They ride yet again
I must first declare an interest: ever since I saw The Magnificent Seven movie, in 1960 when I was 12, I have been besotted with the whole genre and that film in particular. I have watched it since, countless times, and as I have lived in various countries and it’s a TV favorite, I pretty well know the dialogue by heart now in three languages. I think it’s thoroughly wonderful. And anyone who considers The Seven Samurai to be better is, er, mistaken. The Magnificent Seven is what a Western should be.
Thus, any sequels, prequels, TV spin-offs or other dross were doomed to failure for me.
Still, I do have a morbid fascination for the tail of the comet. We all want to know what happened to Chris and Vin afterwards, or indeed where they came from. So I religiously watch the pale later versions, doomed to disappointment as I am.
I must say, though, that the 1998/2000 TV series didn’t do too bad a job. It was produced by Walter Mirisch (of The Heat of the Night fame). Mr. Mirisch has been creditably involved in Westerns since Fort Massacre and Man of the West in 1958. Respect. And he was, of course, a producer of the original greater-than-greatness Magnificent Seven. So the pedigree’s there alright.
As for the cast, well, it isn’t bad. Michael Biehn takes the Chris part. He’s Chris Larabee. In fact he’s Zane Grey’s Lassiter. Larabee, Lassiter, what’s the difference? He is the superman gunslinger dressed in black. Yul Brynner loved that costume. Mr. Biehn (not Mr. Bean) seems to enjoy it too. He is taciturn, tough and tenacious. No one questions his authority as boss of the seven. The actor was Kyle Reese in The Terminator and Johnny Ringo in Tombstone but yet forgive me if I say he doesn’t quite convince in this key role.
His sidekick is Vin, of course, played now by Eric Close. Mr. Close does bear a modest resemblance to Steve McQueen, in certain lights anyway, and he sure plays it up. He refers to his past as a bounty hunter and has a sawn-off Winchester as a sidearm, so he’s almost more Josh Randall than Vin Tanner. But he blends the two.
As for the rest of the seven, they are not the characters of the movie. Perhaps because those were killed in it. Instead, we get a variety of stereotypes. Gambler Ezra Standish, played by Anthony Starke, is a Southern ‘gentleman’ (i.e. conman). I like him because he has a fondness for derringers and is highlighted in the opening credits fondly smiling at one. He goes for a Maverick vibe. He wears very bad coats though. In fact his costumes are all bad; and indeed, none of the costumes in the show is convincing. They all look like, well, costumes. That often happened in later TV Westerns. I don’t think Mr. Starke is a very good actor, however, at least judging by this series. You can’t blame him (or any of the cast) for not having much experience in Westerns. They make so few nowadays. Still, you do want an actor to be a bit convincing in Stetson and gunbelt. James Garner he ain’t.
Ron Perlman has a leading part. He is Josiah, a sort of preacher, a self-ordained clergyman who provides off-the-shelf spiritual guidance to the other six, and anyone else who is gullible enough. He is supposed to be deep. His character references Levi Morgan (James Whitmore) in Guns of the Magnificent Seven. I can’t help thinking of him as Clay Morrow, though, and expect him to mount up his Harley-Davidson rather than a horse. I don’t wish to be personal, and I am certainly not one to talk, but he does look a bit odd too. It’s his face. Bulgy and all jowl. He also can’t wear Western clothes convincingly.
We had to have an African-American, of course. It was 1998, not 1960. Rick Worthy is Nathan Jackson, an ex-slave who was a stretcher-bearer in the Civil War and learned the rudiments of medicine and surgery, which, in the absence of a proper doc out here in the wild West, he practices with aplomb. Nathan is also an expert knife-thrower, maybe a reference to James Coburn in the original, and he fancies himself as Wesley Snipes with his blades in a harness on his back. It’s a bit corny.
Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff) is the womanizing one. Or at least he is a great flirter. I suppose his avatar was Warren Oates’s Colbee in Return of the Seven. The series does reference various post-1960 versions. Mr. Midkiff was Elvis on TV, so worthy, but also star of a whole series of soppy TV Westerns with love in the title, sigh.
