Category: John Sturges

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)

Man’s gotta do what man’s gotta do in this iconic rollercoaster of a Western

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Yul Brynner (Chris Adams), Steve McQueen (Vin Tanner), Horst Buchholz (Chico), Charles Bronson (Bernardo O’Reilly), Robert Vaughn (Lee), James Coburn (Britt), Brad Dexter (Harry Luck), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Vladimir Sokoloff (Old Man), Jorge Martinez de Hoyos (Hilario), Rosenda Monteros (Petra), Rico Alaniz (Sotero), Pepe Hern (Tomas)

“That’s the greatest shot I’ve ever seen!” – Chico after seeing Britt take down a bandit on a horse with a pistol from an unimaginable distance.

“The worst. I was aiming at the horse.” – Britt’s response.

To be honest I could probably just watch The Magnificent Seven for that moment alone. Akira Kurosawa enjoyed this remake of his greatest film so much, he presented Sturges with a samurai sword as congratulations. It’s a staple of any rainy Bank Holiday and the actors who played the seven is a classic pub quiz question (how many have scratched their heads trying to remember Brad Dexter’s name?). The Magnificent Seven has passed into cultural legend.

It’s a very faithful remake of the Japanese original (if an hour shorter). A farming village is plagued by bandits, led by scruffy, smug rogue Calvera (Eli Wallach). So, the farmers set out to find a gang of gunmen willing to work (almost literally) for peanuts to protect them. And they find themselves a heck of a posse: Chris (Yul Brynner), the unflappable tactician, Vin (Steve McQueen) the maverick sharp-shooter, tough-as-nails Bernardo (Charles Bronson), nervy veteran Lee (Robert Vaughn), samurai-like Britt (James Coburn), boisterous mercenary Harry (Brad Dexter) and plucky newbie Chico (Horst Buchholz). But will these few protect the village or will they cut and run when the going gets tough?

What do you think? The Magnificent Seven is one of those classic men-on-a-mission films, where men were stoic, noble and only stopped taking names to kick some ass. While The Magnificent Seven sheds much of the class and culture-based depth and tragedy of the original, it certainly doubles down on its fun and excitement. It barrels along with glorious energy from set-piece moment to set-piece moment, all marshalled with great skill by Sturges.

And those set-pieces are great. Chris and Vin riding a hearse shotgun (literally) through town when no-one else has the guts to do it. Britt’s dazzling knife-throwing skills calmly winning him victory in a one-on-one with a braggart. Chico proving his worth on the journey back to the village and berating the villagers running in fear from their rescuers (“Now we are seven”). The first battle with the bandits. That legendary bad shot from ice cool Britt. The final face-off in the village. What’s not to love about this explosion of well-paced, gripping, exciting action?

The casting was a smorgasbord of talents. Books have been written about Brynner and McQueen’s personality clash. The evidence of their on-going game of one upmanship is all over the picture. In nearly every shot Brynner is in, McQueen can be spotted in the background fiddling around with his hat to pull focus. Brynner took to elaborate cheroot lighting using his boot to keep eyes on him. Either way, the two of them bring their qualities perfectly to the screen. Brynner has more than a touch of the old master samurai to him, McQueen the cocksure cool (it wouldn’t be a surprise to see him turn up to the village on a motorbike). Sturges’ film builds a surprisingly warm friendship between these two that forms the emotional heart of the film.

The rest of the gang all get their moments in the sun. Robert Vaughn expertly makes Lee’s loss of nerve look like careful, deadly precision rather than a desire to duck whenever bullets go flying – in a few strokes he presents a lifetime of front to maintain presence. James Coburn – a huge fan of the original – brilliantly channels Seiji Miyaguchi as an unflappable professional. Brad Dexter bounces along as jovial chancer. Bronson gets the dullest role as the guy who befriend the village kids but manages to make his priggish material (the Western equivalent of “you kids should take care of your education and listen to your parents”) sound like tough-guy cool.

