Friday, September 28, 2012

The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Volume I (a review)

In March of 1992, Lucasfilm Ltd., Paramount Television, and ABC Television gave viewers the first episode of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, a series which explored the formative years of Henry Jones, Jr. a few decades before the events depicted in the Indiana Jones Trilogy.

Part Indy prequel, part history lesson, this was one of the rare television projects personally overseen by George Lucas, and it was intended to entertain fans of the archaeologist/adventurer while at the same time introducing many of them to important persons with whom a young Indy might have interacted with as he followed his father, Professor Henry Jones, Sr., and mother Anna on a global lecture tour as a ten-year-old, then later getting into more Indy-like situations during World War I and the post-war Jazz Age.

The idea of Lucas' fictional hero interacting with real historical characters wasn't new; in 1989's Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, the Man with the Hat has a short but darkly amusing run-in with Adolf Hitler in 1938 Berlin. (It's a tiny sequence and is somewhat inaccurate, as it shows Hitler autographing the Grail diary with his right hand instead of with his left.)

The series, though, expanded on this "gag" quite a bit, and the future "obtainer of rare antiquities" heard T.E. Lawrence tell stories about mummies amid the Giza Pyramids, discussed the nature of love with Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung at a dinner table in Vienna, and was privy to his mother's brief flirtation with Italian composer Giacomo Puccini in Florence.

Each one-hour installment was bookended with a thematically-linked introduction and coda featuring a very old Indiana Jones (George Hall), who still wore his famous fedora and leather jacket but was now missing one eye and wore glasses. And although most of the series featured "teenage Indy" (Sean Patrick Flannery), there were at least seven episodes in which Corey Carrier played a pre-teen "Junior."

Although The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles boasted a troupe of excellent actors, fine directors (Mike Newell, Bille August), acclaimed script writers (Frank Darabont, Jonathan Hensleigh, and Jonathan Hales) and some of the best production values ever seen on TV, the series never really caught on, and was canceled by ABC after its second season.

Pity, really, because Lucas' plan was to bridge the gap between the first TV episode and the films with 70 or so stories, many of them shot on actual overseas locations and produced by Lucasfilm's best artists and technicians.

Over the years, Paramount Home Video has released episodes of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles on videotape, but until October of 2007, the series was unavailable on DVD.

On October 23, Lucasfilm, Amblin Entertainment, and Paramount Home Video/CBS DVD released Adventures of Young Indiana Jones - Volume One, a 12-disc collection of seven "movies," which are really two re-edited episodes tied somewhat together, and supplementary documentaries, plus the TV-movie Travels With Father and the direct-to-video compilation "feature" The Adventures of Young Indiana Jones: Spring Break Adventure.

Although its content is taken from the original TV series, this box set is not Season 1 of The Young Indiana Jones Chronicles, so if you are a fan of the show and are hoping to get it as it originally aired, put the thought out of your mind right now.

Yes, the idea is essentially the same (Young Indy travels the world and interacts with famous persons while learning valuable life lessons), but the presentation is different.

Gone, for instance, is the "hopscotch" nature of the original show, which eschewed a purely chronological approach and alternated between the pre-teen Indy (Carrier) and teen Indy (Flannery). When the show aired in the early 1990s, one episode would be set, say, in 1908 Egypt, while the next would show events taking place 10 years later.

The seven "mini-movies" here follow roughly an eight-year span along the Indy timeline, starting with My First Adventure (1908) and ending with Love's Sweet Song (1916).

Also gone are the "Old Indy" bookends starring George Hall as a John Ford-like retired archaeologist. Not a major loss for the most part, but there were a few of the episodes where the short intros and codas did add emotional impact to the series. New viewers won't mind, but older fans might be disappointed by the deletion of the scenes with 93-year-old Henry Jones, Jr.

