Rinse and repeat sequels have always had their pros and cons. For example, your leads and the world they operate in has already been established, as has the tone and look of the piece, so that makes roping everything together for another ride far simpler than starting everything from scratch. However, the flip side to this is that originality tends to take a bath if you fail to take steps to differentiate this new adventure from the last.
Impressively mixing these two aspects up to an alarming degree was Return Of The Seven, a wholly unnecessary follow up to The Magnificent Seven, possibly one of the most purely entertaining westerns that’s ever existed. Galloping in six years after the original and choosing to recast two out of three of the returning leads while keeping almost the exact same plot, this dusty sequel bizarrely managed to change the things that needed to remain and keep the things it needed to ditch – but does this wonky, miscalculation mean that seven is no longer a holy number?
Lorca is a wealthy rancher who, after the deaths of his sons, seems to be a couple of cattle short of a herd and in his desire to rebuild a desert village and a church on their honor, has abducted many men from numerous villages to use as space labour in this misguided endeavor. One of these men is Chico, a man who once fought with six comrades to liberate another village from another madman in another time and in desperation, his wife sends word to Chris Adams, the man who recruited and lead that earlier team.
Luckily enough, the third survivor, Vin Tanner, is also on the scene having popped up to warn Chris that there’s a £500 bounty on his head and before you know it, the pair have once again started recruiting a seven-man team of gun fighters and lost souls to aid them on yet another mission with overwhelming odds. Joining Chris and Vin are toothy womanizer Colbee, the taciturn and tormented Frank, fame-seeking bandit Luis and Manuel, a young perky cockfighter with a heart of gold – which is really, really weird when you think about it.
Their initial attack on Lorca’s operation goes well as they drive the men away and even manage to stave off the first counter attack without the help of the timid villagers, but after a brief parlay with their enemy, gird themselves for an even greater assault that will leave them more outnumbered than that 1% of germs that bleach can’t kill.
As each man takes this brief moment of respite to flesh out their backstories and motivation with monologues and laments about their death-‘centric lives, Chris and Vin prepare to go out in an epic wave of gun smoke and horse-related fall stunts.
It’s not that Return Of The Seven is a particularly poorly made western, it’s just that it’s so completely devoid of anything approaching originality it feels less like a stand alone movie and more like a remake sans the magic. If you really want an example how disappointing weak something like that can be, just take the Rio Bravo/El Dorado/Rio Lobo comparison where Howard Hawks essentially remade the same movie (albeit loosely) three times, but found new, innovative ways to tell the same story. Director Burt Kennedy, on the other hand, is merely content to run the movie on rails, rarely coming up with a story beat or a character moment we hadn’t already seen despite the titular seven featuring four new members. I personally found this suprising when I saw the name of Larry Cohen pop up with a script writing credit at the start of the film mainly because he was subsequently responsible for such innovative and orginal cult hits like The Stuff and Q – The Winged Serpent. Alas here, he also seems content to simply move over already troubled ground with the only standout point being the noticably complex motivation of the main villain.
Yul Brynner brings the usual, stoic, level-headedness he brought to the first film, but while the fact that he was an impossibly heroic lead who seemed to know everybody played into the mythic status of the old West, here it just seems weirdly implausible that he’s on a first-name basis with around two thirds of the population of Texas. Elsewhere we find TV cowboy Robert Fuller gamely trying to fill the vacated shoes of Steve McQueen as Vin 2.0; however, while Brynner certainly must have been relieved that his lamented co-star had long since vamoosed, Fuller simply can’t match his predecessor in the cool, charisma stakes.
There’s not much better to be found with the rest of the Seven either – Claude Atkins’ brooding Frank is merely Charles Bronson-lite and Warren Oates’ piano toothed ladies man is more an annoyance than a comfort. As a result, when some of these hombres finally succumb to that last, final fight they were looking for, it only has a fraction of the impact you felt for any of the originals when they bit the bullet. Maybe we would have felt more sympathy for the young, impressionable Manuel as he finally gets the villagers to fight back with explosive results, but apart from the idealistic mexican being a cockfighter by trade, his entire story arc is essentially carried out by Chris and Vin talking about him as if he wasn’t there instead of letting him carry the tale himself.
Still, at least the film ends with a bang as swarms of bandits try to over run our heroes as they fire wildly at offscreen assailants that were obviously filmed at a later date. There’s gunfire, explosions and enough screams of “Vamonos muchachos!” to start a potentially fatal drinking game, but some viewers may be put off by some particularly gnarly-looking horse stunts that look too awkward to be safe.
Still, despite the fact that Brynner’s obviously phoning it in (or maybe by telegram as it’s the old west), there’s still a small sparkle from seeing him lead a small gang of ruffians against ridiculous odds while Elmer Bernstein’s majestic score works overtime to make things work and it’s impossible not to him along, even though the events onscreen are less engaging than they should be. Also – if only three of the original members come back and two of them are played by different actors, can you really class it as a return?
Too many re-casts and not enough innovation means that this second incarnation of the Seven ends up being far less magnificent than the first and while it’s band of bullet firing loners manage to hit the target every now and then, their pistols click on empty way before the end credits roll…