The film’s main change was to dramatically reduce the importance of Toshiro Mifune’s character, here represented by Horst Buchholz’s farmer turned gunman (also taking on Isao Kimura’s romantic subplot). Buchholz gets a version of the “the farmers are made who they are by the warriors” speech that the iconic Mifune nailed in Seven Samurai. But it’s a weaker, under-written part – it feels like what it is, a functional role for a pretty actor – with Buchholz awkwardly and dutifully going through the romantic motions with village girl Petra.

It’s part of the lack of depth to The Magnificent Seven. The original’s study of shattered world orders and the dangers of progress and change have no comparison here, although the film has a rather nice moment as the heroes bemoan the loneliness of their chosen lot (“Home, none. Wife, none. Kids… none. Prospects, zero. Suppose I left anything out?”). Brynner’s Adams has a lovely touch of regret at lost chances behind his manly eyes. The surviving gunmen know it’s the farmers who really win in the end. But, even with that, this is a film more interested in entertaining you.

That’s why we get a proper villain – Wallach’s great value as this ingratiating bully, who can’t even begin to understand what would motivate people to do something for so little gain – to give the final battle even more of a personal touch. Sturges also makes sure we get the full entertainment value of these grizzled fighters giving their all – perhaps for the first time – for a cause that goes beyond their immediate needs and that might just help give some meaning to their lives.

Above all though it’s rollicking good fun. Sharply written with tons of good lines, well-played by the cast and shot with pulsating excitement by John Sturges, every scene offers a little moment of delight. It’s a film you can kick-back and enjoy no matter what day it is, full of thrills and spills. One of those classics that never troubles the greatest films list, but always finds a place on the most popular lists.

The Great Escape (1963)

Steve McQueen is the Cooler King (King of Cool?) in The Great Escape

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Steve McQueen (Captain Virgil Hilts), James Garner (Flight Lt Bob Hendley), Richard Attenborough (Sqd Leader Roger Bartlett), James Donald (Group Captain Ramsey), Charles Bronson (Ft Lt Danny Welinski), Donald Pleasance (Flt Lt Colin Blythe), James Coburn (FO Sedgwick), Hannes Messemer (Oberst von Luger), David McCallum (Lt-Commander Eric Ashley-Pitt), Gordon Jackson (Ft Lt Andy MacDonald), John Leyton (Ft Lt Willie Dickes), Angus Lennie (FO Archie Ives), Nigel Stock (Ft Lt Dennis Cavendish), Robert Graf (Werner)

Is there a film in Britain more associated with holidays than The Great Escape? While I was growing up it felt like a day-off wasn’t complete unless the BBC screened it as part of their afternoon schedule. In Britain is has a status as a sort of cosy uncle, a part of the furniture of many people’s filmic lives. There is always something comforting and reassuring about The Great Escape. So much so, people forget it ends with a large bodycount and the majority of our heroes further away from freedom than when they started.

But it doesn’t really matter, because The Great Escape is one of the last hurrahs of effective, nostalgic war-films. The sort of hugely enjoyable caper that recognises the cost of war, but also celebrates the pluck, ingenuity and guts of Allied servicemen, running rings around those dastardly cheating Nazis. Where we would all like to look back and remember those days when men-were-men and worked together towards a common goal. Sturges has created a marvellous tapestry of a movie, that pulls together several striking scenes, characters and snippets of dialogue into a true ensemble piece that reflects the camaraderie and unity that exists between the prisoners as they work towards their escape.

In some ways, The Great Escape is such good fun, such well-packaged entertainment and telling such an exciting, uplifting and (in the end) moving story that it’s almost immune to criticism. You’d have to have a pretty hard heart not to enjoy it. And you’d have to be pretty cynical not to enjoy the way it presents a series of obstacles and then carefully demonstrates the fascinating and rewarding ways the prisoners resolve these. It’s also notable that, aside from the shadowy Gestapo types, the film doesn’t really have an antagonist. The enemy is that fence. Most of the Germans are just regular soldiers doing a job – it’s only the brutal final-act Gestapo who are aren’t playing this eccentric game. But this helps us sit back and enjoy the film as a caper – just as it makes the burst of machine-gun fire that (nearly) ends the film even more impactful and shocking.

