To examine the filmography of cinematographer Charles B. Lang Jr., ASC, is to marvel at the depth and range of subjects afforded filmmakers during the studio system’s glory days. Lang, who was nominated for as many Oscars as any director of photography (18, matched only by Leon Shamroy, ASC), shot literary adaptations (A Farewell to Arms), comedies (She Done Him Wrong, Some Like it Hot), horror films (The Uninvited), biting satires (Ace in the Hole), poignant romances (Strangers When We Meet) and virtually every other type of movie over the course of his 50-year career. Yet one film stands out as perhaps his most influential and indelible masterpiece: the Western The Magnificent Seven, which served as a transition between the classical Westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and the revisionism of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah.
Lang was a master of this genre, as he was of many others, having photographed Anthony Mann’s classic Western The Man From Laramie and John Sturges’ The Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Last Train From Gun Hill. The Magnificent Seven reunited Lang with Sturges for an American remake of Akira Kurosawa’s action classic Seven Samurai, itself a Japanese riff on the Ford Westerns. Sturges and screenwriter William Roberts (as well as uncredited writer Walter Newman, who took his name off the picture during a guild dispute) substituted American gunfighters for Kurosawa’s samurai and sent them to defend a village of Mexican farmers instead of Japanese peasants, but the basic premise is the same: seven men find moral redemption but physical danger by springing into action in the name of a cause.
Although The Magnificent Seven borrows Kurosawa’s plot, the visual style of Sturges and Lang is completely their own. Eschewing the Japanese film’s stark black-and-white in favor of glorious Technicolor and a wide Panavision frame, Lang employs a dynamic palette and kinetic tracking shots to create an action film that is as beautiful as it is violent. Indeed, Lang’s background in romance and melodrama is evident in the film’s atmospheric night exteriors and its many contemplative moments; even in restrained, ensemble-dialogue scenes such as the one in which the heroes weigh the pros and cons of lives as gunfighters, Lang’s lighting is expressive and dynamic, providing mood and texture that add dramatic weight to the characters’ words.
The movie’s key action sequences, in which a famous cast (Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughan, James Coburn) takes aim at Eli Wallach and his team of Mexican bandits, are as kinetic as the dialogue scenes are relaxed, as Lang and Sturges use the 2.35:1 aspect ratio to convey multiple storylines and incidents without confusing the viewer. Even when bullets fly and the editing accelerates, the audience is kept acclimated to the spatial relationships thanks to the filmmakers’ meticulously composed frames and razor-sharp depth of field. Thankfully, the precision and boldness of Lang’s imagery is well served by the latest Blu-ray edition of The Magnificent Seven, which shows a greater consistency of color, depth and grain than the standard-definition DVD of the film. The uncompressed surround mix is unobtrusive but effective, with nice separation of the effects during the film’s shoot-outs and a robust presentation of Elmer Bernstein’s Academy Award-nominated score.
The disc contains several extra features carried over from the standard-definition DVD release, including a delightful commentary track by actors Wallach and Coburn, producer Walter Mirisch and assistant director Robert Relyea. Their amiable narrations contain entertaining anecdotes about the production, as well as occasional insights into the Sturges and Lang working methods. The 46-minute documentary “Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven” provides additional interviews and stories, and film-music historian Jon Burlingame contributes an excellent 15-minute analysis of composer Bernstein’s legendary score. There are also two trailers and a stills gallery, along with a more dynamic presentation of stills in the form of a 15-minute featurette, “The Linen Book: Lost Images from The Magnificent Seven,” which intersperses photographs with reflections from cast, crew and archivists. One particularly interesting bit of trivia to come out of all this material: legendary cinematographer John A. Alonzo, ASC, played a small role in The Magnificent Seven as one of the Mexican farmers!
The Magnificent Seven spawned a television series and several sequels, the first of which, Return of the Seven, has also been released on Blu-ray under the revised title Return of the Magnificent Seven. Less a sequel than a remake in which Brenner’s character recruits a new band of gunfighters to rescue a friend taken hostage, Return is a leaner, grittier film than its predecessor. In keeping with the maverick sensibility of director Burt Kennedy, who was more peripheral to the establishment than the more renowned Sturges, Return of the Seven plays more like a terse B-movie than a majestic epic, but it is perfectly enjoyable on its own modest terms. Director of photography Paul Vogel, ASC, was every bit the diverse craftsman Lang was, having shot musicals (High Society), science-fiction films (The Time Machine) and another great Anthony Mann Western (The Tall Target). For Return of the Seven, Vogel employed a dusty, brown and burnt-orange palette that looks terrific in high-definition. The only extra on Return of the Seven is a theatrical trailer.