What does remain, though, is the series' ambitious scope and executive producer Lucas' intent to mix entertainment with enlightenment. Whenever possible, Lucasfilm's crew went to exotic locations (Egypt, Vienna, London, and Paris, for instance), giving the show a distinct feature film look that is still pretty impressive and is consistent with Steven Spielberg's features.

The acting is good, too, with Sean Patrick Flannery stepping into the Young Indy role originally played by the late River Phoenix in most of the episodes, and the younger Corey Carrier does a great job at capturing the "tween Indy" as reluctant student to his formidable tutor, Miss Seymour (Margaret Tyzack) and budding adventurer with a penchant for getting into trouble.

As dismayed as I am over some of the changes, I still think this is a good, if not perfect, box set for Indiana Jones fans. I like the concept of splicing chronologically-close episodes into movies, although at times the transition from one story to another is, shall we say, abrupt.

Nevertheless, for Indy fans, this first of three Volumes should be a treat, not just because the show's excellent production values are more or less intact, but because its six supplementary discs are replete with short documentaries that delve more into the real persons and events which provided the background for such stories as Young Indiana Jones and the Perils of Cupid in which a precocious Indy falls in love with Austrian Archduke Franz Ferdinand's daughter, Princess Sophie.

This set is due to be supplemented by Volume Two in December 2007, with a third and final box set scheduled to be released in early 2008, a few months before the premiere of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull.

Product Details
Format: Box set, Color, NTSC, Full Screen
Language: English
Region: Region 1
Aspect Ratio: 1.33:1
Number of discs: 12
Rating: Not Rated
Studio: Paramount Home Video
DVD Release Date: October 23, 2007
Run Time: 649 minutes

Seven feature-length mini movies: My First Adventure, Passion for Life, The Perils of Cupid, Travels With Father, Journey of Radiance, Spring Break Adventure, Love's Sweet Song

38 companion documentaries
Historical overview
Interactive game
Interactive timeline

Recommended: Yes

Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12

Thursday, September 27, 2012

Hasbro's Power of the Force line's Final Jedi Duel: A Star Wars Collectible

 Under the evil gaze of Emperor Palpatine, the lightsabers of two Jedi Knights - a father and son - clash furiously in a final duel between the light side and dark side of the Force. Slowly, the young Skywalker is lured closer to the rage of the dark side, and Palpatine sits confident of the Rebellion's defeat and the acquisition of a new emissary to fulfill his evil legacy! But the young Jedi's resistance appears to be growing... -Hasbro Star Wars: The Power of the Force Final Jedi Duel

Even as the Battle of Endor is raging in the cold, star-speckled blackness of space -- its explosions visible through the panels of the transaparisteel window of the Emperor's throne room -- a far more climactic and destiny-changing battle is being fought in the dark and austere chamber at the top of the second Death Star's observation power. 

It's the ultimate confrontation in the Classic Star Wars trilogy -- the clash of lightsabers and wills between the Jedi-turned-Sith-Lord Darth Vader and his hastily-trained but powerful son, Luke Skywalker. Watching them eagerly from beneath his hooded cloak with his yellow eyes and evil leer is Palpatine, the scheming Sith Lord who craftily wormed his way from sectoral Senator to the Supreme Chancellorship of the Old Republic and transformed that dying democracy into the militaristic Galactic Empire.

Hasbro's penultimate (sequence-wise, that is) Cinema Scene three-pack, Final Jedi Duel, has everything a Star Wars fan (and collector) looks for in these multi-figure dioramas: an interesting scene, nicely detailed and posed figures, and action...and you can't ask for more dynamic action than this father-and-son, Sith-vs.-Jedi duel.