Sturges’ gets the tone of the film spot-on, and also draws a series of perfectly balanced performances from his all-star cast. I think it’s fair to say a lot of the film’s success was connected to Steve McQueen’s casting in the crucial role of Hilts. McQueen channels a sense of 1960s anti-establishment cool into the film (unlike the rest of the POWs, he seems to be wearing basically his own clothes in t-shirt, chinos and bomber jacket). Iconically bouncing his ball against the wall in a cooler, a natural loner (who of course still does his bit), with a cocky sense of defiance and some exceptional motor-bike skills, Hilts is undeniably cool. He’s the face of the film – and the one you walk away wanting to be.

He also gets the film’s definitive claim to fame, with a series of daring motorbike stunts as he races across Germany to escape. Mostly performed by McQueen himself (although not the most famous fence jump, done by a stuntman) this last act chase is a gripping, action counter-point to the more cagey, paranoid runs of the other escapees. It’s so exciting and feel-good, it’s a surprise to remember that Hilts actually gets caught. But then, if he hadn’t, we’d have lost McQueen’s cool, wry shrug of acceptance as he and his mitt were sent back to the cooler in the camp for another 20 days.

The film tees up plenty of sub-plots for the rest of the cast, with Sturges’ spreading the love very effectively. Charles Bronson gets perhaps the best plot as “tunnel king” Danny Welinski who holds back his crippling claustrophobia almost long enough. I think this might be Bronson’s finest hour, giving a real vulnerability to Danny, with genuinely quite affecting whimpers and fear at confronting the tunnel – making his struggle all the more moving. Bronson makes a wonderful double-act with John Leyton as fellow tunneller Willie Dickes, the two of them forging an affecting bond of loyalty.

A similar bond also forms between James Garner’s suave and playful scrounger Jack Hedley and Donald Pleasance’s professorial forger Colin Blythe (has there ever been a more “Colin” Colin on film than Pleasance?). The final moments between this pair carry perhaps the biggest gut-punch of a film that has a surprising large number of them. Pleasance’s sad attempts to hide and combat growing blindness are genuinely affecting, while Garner is a master at conveying depth beneath a light surface. Sturges’ film taps into the nostalgic memories most of us have (or have picked up) of this war being one where life-long friendships were formed against horror and adversity.

Attenborough does most of the thankless heavy-lifting as Big X, but the film uses his Blimpish authority well. Gordon Jackson has a memorial role as the number #2 famously caught out by his own vocal trap (the sort of irony films like this love). Fans of the TV show Colditz can enjoy seeing David McCallum in a very similar role as a daring young escapee. James Donald channels British reserve as the senior officer. The film’s single truly bizarre performance is from James Coburn, with an Australian accent from the Dick van-Dyke school of ineptitude, so terrible even Sturges surely noticed it when cutting the film.

The Great Escape marshals all these cards extremely well. Any combination of any of these actors produces fireworks. It’s one of the best boys own adventure you can imagine. It in fact gets the perfect balance: you can spend a large chunk of the film thinking that being locked up in a German POW camp looks like the best time ever – and then it chillingly reminds you with its sad coda of the terrible cost of war. But it’s that first hour and half and its celebration of grit, guts, determination and ingenuity that really works – and it’s so entertaining that it solves immediately any mystery as to why any public holiday you’re 10-1 to find this popping up on your afternoon TV listings.

Ice Station Zebra (1968)

Rock Hudson takes command in the rather turgid cold war thriller Ice Station Zebra

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Rock Hudson (Commander James Farraday), Ernest Borgnine (Boris Vaslov), Patrick McGoohan (David Jones), Jim Brown (Captain Leslie Anders), Tony Bill (Lt Russell Walker), Lloyd Nolan (Admiral Garvey), Alf Kjellin (Colonel Ostrovsky)

Rumour has it that Howard Hughes loved this movie so much, he insisted on the Las Vegas TV broadcaster he owned to screen the film over 100 times. For most of the rest of us, once will probably be enough to take in all the fun that can be pulled out of this sub-par Alistair MacLean Cold War thriller, a poor relation to The Guns of the Navarone and Where Eagles Dare.