The Chico part of the enthusiastic young greenhorn is taken by Andrew Kavovit, as JD Dunne. He’s from back East, as his derby hat proves (though he defends it by saying Bat wore one). He looks up to Buck and Buck treats the boy almost tenderly. You even get the feeling that there’s a homo-erotic vibe going on there. Perish the thought, though. They may be pushing for gay characters in the new Star Wars movie but that would have been a step too far in a 1998 Western TV show. Anyway, Buck and JD are both given romances (with women) in different episodes, to dispel any such heretical notions.
So that’s the seven. Then there are other recurring characters. There has to be a strong woman along with an African-American so in this one it’s Mary Travis (Laurie Holden) who goes to hire the seven at the start, not a band of Mexican peasants. Mary is a feisty newspaper editor with modern ideas. She takes a shine to Chris, natch. Her dad, though, is Judge Travis and this Travis is played by none other than Robert Vaughn, the only survivor from the original movie to appear. He pops up in occasional episodes. He’s the one who hires the seven as unofficial deputies to keep law ‘n’ order in town in the absence of a proper marshal.
The Magnificent Seven consists of a 90-minute pilot and then two series of 44-minute episodes (made to fit in an hour of scheduling with the commercial breaks), for a total of 22 parts.
The pilot, first aired in January 1998, is a rehash of the original movie, only this time it’s not a Mexican pueblo they save from the depredations of bandido Calveras but rather a Seminole village at the mercy of crazed Confederate Colonel Anderson (Kurtwood Smith). Hollywood rather did crazed Confederate commanders: one thinks of Jack Palance in The Desperados and The McMasters, or Edmond O’Brien in Rio Conchos, to name but a few. Men on the edge of madness who could not accept the defeat of the South were a favorite of Hollywood Westerns. This one, Col. Anderson, is suitably wide-eyed and bonkers. His decent 2-i-c Capt. Riley (Daragh O’Malley) tries to keep his genocidal boss in check but without success. Being a huge fan of That 70s Show, I have difficulty in watching Kurtwood as a crazed Confederate. To me he’s just Red, and I expect him to call his captain dumbass. But that’s the penalty of typecasting, I guess.
The whole thing is a rather pale imitation. It has a made-for-TV look, including the inevitable fades-to-black. They had to introduce all the characters and establish them before the commercials. The biggest problem it has, though, is that all seven had to survive, to appear in the forthcoming series. That reduced the dramatic impact somewhat…
The one big plus point is the music. They have the proper Elmer Bernstein tune, which is great. Mind, the movie sequels had that too and it didn’t stop them from being dire.
Once they have saved the Seminole village the seven have to have a raison d’être and so they are hired to protect the wide-open town in, maybe, Arizona or New Mexico (we are not told). It was filmed in AZ, round Mescal and in the Dragoon Mountains, so let's say Arizona. Judging by the firearms, it’s some time in the 1890s, so pretty late for a wide-open frontier, but who knows? Anyway, the magnificent seven become little more than paid deputies, which is a bit of a let-down. Still, in the ensuing episodes they have plenty of ne’er-do-wells to deal with.
In Episode 2, One Day Out West, the villain is a greedy rancher, a favorite bad guy of Westerns of course, played by Brion James, the replicant Leon in Blade Runner. But he did have a small part in Silverado and was a regular of TV Westerns so we’ll call him a guest star. In the old days great Western character actors would have been waiting in line to play the villains. By 1998, though, the casting director had to seek out anyone whose face you might vaguely recognize.
Chris starts wearing a poncho so has a more Clint-ish than Yul-ish look to him. Ezra flips cards into a hat in jail – that’s an oldie. Anyway, the story is launched.
Episode 3 is entitled Working Girls, so you can guess what it’s about. A nasty fellow named Wickes has established Wickestown, a tent city. Buck intervenes to save one of the girls, Nora (Marisa Coughlan), from a beating and soon her co-workers follow suit and seek the protection of the seven. This does not suit Mr. Wickes one bit.