Final Jedi Duel captures the essence of Return of the Jedi's final lightsaber clash extremely well, considering that Hasbro uses the standard mass-produced 3.75-inch figures and accessories rather than the more expensive sculptures that I've seen at FAO Schwartz and other expensive toy-and-hobby stores. Emperor Palpatine sits in his throne, his deathly-pale hands gripping the arm rests as he watches the furious fight between the armored Vader and the black-clad Skywalker, whose fury at his father's desire to turn Leia -- Luke's twin sister -- to the Dark Side is now pushing the young Jedi to use his anger and aggressive feelings to overwhelm Vader with blows from his green-bladed lightsaber. Indeed, comparing Final Jedi Duel's Vader to the one in 2002 Silver Anniversary two-pack with Obi-Wan, the Dark Lord, while still wielding his red-bladed saber in both hands, looks somewhat overwhelmed and hunched down, while Luke is more upright and dominant.

As in all the mid-1990s-and-beyond Kenner/Hasbro Star Wars figures, more attention has been given to the characters' costumes, weapons, and even facial features. For instance, gone are the wimpy and unconvincing solid-color lightsabers that even had the handles sporting the color of the blade. Instead, the blades are made of translucent plastic attached to silver-and-black lightsaber handles. Also, unlike their Kenner ancestors of the late 1970s and early '80s, figures are posed with the weapons in two-handed grips.

The setting is very nicely replicated as well. The big circular window, with its stark frame and the view of the fleet battle out in space, makes for a highly dramatic backdrop. The Emperor's throne -- its design echoed in Supreme Chancellor Palpatine's office chair in Episode II -- and the gray "Death Star floor" base are done in beautifully detailed plastic, allowing collectors to display their pre-posed figures without worrying if the figures will flop over to the side and fall off the shelves.

While this product is recommended by Hasbro for children ages 6 and up, like all the Cinema Scenes and Scene Packs, I don't think it's suitable for kids younger than 10. Although the figures are the same sturdy 3.75-inch figures that Hasbro sells individually at $4.99 each at major retail stores, Final Jedi Duel is more for showing off as a displayable collectible than a "okay, let's play Star Wars" toy. Considering that Final Jedi Duel is very hard to find -- it has been out of production for a while now, and Internet re-sellers ask an arm and a leg for it when you do find it -- I would get this for either a very mature and appreciative 12-year-old or an adult collector.

(c) 2012 by Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved.

Wednesday, September 26, 2012

Indiana Jones - The Complete Adventures Blu-ray Set

On September 18, 2012, almost a year after Lucasfilm Limited (LFL) and 20th Century Fox Home Entertainment released Star Wars: The Complete Saga on Blu-ray, LFL and Paramount Pictures released Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures, a five-disc box set which, for the first time ever, includes all four Indy films in the Blu-ray format.

Like its Star Wars counterpart, Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures features each of the George Lucas-produced, Steven Spielberg films (Raiders of the Lost Ark, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom, Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, and Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull) on its own Blu-ray disc, along with a fifth disc which contains a mix of all-new extra features and "carryovers" from the 2003 and 2008 DVD sets.

I've been a fan of "the Man in the Hat" since Raiders was released in June of 1981, and even though I already own the four films of the series and the three Adventures of Young Indiana Jones DVDbox sets, I pre-ordered The Complete Adventures Blu-ray set back in April.  The box set arrived last Friday, and though I have only watched one film in its entirety (Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom) and some of the extra features, I can report that:

  1. The packaging resembles that of the 2011 Star Wars: The Complete Saga in its basic design: each Blu-ray is stored in a sleeve-like page of a  package which resembles a small hardcover book.  The "book" fits into a sturdy cardboard slipcover; both feature a Drew Struzan illustration done in the style of the late Richard Amsel, the artist who created the original poster for Raiders of the Lost Ark back in 1981.  
  2. The four Blu-ray discs which contain the features don't offer too many extras. Unlike Star Wars: The Complete Saga, the Indiana Jones: The Complete Adventures set doesn't have any audio commentary tracks (Spielberg never does audio commentaries on any DVD or Blu-ray of his filmography).  They do, however, have the trailers for each of the four films, a feature not included in the Star Wars Blu-ray sets.
  3. Though most of the extra features on the bonus disc are "holdovers" from the series' previous DVD releases (2003 and 2008), viewers will see an all-new documentary titled On Set - Raiders of the Lost Ark, as well as The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark, a 1981 "making of" featurette which was not released in the DVD format. 
Because I haven't had much free time to watch all the Indy movies on Blu-ray, this "review" is only a preliminary look at one of the best-selling Blu-ray releases of the year.  So far, though, I have not had any playback issues with the Blu-ray discs, and the one film I did watch in its entirety both looks and sounds great on my HDTV set. 