It’s the middle of the Cold War and US submarine commander James Farraday (Rock Hudson) is ordered to the North Pole to rescue a British scientific team. However that mission is just a cover for the real goal – something to do with retrieving a top secret gizmo from a crashed satellite. Farraday is ordered to transport British intelligence agent “David Jones” (Patrick McGoohan) to the Pole, who has bought Soviet defector Boris Vaslov (Ernest Borgnine) along with him. En route, sabotage nearly downs the sub, and on arrival the base has been nearly destroyed. Looks like there is a traitor on board – but is it Boris or recently arrived marine Captain Leslie Anders (Jim Brown)? Who can tell?

To be honest most people watching the film. It’s one of many not-particularly-intriguing mysteries in a hopelessly over-extended film that takes nearly two hours to get going, and then crams its paper-thin characters into a series of adventures that bounce from dull to cliché with giddy haste. Directed with a professional lack of engagement by John Sturges (who could believe the director of Bad Day at Black Rock and The Great Escape could have made something as flat as this?).

It’s a film that mistakes lack of explanations and rushed conclusions for intriguing mystery. There is barely enough actual plot here to sustain an hour and a half let alone the nearly two and a half hours the film takes to get nowhere in particular. The middle of the film is given over to a series of submarine escapades that would have already felt familiar at the time from The Enemy Below and have been bettered since in countless submarine films. From deep dives to furiously leaking compartments, there isn’t anything particularly new here.

When we finally arrive at the polar base, there is finally some decent mystery – as well as a haunting atmosphere – as the characters explore the badly damaged base and its traumatised residents (You can see how this film influenced John Carpenter as he directed The Thing). Sadly, what the film hasn’t managed to do up to this point is make us care at all about any of the characters. Rock Hudson, never a particularly inspiring performer, makes a dry and unengaging lead (first choice Gregory Peck would have made the world of difference). Patrick McGoohan does his best as the mysterious British agent, but the character is so lightly written that you never really feel particularly intrigued by his mystery. Ernest Borgnine chews the scenery as the ex-Pat Soviet while Jim Brown is serviceable as the marine captain. Virtually no other character makes any real impact.

The film culminates eventually in a confusing stand-off between the Americans and the Soviets, until the villains reveal themselves and a détente that doesn’t end up destroying the world is revealed. That’s about the sum total of interest the film can spark. Other than that, it’s slow pace, unengaging characters, uninvolving plot and unoriginal action make it a great deal of fuss about nothing in particular. Howard Hughes may have wanted to watch it a hundred times. You probably won’t want to.

Bad Day at Black Rock (1956)

Spencer Tracy is the only just man in town, in brilliant modern Western Bad Day at Black Rock

Director: John Sturges

Cast: Spencer Tracy (John J Macreedy), Robert Ryan (Reno Smith), Anne Francis (Liz Wirth), Dean Jagger (Sheriff Tim Horn), Walter Brennan (Doc Viele), John Ericson (Pete Wirth), Ernest Borgnine (Coley Trimble), Lee Marvin (Hector David), Russell Collins (Mr Hastings), Walter Sande (Sam)

A man walks into a town. It’s a dust bowl town, looks like it’s just one street with a few buildings. The natives sit warily outside the bar and treat the stranger with suspicion. Trigger fingers are itchy. Is it the Wild West? No it’s 1945, but the new guy in town is about to find out just how unfriendly the American West can be. Just as well that, despite only having one hand, he’s more than capable of looking after himself.

Spencer Tracy, perfect as a man of rigid principles and certainties who won’t waver in the face of any intimidation, is our no-nonsense hero Macreedy. Arriving in town, he’s looking for Japanese-American farmer Komoko, father of a deceased colleague from the war, but no one wants to talk about where he is or what happened to him. Sheriff Horn (Dean Jagger) is an alcoholic who doesn’t want to know anything, the local doctor (Walter Brennan) doesn’t want to get involved and hotel clerk Pete (John Ericson) doesn’t want to give Macreedy a home. Macreedy is tailed on arrival by a couple of intimidating heavies (Ernest Borgnine and Lee Marvin – the go-to guys at the time for these sort of roles), and quickly works out the town is run by local businessman Reno Smith (Robert Ryan) – and any secrets it holds ain’t coming out easy.

