Seven Angry Men (1955) Review

Director: Charles Marquis Warren

Genre(s): Biography, Drama, War, Western

Runtime: 90 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The 1955 biopic Seven Angry Men was actually the second time that actor Raymond Massey played John Brown on the big screen. The first film was the pro-slavery propaganda piece Santa Fe Trail (1940), where Brown was the villain. Anyway, this historical drama details the life of that famed American abolitionist, as he battles against pro-slavery forces in Kansas and what-is-now West Virginia in the years leading up to the American Civil War. It’s a very nifty movie that does justice to the legendary figure at its center.

People who have studied the life of John Brown, one of my heroes, will recognize various incidents in the picture inspired by real-life events. Yes, some of these highlights of Brown’s life – like the Sacking of Lawrence and the Battle of Osawatomie – are exaggerated to make them more cinematic, but the flick often sticks surprisingly close to the facts. A few major events are omitted from the feature, like the Battle of Black Jack and the raid into Missouri to rescue several slaves.

This is a morally complex film that doesn’t shy away from asking the big questions about extralegal violence. Raymond Massey gives a dynamite performance as the central character, although it may be too much to keep track of all of his grown sons, considering how little fleshing-out some of them are given (they make up the other six angry men of the title). The action scenes that show up are serviceable, but not above and beyond the call of duty.

Seven Angry Men is an excellent look back at the history of militant abolitionism in the years prior to the breakout of the American Civil War. However, it should be noted that an unnecessary romantic subplot occasionally brings the movie to a standstill. This, right here, is the proper John Brown motion picture to view, not that Santa Fe Trail stuff. If you enjoy this work, I’d recommend reading the book John Brown, Abolitionist: The Man Who Killed Slavery, Sparked the Civil War, and Seeded Civil Rights by David S. Reynolds as a companion piece.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

Breakheart Pass (1975) Review

Director: Tom Gries

Genre(s): Adventure, Mystery, Thriller, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

It may just be me, but it doesn’t seem like Hollywood cranks out too many mystery-western movies. If that’s a genre combo that you’ve been looking for a film from, Breakheart Pass is worth looking into. Set, of course, in the Wild West, outlaw Deakin (Charles Bronson) finds himself on a train full of medical supplies headed for a diseased military outpost. To complicate matters, people are constantly disappearing or winding up dead on the locomotive.

Written by Alistair MacLean, who wrote the novels that pictures like The Guns of Navarone (1961) and Where Eagles Dare (1968) were based off of, this flick has a solid mystery at its center that never gets too confusing. It’s not too complicated or convoluted, but it is appropriately satisfying. Plus, who doesn’t want to see Charles Bronson in the middle of a murder mystery on a train in the Old West?

Famous stuntman and action choreographer Yakima Canutt served as the second unit director for the movie, handling the set-pieces (it was the last time he would have such a position on a film). I can’t say that it’s his best work, but there is a mighty fist fight atop a moving train car that’s a bit hair-raising. It appears to be death-defying. Sure, the ending gets a little on the silly side, but Breakheart Pass works just as well on the adventure side as it does on the mystery front.

I think that this movie, while not top-of-the-line, is a success. Train aficionados will probably like it, thanks to most of it being set on a locomotive or the immediate exterior of one. Two of Charles Bronson’s notable co-stars here are his real-life wife Jill Ireland (as Marica) and Ed Lauter (playing Claremont), who Bronson would later team up with in the accidental masterpiece Death Wish 3 (1985).

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Comancheros (1961) Review

Directors: Michael Curtiz and John Wayne

Genre(s): Adventure, Western

Runtime: 107 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The last motion picture directed by Hollywood icon Michael Curtiz (who helmed such classics as Casablanca [1942]) was the John Wayne western The Comancheros. Curtiz was dying during the filming of the movie, and Wayne often stepped in to direct for him. The story of the film concerns Texas Ranger Jake Cutter (John Wayne), who has to take down a society of outlaws selling firearms to hostile Native Americans. The Duke really piles up the corpses in this one.

