THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960)
Director: John Sturges
Written by: William Roberts (credited), Walter Newman (uncredited), Walter Bernstein (uncredited)
Starring: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Horst Buchholz
Composer: Elmer Bernstein
This film has such an interesting background in addition to what we see onscreen. First of all, for those of you who do not know this, The Magnificent Seven is essentially a Western carbon-copy of Akira Kurosawa’s film The Seven Samurai (Shichinin no samurai). I have yet to see that film, but I have heard from numerous people that after seeing one of these two films, watching the other becomes “boring”. Somehow, I am not worried about that. During my film studies at college, I had to watch numerous retellings of certain stories, such as Nosferatu/Dracula, and I even managed to sit through all of Gus van Sant’s deplorable shot-for-shot remake of Psycho, so I think I’ll be OK when watching The Seven Samurai, if only for Kurosawa’s visual differences. Also, you might find it interesting that not only was Kurosawa heavily influenced by Westerns, but he loved The Magnificent Seven. He didn’t wish to compare it to his film; instead, he saw it as its own entity, and he enjoyed it immensely. Anyway, the basic plot is that a large group of bandits, lead by the fearful Calvera, have been terrorizing a small farming village in Mexico, forcing the people to give much of their food to the bandits and keep only what is just needed to get by for themselves. The people, tired of putting up with this abuse, go to the border to buy guns from Americans. There, they witness a man who is skilled with a gun and clearly knows where they could be acquired, so they ask him to help them buy guns. He proposes that they hire gunmen, as men are cheaper than guns. When asks how much the farmers have, they produce a small collection of items from their village–all they have– and offer them to the man in exchange for his help. He seeks to enlist the help of other skilled gunmen who are willing to work for the small wage, and thus we find ourselves with “The Magnificent Seven”.
I included the two uncredited writers because Walter Bernstein wrote the first adaptation of The Seven Samurai, which was not used (and, according to him, was closer to the original film than what was eventually used for The Magnificent Seven), and Walter Newman wrote the script that was used for the film. I know that is confusing, since he doesn’t have a credit for that. Allow me to explain. When they were filming down in Mexico, they had to cooperate with the Mexican government, who was unhappy about a recent John Wayne film shot in Mexico that depicted Mexicans in a really negative way. So, in order to not only smooth over relations between Hollywood and Mexico but get this film made in Mexico with Mexican actors, the filmmakers did what they could to accommodate the Mexican government. This included having a Mexican censor look over the script and monitor their filming. The censor immediately wanted changes made to the script, so the filmmakers tried to get Walter Newman down to Mexico to do rewrites. For whatever reason, Newman refused or could not go to Mexico, so they needed to use someone else. That person was William Roberts. The Writer’s Guild reviewed the work that Roberts did and decided that he had done enough changes to warrant a co-writing credit. Newman, infuriated by this idea, told Sturges to remove his name from the film. It’s a shame that ego got in the way of his name being immortalized in one of the most well-known Westerns.
OK, onto the film. Don’t worry, my pets, I’ll throw in some more trivia along the way.
What struck me about this film is how formulaic it seemed and how that did not bother me. I realized, of course, that the film only seems formulaic to me now because so many films have used similar constructs since The Magnificent Seven. At the time it was made, it was anything but formulaic. It was a film that marked the end of the classic Westerns, giving way to the newer style of Westerns represented largely by Clint Eastwood films. Still, The Magnificent Seven was not a typical Western film. The “heroes” of the film talk about the life of a gunman in ways that were not really done onscreen. They were not glorified. There was a melancholy overtone to their conversation as they talked about the life of a gunman in order to explain to the young hothead (Buchholz) that being a gunman came with its downfalls, as well. The older, wiser men were tired, haggard, and doing something that was out of character for them; they were fighting for what was right with little to no reward. They were not expecting to be treated as heroes by the people they were helping. And, considering the numbers they were facing on the opposition’s side, the likelihood of all seven men surviving was pretty much nonexistent. It was a very different tone for the film than that of the conventional Westerns, and I enjoyed watching a bit of the darker side of the genre.