Special Features
  • NEW – On Set with Raiders of the Lost Ark
    • From Jungle to Desert
    • From Adventure to Legend
  • Making the Films
    • The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark (1981 documentary previously unavailable on DVD)
    • The Making of Raiders of the Lost Ark
    • The Making of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom
    • The Making of Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade
    • The Making of Indiana Jones and the Kingdom of the Crystal Skull (HD)
  • Behind the Scenes
    • The Stunts of Indiana Jones
    • The Sound of Indiana Jones
    • The Music of Indiana Jones
    • The Light and Magic of Indiana Jones
    • Raiders: The Melting Face!
    • Indiana Jones and the Creepy Crawlies (with optional pop-ups)
    • Travel with Indiana Jones: Locations (with optional pop-ups)
    • Indy's Women: The American Film Institute Tribute
    • Indy's Friends and Enemies
    • Iconic Props (Crystal Skull) (HD)
    • The Effects of Indy (Crystal Skull) (HD)
    • Adventures in Post Production (Crystal Skull) (HD)

Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Star Wars: A Musical Journey (DVD Review)

One of the nicest things about Sony Classical's soundtrack album from Star Wars - Episode III: Revenge of the Sith is the bonus DVD that comes with the CD. Titled Star Wars: A Musical Journey, this is a magnificent collection of 16 music videos that span the entire six-Episode saga. The Prequels' four major themes (Duel of the Fates, Anakin's Theme, Across the Stars [Love Theme from Attack of the Clones), and Battle of the Heroes) underscore beautifully edited montages from the 1999-2005 trilogy, while action/setting cues and major themes from the Classic Trilogy feature scenes from all six Star Wars films to follow the Skywalker family's pivotal role in the rise and fall of the Galactic Empire. 

Of all the film series that feature classical-styled scores, George Lucas's Star Wars saga (which he personally calls The Tragedy of Darth Vader) is certainly a prime candidate for music videos. Indeed, Lucasfilm produced three MTV-styled vignettes (Duel of the Fates, Across the Stars, and A Hero Falls) for the Prequel Trilogy; each has aired at least once on MTV since 1999; in addition, the videos are included in the extra features discs of The Phantom Menace, Attack of the Clones and Revenge of the Sith

Star Wars: A Musical Journey's 16 videos are arranged in roughly chronological order from Episode I: The Phantom Menace to Episode VI: Return of the Jedi, with only two videos being deliberately moved out of sequence. To illustrate the rise of the evil Galactic Empire, Episode V's The Imperial March (Darth Vader's Theme) precedes the trio of themes from Episode IV: A New Hope. And to bring the Musical Journey to a triumphal end, director Tippy Bushkin has chosen Throne Room/Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope for A New Day Dawns

While the vignettes are all well done and form a visual Cliff's Notes to the two trilogies, it should be noted that whileA Hero Falls is the same video that appears on Disc 2 of Revenge of the Sith's DVD set, the videos Dark Forces Conspire and A Fateful Love are not the same videos that were used for Duel of the Fates and Across the Stars. The presentation in both is different as far as video footage is concerned, and A Fateful Love goes even further, using the same musical material as in the Episode II album rather than the blend of the Main Title and Love Theme from Attack of the Clones heard in the 2002 Across the Stars video. 