Let’s start with the good stuff. The musical score by Elmer Bernstein is fabulous, even if it sounds a bit too similar to the one he wrote for The Magnificent Seven (1960) the previous year. The action scenes are very good, with tons of people falling off of horses. They certainly didn’t skimp on the body count here. There’s also some interesting worldbuilding for a western flick, with the bad guys – known as “the Comancheros” – basically being a civilization unto themselves.

What holds back The Comancheros from greatness is mostly its meandering plot. John Wayne working to take down gunrunners takes up only a fraction of the picture’s runtime. Much screentime is devoted to the Duke’s dealings with Paul Regret (Stuart Whitman), a fugitive that he’s slowly befriending, and some time is dedicated to widow Melinda Marshall (Joan O’Brien) who Wayne might be fancying. The film also falls back on the racist trope of there being “tame” Native Americans (those who voluntarily give up their land) and “wild” ones (those who don’t).

Action and music are the strong suits of this movie, while its shortcomings largely have to do with its unfocused nature. That being said, I’m sure fans of John Wayne will find plenty to like here. I just wish that the screenplay had been streamlined a bit and that a couple of slow spots had been patched over. Still, you could do a lot worse.

My rating is 6 outta 10.

The Mercenary (1968) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Comedy, War, Western

Runtime: 110 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

Man, was director Sergio Corbucci on a roll with those “spaghetti westerns” (Italian-made westerns) between the mid-1960s and early-1970s or what? One of the better known of his flicks from this time period is The Mercenary, also sometimes called “A Professional Gun.” Set during the Mexican Revolution, a Polish gun-for-hire named Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) finds himself at the service of Paco Roman (Tony Musante), a Mexican bandit who’s an aspiring revolutionary. Many people will be blown away and many genres will be blended along the way.

The remarkable musical score from Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai is one of the first things the audience notices about the movie, and it leaves a major impression. Jack Palance shows up as “Curly,” the picture’s chilling villain. He’s a quietly sinister threat and Palance’s job holds up as one of the best bad guy performances of the 1960s. The action scenes are frequent and frenetic, with plenty of machine gun mayhem. The standout here is probably the highly stylish showdown in the empty bullfighting arena.

The biggest problem with The Mercenary is that it’s pretty episodic at times. The characters played by Franco Nero and Tony Musante are constantly fussin’ and fightin’ as they move from town to town, with Jack Palance’s “Curly” hot on their trail. A stronger central plot might be necessary. It’s interesting to note that this movie has some moral ambiguity for being a “Zapata western” (a politically-conscious western typically set during a time of revolution or rebellion in Mexico), with neither of the leads exactly being terrific role models.

With its effortless tough guy swagger and effective premise, The Mercenary is a must-watch for spaghetti western fans. Its plot may ramble a bit, but it’s fast-paced enough for this to not be a serious concern. For a winning mixture of action-adventure, spaghetti western, war film, and even comedy, check this one out!

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Django (1966) Review

Director: Sergio Corbucci

Genre(s): Action, Western

Runtime: 91 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

1966’s Django just might be the most famous “spaghetti western” (Italian-made western) that wasn’t directed by Sergio Leone. A mysterious, coffin-dragging gunslinger named Django (Franco Nero) finds himself in the middle of a range war between Mexican revolutionaries and ex-Confederate, Ku Klux Klan-style renegades. It may live in the shadows of the works by the aforementioned Leone, but this flick has a personality of its own.

One of the first things one is probably going to notice about this movie is just how action-packed it is. Guns are going off almost constantly and the body count just keeps rising. Keep in mind that this is a pulpy and over-the-top film that has no time for realism. The violence was considered extreme for its time, and still has a jarring moment or two.

Franco Nero’s cool-as-a-cucumber titular character is obviously based on Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name, but I figure he’s just different enough to avoid claims of blatant plagiarism. This feature is rawer and looser than Leone’s pictures, so don’t expect something quite as tight or elegant as those movies. One of the best parts of Django is its theme song, sung by Rocky Roberts. Some may find it lacking in subtlety, but, hey, that certainly fits the film.

