Anyone who thinks I don’t watch enough of the classics of old Hollywood is hopefully satisfied (or will be by the time this challenge is over). The Westerns were *the* films back in the day, as my father loves to tell me. They were distinctly American with all the struggles the characters go through, epic gun fights, (occasionally) beautiful women, classic conflict between good vs evil (white hats vs black hats to be specific) and heroes earning their happy endings. This film in particular is less of the classic Western (shiny and heroic) and more of a revisionist Western (edgy and gritty) where the message is “civilisation can only be defended from barbarians by men with guns, but the moment you pick up a gun you become a barbarian”. Nonetheless this film is most definitely a classic.
We visit a small poor village in the Mexican wilderness. It is a farming village and is often raided by a group of bandits led by the devilish Calvera. They steal food and leave the villagers just enough to survive but promise to return again. Three of the village leaders decide to travel to a small town just inside the American border in hopes of buying guns to defend themselves against Calvera’s next raid. There they meet a veteran gun fighter Chris who suggests that they hire men to fight for them, reasoning that would be cheaper than buying ammunition. After some persuasion, Chris agrees to recruit the men for them and ends up gathering six other men and leading them to the village. Even with seven gun fighters they know it will not be enough to stand against Calvera so their main hope is that his army will move on to another village when he hears he has a fight in store for him. Even still, they set up defences around the village and train the farmers to use weapons just in case...
I have seen a couple of Westerns in my time but I never watched them regularly (I’ve never even seen many John Wayne films, or Clint Eastwood films for that matter) so I’m not too sure about the typical formulas or clichés. I know there’s gun fighting and horse riding, and the traditional cowboy hats but that’s about it. So watching this film was a learning experience for me and I didn’t really know what to expect. I found out after I watched it that it was originally an American remake of an Asian story Seven Samurai so I don’t know if it stands out against the other Westerns when all I’ve got to go on is The Searchers and the first twenty minutes of Unforgiven. But watching it back I can see how these types of films were extremely popular back in the old days. I’m sure if I’d been a kid back then it would have been a proper experience for me to go and see these films regularly or at least they’d be the type of thing I’d get up on a Saturday morning to watch (I know I’m mixing up timelines here but I’m a writer, we’re allowed to do that). It supposedly wasn’t that well received when it was released but what did critics really know back then? I suppose they were hoping for some blatant Oscar Bait or something but we’re getting off track.
Let’s have a good look at the seven themselves; it is nice that they all get a good bit of screen time and some form of characterisation. We know not all of them are going to make it to the end of the film but it isn’t as obvious and there isn’t really any definite lambs for slaughter already marked as they are in so many of these modern action films (I don’t hate everything new but that’s a big problem with a lot of films, not just the action genre). Chris of course is our reluctant leader, played pretty well by Yul Brynner and his Bald of Awesome. I was wondering if we were going to get an actual reason in the film for why Chris was bald (scalped by Indians maybe?) but anyway he is our resident badass and he brings something different to the table that the likes of John Wayne and Clint Eastwood wouldn’t have been able to do in my opinion. He’s a lot more subtle and withdrawn in his performance, giving his character a bit of a mysterious edge. Up alongside him we have Vin, played by Steve McQueen. I liked Vin who was the veteran out of all of them and admits how much he doesn’t really like the lifestyle he’s chosen for himself. My favourite character is the young hothead Chico (Horst Buchholz) who just commands every scene he’s in and makes it enjoyable, except maybe for one random moment where he spies a bull and pretends to be a matador.
There’s also Charles Bronson playing Bernardo, the heart of the group who becomes popular with the village children (in a cute, non-creepy way). Brad Dexter plays Harry, the one who’s in it for the money and is convinced that there is some form of hidden fortune in the village and that by default makes him the most likely to say “screw this, I’m outta here”. Robert Vaughn plays Lee, someone who’s haunted by all the men he’s killed and has some pretty bad nightmares though is always doing battle wearing his Sunday best for some reason. Finally there’s James Coburn as Britt, the guy who gets the least amount of screen time maybe because in the majority of his scenes, he’s asleep or pretending to be. It is fairly obvious he won’t make it to the end of the film come to think of it.
As technically a Western-virgin I enjoyed my first proper cowboy shoot-out scenes as the final raid on the village is pretty exciting. I can just imagine my six-year-old self being glued to the TV watching this and then recreating it at school with my friends. That particular scene has been described as dripping with so much testosterone that your girlfriend risks getting pregnant just by looking at it. There are also a couple of nice drama scenes for those in it for more than just a reason to chug popcorn. One of them comes when we have most of our guys on screen together and Chico is talking about how much he’s enjoying this kind of lifestyle. Chris and Vin then go into detail about exactly how hard living this life is:
Vin: “After a matter of time you can begin to call bartenders and farrow dealers by their first name, maybe two hundred of them. Rented rooms you live in, five hundred. Meals you’ve eaten hash out of, a thousand. Home, none. Wife and kids, none. Prospects, zero”
Then there’s another great scene where Calvera is driving the seven out of town and Vin and Chris have a small conversation where Chris says he was once told by a friend that “you can’t afford to care” in this kind of lifestyle, and then Vin says that is the same problem he has. It’s traditional Hollywood but man is it done with style.
And so I did find room on my list for a Western and a pretty high spot for it at that. It is a shame the genre died out along with the swashbuckling pirate movies, but I think we could eventually get a comeback one day. We’d need a lot of Genre Reconstruction but I think it could work. I did want to see the remake of True Grit and that film was pretty successful and well received so, who knows, maybe we’ll get a second coming of the Westerns. Cowboys and Aliens might be a good follow-on to it. Anything to finally kill of this dead horse trend of superhero films is welcome to me. Well until next time fellas, we will ride again tomorrow and don’t forget to follow me on Twitter.