The cast is great, though the casting definitely led to some issues on set. Steve McQueen was pretty notorious for his “hot shot” attitude and huge ego, which comes across onscreen even when his character has no lines. One might notice how Vin (McQueen’s role), will often be moving in some way while Yul Brynner’s character, Chris has lines. Our eyes are attracted to movement, especially on the big screen, and McQueen knew this. Those movements were not scripted; that was all McQueen’s attempt to upstage Brynner, who was the lead role in the film. McQueen also did not like Buchholz because he was playing the role of Chico, the studly young gun, a role which McQueen felt was more suitable for him to play (another interesting sidenote: Brynner and Buchholz were both from Eastern Europe, with Eastern European accents. Yul Brynner was playing an American, and Buccholz was playing I believe a Mexican who moved to America when he was rather young. Both are rather big roles in the film.). I did find McQueen’s character to be annoying mostly because of McQueen’s acting. I haven’t seen him in much of anything–in fact, I think this might have been the first time I watched him in anything other than a clip– but his notorious attitude was pretty noticeable to me, and I found that to be a bit of a detriment. But I thought that Yul Brynner was fantastic. He was a dark, brooding character. Someone who wasn’t easy to read. His character, Chris, was an effective leader, and an unofficial moral compass for the lot, though I do think they all came to the same decision without needing his prompts.
It was especially nice to see James Coburn in the film. I remember him well in it, even though I believe he had about ten lines total. (Trivia alert: Robert Vaughn was cast as Lee, and the filmmakers were looking to cast the rest of the film before the actor’s strike was to start, as films that were cast before the strike were allowed to film with those actors. Vaughn attended school with James Coburn, and told Coburn that there was a part in this remake of The Seven Samurai that they were still looking to cast. Coburn, who had seen The Seven Samurai numerous times when it was in theatres, asked if it was the equivalent to the fastest swordsman role of the original film. Vaughn confirmed this, and Coburn immeditely went to meet with the director, giddy as hell because that was the part he had dreamed of playing. Sure enough, Coburn was cast, and thus accelerating his career.) I thought he portrayed his character extremely well, conveying most of what needed to be said with looks rather than words.
Eli Wallach was a surprise, especially because I mostly know him from his more recent work as an elderly man. In case you couldn’t tell by his name, Eli is a Jew, and here he was playing the leader of a team of Mexican bandits. It was a very odd choice, but somehow it worked extremely well. I could tell upon seeing Calvera, Eli’s character, that he was an American playing a Mexican, but I didn’t recognize him until later. I thought he gave a very strong performance. It’s funny to note that the men who were hired as Eli’s bandits took him under their wing. Every morning they would go riding for an hour as Eli learned how to ride a horse. Not only that, but when on set, the horse would have to be handed to one of his bandits for them to check his saddle, as well as his gun (to check the chambers and all). The bandits took their roles very seriously, which helped to cement Eli’s position as their leader.
There’s no talking abot this film without mentioning the score, which is one of the most famous film scores of all time.
That’s why I added the composer, Elmer Berstein, into the essentials in this post. His score set the pace for the film, which picks up rather quickly. Starting with the scene where Vin and Chris first meet, the beat is pretty steady. The score for the film is part of what makes it so enthralling and engaging, because it’s almost an anthem in the way it pumps us up for the big showdown. Eli Wallach talked about how he told Berstein that he wished he had heard the score before filming, because he would have “ridden a lot better” to match the score (can you tell that I am in love with Eli Wallach? He’s just too adorable!).
I was entertained and enthralled by the film, even though some scenes had me shouting “No, don’t do that because _____ is going to happen!” due to the elements of the film that are now often considered as “cliched”. None of those things actually felt cliched to me, though. It felt organic and right.
I will be watching The Seven Samurai sometime in the nearish future, and I will probably devote a part of that review to a comparison with this film, so look for that later!