Overall, Django is a pretty undemanding piece of shoot-’em-up filmmaking. It verges on the schlocky, but this muddy and bloody classic revels in its carnage in a way that’s hard not to admire. The action’s mostly exemplary, so this makes up for any problems that the rest of the flick may have. It’s worth noting that over thirty movies have used the Django character since introduced here.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven (2016) Review

Director: Antoine Fuqua

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 132 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG-13

IMDb Page

The 2016 version of The Magnificent Seven can’t top the 1960 original, but it doesn’t go down without one Hell of a fight. In this action-packed western, seven gunmen are hired to help protect a small mining town from robber-baron Bartholomew Bogue’s (Peter Sarsgaard) private army. What this film lacks in originality, it makes up for with fireworks.

2016’s The Magnificent Seven is set domestically in the United States, so it largely lacks the internationalist, Wilsonian edge of the 1960 flick. Still, the seven gunslingers are a diverse bunch, so one could argue that it’s still about people of different backgrounds coming together to fight tyranny. One of the main characters has an unnecessary motivation for his actions (that I won’t spoil here) that sort of ruins the angle that the heroes are doing this from the purity of their hearts, though.

If all you want is Wild West action, this feature delivers that by the wagonload. The final shootout (more of an all-out battle) is a lengthy affair, going through several different stages. This film’s body count is nothing short of ludicrous. In comparison to the 1960 original, there’s a lot more shoot-’em-up, but, in terms of quality, they’re roughly on par with one another.

So, I just prefer The Magnificent Seven (1960), but I can put aside my love of that picture to say that this one is still worth a ride or two (or three). The 1960 film has a more impressive cast and a more riveting musical score by Elmer Bernstein (the 2016 version’s score, by Simon Franglen and James Horner, is downright restrained in comparison). Yeah, it’s hard to beat a classic, but this movie is still worth watching…especially for action-adventure fanatics.

My rating is 8 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven Ride! (1972) Review

Director: George McCowan

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 100 minutes

MPAA Rating: PG

IMDb Page

The Magnificent Seven Ride! is the fourth entry into the franchise, and also the darkest. The plot is sort of a combination of The Magnificent Seven (1960) and The Dirty Dozen (1967), being about seven gunfighters, including five prison inmates offered pardons for their handiwork, who must protect a small Mexican village from some raping, murdering, pillaging bandits. It just might be the most engaging of The Magnificent Seven films since the original.

Despite sometimes having a made-for-television quality, this movie still manages to feature some very good action sequences. They’re squibbier than the ones in previous pictures in the series, giving them a more violent edge. Sure, these just might be the weakest set of action set-pieces in the franchise (by just a tad), but they’re still better than those found in most other westerns. There’s really a palpable sense of danger and impending doom here.

The Magnificent Seven Ride! features the least notable set of characters in the series. The flick makes a mistake by recruiting five of the titular seven in one scene, so they don’t get much of a chance to show off their individual personalities. Hell, some of these dudes barely get any distinctive personality at all. The character who returns from the previous three features is played by a different actor in this one (making him the third actor to play this character).

Maybe this movie’s a little weak when it comes to fleshing out supporting characters, but I think it does a better job of establishing tension and dread than Return of the Seven (1966) or Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969). It’s a solid men-on-a-mission action-adventure picture with some better-than-average gunplay. If you’ve liked the previous films in the series, odds are good you’ll enjoy this one.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969) Review

Director: Paul Wendkos

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 105 minutes

MPAA Rating: G

IMDb Page

The third film in the franchise, Guns of the Magnificent Seven takes a cue or two from the then-rising “Zapata western” subgenre, a politically-charged type of movie that typically revolved around revolts in Mexico. In this picture, seven gunslingers are recruited by Mexican revolutionaries to help them raid a fortress-prison where the tyrannical government is holding political prisoners. The feature takes place during a presumably fictional rebellion, but it seems inspired by the Mexican Revolution that took place from 1910 to 1920.

While the flicks of The Magnificent Seven series have always been known for their large-scale gunfights, Guns of the Magnificent Seven is the only one that could be classified as a war movie. It starts off with some typical western film action, before delving into the world of a Mexican insurrection with a big battle involving the seven virtuous heroes storming a cruel prison-fortress. The action scenes here are excellent, as is par for the course for the series.