Actor/director Ian McDiarmid (who plays the evil Darth Sidious in five of the six Episodes) introduces each clip with an introduction taped at Abbey Road Studio, where the world-famous London Symphony Orchestra recorded the scores for many of the Star Wars films. Viewers have the option to play the videos with or without the introductions, but McDiarmid's mellow voice and theatrical delivery are enjoyable and add much to the presentation of the various musical montages. 

In addition to the various viewing options (you can watch all the videos in the 70-minute long DVD as one feature, choose individual vignettes, or skip the intros), Star Wars: A Musical Journey contains a very nifty trailer for Lucasarts' video game tie-in to Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith

While I wish the director had kept the original videos from the first two prequel films, having watched A Musical Journey a few times has made me realize that their mix of film clip, quick shots of the actual production preparations, and footage of Williams conducting the LSO don't quite match the presentation of the other 13 videos. The vignettes are wonderfully edited and blend footage from the six films in a unifying manner, and the music is endlessly compelling and memorable. 

Chapter List

1. A Long Time Ago: 20th Century Fox Fanfare and Star Wars Main Title from all films 
2. Dark Forces Conspire: Duel of the Fates from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 
3. A Hero Rises: Anakin's Theme from Star Wars Episode I: The Phantom Menace 
4. A Fateful Love: Across the Stars from Star Wars Episode II: Attack of the Clones 
5. A Hero Falls: Battle of the Heroes from Star Wars Episode III: Revenge of the Sith 
6. An Empire is Forged: The Imperial March from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
7. A Planet That Is Farthest From: The Dune Sea of Tatooine and Jawa Sandcrawler from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
8. An Unlikely Alliance: Binary Sunset and Cantina Band from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
9. A Defender Emerges: Princess Leia's Theme from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
10. A Daring Rescue: Ben's Death/TIE Fighter Attack from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope 
11. A Jedi is Trained: Yoda's Theme from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
12. A Narrow Escape: The Asteroid Field from Star Wars Episode V: The Empire Strikes Back 
13. A Bond Unbroken: Luke and Leia from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 
14. Sanctuary Moon: The Forest Battle (Concert Version) from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 
15. A Life Redeemed: Light of the Force from Star Wars Episode VI: Return of the Jedi 
16. A New Day Dawns: Throne Room/Finale from Star Wars Episode IV: A New Hope

Omen IV: The Awakening...dumb TV movie kills viewers' brain cells

To: Mace Neufeld, Harvey Bernhard, Robert J. Anderson and Brian Taggert
From: Perplexed Film Viewer
Re: Omen IV: The Awakening


As someone who has been watching and reviewing movies for a very long time, I am well aware of the film industry's true nature, i.e., that film studios and television networks' main focus is to make money for their corporate owners' stockholders - any real entertainment value of the projects that get "green-lit" is purely incidental.

Because most businesspeople tend to be very conservative and risk-adverse, it's therefore not surprising that studios and producers are attracted to sequels, prequels and franchises, even when a film - such as The Omen ­ is intended to be a stand-alone viewing experience and isn't - like the first two Superman movies - part of an organic multi-episode series.

Franchises, when they succeed, often result in big payoffs for everyone involved in their creation; George Lucas, Steven Spielberg, and even Misters Neufeld and Bernhard know this because they've been involved with quite a few successful film series, including - in the case of producers Neufeld and Bernhard - both the Jack Ryan andThe Omen movies,

However, as you gentlemen are no doubt aware, more often than not, franchises quite often take wrong turns when producers make ill-considered decisions based primarily on milking more money out of their cash cow and not on whether they are making something an audience really wants to see in theaters or on TV.

Such is the case with your dreadful made-for-broadcast TV movie Omen IV: The Awakening, which aired on the then still-relatively-new Fox network a decade after the theatrical run of the less-than-impressive The Final Conflict: Omen III.

As someone who enjoyed the first two Damien Thorn-is-the-Antichrist movies and barely tolerated the third, my question to you guys is this: What in the Devil were you thinking when you accepted Fox's commission for a fourth installment of a supposedly completed series?

