Different Slants

Seeing the World from a New Angle

Katzman’s Cinema Komments # 13–4/13/08

Filed under: Humor,Jewish Themes,Katzman's 13 Vintage Movie Reviews,Katzman's Cinema Komments — Bob at 12:59 pm on Monday, April 14, 2008

April 13th is not just another day.

Not for me, and not for America, either

Thomas Jeffereson was born on this day, in 1742, and he went on to write the Declaration of Independence.  I’ve read that there were approximately 4,000 Americans killed in that conflict, or about 1.3 soldiers a day died to win almost an entire continent from the British.

The first battle of the Civil War began on this day, at Fort Sumter in South Carolina (Rebs won, no casualties) just 68 years after the end of the the American Revolution.  There would be over 600,000 Americans killed in that savage conflict, or about 411 men died a day, in a cataclysmic attempt to see if we could keep most of our portion of that continent.

One hundred and eight-five years later, after the end of the Civil War in April 1865, I arrived in Chicago (four days late, around noon) on April 30th, 1950.  This is not a historically significant date which I’m sure would be universally agreed upon by all concerned.  But thirteen years later, I was a Bat Mizvah boy on April 13th, now 45 years ago, and that still matters to me.

Which, in my typically convoluted fashion, brings me to today’s movie, since at least one major member of that film’s cast had a bar mitzvah, too.  But thirty-five years before mine, when that ancient coming-of-age ceremony was far more obscure in America than it is now, and Jews kept a much lower national profile.

The Magnificant Seven! (1960), one of the most revered Western-themed movies ever made, even though it was based on an equally revered Eastern film, The Seven Samurai (1954).  I saw it when it came out (the US film) when I was just ten and I haven’t ever recovered from that first fantastic experience of an avalanche of charisma pouring off the screen by already famous and soon-to-be-famous macho American and European actors.

Yul Brynner (Chris, the so-cool leader), Steve McQueen (Vin, deadly, casual and philosophic) lead the cast.  Without them, the movie would be one more so-so Western.  But their spontaneous compatible relationship and world-weary attitude gave the film a spin that put a romantic sheen on everyone associated with it. 

Horst Bucholz (Chico), a new and very young German actor, played the 7th man to join the ranks of the immortal Seven.  Oddly, he was selected by the director, John Sturges, to play a brash young Mexican who distained the very peasant farmers he signed on to protect from the hordes of Mexican bandits who ravaged there village repeatedly, even though he was one of them.  His view of life was that the intinerant and frequently impoverished western gunslingers were  muy magnifico!! and he could never be a “miserable cowardly farmer” until Killer Cowboy Philosophy Class 101 cured him of that notion. 

Plus one very hot (and extremely disrespectful to her justifiably concerned father) chick with a single long black braid and a “Do it to me NOW, baby!” attitude, who convinced him that grinding corn on your knees, under blazing sunshine, can be very sexy indeed.


Charles Bronson (Bernardo O’Brien) played a famed and high-priced hired Mexicam/Irish killer who projected quiet force, brute masculinity and great confidence in his own abilities without talking about it that would propel him into The Great Escape (1963) with McQueen as The Cooler King; The Dirty Dozen (1967); the Death Wish series (1974, ’82, ’85, ’87 and ’94) and Hard Times (1975 ) also with James Coburn, another of the 7′s cast. 

Hard Times is Bronson’s best film, in my opinion.  Obscure but very regional and atmospheric.   He is a silent presence, but dominates the screen in every scene he appears in, as a bare knuckle boxer down South during the Depression in America.  Great stuff.

James Coburn (Britt) had a sublime and silent introduction as a man who was forced to prove he was faster with a knife than a man who foolishly challenged his deadly reputation with merely a six-shooter.  Coburn said very little in the film, but personified excellence at his skills whenever the camera pointed his way.   He was silent but in no way meek, as he demonstrated vividly just prior to the final shootout.

Brad Dexter (Harry Luck) was the mercenary old pal and confidant of Brynner who was certain that Brynner would never get mixed up with a miserably poor Mexican village unless there was a big-time fortune in gold or Aztec jewels waiting for him, somewhere hidden in the mountains surrounding the village. 

Dexter had the least fame as an actor afterwards, but in the film, he sacrificed his life to save Brynner when Brynner was trapped against a bolted door by an advancing band of shooting bandits.  That’s enough for me to always remember him.  He considered all the other hired gunmen to be fools to go back to the impoverished village after the bandit leader suddenly captured all of them because of a traitor in the little town and then curiously and capriciously elected to set them all free, minus their guns, if they would just stay away and allow him to continue to pillage the village.  Dexter ultimately valued friendship over gold when the showdown time came.   His final scene was so touching because of his determination to delude himself, no matter what–even with his own death just seconds away–that great riches were still..almost within his grasp.  