The great thing is that Wickes is played by Barry Corbin. Now there’s a proper guest star for you. I love Barry. Winner of the Buffalo Bill Cody Award and the Western Heritage Award from the National Cowboy Hall of Fame, he is quoted as saying, “I love Westerns!”, in which case, who could not love him? Of course he was great as Roscoe Brown in Lonesome Dove, but I liked him as Bob the storekeeper in the 2003 Monte Walsh and the sheriff in Crossfire Trail, he was great as Charlie the stage driver in Conagher, and more recently he was also enjoyable in The Homesman. You always get good value from Barry.
In Episode 4, Safecracker, we have a crime story, with a glam crackswoman to be bested. She has been recently paroled and has a larcenous young daughter of the kind that it might have been kinder to strangle but I suppose that wouldn’t be too PC. The little girl does steal Ezra’s derringer, though, showing taste, so I suppose she can live. Of course Buck falls for her mom, or flirts with her anyway. The real villain though is Morgan Coltrane, an ex-sheriff (Jeff Kober). I didn’t know Mr. Kober but he was rather good. Perhaps because he was born in Billings, MT. He was in Aces ‘n’ Eights, a TV movie, and a few other TV Westerns.
In Witness, Episode 5, the eponymous observer is a (rather too angelic) small boy, Billy (Justin Cooper), Editor Mary’s son, who has seen the murder of his daddy, Mary’s husband, and has become mute. It’s rather like a skullduggery B-Western as the plot unravels. The villain is Leon Russom, the nasty Malibu police chief in The Big Lebowski, and he is quite good at menace. He kidnaps Billy, and the seven have to ride to the rescue. In the same episode Ezra’s conwoman mother Maude (Michelle Phillips) turns up. She will be an embarrassment to Ezra for several episodes.
Episode 6, Nemesis, features a parasitic dime novelist who latches onto the seven and wants to glorify them in his next deathless tome in the Beadle Pocket Library series. Westerns like such figures – think especially of Saul Rubinek’s excellent WW Beauchamp in Unforgiven but others appear too. They often provide the useful contrast of a naïve Easterner (like the narrator in The Virginian) who thus shows up how manly, capable, brave and plain Western the heroes are. Anyway, this one, Jock Steele (Jeff Asch) is an irritating hanger-on whom the seven try to lose. But he’s persistent.
I thought it was the best episode so far, in fact. It introduces what will be a recurring theme of the mystery of the murder of Chris’s wife and son on their ranch while Chris was down in Mexico with Vin. Whodunnit? Well, a jailed drifter says he knows and will tell to escape the noose. There are scenes in other towns and one of them, Purgatory, was rather good as a nest of bandidos over the border, a plumb dangerous place to be. There are quite a few of those in Westerns too. The murderer seems to have been one Cletus Fowler, a sinister type (Stephen McHattie) and we think we are going to find out the truth but nay, for he was the one who pulled the trigger alright but the question remains unsolved at the end of the episode (setting up later shows): who hired him?
The Collector turns up next, in Episode 7. He’s another grasping rancher who wants the whole valley, as they do. He’s ruthless Guy Royal (Tim Thomerson, quite good) who makes a habit of visiting local homesteads and allowing them to ‘give’ him objets d’art and horses. Before driving them off their land and grabbing it, of course. Oh, these greedy ranchers, what would Westerns do for baddies without them?
Of course it’s the old one about wanting all the land around because the railroad’s coming and he’ll make a fortune. Railroad companies were even bigger baddies in Westerns than greedy ranchers. Funny, really, because you’d think enterprise and success would be admired, and the railroads certainly brought progress and wealth. No, though. Railroad companies are evil monopolistic capitalists doing down the decent homesteader, and if they get held up by Jesse James or someone, so much the better.
Rancher Royal also hires a one-eyed top-hatted marshal, Top Hat Bob Spikes, who has a grudge against Chris and I rather liked him. Turns out that he lost his eye to Chris in a rail-splitting contest. Well, thuggish as Bob may be he’s not going to get the better of Chris and his six pards, we know that, and he is indeed duly dispatched.
