Screenplay by Larry Cohen
Let me get an opinion out of the way that will strike many film lovers as heresy: The Magnificent Seven was not a great film. Forget your memories of it as an action-packed, Western masterpiece. It was an above-average potboiler that sticks in the mind because of a stacked cast that included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn; an iconic score by Elmer Bernstein; and its connection to Akira Kurosawa as a remake of Seven Samurai. So the idea that its sequel, Return of the Seven, is some kind of a slap in the face to its predecessor is misguided. Does that make the sequel a great film? No, of course not. But it is a good enough horse opera that makes decent use of its cast even as it follows the template of the first film a little too closely.
Set a few years after the events of The Magnificent Seven, the sequel opens in the village that was saved by the gun fighters in the first film. Chico (Julián Mateos taking over the role from Horst Buchholz), one of the surviving gunfighters from the first film, still lives in the village and has married Petra (Elisa Montés). No sooner has it been established that Chico has hung up his guns and is now a farmer than a gang of fifty bandits invade the village. They gather up all the men—including Chico—and herd them into the desert like cattle.
Fortunately, Chris (Brynner) and Vin (Robert Fuller, given the unenviable task of replacing Steve McQueen), the leaders of the original seven gunfighters, are in a nearby town. Petra seeks them out and once they learn that Chico is in trouble, they gather a group of new gunfighters to rescue him and the other men kidnapped from the village.
Since time is short, Chris starts gathering up men from the local jail. There he finds Frank (Claude Akins), a hard-bitten outlaw with a death wish, and Luis (Virgilio Teixeira), a notorious bandit due to be executed the next day. Both men agree to take part in the rescue mission when Chris bribes the jailer to release them. Colbee (Warren Oates), a gregarious outlaw with a quick draw signs on when he discovers there is a village full of women without any men around. And thrown in “for luck,” is Manuel (Jordan Christopher), a young peasant who has never had a family. Counting Chico, that makes seven men.
From there, the film plays out pretty much exactly how you would expect. The only tweaking of the formula comes from who the villain is and what motivates him.
Lorca (Emilio Fernández, a regular of Sam Peckinpah films) is a rancher who has lost his mind through grief and misplaced anger. Having spent years defending his land from bandits of the sort that menaced the village in the first film, he has dedicated his life to building a massive Church on the spot where his sons died in battle. To accomplish this, he has taken to kidnapping the men from the local villages to be slave labor. His belief is that he has protected these men—many of them poor farmers—from bandits for so many years, that they owe him. To say his reasoning is twisted would be an understatement and that is before Chris reveals his history with Lorca which further shows how skewed the man views the world.
While Lorca is an intriguing villain, Cohen and director Burt Kennedy fail to do much to capitalize on their unbalanced antagonist. His fractured mind and brutality is introduced to the audience, but quickly he is reduced to just another bad guy sending waves of gunmen to attack and be mowed down by the heroes.
And that is where Return of the Seven disappoints. It is a film that was made many times before it and many times after it. Aside from a few too many monologues of characters explaining why they feel the way they do instead of letting their actions speak for them, there is nothing especially wrong with Cohen’s script or Kennedy’s direction. They quickly establish the conflict and the new band of gun fighters, allow a talented group of character actors to color in the personalities of their under-written roles, and keep the plot moving quickly. But the lack of ambition is hard to ignore. Hell, the film even uses the exact same Bernstein score.
Not surprisingly, any interest that Return of the Seven holds now comes from its status as the sequel to The Magnificent Seven and the way that it reflects changes in the Western genre in relation to that film.
Where The Magnificent Seven was presented in 1960 with the tone of a rousing adventure, in 1966 Return of the Seven feels a little more like the Spaghetti Westerns that were starting to make waves in America. Not that Kennedy stages any stylized set pieces, but the violence feels uglier, bordering on nihilistic at times—especially when Lorca orders henchmen who are practically children to attack the half-built Church where Chris and his men are making their stand. There is less of an emphasis on protecting the innocent in this film and more dwelling on the toll that killing can take on a man’s soul. Most of these ideas are presented in blunt dialogue exchanges, so their effectiveness is reduced, but there is a bit more concern about the morality of killing—even in self-defense—in this film than in most studio Westerns that were made up to the time of its release.
That shading aside, Return of the Seven never really becomes more than the formulaic sequel it was intended to be. There is nothing wrong with that since Cohen and Kennedy keep it entertaining enough, but it is a bit disheartening to see the little sparks of something more ambitious briefly show before they are snuffed out.
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