Compare his death scene with Calvera’s same type of moment later, when Chris sees him advancing toward him, just outside the window where he has just comforted Harry Luck.  Chris casually aims, with no panic, and drills Calvera in the gut. Chris runs out the door to watch Calvera die, a different mood entirely from seconds before.  As Calvera falls back against the porch railing of the little house that Chris and Harry took refuge in, his face displays stunned wonder at this illogical, to him, turn of events.

He looks up at Chris, who remains silent, with his gun still trained on the dying Mexican Bandit leader.   Uncomprehending the motivations that would cause the band of seven hired gunslingers he had just “pardoned” as fellow thieves to decide collectively and individually to return to an almost certain death in that little village, he says to Chris,

“You came back…a man like you…WHY??”

…and he dies, uncomforted, his face still showing the confusion tormenting him…his question remaining and unanswered. But his question is really on the minds of all of us staring up at the screen:

“Chris, Vin, Harry, Britt, Bernardo, Chico, Lee…Why??”

As Harry pleads with Chris to tell him that he wasn’t a sucker after all, despite all of Chris’s previous exasperated denials, Chris smiles, and then lies, telling Harry that there were millions in gold buried in the surrounding hills after all, Harry’s face breaks into a wide satisfied smile, and he dies, cradled in Brynner’s arms. 

To me, it’s as sensitive a love scene, between two strong-willed men from the same violent world, as any I’ve seen anywhere regardless of gender.  With Harry’s death another piece of Chris’s life goes with him, and Chris’s pain is palpable.

Robert Vaughn (Lee) who was later the Man From Uncle spy-guy on TV, but for me, he was equally terrific as the aristocratic, alchoholic, slandered and disabled WW II veteran in The Young Philadelphians (1959 ) with Paul Newman.  He played the still well-dressed, but down-on-his-luck gun for hire now in hiding and in perpetual emotional terror.  Almost all the Seven’s guys knew each other, respected and/or liked each other, too, in the movie.  But Vaughn’s character lived in misery as a captive of his loss of confidence in himself.  He goes out in a final act of glory, but the film doesn’t make more of him than he feels he really is.  For him, death was a gift.  As of this day, 4/13/08, Saturday, he is the lone surviving player from the original cast of the seven hired gunmen, at 76.

However, on the other side, Eli Wallach (the savage Mexican bandit leader, Calvera) continues to survive at age 93.  Another odd bit of casting, he’s a New York Jewish stage actor.  He also played a Mexican bandit in The Good, the bad and the Ugly (1966), and has the distinction of being in Marilyn Monroe’s last movie, The Misfits (1961) prior to her death in August 1962.  It was also the last movie of Clark Gable (1960) and Montgomery Clift (1966).

Yul Brynner, whom I wrote about in KCK # 1 as the famed pirate Jean-Lafitte in the Battle of New Orleans, in The Buccaneer (1958) two years before becoming Chris in Mag-7 died in 1985, at 70.  McQueen, 1980, at 50.  Bronson (who was a Lithuanian) in 2003, at 83. Coburn, in 2004, at 72.  Brad Dexter, whose actual name was Boris Michel Soso, and who was born Serbian died in 2002, at 85. 

Yul Bynner, as Chris, is label a Creole, a mixed-blood African/European French-speaking former native of New Orleans,  by the happy-go-lucky Harry Luck early in the movie as a way to explain his (actual) Russian accent since he was born in far eastern Russia, close to Japan.  As Chris, he is laconic, which is a Greek word, Lakonikos meaning: Spartan (I looked it up), but also means a man of few words in Western lingo.

Chris is moving on, seen-it-all, a bit weary, not just fast with a gun but totally sure that he is the superior man in any confrontation.  He is appealing yet intimidating.  His silence and poise mask his deadliness and self-respect.  He is good-humored, but seems to relax only among the kind of men who fundamentally understand the risks and pleasures of his self-assured yet pre-ordained to be a limited existance.

His grace when he walks and smooth athletic lithness make him seem god-like to the young cowboy wanna-be, Chico.  Chris’ rootlessness and fearlessness seem to be the ideal life for the adventurous Chico who doesn’t realize the price Chris and his compadres pay to live the way they do. No wife, no family, no prospects and a bullet waiting some day, somewhere and from any direction.

In the movie, there is a scene in a cafe/bar where all of these aspects of their nomadic yet seemingly exciting lives are discussed, all for the benefit of the brash and bewildered Chico, whom they collectively see themselves in, when they were all younger men.  Chris is the leader because he accepted the “contract’ from some poor villagers who cross the border into the USA to see if they could find guns to help them out of their humiliating vulnerability at the bloody hands of the rapacious Calvera.   Chris explained that men with guns are much cheaper than buying guns alone and that he would find some good men to help their cause.  They agree.

