer Tracy. Adept at a variety of genres, Westerns would define his career with high-line entries like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill, culminating with troubled productions on Clint Eastwood’s Joe Kidd and Bronson’s Chico (The Valdez Horses). But one Western above all others stands tall - 1960s The Magnificent Seven.
The film would spawn a series of lesser sequels, remakes, a hilarious comedy, and a television show, but this iconic original work is the quintessential Old West film. Taking Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, screenwriter William Roberts (with apparently more than a few uncredited writers), reworked the material to fit U.S. domestic sensibilities. The settings and the characters change but the essence is the same. While The Magnificent Seven could arguably be held up as the more “fun and accessible” of the two works, it only proves that Kurosawa’s influence would be far-reaching with the Spaghetti Western A Fistful of Dollars and Star Wars but two films that would heavily borrow from his work.
While Kurosawa’s spirit is certainly felt, The Magnificent Seven is the best of everything that Sturges could bring to the screen allowing the film to stand on its own apart from the source material. Characters are drawn simply and to the point, but you never feel like you don’t know them. You don’t need to have monologues of backstory to identify these characters or give them personality. The villagers are true good while our gunfighter heroes are shades of gray as the villain is allowed to be genuine true evil (and devilishly well played by Eli Wallach).
On top of the slick assured direction and cleverly updated script, the cast of The Magnificent Seven is pitch-perfect. A vehicle for Yul Brynner, he had control over who would be cast alongside him - including the then-young and up-and-coming Steve McQueen. Now there are plenty of legends about how the two didn’t get along on set (the setup for the Boot Hill Cemetery scene with the two titans jockeying for interesting screen presence), and their feud would last for the next twenty years. But apparently not long before he died McQueen called to thank Brynner for casting him and likewise not firing him from the film that made his career. I don’t know if that’s 100% true, but it’s a nice sentiment all the same. Outside of Eli Wallach chewing the scenery with the same swagger he brought to The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, the rest of the cast doesn’t come close to stealing the show, but they all have their moments.
The German-born Horst Bucholz threw himself into Chico with a manic energy to match Toshio Mifune. Charles Bronson was well, Charles Bronson - cool as a cucumber and looking like he was having a lot of fun. James Coburn doesn’t get to say that much, his knife is more than enough to make him look badass. Robert Vaughn’s Lee has the swagger of a killer but when the PTSD kicks in Vaughn gives the character real humility. Brad Dexter delivers a fine Harry with a redemptive arc, but he doesn’t get to do a whole lot with the role.
Just as important as any cast member, writer, or director we have Elmer Bernstein’s iconic score. That opening theme is The Magnificent Seven. You hear those first few notes and you instantly know what’s coming your way. Shockingly, Bernstein’s score would be the only Oscar nomination for the film… and lose to Ernest Gold’s nice but nowhere near as memorable work for Exodus. Even more shocking is the fact that Bernstein's single Oscar win would be for 1967's Thoroughly Modern Millie.
From Stagecoach to High Noon to Unforgiven there are countless classic westerns for any given era in film history. John Sturges just happened to make a bunch of them and some of them are genuine classics. The Magnificent Seven is one of his best entries in the genre. I love Last Train from Gun Hill with all the grit that film delivers, but this film is truly iconic. This is also one of the very few remakes that’s able to stand just as tall as the original work. Sturges, the cast, the writer(s), and Bernstein’s score made cinematic magic. It may not have been a big awards winner or a huge hit with critics of the time, but it’s rightfully recognized for its accomplishments today. Growing up in an Eastwood house, I can’t quite call this film my absolute favorite western, but on its merits alone it’s certainly one of the best ever made.
Vital Disc Stats: The 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray
After waiting around for someone to save it from Blu-ray, The Magnificent Seven finally rides high onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray from Shout Select with a new two-disc release. The 4K is pressed on a Region Free BD-100 disc while the 1080p and the bulk of the bonus features find a Region A BD-50. The discs are housed in a standard two-disc black case and the discs are not stacked. The discs load to a basic main menu with standard navigation options.
The Magnificent Seven charges onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with a beautiful new 2.35:1 2160p Dolby Vision (and HDR10) transfer. To be fair to the 2011 Blu-ray originally found in the Magnificent Seven Collection, that was a pretty solid disc. MGM was struggling with their classic catalog on Blu-ray back then and that disc was a pleasant surprise. My only gripe was I felt colors were too soft and pale, and then there was the image wobble, but overall details were appreciable and film grain appeared intact albeit a bit noisy. While I wouldn’t call this new 2023 4K a full leaps and bounds improvement, it is a very appreciable upgrade in virtually all columns.
First off are the fine details. Close-up and middle shots are richly detailed giving you full appreciation of facial features, costumes, and the film’s rustic set design work. Wide shots are especially beautiful for those open scenic vistas. Film grain is also much tighter and cleaner without ever appearing smoothed out or any signs of unsightly edge enhancement. The edges around optical fades and dissolves are still a little hairy with thickened grain, but there’s no way around that really - it’s a cooked-in effect. The telecine wobble that would intermittently crop up on the old 2011 Blu-ray has also been taken care of for a more stable appearance throughout.
The Dolby Vision HDR pass is also a welcome improvement breathing some fresh life into the colors. Reds, blues, and yellows all see notable enhancements while still looking natural and healthy. Reds in the opening titles and any blood you see is much deeper and less pale pink-ish than before. Blues are crisp without being pushed too teal with the skies taking on more of a cobalt blue shade instead of that pale baby blue. Yellows are vivid in the dusty vistas with some nice pop in flowers and clothing accents. Black levels are strong and natural and the day-for-night sequences look much better this go around allowing for more appreciable image depth. Whites are crisp and clean without blooming. I didn’t spot any notable damage, speckling, or scratches.
In addition to the video upgrades, Shout serves up three audio options to choose from - a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track (that more or less sounds about the same as the 2011 disc), a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Stereo track and a DTS-HD MA 2.0 Mono track. Of the three options, the Stereo and Mono are your best bets. The 5.1 mix comes to life nicely for the bigger action sequences, but most of the time it rides the front/center with Bernstein’s score kicking in the sides and rears to remind you they’re there. It’s alright, but not a great effort. The Stereo and Mono tracks just sound more balanced and natural without sounding too soft or forced. Sound effects crackle giving those gunshots some heft while galloping horses charge into the big action scenes. But for quiet conversational scenes, these two tracks hold strong allowing for vocal clarity without sibilance issues. All tracks are clean without any hiss, pops, or drop-offs.
While the bonus features package unfortunately isn’t fully loaded with new material, it’s nice to see that Shout was able to secure a bunch of the extra features from the early special edition DVD sets that didn’t make it over to Blu-ray. The group commentary with Coburn, Wallach, Mirisch, Relyea is still a great listen even if there are a few stops where no one is saying anything. The Christopher Frayling commentary not heard since the 2006 DVD is informative if a little dry. After that we get a nice selection of archival retrospectives and making-of pieces. Not the greatest selection ever, but if you haven’t gone through any of these before they’re well worth checking out.
4K Ultra HD Disc
For rip-roaring western action, The Magnificent Seven is an iconic entry in the genre. John Sturges took Kurosawa’s samurai epic and eloquently translated it into a classic gunslingers vs bandits adventure. With great performances from a terrific cast, this is one of the rare few remakes that is just as good as the original. Now thanks to Shout Select, The Magnificent Seven charges onto 4K Ultra HD Blu-ray with an excellent new Dolby Vision transfer, three audio options, and some worthwhile archival bonus features. Highly Recommended.