Tag: Charles Bronson

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.

Once Upon a Time in the West (1968)

Fonda and Bronson prepare to face off in Leone’s epic Once Upon a Time in the West

Director: Sergio Leone

Cast: Henry Fonda (Frank), Claudia Cardinale (Jill McBain), Charles Bronson (“Harmonica”), Jason Robards (“Cheyenne”), Gabrielle Ferzetti (Morton), Paolo Stoppa (Sam), Marco Zuanelli (Wobbles), Keenan Wynn (Sheriff), Frank Wolff (Brett McBain), Lionel Stander (Barman), Woody Strode (First Gunman), Jack Elam (Second Gunman), Al Mulock (Third Gunman

Sergio Leone’s Westerns were always based, first and foremost, on his own love for the genre – and the great filmmakers, from John Ford onwards, who made them. Returning to the genre for the final time – putting on hold (for what turned out to be nearly fifteen years) his plans for a New York gangster film – Leone wanted to make his final, and ultimate, tribute to the Hollywood western. Collaborating with Bernardo Bertoloucci and Dario Argento (now there is an odd trio!) on the scripting, Leone’s final Western is a sweeping, grandiose, operatic Western littered with visual quotations from films he loved.

The story rather takes second fiddle to the general ambiance and visuals, but it never bothered Leone to have only the sketchiest of plots stretched across the many hours of his movies. The railroad is being built across America – changing the face of the West as it goes. Frank (Henry Fonda), hired gun of crippled railway tycoon Morton (Gabrielle Ferzetti), guns down farmer Brett McBain and his children. He had been sent to threaten them to clear off the land of Sweetwater. But why? And how will the return of McBain’s new wife Jill (Claudia Cardinale) – now heir to all of Frank’s holdings – affect their plans? And why does the mysterious “Harmonica” (Charles Bronson) – a shadowy gunman with no name have such an interest in events, and in Frank in particular? And will criminal gunman Cheyenne (Jason Robards) and his gang – blamed for the McCain killings – be able to establish their innocence?

The answers to all these questions come slowly – and often confusingly – in this long, slow but – as with many Leone films – engrossing Western, which features 3-5 minutes of Morricone build-up and extreme close-up before even the slightest action. This makes it very easy to mock, and perhaps by this point Leone had started to believe too heavily that he was an artist daubing in genre, rather than a purveyor of entertainments. Certainly, Once Upon a Time in the West is consciously weighted down with its own importance, it’s ominous sense of events heading to a pre-ordained conclusion and its half-hearted attempt to depict itself as sitting at a crossroads in American history, as technology squeezed out the old West.

But somehow you give Leone’s film a pass for all its many faults because it’s assembled with such unrivalled skill and breathtaking pizzazz. Sure the film is only half as smart as it thinks it is, but when at its strongest it offers unrivalled entertainment. Leone also mastered here his balance between the slow, tense, agonising build-up to violence – followed by its sudden and brutal enactment. 

Never is that more clear than in the film’s opening ten minutes which features three gunmen (among them Ford favourite Woody Strode and reliable minor bad-guy Jack Elam) waiting at a train station for what turns-out to be the arrival of Charles Bronson’s “Harmonica”. The three gunmen sit, waiting, in silence. Around them the everyday sounds of windmills, buzzing flies and dripping water builds and relapses with all the dread of distant thunder. Leone’s camera crashes in for long, intense close-ups, as if drilling down into the souls of these bored men, the camera studying every detail of their faces. After almost ten minutes – during which the credits roll – “Harmonica” arrives. And promptly shoots all three men dead in seconds. You know it’s coming, but the tension and expectation of this confrontation makes the entire sequence compelling. 

It’s a trick that Leone repeats time and time again. Effectively the whole film is only prolonged extension of this sequence – the inconsequential back-and-forth of the lacklustre plot all really about giving us a chance to drill down into the character of Henry Fonda’s bad-to-the-bone Frank, while we wait for the inevitable gunfight between him and “Harmonica”. Leone’s film is a triumph of mood, filled with sweeping beautiful camera shot and luxiously paced editing, all mixed down with some stunning scoring from Ennio Morricone.

Once Upon a Time echoes a fairy tale in its title, and that’s what it is. For all that Leone attempts to throw in plotlines around progress, the influence of big money and the new order leaving gunmen behind, really everything it knows about America is taken from movies. Leone litters the film with visual quotes from High Noon, Shane and dozens of others, most especially Ford (he even insisted in transplanting some of the scenes to be shot at Monument Valley, which led to merry hell trying to get the other Spanish-shot locations to visually match). The entire film unfolds like a dream. At about the half way mark in particular – this might be due to cuts to be fair – the narrative suddenly becomes almost deliberately unconnected, key events seemingly skipped over and sudden character reversals taking place. There is a rumbling sense of everything in the film being artificial and the characters themselves being manipulated by something larger than them (like a film director!).

This is further heightened by “Harmonica” himself. Played with an empty blankness by Charles Bronson – the camera zooms into his expressionlessly craggy face endlessly as if searching for meaning – “Harmonica” is an almost mystical presence. He’s always in the right place at the right time, seems to be the only person in the film who knows what’s going on and Leone even shoots him regularly sliding into frame, as if the camera has stumbled upon him at the least expected times. Perhaps Bronson’s lack of real character helped make him perfect for this near-mystical presence. It also fits in with the shamanic feeling of a film where frequently not much happens at great length, but the inconsequential moments of events are filmed with a pregnant importance.

Compared to him the other principles are painted in earthy tones. Robards makes his bandit – who switches allegiances and escapes from undefined imprisonment several times in the movie – a jovial, grimy figure with a rogueish temperament. Claudia Cardinale – in what passes for a strong female character at the time – is a whore with a heart of gold who may, or may not be willing to do anything to ensure her own survival (the film is unclear). Is she a ruthless woman using sex as a weapon? Or is she the sort of radiant Earth-mother that the new West needs? Or is she a bit of both? The film isn’t really sure.

What it is sure about is that Fonda’s Frank is the meanest of the mean. Looking lean and tough, Fonda revels in the chance to play a villain – and not just any villain, this grinning sadist is so mean the first thing he does is gun down a child on screen. Leone loved Fonda – and above all he wanted those “baby blue” eyes to be the thing the viewers see as unspeakable deeds take place, expecting the cry of “Jesus Christ, that’s Henry Fonda!” Frank is a bully and tirelessly ambitious, and if we never get a real sense of what motivates him, it’s balanced by Fonda’s charismatic viciousness in the role.

It’s a pointer though to the fact that this is not a film about the West – as always the strange mixture of accents, faces and locations never makes the film feel for one moment like a real slice of America – but rather a film that is aiming to reflect the romance of movies. It’s a piece of Americana, that is really a love letter to other films. Perhaps it’s one of the first post-modern films ever made? But really your appreciation of the film can only really be complete if you have seen a lot of Westerns. Then it’s fairy tale like logic, and Leone’s operatic style and languid pace suddenly make sense. It’s not a film deep in meaning, other than perhaps our own love for cinema and the story it tells.