McQueen, who plays Vin, younger partner to Chris and a mirror image of his lifestyle is an iconic actor and personality to people of a certain age, meaning men born between 1945 to 1970 or so.  He defies conventional pidgion holing in his appeal.  Slight in build, average height, not handsome like Clark Gable or Brad Pitt or James Dean, who was a contemporary of his, he carved out a spot among many guys and women as a sort of can-do, with you ’til the end, effortlessly competent and confident, whether the circumstances were he was a bounty hunter; cop; race car driver; a combination of both (Bullitt); a US Marine-engineer in 1911 China; a wealthy and sophisticated thief; a French prison escapee from Devil’s Island; a lady killer and heartbreaker World War 2 hell-for-leather suicidal fighter pilot; a fireman; a cowboy; a half-Indian man tracking ex-con or a motorcycling-stealing World War Two prisoner-of-war trying to escape from the Nazis, repeatedly.

No matter whom he choose to play, he was that guy, he was better at his job than anyone else in the picture, he had this unspoken confidence, a silent sense of humor, he expressed a sort of unbreakable determination to see the job at hand through, no matter what it was.  Women were drawn to his wild-little- boy vulnerability, men found him to be the ideal boon companion and back-up man if they were caught up in a scrape.  He didn’t brag about himself, he was rock-solid if you needed to count on him and he represented a kind of independent American guy, ready for anything, anytime, anywhere personality.    

Every guy wanted to be Terrence Steve McQueen, the real life scrappy little guy who grew up in an orphanage and made something of himself despite very high odds.   He really knew about al about antique  guns used in his films…he really did race motorcycles and race cars…and he really did marry Ali McCraw who was a cool, sexy and dreamy actress/model–for a while–when he first met her in The Getaway (1972), eight years before his death in 1980 at fifty.  I still miss him, even though he would have been 79 this past March.  He was the real thing and had charisma to burn.  See anything he was in and learn about what it means to be a REAL movie star.  Steve McQueen was cool, and defined the word beautifully.

In the barbed-wire Pantheon of Great American Westerns, The Magnificent Seven gave us little buckeroos heroes we would never forget, both tough and sentimental.   They were Samurai and teachers, self-sacrificing and deadly, companionable yet loners and one of the best experiences I ever had in a movie theater, both in 1960 when I was ten and now, at fifty-eight in 2008.

Now almost every one of those ghostly cowpokes are up there in Gunfighter Heaven defending the Angels, who probably have no idea how lucky they are.  But I do.

Via con Dios, Amigos!

See you, under the Flickering Lights…

Robert M. Katzman


Note from the Author:


Robert M. Katzman, owner of Fighting Words Publishing Company, with four different titles currently in print and over 4,000 books sold to date, is seeking more retail outlets for his vivid and non-fiction inspirational books: 


Independent bookstores, Jewish and other religious organizations, Chicago historical societies or groups, English teachers who want a new voice in their class who was a witness to history, book clubs, high schools or museum gift shops.  I will support anyone who supports me by giving readings in the Chicago Metro area.  I have done this over 40 times, and I always sign my books, when asked.  Everyone, positively everyone, asks.  I was amazed, at first, by that.


Individuals who wish to order my books can view the four book covers and see reviews of them at www.FightingWordsPubco.com 


There are links to YouTube and podcasts, as well.  Or, anyone can call me directly at (847) 274-1474.  Googling my name will also produce all kinds of unusual results.  That other Robert M. Katzman, now deceased, whose name will also appear and who also published, was a doctor.  He actually bought one of my books!  Such a nice man.  Rest in peace, Dr. Katzman.


There will be short poems, stories and essays published in this space every two weeks by either myself or my co-blogist Richard G. Munden, or both.  If you find our postings thought provoking, moving or even amusing, please tell others to come view this site.  We will find our strength in your numbers.


 Next year, I will publish my fifth book, a collection of my best poetry and essays, called,


        I Seek the Praise of Ordinary Men


Individuals who know of independent bookstores that might be interested in a rough-hewn guy like me, who ran a chain of newsstands for 20 years in Chicago, please tell them about my books, will you?  I am partial to independent bookstores, having owned two, myself, until my last one was killed by the giant chains, in 1994. I still miss it. 


I’m also looking to find someone who would want to make a play out of some of my stories in the Chicago area, so I could go there and do some readings sometimes.  I think there’s enough honest sex, drugs and rock n’ roll to hold anyone’s interest, as well as a lot of authentic dialogue from ordinary people in extraordinary situations.  I think the plays would work anywhere, frankly, in some intimate theater with talented actors.




1 Comment »

Comment by dwlarson

April 14, 2008 @ 4:27 pm

Hi Bob,

I also saw that movie when it came out at age ten. I saw it at the Avalon theater, is that where you saw it?

It is one of my favorite movies of all-time for many of the same reasons as you cite.


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