Bad Day at Black Rock is a classic western, set in a time when the world of the West had been left far behind. American culture has a romantic longing for rural, small-town America, and the heroic past of the pioneers of the old West. Bad Day inverts a lot of this mythology: this America is horribly corrupt, unspeakably racist and hiding no end of dirty linen in its cupboards. In fact, small-town America is horrible, while the man from the big city represents all that is good – that in itself is quite a surprise turnaround from what you might expect from Hollywood.

In many ways it’s a very simple, very gripping, film. Macreedy’s arrival in the town sparks guilty consciences and sets the town bully, Reno Smith, into a quiet, panicked breakdown. We know watching it roughly where the film is likely to go. However, what Sturges does well is to invest this with so much attention. Huge chunks of the film involve both Macreedy and the men of the town, tensely trying to work out what is going on, or watching and waiting to see what opportunities there will be. It’s a film packed with moments of waiting or characters sitting and watching, talking around subjects rather than tackling the big questions they want to ask. It sounds slow but it actually builds up an extraordinary amount of danger and feeling of danger.

It’s a drama that works on the slow burn while also being a very short, snappily paced film. The best part of the first half-hour of the film is the careful establishing of the atmosphere, the relationships between the different characters, and the politics of this Western town. In the middle of this we have Macreedy, the man of mystery whom we know nothing about, who never seems to rise to the unfriendly intimidation he meets from every corner. You know that all this tension is going to erupt into something serious – but the film constantly leaves you guessing exactly how it will pan out and keeps you surprised about who ends up on which side.

You couldn’t get a better actor for this role than Spencer Tracy. There is something so rigidly determined about Tracy in this film, so adamantine and determined – the sort of man who operates in rights and wrongs, who even in this world of intimidation and terror tries to play by some sort of rules for as long as he possibly can. What’s so great about Tracy in this film is that he seems like both a stranger in black and a disappointed dad, with the people in the town constantly letting him down. The film also teases us for a long time – we suspect throughout that Macreedy is more dangerous and more capable of looking after himself than he appears. (It was Tracy who insisted, by the way, that Macreedy be made one-armed, as he thought it could give Macreedy an interesting vulnerability to overcome). 

The film makes us wait for its three action set-pieces: a car chase, a bar fight and a shoot-out. But it’s perfect in its patience, because violence always seems like it could burst out at any time. Marvin and Borgnine as the obvious heavies do great work as different types of overt muscle. Robert Ryan as the corrupt guy who really runs the town is especially good as a man who seems, under his dominance, to only just be holding onto his self-control, going to great lengths to prevent himself getting into trouble. It’s a point that Macreedy himself makes – deep down, Smith doesn’t have the guts to do his dirty work alone, and gets his strength from controlling others. All this delicate mixture of guilt and fear that bubbles under the surface of Smith is apparent in Ryan’s excellent performance.

But then no-one in the town is in control. Dean Jagger’s moral weakling sheriff is a drunk and a pathetic loser. Walter Brennan’s (very good) doctor wants to do the right thing, but lacks the guts to do it. John Ericsen’s hotel clerk knows he’s in the wrong, but isn’t brave enough to stand his ground. Their lack of control is in fact the root of the problem – Macreedy would never have suspected there were any dark secrets to uncover in the town if the people there hadn’t treated him with such overt suspicion. Sturges captures this perfectly (even if I think the Cinemascope width of shot isn’t perfect for a film that gets so much play out of claustrophobia and suspicion).

Politically the film is pretty simple – racism ain’t good you know – but as an example of brilliantly assembled Western tension and moral righteousness, mixed with a bit of action, adventure and claustrophobia, it works really well. Brilliantly directed, and very well written as a piece of expressive theatre, this is terrific with some wonderful performances. And front and centre is Spencer Tracy as the ultimate man in black, a man with moral certainty and courage, whom it’s impossible not to admire.