We Do What We Can: ‘Return of the Seven’ (1966)

John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is an unimpeachable cinematic classic that is absolutely wonderful from top to bottom. Thousands of words have been dished out about its brilliance and its important place in both western history and film history in general. Perhaps I might add to that pile o’ prose someday, but for now all you need to know is that it is a stone-cold masterpiece and I adore it. Besides, it’s not the subject of this piece. Instead, I would like to take some time to focus on its under-loved and underseen sequel, Return of the Seven.

Crafting a sequel to a stone cold classic is always a tall order. When possible, it’s generally (but not always) best to bring back as many of the same people as you can, but sometimes you just have to work with what you have. Director John Sturges did not return, but in his place was a very capable Burt Kennedy (Support Your Local Sheriff)*. The writing team of William Roberts and Walters Bernstein & Newman is gone, but in their place was Larry Cohen. Yes, THAT Larry Cohen. At the time he was a hot TV writer landing his first produced feature screenplay and not yet the genre powerhouse he would become later on in the ’70s and ’80s.

As for the cast? Fortunately for the Mirisch Company’s bank account, a big chunk of the well-known actors’ characters in the first film were killed. Only three of those titular seven walked out of the first film alive and all three are back in Return. Unfortunately for us, only one of those actors came back. Yul Brynner is here in full force playing lead Chris Adams again, but gone are Steve McQueen** and Horst Buchholz. In their place are a decidedly less charismatic Robert Fuller (The Brain from Planet Arous) and a very somber Julian Mateos (The Hellbenders), respectively.

Fear not, however. After all, there are four slots open for new gunslinging heroes. Two of them (Virgilio Teixeira & Jordan Christopher) unfortunately aren’t given much to do once the film crosses the halfway mark, but character actors Warren Oates (The Wild Bunch) and Claude Akins (Beneath the Planet of the Apes) more than make up for it. Oates is tasked with playing a quick-drawing, sex-crazed country boy and he plays it with the same kind of relish that the likes of Walton Goggins would today. Akins is handed quiet and emotionally damage character with a tortured past. His performance is played more with his eyes and expressions, all of which he nails. Toss on another Elmer Bernstein score and now we’re really cooking with fire.

The film begins 10 years after the events of the first. Chico (Julian Mateos) spent the past decade living a peaceful life as a farmer in the village that he helped saved. Because the universe is unkind, a large band of raiders rolls into town and enslaves all of the men. They are now tasked with building a monument of a church by villainous vaquero Lorca (Emilio Fernandez). What’s Lorca’s deal? Well, it seems that he lead soldiers into battle years earlier in an attempt to rid the Mexican countryside of bandits, thieves, and insurrectionists. This war was successful, but it left many of his men dead in its wake, including his two sons. Lorca is a broken man who has been twisted by his greed and ambitions, which he now masks behind a faux sense of grief over the deaths of the two sons that he treated horribly in life. The church won’t really be a monument to them, but instead to his own sense of power and self-worth.

Lorca also harbors extreme resentment towards the people he once saved. He views them all as cowards who didn’t lift a finger to help him during his campaign to free them of terror. So now he himself inflicts terror upon them like some angry, testoterone-fueled god. It’s the kind of unfortunate resentment that is sometimes harbored by soldiers and law enforcement even today, leaving the film still very relevant over five decades later. Lorca is ultimately not as charismatic and iconic an adversary as the original’s Calvera (Eli Wallach), but he is nonetheless a well-rounded threat from which most of the film’s themes pour. In addition to his twisted sense of honor, duty, and pride, there’s also a thread of domestic and child abuse by violent men who control cope with their emotions, something also sadly forever relevant.

So where do the titular Seven come in? Well, once Chico and the rest of the village are kidnapped, his wife Petra (Elisa Montes, replacing Rosenda Monteros) sets out to find Chris Adams. Once she does, it doesn’t take him long to round up Vin (Fuller), Colbee (Oates), Frank (Akins), Luis (Teixeira), and Manuel (Christopher) to come to the rescue. The regret that Lorca sorely lacks about his life of shooting and killing is balanced by the overwhelming sense of melancholy that permeates the Seven. Both Chris and Vin regret their lives spent living only for themselves, thereby feeling called upon to now saves others as a source of redemption. As Chris states at one point in the film, “We do what we can.

Behind his carnal obsessions, Colbee is really just a man in need of a purpose. Frank is, sadly, simply searching for the solace of death due to past transgressions and would prefer to go out doing some good. As for Luis and Manuel? Well, as I stated above, they really don’t have much to do once the fighting starts, other than occasionally wander into a shot with a gun or a stick of dynamite. The film really drops the ball when it comes to their characters, but the denser characterizations and themes surrounding the other players is thankfully enough to overcome that. The darker nature of both the characters and the film’s messages give the proceedings a greyer and more violent tone than the original, but it’s one that works. As good as some of the performances are, I’m sure we have the writing talents of Mr. Cohen to thank for that.

Return of the Seven is not as good a film as The Magnificent Seven, but few films are. At the end of the day, this is a good sequel that is worthy far more attention than it gets. This is a nearly-forgotten flick that deserves more eyes upon it. Seek it out. It’s not hard to find. If you cannot get it on your movie channels, you can certainly rent it digitally via iTunes. Want to kick it old school? Then pick up The Magnificent Seven Blu-ray collection, which contains all four original films and usually runs around $12. Basically, if you’re a fan of the original or westerns in general, you have no excuse to not take the lead out of your ass, put it in your pretend six-shooter (aka your pointer finger), and fire it towards a viewing of this movie. Do what you can and get to it.

Return of the Seven is the sequel to the 1960 classic western, The Magnificent Seven. It was directed by Burt Kennedy, from a screenplay by Larry Cohen. The film was produced by Ted Richmond. It stars Yul Brynner, Robert Fuller, Julian Mateos, Warren Oates, Claude Akins, Emilio Fernandez, Fernando Rey, Rodolfo Acosta, Elisa Montes, Virgilio Teixeira, and Jordan Christopher.

* – Burt Kennedy is most famous for writing and/or directing numerous classic westerns. His list of credits includes Ride Lonesome, Comanche Station, Support Your Local Sheriff, Support Your Local Gunfighter, and Hannie Caulder. Decades later towards the end of his career, he also ended up directing Hulk Hogan’s Suburban Commando. What’s my point? Maybe don’t give your favorite ’70s and ’80s directors such a hard time for having random disappointing films near the end of their careers. Shit happens. Life has its ups and downs. Focus on the highs more than the lows.

** – As fantastic as Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are together in the original film, the two did not get along during production. Up-and-coming actor Steve had a real bad habit of hogging the spotlight in any scene they had together with loads of noticeable facial reactions and body movements during nearly all of Yul’s lines. While such things added to McQueen’s performance and the character of Vin Tanner, Brynner was none too amused with his antics. He apparently told the makers of the film that he would only come back if McQueen was not in the film, so despite the fact that McQueen was supposedly actually willing to return, he was out. After all, circa 1966, Brynner was still the bigger star and therefore the bigger get for this production. As for Horst Buchholz? I’m not sure why he didn’t return to the role of Chico and I don’t even know if they bothered to ask.

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s