Steve McQueen Collection
November 11, 2005
John Sturges, Norman Jewison, Sam Peckinpah,
Starring: Steve McQueen, Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Garner, Richard Attenborough, Donald Pleasence, James Coburn, Faye Dunaway, Paul Burke, Jack Weston, Robert Preston, Ida Lupino, Ben Johnson, Joe Don Baker, ,
The one word that is always used to describe actor Steve McQueen is cool. He was the essence of cool. The movies he made were always considered the epitome of cool. He was a hard working, hard playing rebel who had the kind of dangerous charisma that women found attractive and men wanted to emulate. McQueen died in 1980 but left behind a considerable legacy. MGM has repackaged several of his movies in a box set that provides an interesting cross-section of his work, that ranges from the ensemble piece, The Magnificent Seven (1960) to the rich, characterization of Junior Bonner (1972) that would mark his later films.
While working on the CBS TV series, Wanted Dead or Alive, director John Sturges noticed McQueen and cast him in his World War II film, Never So Few (1959) and his next effort, The Magnificent Seven. It is a Hollywood remake of Akira Kurosawa’s classic, The Seven Samurai (1954), rather ironic considering that the latter film had been inspired by old Hollywood westerns (most notably John Ford). McQueen was still considered an up-and-coming actor in Hollywood and was part of the supporting cast with Yul Brynner as the star.
A modest Mexican village is being terrorized by Calvera (Wallach) and his bandits. Frustrated and feeling helpless at being squeezed by these outlaws, the villagers scrape together what they can and hire Chris Adams (Brynner) and six other gunfighters to help defend them. The odds aren’t all that good: seven against 30 guns.
McQueen is one of the gunfighters that helps out and we are introduced to his character as he steps up to help Adams drive a hearse through a dangerous part of town, proving that he’s quite handy with a shotgun. With his coy, mischievous grin, McQueen makes quite an impression. There is a nice scene where his character loses all of his money gambling. He doesn’t say a word because his facial expressions convey it all: frustration and disappointment. It’s a nice example of less-is-more acting.
McQueen holds his own against cool actors like James Coburn and established experienced ones like Brynner. He doesn’t exactly steal every scene he’s in but he does the best with what he’s given and hints at the cool, leading man he’d eventually become.
McQueen teamed up with Sturges for the third time with another ensemble action/adventure film called The Great Escape (1963). Stalag Luft III was a prisoner-of-war camp that housed the best escape artists during World War II. These guys were responsible for the most prolific escape attempts and their skill and determination was put to the test with this new camp that had the toughest surveillance and impenetrable defenses. This would be a recipe for disaster as these men banded together to plot and attempt the largest prison break in history.
Even though this is another ensemble piece, McQueen has more screen time and plays a more significant role. He is a U.S. Airforce pilot with 18 escape attempts and a flippant sense of humour towards authority. For example, when a German officer punishes him with 20 days in isolation, McQueen responds, “Oh, you’ll still be here when I get out?”
This is one of the greatest adventure films ever made and helped firmly establish McQueen’s reputation as a star with iconic motorcycle ride across the enemy countryside. His famous jump over German barricades has since earned a place in cinematic history.
McQueen is cast against type in The Thomas Crown Affair (1968) as a rich, Boston tycoon who masterminds bank robberies not for the money but for the thrills. Hot on his trail is Vicky Anderson (Dunaway), a beautiful insurance investigator who engages Crown in a seductive cat and mouse game when a recent bank heist mystifies authorities.
Director Norman Jewison employs a considerable amount of split-screen action that would become fashionable in the ‘70s and most recently with the TV show, 24. He uses this technique most effectively early on in the movie with the bank robbery sequence. Jewison builds excitement and tension with quick edits, stylish camerawork and a fast-paced, percussive score. The film’s cool, confident look mirrors the attitude of its protagonist.
McQueen shows off his versatility as an actor by playing a slick businessman/playboy who isn’t satisfied with buying and selling companies and properties. He wants to experience the perverse thrill of planning and executing bank robberies. His accomplices never know who he is so the crime can never be traced back to him. Crown wants to be a thrill-seeker without actually getting his hands dirty.
Faye Dunaway’s character is Crown’s equal: smart and shrewd as she tries to think the way he does. She can be just as ruthless and exacting, not above kidnapping a suspect’s kid and then blackmailing him to get what she wants. Jewison introduces Dunaway in a jarring cut and immediately establishes her as the epitome of glamour—as slick and sure of herself as Crown. There is a nice chemistry between her and McQueen as their characters match wits.
McQueen made Junior Bonner (1972) as a response to critics who felt he was nothing more than a pretty-boy actor with no real acting chops. He had no problem identifying with the character he had to play: a rodeo champion whose career is in its twilight years. He goes back to his hometown for one last stab at glory with the annual rodeo and tries to reconnect with his greedy brother (Baker), who wants to sell the family land, and his alcoholic father (Preston). Both McQueen and the film’s director, Sam Peckinpah, had something to prove with this movie. McQueen wanted to show critics and audiences that he was more than a Hollywood action star and Peckinpah wanted to show that he could do more than ultraviolent action movies.
The rugged role of Junior Bonner is perfect for a physical actor like McQueen. He and Peckinpah crafted a movie that is in the same vein as Hud (1963) and Bronco Billy (1980) in that it shows the demise of a way of life: the simple values of the Old West and the cowboy. John Travolta’s high profile movie, Urban Cowboy (1980) gave this notion a popular sensibility a few years later but it doesn’t resonate as strongly. McQueen was just the right age to play this role and wears it well. Like Bonner, McQueen was very much his own man and went his own way. This film features a more introspective McQueen—the kind of role he excelled at: a man of few words but with a lot of complex emotions suggested behind his eyes and the way he carries himself.
Peckinpah’s film takes a leisurely pace in introducing the characters, allowing us to gradually get to know them and to become immersed in their world. This is a character-driven movie and McQueen makes Bonner a compelling person to watch. He is man chasing past glories, trying to hold onto a way of life that is disappearing. Peckinpah never resorts to sappy nostalgia but goes for a more melancholy tone in this absorbing drama.
McQueen died from lung cancer at the age of 50 but left and enduring legacy behind. He continues to be a much admired and respected actor. This box set is a fitting reminder of the kind of range McQueen was capable of as an actor.
On The Magnificent Seven DVD there is an audio commentary by James Coburn, Eli Wallach, producer Walter Mirisch and assistant director Robert Relyea. The participants start things off by paying tribute to the film’s director, John Sturges with Coburn and Wallach telling some great stories about the man. They all talk at length about their experiences making the movie. This is a solid commentary packed with rich anecdotes with no one person dominating.
“Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven,” is a retrospective look at the making of this classic. The movie came out at the beginning of the end of the traditional western as TV and Italian spaghetti westerns