Tag: Horst Buchholz

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.

Life is Beautiful (1998)

Roberto Benigni uses humour to hide the horrors of the Holocaust from his son in Life is Beautiful

Director: Roberto Benigni

Cast: Roberto Benigni (Guido Orefice), Nicoletta Braschi (Dora Orefice), Giorgio Cantarini (Giosue Orefice), Giustino Durano (Uncle Eliseo), Horst Buchhoolz (Dr Lessing), Marisa Paredes (Dora’s mother), Sergio Bustric (Ferruccio)

How can we confront the dark facts of our past? It’s a question that perhaps feels more relevant with each passing day. History is full of horrors and terrible deeds. And it’s easy to think of those who lived through terrible events as merely victims, a single homogenous mass of the suffering. Life is Beautiful however tries to look at perhaps the most terrible of events, the Holocaust, with an eye that acknowledges the terror but also suggests that love and hope can exist alongside the worst parts of humanity.

In Tuscany in 1939, Guido Orefice (Roberto Benigni) is a sharp-witted, if accident-prone, waiter who dreams of setting himself up as a bookshop owner. He falls in love with Dora (Nicoletta Braschi) and, after a courtship involving “accidental” meetings, comic interludes and finally Dora leaving her engagement party (where she is due to marry a brutish bully), they marry. A few years later they have a son, Giosue (Giogio Cantarini). But the war has gone against Italy, and now Guido and Giosue, as Jews, are arrested and sent to a concentration camp. There Guido does everything he can to try and protect his son from the horrors around him, by pretending the camp is an elaborate game to win a tank, with points won if he can hide from the guards and not cry. Guido spins his own forced labour, and danger of execution, to Giosue as part of the same game.

Directed by and starring Roberto Benigni, Life is Beautiful was Benigni’s statement that events as terrible as the Holocaust cannot drive hope and love from a father’s heart, and that both tears and laughter can come from the same beautiful place in the human spirit. It’s been called a comedy about the Holocaust, but that’s unfair. Guido may use comedy and try to turn everything that happens to them into a camp an elaborate game for his son – but that’s to stop a 5-year-old child from being traumatised. For us watching, we know the terrible place Guido and his son are in – and we know the appalling things that are happening around them.

Life is Beautiful is really two films, and only one of them is a comedy. The first half is a Chaplain-esque love story, a clumsy but good-hearted and comic scruff-pot winning the heart of a decent and loving woman. It’s full of the sort of slapstick and comic routines you could expect from the masters of classic American silent comedy. It hits every expected beat, from our hero being the sort of wily but honest and kind little guy we can root for, to all his opponents being sharp-suited bullies while his love is charming and tender. For the first half of the film there is little that, really, stands this film out from the ordinary. Benigni is a charming performer – with just the right mix of bashfulness and bombast – but it’s nothing you’ve not seen before.

But then that half of the film exists to give the second half of the film its power. As soon as the time-jump happens, it’s like watching the Little Tramp wander into a horrific tragedy. From the moment Guido closes the shutters on his shop – to reveal the words “Jewish Store” graffitied across it – the sunny Tuscan world around our heroes grows darker and darker. 

Benigni deliberately avoided a sense of realism to his Holocaust imagery – he felt only documentary could really do it justice, so avoided making his death camp look or feel anything like a real camp – but the audience is more than capable of filling in the blanks. The second half of the film, with Guido and his son in the camp, is not funny at all. But that doesn’t stop Guido busting a gut to entertain his son at every moment – or prevent us building a deep emotional connection with a father who is suppressing his own pain and fear in order to try and protect his son. The father who knows the business of this camp is death, who knows that Dora has also been arrested and placed in the women’s camp. Who knows their only hope is to pray the war ends before they die. It’s bleak stuff, and the fact that Guido keeps up a front of humour doesn’t make the film a comedy.

It’s why it the second half of the film carries such impact. Not only have we invested in the comedic warmth of these characters in the first half, but seeing them trying to keep hope alive in their own way in the bleakest of situations is completely moving. Sure there are funny moments – the most notable being Guido’s improvised interpretation of the guard’s explanation of the camp rules into an explanation of the rules of the game he is trying to get his son to believe in – but really it’s not a comedy because we know too well the dangers that surround them.

Sure the film is sentimental and in many ways manipulative. It would be hard pressed to not create emotional moments from such material, and from the sacrifices of Benigni’s character. But it still works and the film has a few shrewd moments of personal insight, not least from the introduction of Horst Buchholz’s German doctor. Dr Lessing knows Guido from his days as a waiter in Tuscany – but encountering him in the camp waiting tables at the officers’ mess, it doesn’t even begin to occur to him that Guido’s position has changed or his family’s lives are in mortal danger. The dehumanising of this extermination system doesn’t just turn people into murderers, it turns decent people into thoughtless observers.

Life is Beautiful does carry a real emotion wallop towards its end. It was famous as “the Holocaust comedy”, but it uses comedy and the conventions of Hollywood romance to build our empathy for characters who then find themselves in a Holocaust movie. And it treats the Holocaust itself with a deep reverence and respect, never making the deaths of millions anything like a joke. Sure, you could argue that it still downplays the terrors of the Holocaust – but then we know the background so well, do we need the gaps all filled in? And while you might say hope from such a terrible setting is not the message that should come out, sometimes it feels like the message we need.