Josiah gets lovesick in this one and it seems the seven took it in turns to have love interest.
In Episode 8, Manhunt, it transpires that Vin is a master tracker. Must have come in handy when he was a bounty hunter. Buck and Vin rescue Claire (Meredith Monroe), the daughter of a missionary (John Cullum) who has been abducted by Chanu (Greg Serano), an Indian, Willie Boy-style – now that’s going to set the cat among the pigeons. The Indian is captured and jailed but Vin is blamed for allowing him to escape. You see it also turns out that Vin lived with the Indians (Kiowas and Comanches) for some years and so is kinda sympathetic, what would-be lynchers call an Injun-lover. And there are plenty of aspiring lynchers in this town. They want to string that no-account redskin up. Well, they would. And when the gal is discovered strangled, there’s no holding them. Still, Chris and Vin are by no means convinced that Chanu did it, and they sure ain’t gonna stand for no lynchin’…
The last episode of series 1, aired on March 21, 1998, was Inmate 78. It’s a Hellgate-ish prison story. Chris fetches up in the town of Jericho (maybe Dean Martin's town), treed by an evil sheriff (Cliff De Young) and crooked judge (can’t remember who that was). They have a scam going whereby they sentence innocent wayfarers to hard labor and get relatives to pay ‘bail’ to get them released. They try it on Chris. Fools. The jail warden (Art LaFleur) is appropriately nasty and he’ll get it in the neck, we are sure, as well as judge and sheriff, once Chris gets going and his six compadres find out where he is. There’s a good bit with a rattler when the warden does indeed get it in the neck. The most loathsome character though is the sheriff’s mother (Julianna McCarthy). Wish the rattler had got her.
So that was that for series 1.
In January 1999 fans were able to resume with series 2.
The New Law seemed to undermine the whole existence of the magnificent seven for, despite the reluctance of Judge Vaughn, they are relieved of their semi-official duties by a newly-arrived very English federal marshal, Walter Bryce (Peter Firth). English or English-ish marshals had been a staple of Westerns (Silverado, Ramrod, The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw, etc.) and this one is no slouch either. He tries to impose not only law ‘n’ order but also propriety – he even presumes to limit Buck’s affaires. But he is as dumb as he is brave. It’s that British colonial mentality, one supposes. Anyway, he tries to stand up against a whole posse of bad guys with a single twelve-gauge and gets shot to death for his pains. There you go. Farewell, Marshal Bryce, it was Victorian while it lasted. But it only lasted half an episode. Still, we don’t want the magnificent seven out of a job, now do we?
This episode is semi-interesting for the re-appearance of two former rancher villains, Royal and James, who, though bested in previous episodes, are not down and out, and they ally with a newcomer rancher baddy, Earl (MC Gainey). Together these villainous landowners decide to eliminate the whole town, and the mag 7 with it. It’s a good episode because it starts with a rip-roaring shoot-out, has classic villains and there’s interest as the seven break up (oh no!). Chris goes back alone to Purgatory to chase the trail of Fowler, assassin of his family. Who hired him? Doomed quest, of course. Back in town, there’s a 24-hour deadline and a confusion between dog and god. The 7 pretend to be US Army (that has to be illegal, surely?) and there’s a cannon, and then everything’s back to the status quo, phew, so now we can have S2, Episode 2.
The next episode of series 2 is called Sins of the Past and in it Ezra buys the saloon but gets int a trade war with his ma who buys the hotel opposite. In this one, though, Vin is the real star because it has been hinted in previous episodes that he was wanted in Texas for murder (one he didn’t commit, natch) and he had always been meaning to go back and clear his name but never got round to it, what with protecting villages and all. Now his past comes back to haunt him. Those are the sins of the past, see? There’s a Texas marshal, Yates, who comes with a warrant. Only it turns out that he ain’t a proper marshal at all, he’s Jack Conley, the bartender in Justified. Eli Joe (Vincent Castellanos) is the real killer, not Vin, and Eli Joe wants Vin taken out.