Oh, yeah. You were thinking: If this movie has supernaturally great ratings, we'll all profit from this, especially when it is rebroadcast and goes to home video.

Now, while I realize that even the most successful producers and screenwriters sometimes create, well, crappy projects along with really good ones, I am really perplexed - as are many of my fellow reviewers - by the high levels of silliness and low levels of quality in this, Mr. Bernhard's final project as a producer.

Omen IV: The Awakening

Apparently, this piece of cinematic dross exists because 20th Century Fox wanted to "feed" the fledgling Fox network with a series of "From Big Screen to the TV Screen" projects to give its TV subdivision a lot of the studio's copyrighted content and incidentally make more money if the various projects were as successful as the 1972-1983 situation comedy M*A*S*H, which itself had been derived from Robert Altman's hit 1970 film.

And because The Omen trilogy had been one of the studio's biggest non-Star Wars franchises, the suits in Burbank, California figured that the Antichrist-on-Earth series could continue as a multi-TV movie franchise.

Unfortunately, 1991's Omen IV: The Awakening is so badly-written, ineptly directed and acted so insipidly that very few of the movie trilogy's fans (and there are many of those) could stomach it.

The basic plot of Omen IV follows the barebones blueprint of the original movies: a couple of attractive and successful attorneys named Karen (Faye Grant) and Gene York (Michael Woods) adopt Delia (Asia Vieira), a young girl of mysterious origins from a group of Catholic nuns because they are having trouble conceiving a child of their own.

As in The Omen, the Yorks have the same experience as the ill-fated Thorn family did; the kid is cute and on the surface very normal.  Or, rather, as normal as six- or seven-year-old girls with dark personalities and immunity to all diseases can be. 

But things take a very dark turn when Delia's very psychic nanny Jo (Anne Hearn) starts getting bad feelings about her young charge.  Her misgivings spark a Need to Know More That Won't Go Away, so Jo takes Delia to a sort of Psychic Fair where spiritually-attuned individuals delve into all sorts of psych activities, including aura-capturing photography.

At this fair, Jo's photographer friend Noah (Jim Byrnes) snaps some of these "psychic aura" pictures of Delia.  Predictably, they confirm Jo's fears that the little imp is, indeed, more than a kid with a bad temper...considerably more.

As in the first Omen movie, REALLY BAD THINGS start happening to people who start poking their noses into Delia's mysterious origins.  Strange accidents and murders - Jo is dispatched by a sinister-looking Rottweiler (a nod to the first film, obviously) when she uncovers what the audience already knows: Delia is the daughter of the late Damien Thorn, a.k.a. Satan Junior.

In another nod to The Omen, Gene York, Delia's adopted father, is seriously considering a run for the Presidency of the United States.  This, of course, is the perfect position for Satan's grandchild to be in, since the Antichrist is supposed to be a person close to the centers of power and finance.  Thus, Delia's main job is to help make sure this comes about No Matter What.

Meanwhile, Karen is being given information that Delia is not exactly a normal kid, and as the movie progresses, she starts following the same psychological/action must be taken path taken by Robert Thorn in the vastly superior 1976 original film.  Now, the only question is: will Karen avoid Ambassador Thorn's ultimate fate?

Perplexed Reviewer's Thoughts:
Gentlemen, I have already said that I understand the business reasons of why you made this totally unnecessary straight-to-TV piece of, um, garbage.  No need to rehash the whole we thought it would become a TV cash cow rationalizations.

What perplexes the daylights out of me - and countless others, I'm sure - is why you guys, especially Misters Bernhard and Taggert, would write a teleplay that manages to be both a horrible remake of the original movie (albeit one with the main characters' genders switched from male to female) and a boring, unintentionally silly and uninvolving mess.