So, what about the characters? Well, no set of gunfighters will ever top the crew we saw in the original The Magnificent Seven (1960), but this film does an adequate job of introducing some fresh faces for the audience. The seven here don’t always feel like they’re given proper depth, but at least they’re easy to tell apart. One of the characters from the previous pictures returns (I won’t spoil who), but is played by a different actor.

Guns of the Magnificent Seven is a step up from Return of the Seven (1966). There may be a slow moment or two, but it doesn’t completely imitate the first flick in the franchise. Full of explosions and a big body count, this one will be appreciated by action-adventure junkies and merely tolerated by most others. If you’ve stuck with The Magnificent Seven series through the second installment, why not watch this one too?

My rating is 7 outta 10.

Return of the Seven (1966) Review

Director: Burt Kennedy

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 95 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The second film of the series, Return of the Seven (which is sometimes called “Return of the Magnificent Seven“) is largely just a rehash of The Magnificent Seven (1960), down to the Elmer Bernstein musical score, which repeats all of the same notes. Opening in the same village that the first movie is set in, a gang of bandits arrive and abduct all of the men, leaving only women and children. Apparently, this isn’t the only town that’s been raided in such a way by the bad guys. Of course, it’s up to seven heroic gunslingers to find out where the men are being held (and why) and rescue them.

Let’s start with the good, shall we? The action scenes, while not quite up to par with the ones in the original, are terrific, featuring plenty of explosions and people falling off of horses. The characters are fleshed out well enough, for the most part. Also, the premise of selfless gunmen putting their lives on the line to save the day is still badass. As I mentioned earlier, the musical score is almost identical to the one from the first flick, but it’s still riveting music.

While the characters are easy to tell apart from one another, the reduced runtime of this flick doesn’t really do them any favors. A slightly longer picture would’ve given the inhabitants of it more time to make their mark. There’s also a few instances where characters from the first movie are replaced by different actors in Return of the Seven. I’m not really going to say who, in case it spoils the ending of the 1960 feature, but they’re just not as charismatic as the originals.

For me, Return of the Seven is perhaps the weakest of the films in The Magnificent Seven series. It sticks so close to the formula of the first installment, while reducing the runtime, that it sometimes struggles to have an identity of its own. Still, I can think of worse sequels from other franchises. It’s serviceable if all you want is some rootin’, tootin’ Wild West shoot-’em-up action.

My rating is 7 outta 10.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Review

Director: John Sturges

Genre(s): Action, Adventure, Drama, Western

Runtime: 128 minutes

MPAA Rating: Not Rated

IMDb Page

The original The Magnificent Seven is a truly heroic film that, along with the following year’s The Guns of Navarone (1961), helped define the modern action-adventure movie. This western is about a team of seven gunslingers who travel to Mexico to protect a defenseless village there from a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). This is a motion picture in the running for the best western flick of all time.

1960’s The Magnificent Seven features what just might be the best action scenes ever committed to film at the time of its original release. They really upped the ante for the action-adventure genre. The thunderous, iconic musical score by Elmer Bernstein is pure energy, and the all-star, tough guy cast is perfect. The script is funny, without defusing any of the tension or sense of danger.

Released between the end of World War II and the height of the Vietnam War, the feature reflects a can-do spirit and a Wilsonian worldview, where the strong are obligated to help fight for the human rights, liberty, and human dignity of the oppressed, regardless of where said oppressed are located on a map. The opening sequences are marked by an odd existential feel, with aimless, bored men searching for something – anything – to bring meaning to their lives. The movie’s lived-in universe is one that the audience does not mind getting lost in.

An important stepping stone between the traditional western and the revisionist western, The Magnificent Seven holds an important place in the history of its genre. Above all else, this is an incredibly inspiring and empowering piece of cinema. Its message of selfless heroism and fighting the good fight has not dimmed with time. This film gets as high a recommendation as I can give.

My rating is 10 outta 10.