In a pre-Trinity Spaghetti Western world comedies were a lot less common. They still existed (the Franco and Ciccio films are obvious examples) but, more often than not, filmmakers who wanted to veer away from the prevailing Leone-esque model just chose to approach the genre with a lighter tone; mixing action/adventure elements with comedic moments. 7 Guns for the MacGregors is a perfect example of this approach and highlights the positives and negatives inherent in the choice. It's also a good example of how, even with light-hearted intentions, Italian filmmakers of the day just couldn't help but drift into darker territory when telling a western story.
In this largely family friendly romp we have six MacGregor brothers (the seventh is wounded early on and left at home) setting off to sell the family horse herd for maximum return in the town of Las Mesas. On arrival they find a town run by a Mexican bandit who, through his hired officers, steal the livestock and throw the boys in jail. This doesn't sit well with the feisty MacGregors and it isn't long before they have broken out and set upon a scheme to hit the bad guys where it hurts through a process of infiltration and preemptive robberies.
The first thing that struck me when watching 7 Guns for the MacGregors was that it obviously enjoyed a decent budget in comparison to many other Spaghetti Westerns. It has a big cast, the action sequences are on a pretty grand scale and there's a train in it; a dead giveaway when judging whether a film of this type had any money behind it. The second thing that struck was that most of that money seemed to be funnelled into those grand action sequences and that is not a bad thing when you are making an action/adventure film. In movies like this the story and script are of limited importance and a well staged mass attack on a moving train can divert attention away from a lot of other weaknesses. Character study is light here to say the least but who cares once the town water tower gets blown up. Dialogue a bit clunky? What the hell, there's 20 bandits on horseback chasing a train!
What I learned subsequent to my first viewing of the film over a decade ago is that, whatever the budget, corners were cut in terms of safety and as a result a number of the cast suffered some substantial injuries and one legend of the genre came within inches of losing his life. During the shooting of the train robbery Fernando Sancho, playing Miguel one of the bandit lieutenants, climbs on top of the moving train and stands up just as it passes over an iron bridge. The bridge has girders fixed above and Sancho's head comes within a whisker of colliding with the first one as he stands up. Watching him duck suddenly just before impact is a hairy moment to watch but clearly no thought was given to cutting it out and you can't blame Sancho if he didn't fancy re-shooting it. In fairness, it does add a sense of real danger to an already exciting sequence. It brings to mind a similar incident in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when a train footplate almost takes Eli Wallach's head off as he is crouching by the trackside. The fact that stuntmen weren't used in either of these scenes beggars belief today. The absence of a suitably sized stuntman, along with poor health and safety practice, also led to lead actor Robert Woods sustaining a bad back injury during the film's gripping finale fight scene on a water wheel. With no stand-in of the right size (Woods is six foot five) the star was forced to do most of his own stunts and poor communication led the wheel to be unexpectedly stopped suddenly, sending Woods flying onto his back. To his credit the American actor carried on and the only clue to his painful condition is when he fails in another scene to successfully leap over a horse's rump and into the saddle in one go. He lands halfway and just about hangs on but the director thought it looked more realistic and duly kept it in anyway.
Not that there was a lack of stuntmen in general on the set. Most of the MacGregor brothers were stuntmen turned actors including Roberto Dell'Aqua, Nazareno Zamperla and Paolo Magalotti. This is not a bad thing in a film so big on action and results in a high level of physicality well executed. This is one of the film's strengths but there are more. To begin with the cast is strong. Robert Woods suits the role of smiling hero Gregor MacGregor well, Leo Anchoriz and Fernando Sancho are always good value in Mexican bandit roles and the bevy of other familiar faces include George Rigaud, Victor Israel, Cris Huerta and Antonio Molino Rojo. Perla Cristal and Agata Flori add some glamour and the score from Morricone includes a good rousing anthemic theme as well as a slightly less pleasing pseudo Scottish bit. This is a light-hearted action/adventure picture pure and simple and it delivers on those terms pretty well. The water wheel fight scene is a standout and will stick in the memory. The large scale action sequences are well executed and the comedy never quite crosses the line into pastiche which is always a blessing.
But it also flirts with a dark side. In particular, there is a scene quite early on where a former ally of the bandit leader is brutally executed with fire for the entertainment of the gang. There is nothing too graphic in a Fulci kind of way but the very fact that someone is repeatedly dragged through a fire and seen engulfed in flames seems a little strong in a film which would otherwise be straightforward family fare. It's a good scene. I'm just not sure it fits here. This is certainly not a facet unique to this film. I've seen it elsewhere in the genre and often wondered what the thinking was behind it. Were they adding grit to keep the young adult male audience happy at the time? Or did they just not see it as anything over the top for any Italian audience? Kids or otherwise. Maybe they just couldn't help themselves.
What can be said for sure is that director Franco Giraldi showed a repeated tendency for this in his westerns. He made four westerns in three years of which this was the first and three out of the four balanced on the same line to various degrees. This film and its sequel, 7 Women for the MacGregors followed similar lines while the film he made in between, Sugar Colt, is possibly the most extreme case; jumping at once from dead serious to slapstick comedy. Only his fourth western, A Minute to Pray, a Second to Die is a straight forward drama without comedic elements. In fairness to Giraldi, for the most part, he pulls this balance off successfully in all of them to one degree or another and is never short of entertaining.
Is this a Spaghetti Western I would recommend then? Certainly. As long as you are not looking for something in the gritty heavyweight line this film has plenty to enjoy. There are a couple of standout scenes and plenty of action and sometimes that is all you need when sitting down to watch an escapist film. It was certainly successful enough in its time to sire a sequel and was in fact the biggest grossing film Robert Woods had during his time in Europe so it obviously hit the right spot with its contemporary audience.
Just leave your cynical hat behind and Up the MacGregors!
I watched this film on an Italian DVD release from Ripley Home Video. Picture quality is pretty good and both Italian and English audio tracks are offered but no subtitles unfortunately. The English dub slips out of sync for a period early in the film but rights itself before too long. This is a fault on all copies of this release as far as I'm aware and, at time of writing, is the only English friendly DVD release of the film globally.