Not only does Omen IV lack the gravitas of the three feature films' religious horror themes, but the facts that it was made on a barebones budget (it shows on screen, too!) and that one director ('Dominique Othenin-Girard) quit in mid-shoot and was replaced by the less-than stellar Jorge Montesi (The Chris Isaak Show, Jake 2.0)  simply show that Omen IV is one of those really bad ideas - such as the creation of AfterMASH and the cancellations of Family Guy - which Fox executives should never be allowed to forget.

With the exception of the use of some fragments from Jerry Goldsmith's Omen scores, there is nothing really of any value in Omen IV.  The rest of the score by composer Jonathan Sheffer - who is more of an arranger/conductor than a John Williams/Danny Elfman wannabe - is in turns silly and unremarkable.

Indeed, "silly and unremarkable" is an apt description for Omen IV: The Awakening.  It lacks the believability infused into Richard Donner's The Omen and its first sequel by Don Taylor, and it is sorely lacking in suspense, real scares or character development.

In closing, gentlemen, I would like to offer this bit of advice: If 20th Century Fox comes calling for Omen V: The Revenge, please, take a pass and try to reboot the Tom Clancy/Jack Ryan franchise instead.  On the big screen, and with none of that weird timeline-messing recasting of Jack Ryan, okay?

Wednesday, September 19, 2012

Movie Review: 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960)

Although the average film-goer may not be aware of this, some of Hollywood’s best films are often inspired by movies made in other countries, such as those directed by Japan’s Akira Kurosawa, whose Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo inspired American films such as The Outrage, Star Wars and Last Man Standing. (Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, in particular, was also the somewhat controversial template for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, but Last Man Standing is an officially sanctioned remake.) 

Perhaps one of the most popular Americanized remakes of a Kurosawa “Easterner” is 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, a Western written by William Roberts and officially acknowledged (in the main title sequence) as being inspired by Toho Films’ Seven Samurai (1954) 

That Seven Samurai could be adapted fairly easily from a film set in a medieval Japanese setting to a Western set in a late 19th Century Mexican village just south of the Texas border is easily explained: Kurosawa borrowed elements of American Westerns and transposed them into his story of seven sword-wielding samurai hired to protect a poor farming village in feudal-era Japan from a band of marauding bandits. 

Screenwriter Roberts (The Bridge at Remagen, Posse) and producer-director John Sturges (The Great Escape), who were doubtlessly aware of how stale the Western genre had gotten by the late 1950s, simply take the template of Seven Samurai and cast a group of up-and-coming action stars which include Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and Steve McQueen to share billing with veteran actors Yul Brinner and Eli Wallach. 

The plot, which has been borrowed by such movies and TV shows as Battle Beyond the Stars, The Three Amigos and the Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars (in Season Two’s Bounty Hunters), is simple (but not, natch, simple-minded). 

It is the late 19th Century, perhaps in the 1870s or early 1880s.  A small Mexican farming village, which survives on the small profits from selling corn and chiles, is periodically raided by bandit chief Calvera (Wallach) and his 40-strong gang for a “share” of the farmers’ money and whatever else the bandidos want (women, water and whatever is not tied down). 
Hilario: Even if we had the guns, we know how to plant and grow, we don't know how to kill. 
Old Man: Then learn, or die!  

Although the villagers have stoically endured Calvera’s raids without offering resistance, there’s only so much abuse they can take, and in the wake of the bandits’ latest “visit” the village elder (Vladimir Sokoloff) and a handful of brave men led by Hilario (Jorge Martinez de Hoyos) decide to do the unthinkable: sell what little crops they have and use the money to either buy guns or hire gunfighters to protect the village.

The villagers then trek to a small town in nearby Texas, where they witness a gutsy move by black-clad Chris (Brinner) and the restless Vin (McQueen): several well-meaning businessmen want to bury “Old Sam” in the town cemetery, but because the deceased was an Indian, the racists in town have threatened to kill anyone who performs a funeral ceremony.  Though the  men who want to pay for Old Sam’s burial insist on a decent burial ceremony, the town’s funeral parlor owner, Chamlee (Whit Bissell), is too scared to send his own driver to Boot Hill and doesn’t want the hearse to be damaged.