Then comes the episode called Love and Honor, and it chiefly concerns Buck, who tries to defend a fair maiden when he defends her against insalubrious types that come looking for her. These insalubrious types are led by an arrogant if diminutive Mexican in fancy pants, Don Paulo Monterro (Jesse Borrego). Don Paulo starts being arrogant in the first reel (if TV shows have reels) when he demands a horse from Chris. Of course Chris sees him off and shoots a henchman in the arm. Don Paulo then callously murders the henchman for failing. He’s not nice, evidently. And he has another henchperson in the shape of Raphael (A Martinez), the fastest gun in the territory. Raphael and Chris offer each other professional courtesy and mutual respect but we know there’ll be a showdown…
Meanwhile, Buck gets drawn into a duel and finds himself having to fight with swords, at which he is incompetent and Don Paulo expert. Oops. Buck only has a day to learn the whole art but luckily (if rather surprisingly) Ezra and Nathan both turn out to be accomplished fencers and can school Buck.
In the last scene JD’s derby hat is shot full of holes, no more than it deserves.
Episode 4 of series 2 is entitled Vendetta. It gives us more insights into the past of Chris. His late wife’s father, Hank (Ed Lauter) arrives in town and it is clear at the outset that they do not see eye to eye. Hank blames Chris for being off down in Mexico when his daughter and grandson were killed. This Hank is being pursued and in fear of his life but Chris refuses to help, despite pressure from the other six. He rides out. But of course he does a U-turn; he can’t abandon the man, however great the animosity between them. A man’s gotta do, etc.
The pursuers of Hank are rather good, in fact. They are dressed in funereal black and arrive in an armored carriage. They are the Nichols clan from St Louis and are headed by the vengeful and bloodthirsty matriarch Ma Nichols (Tyne Daly, splendidly malevolent). Hank has shot her favorite son and she is out to get him. She is mad with religion, though only seeming to know the biblical passage about eyes and teeth.
There are, appropriately, seven brothers, tough eggs the lot of them, so the coming conflict is evenly matched. At the end, Main Street looks like the stage in the last act of Hamlet with corpses strewn everywhere, all the fault of the evil ma. Mothers, what can you do?
Episodes 5 and 6 are about a wagon train, and unimaginatively called Wagon Train Part 1 and, amazingly, Wagon Train Part 2. Judge Vaughn is back and opens proceedings by handing down a decision on the disputed land of some Mormon settlers – or I think they’re Mormons because of a reference to “saints” but the show is very careful not to offend so walks on eggshells in the script. The judge decides that the seven will accompany the wagon train (well, a Western series has to have a wagon train) and for some contrived reason editor Mary and her son Billy go too. The wagon trainers are hostile and one of them is an egregiously fat boy, whose mother sets her bonnet at Josiah.
There has to be a villain who is against them and wants that land, and it’s Dicky O’Shea (Bruce McGill, rather good). We even wonder if there isn’t going to be a sort of Mountain Meadows massacre in reverse. O’Shea has an amusing nutty powderman (Tim De Zam) ready to blow the settlers to kingdom come. The situation is complicated by Vin falling for a married settler woman. He even elopes with her but like Chris in the previous episode, has to do a U-y to help his pards. There’s a dance with music made by a fiddle, banjo and spoons. All wagon trains have to stop for a dance every few miles; I think it was compulsory. The Covered Wagon and Wagonmaster showed that.
In Penance the spotlight falls on Josiah. He is the prime suspect as serial killer. I haven’t seen this one as it wasn’t on YouTube and I’m too mean to buy the boxed set. I’m sure Josiah didn’t do it though.
In the next episode, The Trial, we get a bit of Nathan Jackson’s backstory. His long-lost ex-slave pappy turns up in nearby Eagle Bend and the good townspeople naturally want to hang him. They say he has killed a white man. Judge Vaughn gets the trial transferred to the seven’s (unnamed) town because the Eagle Bend folk are too prejudiced, and the seven ride to effect that displacement, with much action to the tune of Elmer Bernstein. But once in the seven’s town the judge foolishly agrees to allow some Eagle Benders to sit on the (all white male) jury. Still, Pa Jackson gets his day in court, which is better than a lynching.
