#524) The Magnificent Seven (1960)

#524) The Magnificent Seven (1960)

OR “Yul Never Walk Alone”

Directed by John Sturges

Written by William Roberts (but really Walter Newman). Based on the film “Seven Samurai” by Akira Kurosawa & Shinobu Hashimoto & Hideo Oguni.

Class of 2013

The Plot: A small Mexican village is being terrorized by the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang. The villagers decide to take action, crossing the border to buy weapons. They encounter gunslinger Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) who convinces them to hire gunfighters to ward off the bandits. Aided by fellow gunfighter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), Adams recruits four more lowlifes (Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter) and one young hotshot (Horst Buchholz) to join the cause. And if any of this sounds familiar, just replace cowboys with Sengoku era samurai and you’ve got another movie classic.

Why It Matters: The NFR highlights the film as “a springboard for several young actors” and singles out Elmer Bernstein’s “vibrant” score. There’s also an essay by Kurosawa expert Stephen Prince.

But Does It Really?: Overall “The Magnificent Seven” is…fine. Not quite firing on all cylinders compared to other westerns, but iconic enough to warrant eventual NFR inclusion. Part of the problem is that every story and character element from “The Magnificent Seven” has been done to death in countless other movies (“Three Amigos” comes immediately to mind), to say nothing of the Kurosawa film they’re lifting everything from! “Magnificent Seven” is an engaging watch with a top-notch cast, but I’m still putting it in the “Minor Classic” category.

Everybody Gets One: Although credited as the sole screenwriter, William Roberts was brought in to do rewrites of Walter Newman’s script when Newman refused to be on-site during filming in Mexico. When Roberts went to the WGA for a screen credit, Walter Newman took his name off the picture. Speaking of screenwriters: by virtue of his source material credit, this is technically the only NFR appearance for legendary Japanese director Akira Kurosawa.

Wow, That’s Dated: Despite the film presenting Mexicans in an overall positive light to appease local censors, native Brooklynite Eli Wallach plays the lead bandito, in an acting process I’m calling “Method Stereotyping”.

Seriously, Oscars?: While not a critical or box office hit, “The Magnificent Seven” did manage one Oscar nomination for Elmer Bernstein’s score. Despite its now-iconic status, the score lost to Ernest Gold’s composition for Otto Preminger’s “Exodus“.

Other notes 

  • “Seven Samurai” was released in Japan in 1954, and was one of the most successful films of the year. A 1956 US release was well received, and two years later Yul Brynner purchased the rights for an American remake. After a few attempts to get the film off the ground (including directing it himself), Brynner sold the rights to The Mirisch Company, but retained his leading man status, as well as casting approval. Director John Sturges was hired based on his work in such films as “Bad Day at Black Rock” and “Gunfight at the O.K. Corral”.
  • Ah yes, the Russo-Ukranian cowboy Chris Adams. The screenplay explains Yul Brynner’s accent with one line mentioning that Chris is…Cajun?
  • While not a movie star at this point, Steve McQueen was known to American audiences for the TV western “Wanted: Dead or Alive“. When the show wouldn’t give him time off to make “Seven”, McQueen faked a car accident and claimed he needed time off to recuperate, therefore freeing him to make the movie.
  • Stories of an on-set rivalry between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen are apparently true. McQueen was given permission from John Sturges to add bits of business to make up for his character’s lack of dialogue, which Brynner perceived as upstaging. Although the two never worked together again, McQueen and Brynner reconciled shortly before the former’s death.
  • I get why Yul Brynner was so upset, my takeaway from this movie is Steve McQueen’s natural star power. He’s so casually charming in this film, almost as if he stumbled onto the wrong set and is just playing along.
  • James Coburn was a diehard fan of the original “Seven Samurai” and lobbied hard for his role in the film. Thankfully, his friend and former Los Angeles City College classmate Robert Vaughn was already cast in the movie, and recommended Coburn to the producers.
  • Here’s a real problematic element for you: the women of the town are hidden before the Seven arrive for fear they might get raped. Chris’s response: “Well, we might.” What?
  • Robert Vaughn is great as something you don’t see too often in movies: a cowboy with PTSD. He doesn’t do much in the first half, but when the time comes he’s going to do something and you know it’s going to be good.
  • Are there a lot of day-for-night shots in this movie, or does it all take place on a very cloudy day?
  • No disrespect to Horst Buchholz (who is giving me a German Anthony Perkins vibe), but I’m not digging his Chico character. Granted, the movie is trying too hard to make Buchholz the breakout star. Not happening, Mirisch Company.
  • Charles Bronson is another one of those actors who I know mostly through later parodies (looking at you, “Simpsons”), but it turns out he’s giving a skilled performance here that’s a far cry from his imitators. To them I say, “No dice.” (which he may never have actually said).
  • [Spoilers] The shootout finale is an exciting payoff, but I was not expecting so many of the Seven to be killed off. No wonder they didn’t come back for the sequels.

Legacy 

  • “The Magnificent Seven” was not a hit in America, but fared better overseas. The film’s stateside popularity grew over time thanks to repeat viewings on television.
  • Among the film’s first fans was Akira Kurosawa, who bestowed John Sturges with a ceremonial sword as a congratulatory gift.
  • Sturges would reunite with Steve McQueen, James Coburn and Charles Bronson three years later for another classic action movie with an iconic Elmer Bernstein score: “The Great Escape”.
  • Despite its lackluster first outing, “The Magnificent Seven” spawned several sequels. 1966’s “Return of the Seven” featured Yul Brynner as the only returning cast member, followed by entirely different casts for 1969’s “Guns of the Magnificent Seven” and 1972’s “The Magnificent Seven Ride”.
  • CBS aired a “Magnificent Seven” TV series in the late ’90s, which featured guest appearances by original cast member Robert Vaughn.
  • “Magnificent Seven” got a full remake in 2016 with a cast including Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and Ethan Hawke. By most accounts it was…fine.
  • Yul Brynner would riff on his gunslinger image from this film playing a robotic cowboy in “Westworld”. Now if only they had made him do gratuitous nude scenes…
  • But of course, the main takeaway from “The Magnificent Seven” is the score. Elmer Bernstein’s work got a second life in 1963 when it was used for Marlboro cigarette commercials. Many films and TV shows have needle-dropped the theme over the years, and it’s referenced at the start of the 1967 song “Sweet Soul Music”. Spotlight on Arthur Conley, y’all.

Further Viewing: I had every intention of watching “Seven Samurai” in addition to “Magnificent Seven”, but a 3 1/2 hour movie? Come on, Kurosawa, I just got through “Empire“.

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