Steve McQueen

Our summer TV fare this summer has featured a lot of trips to the Turner Classic Movies On Demand channel, and lately we’ve been checking out a number of films featuring one of Hollywood’s biggest stars of the ’60s and ’70s — Steve McQueen.  We’ve watched some of his most memorable movies, including The Magnificent SevenThe Great EscapeThe Cincinnati KidThe Sand PebblesBullitt, The Thomas Crown Affair, and Papillon.

Steve McQueen was an iconic figure, and I’m not sure that any actor since has created the kind of distinctive persona that McQueen so firmly established.  He was the ultra-cool, imperturbable character who didn’t say much, comfortably moved on the fringes of society, and wasn’t beholden to conventional behavior or lifestyles.  And his most popular roles contributed to that particular persona — like The Great Escape, where McQueen played “The Cooler King,” an unflappable prisoner of war who constantly tried to escape and was routinely sent to the “cooler” for solitary confinement, where he entertained himself by bouncing a baseball off the wall of his cell and catching it, and Bullitt, where he played a tough-as-nails police detective who didn’t show a drop of sweat during the film’s classic car chase scene through the streets of San Francisco.

My favorite McQueen film is The Magnificent Seven — it’s one of those movies that I will always stop to watch if I see that it is on — but the films we found to be a bit of a revelation were The Sand Pebbles, where McQueen played a disaffected sailor serving on a U.S. gunboat during troubled times in China in the 1920s, and Papillon, where McQueen played a French prisoner serving time in a notorious prison camp in French Guiana who never loses his iron determination to live and reach freedom.  McQueen wasn’t just the walking embodiment of cool — the guy really could act, and he was nominated for a best actor award for his work in The Sand Pebbles.

Kudos to Turner Classic Movies for screening multiple films for certain actors that allow us to take a deep dive into the career of one of Hollywood’s most memorable stars.

 

The Magnificent Seven

On Sunday Kish and I went to see The Magnificent Seven, the Denzel Washington-led reboot of the ’60s classic.  It made me realize, again, how much I enjoy westerns — and how infrequently Hollywood produces them these days.

The original The Magnificent Seven, which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, is one of the best westerns and best ensemble movies ever made.  In that film, Yul Brunner recruits seven gunslingers who try to help some hapless Mexicans protect their village from the depredations of a ruthless gang of bandits.  In the current remake, the general storyline is the same, but the bad guy is an evil mine owner who has no problem with gunning down people in the middle of the street and setting a church on fire to try to intimidate the peaceful townspeople into selling him their land for a pittance.  (When somebody intentionally burns a church, you can be pretty sure he’s a bad guy.)

nesokb1uksa3vy_1_bTwo of the townspeople find Denzel Washington, a quick-draw bounty hunter, and convince him to help, and Washington then recruits the team.  As in the original, it features a diverse collection of western types, all of whom have split-second reflexes, can shoot with awesome precision, and have the military training from their Civil War service to develop a plan to defend the town that is worthy of Robert E. Lee.  (It being a modern movie, there’s got to be some dynamite and explosions in the plan, too.)  We learn some of the seven’s back stories during the recruitment and the training of the townspeople, but this movie, like the original and so many other westerns, is all about good versus evil.  We know that everything is pointing toward the final, inevitable showdown with the evil mine owner.

This film isn’t as good as the original Magnificent Seven — that would be holding it to an impossible standard — but it’s an enjoyable romp, and the western scenery that is a big part of the appeal of any western is gorgeous.  Washington capably fills Yul Brunner’s shoes, and the rest of the cast play their parts admirably, finding their inner heroism as they fight, and sometimes die, to free the rustics from the yoke of the evil mine owner.  It’s a fine, well-made story that strikes many of the enduring touchstones of American mythology.

So why don’t more westerns get made?  At our screening there were only three other couples in the theater.  I guess that’s why.  In a world of superheroes and CGI, maybe stories about human beings, horses, and guns just can’t compete.  That’s too bad.