There’s a sub-plot about a colorful fellow named Preston Wingo (Patrick Cronin) who, like Mrs. Nichols before him, arrives in town in an unusual conveyance, this time a hansom cab. He accuses Maude, Ezra’s dubious mother, of theft, and has her locked up, but will drop all charges if she marries him. Editor Mary negotiates the historic first pre-nup agreement. It doesn’t last long though…
Lady Killers comes next. It’s an odd thing about English that when you put two nouns together they can be subjective or objective, so lady killers could be females who murder or murderers of females. In addition, there is the punning sense of men who seduce women. So the title leaves plenty of room for maneuver. Well, syntactical digressions aside we soon know because we are introduced to two bounty hunters (Rebecca Cross and Ashlee Levitch), the Stokes sisters. They have a 1990s Bad Girls/The Quick and the Dead/Bandidas look to them. I can’t imagine that the West was densely populated with female bounty hunters but you never know. One or other of the seven usually gets hurt in each episode. This time both Vin and JD get shot. Luckily usually Nathan can patch them up.
Serpents opens to Editor Mary’s vociferous campaigning for statehood, with the suggestion that only corrupt businessmen and politicians want to continue as a territory. It’s slightly odd that respectable ladies march, careless, come niente fosse as we used to say, into the saloon to preach their cause, for I doubt they would have done then. Still. Slimy Territorial Governor Hopewell (Todd Allen) arrives in town to plead for a continuation, no state wishes he, and Buck duly falls for his glamorous secretary (Kristen Dalton).
In this one, another sinister assassin appears in town. He is Lucius Stutz. The only difference between him and other killers is that he is dead. He is found in his hotel room, doornailesque, with a satchel of $$$, dollars which are, of course, coveted (that is definitely the word) by Buck. Was the governor the target for the marksman (who has a very fancy rifle with telescopic sights that Vin covets, so quite a lot of coveting goes on)? Yup.
After a stupid dream sequence featuring Josiah (very badly filmed, shame on actor and director) it turns out that a modest one-eyed bible salesman is the Son of Stutz and is there not to take out the governor but, au contraire, paid by the governor to take out Editor Mary. It is all, really, ineffably silly.
In Obsession, Chris must come to grips with his tortured past when he tries to help an old flame, and he comes face-to-face with his wife's killer, but I haven’t seen this one either so I can’t tell you more.
Chinatown – well, there had to be one about Chinatown - shows us another exploitative camp but this time the exploitees are not sex-workers but Chinese. It turns out, naturally, that Josiah speaks fluent Cantonese (sigh). The principal bad guy is Rupert Brauner (Brad Dourif) who smiles and smiles but is a villain. There is mucho brutality and racism, and a silly part about Chinese love potions which work on Buck and Lei Pan (Kathleen Luong) – as if Buck needed a love potion.
In Achilles JD gets all shook up because he kills an innocent bystander when trying to foil a bank robbery, and gets ostracized. He decides to abandon gunslinging and go back East, much to the regret of his, er, friend Buck. The Achilles of the title is a black gunman and rather splendid. He’s only billed 15th but is in fact the star of the show. Vin turns out to be illiterate. There’s a lot of very bad poetry and a false leg. But the episode is saved by two appearances, no less, of a derrringer.
Well, there we are. Various directors were used. Geoff Murphy, a New Zealander who did Young Guns II, did the pilot. Christopher Cain (Young Guns I) directed five episodes, and William Wages and Steve Beers also directed some. They did alright, I guess. Many writers were used.
As for the look of thing, well, Gordon Lonsdale seems to be have been responsible for the photography of most of it. Don’t know too much about him but there are too many soft-focus shots, especially to mark flashbacks (better then sepia, I suppose). Still, the locations are nice and the color is bright. You can get the Sony/MGM DVDs and apparently they are pretty nice.
What can I say to sum up? It’s not bad. I mean, you could watch it. But compared with the original movie, it’s zilch. It is, though, better than the movie sequels. Give it a go if it comes on again, you probably won’t regret it.