Tuesday, April 25, 2017

Eli Wallach vs. "The Magnificent Seven"

This post is part of the Great Villain Blogathon, sponsored by my fellow bloggers at Speakeasy, Shadows & Satin and Silver Screenings. For more details, and a list of posts, please follow this link: https://hqofk.wordpress.com/2017/02/24/the-great-villain-blogathon-2017/. Thanks for reading!

The Magnificent Seven (1960) is the fondly remembered Western remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic Seven Samurai. The movie has a wonderful cast, including Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. They’re members of a group of gunfighters hired to rid a small Mexican village of a bandit that has been victimizing them. But we don’t meet the title heroes until a bit later in the film. In the opening scene, we’re introduced to Calvera, the villain of the piece, who’s vividly portrayed by Eli Wallach. He’s marvelous in this sequence, riding into the village and strutting around like he owns the place. And at this point in the story, he does own the place. Calvera starts lecturing Sotero, one of the village leaders, on why his life is so difficult. He has to provide food and shelter for his men. Since they're outlaws, he and his crew are on the run, and have to stay one step ahead of the law. It’s a tough existence, at least according to Calvera. When one of the villagers challenges him, he casually kills the man and reminds everyone he’ll soon return to pick up more supplies.

The villagers decide to take action, and hire Chris Adams (Brynner) to gather a band of hired guns to help them drive away Calvera. Chris warns them that once they go down this violent road, there’s no turning back. At this point that we begin to meet our heroes, who are played by a cast of rising stars including James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn. What’s interesting is that after the opening scene, Calvera isn’t seen onscreen for almost an hour. But he’s always a presence. Everyone talks about him, and discusses what the'll need to do defeat him. We know that once he and his men meet Chris and his crew, sparks (and bullets) will fly. And they do, in a tense scene where Chris asks him to "ride on" and leave the villagers alone. But Calvera won’t be put off so easily. He and his men battle the “seven” in the first of several well-staged action sequences from director John Sturges.

Yul Brynner & Eli Wallach
Calvera feels, like many antagonists, that he isn’t a villain. He’s just taking advantage of the situation. He and his men need provisions, and the village is a means to an end. He believes our heroes are disrupting the natural order of things. It’s his view that “If God did not want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” Calvera is a formidable, sly and menacing adversary, who isn’t above using a bit of guile to get what he wants. He tries (unsuccessfully) to convince Chris and the others to come over to his side. After our heroes are defeated and banished, it seems the bandit has gained the upper hand. But the warriors return and fight Calvera and his men alongside the villagers. “You came back…for a place like this…. a man like you….Why?” he asks, with his dying breath. Even at the moment of his defeat, he can’t understand why Chris & the others would return to aid these people. His question remains unanswered. 

Eli Wallach was a well-respected stage actor who made his film debut in Elia Kazan’s Baby Doll (1956). It’s a testament to his talent that he holds his own against the star power of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and the rest of the cast. He makes an unforgettable impression as Calvera, in an energetic and intense performance that never slips over into parody. In his autobiography, The Good, The Bad & Me: In My Anecdotage, Wallach fondly discusses the movie, and tells some interesting stories about the production. The men who were hired to play his gang in the film ended up bonding with him. They all went riding in the morning before filming, and insisted on making sure his riding accessories and gun were in working order before he used them. Wallach also wore a silk shirt and gold rings, as he felt it showed what a bandit like Calvera would do with his ill-gotten gains.

Wallach appeared in many fine films during his long career, including strong roles in two other Westerns, How The West Was Won and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, where he stole the show from Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The Magnificent Seven is an exciting film with a great cast, a literate script, and of course, that rousing score by Elmer Bernstein. The movie has spawned several sequels, a TV series and a recent remake starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. But none of the subsequent villains have been quite as distinctive, or as memorable, as Calvera. I re-visit the film often, and while I enjoy all of the wonderful performances in this iconic Western, Wallach's is indelibly etched into my cinematic memory. Here's a link to the trailer: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=abwMykCREW0.

12 comments:

  1. There is great affection and truth in your look at Eli Wallach a Calvera. His performance is key to the reason we can watch The Magnificent Seven over and over again.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the kind words! Eli Wallach is definitely one of the many reasons I can re-watch this film on a regular basis!

      Delete
  2. Terrific post, John. I love this movie. I love Eli Wallach as Calvera. When my brother and I discuss THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (he is a big fan as well) he always quotes Calvera, "Genrosity! THAT was my first mistake." We get a kick out of it. Of course Elmer Bernstein's superb film score guaranteed that this movie would not be forgotten, but the actors had a hand in making this a memorable film as well. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thanks for the comment, Yvette! I agree that the line you mention is one of the best in a movie filled with great dialogue! :)

      Delete
  3. You make a good point about a character's presence still keenly felt even when they've not been on screen for an hour. Not only is that a well-written character, it's also a powerfully-acted one.

    Don't scream – but I have never seen this movie. However, I did buy the DVD recently, and now you've given me several reasons to watch it this coming weekend. I'm serious!

    Thanks for joining the blogathon and for bringing Calvera with you. :)

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Thank you for having me as part of the blogathon! I'm glad to have inspired you to watch the movie! I'm sure you'll enjoy it!

      Delete
  4. I have always loved Eli Wallach however I have a new appreciation of his acting talent. I will have to add this movie to my "need to watch" list.

    I invite you to add it to this week's The Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. http://classicmovietreasures.com/the-classic-movie-marathon-link-party-5/

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I hope you enjoy watching The Magnificent Seven! Thanks for the invite to the Classic Movie Marathon Link Party. I've added the post to it.

      Delete
  5. Am a big fan of Wallach though have not yet seen this film. Now After reading your wonderful essay, I must! I think my favorite Wallach performance is as Guido in The Misfits...but also love How the West Was Won.
    - Chris

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. I agree, Wallach was excellent in The Misfits. Have you seen him in The Lineup (1958)? Just saw that for the first time recently on TCM. He's very good in it, in another villainous role.

      Delete
  6. The Magnificent Seven is probably my second favorite western that doesn't star either John Wayne or Clint Eastwood. "Silverado" holds the number one spot in that category, although neither Brian Dennehy nor Ray Baker are equal to the villain role done by Wallach in this film... Good review.

    ReplyDelete
    Replies
    1. Silverado is a favorite of mine as well. It has a great cast (I love Brian Dennehy, BTW) and Lawrence Kasdan definitely captured the essence of the classic Western in the film.

      Delete