Don’t let misguided auteurists or your own fond memory fool you into thinking that the 1960 feature film that serves as the model for the new TV series The Magnificent Seven was anything like a classic Western. The original Seven, as directed by John Sturges, was a crowd-pleaser, but it was also a slow, cornball epic that, these days, is pretty tedious to sit through.
Based on Akira Kurosawa’s much more exciting Seven Samurai, Sturges’ Seven had a few things going for it, most notably Elmer Bernstein’s stirring fanfare theme music and some sly, movie-stars-in-the-making performances from Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Steve McQueen. But The Magnificent Seven also had Yul Brynner in the central role; he gave a performance so mechanical that 13 years later he parodied it by playing a gunslinging robot in the sci-fi flick Westworld.
The new Magnificent Seven stars Michael Biehn in Brynner’s man-in-black pivotal position. Biehn, who’s been a usefully grim costar in classy action films like Aliens and The Terminator, goes for Clint Eastwood’s old spaghetti-Western look here, puffing on a short black stogie and squinting beneath his wide-brimmed cowboy hat to convey barely suppressed rage. In the original, Brynner was hired by a group of destitute Mexican villagers to eliminate a vile bandit played with lip-smacking glee by Eli Wallach; in the TV Seven’s two-hour pilot, the Civil War has just ended, and Biehn is enlisted by a group of Seminole Indians to defeat a loonily sadistic Confederate colonel (RoboCop’s Kurtwood Smith) who wants the American Indians’ gold.
Biehn is too lightweight an acting presence to make much of an impact, and it’s unlikely that any other stars will be born here as the seven continue their weekly gallops to the rescue of the innocent and defenseless. A CBS press release tries to make them sound distinctively ragtag by describing the septet as ”strongman, sharpshooter, medicine man, con man, scoundrel, preacher, and dreamer,” but they’re more like the Spice Boys—muscular hunks with naughty, hearty laughs. (The pilot was directed by Geoff Murphy, who did the ultimate Spice Boy Western feature, 1990’s Young Guns II.) The most familiar face here is the lantern-jawed one belonging to Ron Perlman, currently having his tongue yanked by Sigourney Weaver in Alien Resurrection but best known among TV romance fans as the (slightly) hairier half of Beauty and the Beast.
It’s difficult to figure out who CBS hopes will watch its new Western. A recently published study of the median ages of network viewers revealed that CBS attracts the oldest viewers—I think it said the average CBS watcher is now something like 104 years old. Perhaps it is to these viewers—the ones who write mash notes to Diagnosis Murder’s Dick Van Dyke (or as they call him, ”that incorrigible young punk”)—that this Seven is being offered, but I suspect oldsters will find its stars too callow. On the other hand, there seems to be no great clamor for a revival of the Western among young TV consumers. I recently tried to get my kids to watch a tape of 1958’s Buchanan Rides Alone, a terrific lean, mean Budd Boetticher oater with Randolph Scott, and after the first 10 minutes, in a rare, touching display of togetherness, they offered to clean out the garage if I’d let them leave the room.
Tucked into the time period normally occupied by Dr. Quinn, Medicine Woman, the Seven premiere is, like Quinn, a tidied-up, politically correct Western. Its chief protagonists are mostly white, but the movie makes it clear that, between screwed-over American Indians and newly freed slaves, they have nothing to be particularly proud of. At the same time, however, Seven also contains extended bang-bang sequences that are supposed to strike us as evidence that this is a good old-fashioned Western, unafraid in 1998 of attracting a little violent-content labeling.
Trying to be both sensitive and obstreperous, TV’s Seven lacks a sure sense of itself, its audience— or even its history. The most influential movie Westerns—from John Ford’s seminal Stagecoach (1939) to Sam Peckinpah’s genre-busting The Wild Bunch (1969)—were, no matter how various their underlying emotions, built most prominently around spectacular action sequences. By contrast, the best Westerns on television have always been smaller-scale and rooted in behavior.
In durable old shows like the stolid Gunsmoke (1955-75), Peckinpah’s gritty The Rifleman (1958-63), the wickedly satiric Maverick (1957-62), and the male-bonding Bonanza (1959-73), it’s not the shoot-outs that people remember about them. Rather, it’s the adroit complex way, week in, week out, the Western hero—whether he was a sheriff, a homesteader, or a gambler—related to his neighbors, his enemies, and to the rocky moral terrain of an America that was being rapidly settled. The last TV Western to do something fresh with these themes was the ornery 1989 miniseries Lonesome Dove.
The new Seven would be a lot better if its gang interacted more interestingly—more contentiously—with each other, and if its cast wasn’t so uniformly youngish. From Andy Devine to Walter Brennan to Dove’s Robert Duvall, good Westerns require good old coots. And dialogue like, ”Nathan didn’t kill your boss—gangrene did!” certainly doesn’t help. (When Seven turns philosophical, it also turns cliché: ”Life’s tough and then you die,” drawls Magnificent team player Dale Midkiff.) As it is, I get the sinking feeling that on any given Saturday night, Chuck Norris’ Texas Ranger could kick these seven guys’ tails without breaking a sweat. C-