Chamlee: I'm sorry, friend, but there'll be no funeral.
Henry: What?
Chamlee: Oh, the grave is dug and the defunct there is as ready as the embalmers ought to make him. But there'll be no funeral.
Henry: What's the matter? Didn't I pay enough?
Chamlee: It's not a question of money. For twenty dollars, I'd plant anybody with a hoop and a holler. But the funeral is off.
Henry: Now how do you like that. I want him buried, you want him buried and if he could sit up and talk, he'd second the motion. Now that's as unanimous as you can get.

As the Mexican farmers watch, Chris and Vin get on the hearse and, with guns at the ready, drive the wagon to the cemetery.
Vin: [Chris is driving the hearse up to Boot Hill; Vin is riding shotgun] Never rode shotgun on a hearse before.

This act of defiance under pressure impresses Hilario and his companions, and soon enough they approach Chris with a proposition: the villagers will give Chris and Vin everything they have in exchange for guns and the services of professional gunfighters.

[Villagers tell Chris they collected everything of value in their village to hire gunmen]
Chris: I have been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.
Though Vin is reluctant to join Chris at first, he eventually agrees to this unusual contract.  But Vin knows that even if they arm the villagers with guns and give them some training, two gunslingers are not enough to challenge Calvera’s gang.  They need a few more good men to join the team, and Chris happens to know where to start looking for them……

My Take:  Like many movie buffs of my generation, I have seen this 1960 film exclusively on TV or home video; for many years after its theatrical release it aired (with commercial breaks) on independent television stations such as Miami’s WCIX and without ads on cable’s Turner Classic Movies.  It’s also been available on videocassettes and DVD; I own the 2007 Western Legends Special Edition one-disc version which includes such extras as an audio commentary track by surviving cast and crew members, including actors Eli Wallach and James Coburn and producer Walter Mirisch, a making-of documentary, original theatrical trailers and a collectible booklet. (My set didn’t include the booklet, but I’m cool with that.)

The Magnificent Seven is a classic film, not only because it helped launch the acting careers of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Charles Bronson, but because it took a tired, clich├ęd and predictable genre – the Western – and gave audiences a darker, more violent vision of the Old Southwest.

Director John Sturges does a – pardon the pun – magnificent job of not only getting great performances from his cast of American, German and Mexican actors, but also blending elements of action, straightforward drama, comic relief and even a little romance in the Americanized version of Seven Samurai.
The film also works thanks to the cinematography of Charles Lang (Some Like It Hot, Charade), who shot the film primarily on location in Mexico.  The rugged and arid landscapes of northern Mexico come alive through the camera, and the action sequences are fluid and full of excitement and vibrant kinetic energy.

Of course, no review of The Magnificent Seven could be complete without mentioning composer Elmer Bernstein’s rousing Academy Award-nominated score, with its brassy Main Theme and its Mexican-inspired guitar riffs.  Though clearly rooted in conventional Aaron Copland-style scores a la The Red Pony and Rodeo, Bernstein also quotes 20th Century classical music compositions for the film’s quieter, more introspective interludes.  The Main Theme for The Magnificent Seven was so popular that the Marlboro cigarette commercials of the mid- to late Sixties used it to underscore shots of “the Marlboro Man.”  (Interestingly, Elmer Bernstein would later compose the score to The Three Amigos, which is essentially a comedic version of The Magnificent Seven.)

The Magnificent Seven – as well as its Japanese source – has been tapped by many other filmmakers in different genres.  Sergio Leone copied some of the thematic content from both Sturges and Kurosawa when he made his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood; Eli Wallach, who plays Calvera with gusto in The Magnificent Seven, would later co-star with Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
And if you examine George Lucas’s Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) closely enough, you’ll notice that the band of heroes which is formed during the rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star totals seven: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, and the Princess herself.

© 2012 Alex Diaz-Granados.  All Rights Reserved