Should I Watch..? 'The Magnificent Seven' (1960)
What's the big deal?
The Magnificent Seven is an action Western film released in 1960 and was produced and directed by John Sturges. The film is essentially a remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, which sees a group of seven individuals band together in order to help protect a village from a marauding gang of bandits. The film starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Horst Buchholz and Brad Dexter. The film is perhaps most famous for its iconic theme music composed by Elmer Bernstein. The film has become one of the most popular westerns of all time despite a mixed reception from critics at the time and disappointing box office returns in the US—the film was far more successful overseas. The film would be followed by a number of sequels, spin-offs, a TV series and its own remake in 2016 directed by Antoine Fuqua. The film was selected for preservation at the US National Film Registry in Congress in 2013.
What's it about?
A poor and remote Mexican village is troubled by a group of bandits hiding in the hills nearby. Led by the ruthless Calvera who shoots dead a villager after their latest raid, the bandits are unaware that the village elders decide to fight back. Three villagers take what little they have of value and ride north to the US, hoping to exchange them for weapons with which to defend themselves. However, they are advised by a veteran gunslinger named Chris Adams to hire men to defend them instead of guns. Impressed by his skill, the villagers agree to hire Adams to help defend their village.
Despite the meagre rewards, Chris manages to secure the services of another five men—broke gunfighter Vin Tanner, desperate Irish-Mexican mercenary Bernardo O'Reilly, Chris' friend Harry Luck who wrongly assumes a bigger reward is on offer, fugitive gunslinger Lee and talented knife expert Britt. Eventually accepting the services of hot-headed rookie Chico, the seven of them ride off to aid the villagers despite knowing they are outmanned and ultimately outgunned...
Release Date (UK)
14th April, 1961
PG (1986 re-rating)
Action, Drama, Western
Academy Award Nomination
Best Original Score
What's to like?
From the opening moments when Bernstein's legendary theme music sparks into life, you know that you're in for a classic western experience with this film. The Magnificent Seven feels much more alive and vibrant than many other examples of the genre, helped by a vivid use of colour and scenery. If anything, it has the vibe of a spaghetti western with its excessive use of violence and nihilist characters and narrative. The action, while doubtlessly looking pale and uninspired by the standards of its modern remake, is certainly exciting and well choreographed and the film seems to move at half speed when people are just sat around, waiting for the next gun battle to begin.
The film has a spectacular cast with Brynner and McQueen duking things out between them for on-screen presence with Wallach on form as the sneering bad guy begging for his comeuppance. But the supporting cast are equally as impressive with great performances from Vaughn, Coburn and Bronson while Buchholz delivers a solid performance that makes him stand out from his more two-dimensional co-stars. The roles just feel a little underwritten for my tastes but you still root for them regardless - each have their own agenda and there is enough to suggest that given time, some interesting dynamics might have surfaced. But you don't go to watch a westen for a character study as you'll be too busy enjoying the shootouts, fist fights and stunt work.
- Brynner had an influence on casting and specifically requested McQueen for the film after working with him on the 1959 film Never So Few. However, Brynner regretted the decision as he and McQueen had a serious falling out on set over McQueen's alleged attempts to upstage Brynner on screen. The pair didn't reconcile until McQueen was dying of cancer.
- Sterling Hayden was due to play the role of Britt but dropped out, allowing Vaughn to recommend his dear friend Coburn for the role. Coburn was a huge fan of Seven Samurai and ended up playing the equivalent of his favourite character in the American version. Despite knowing each other for nearly 50 years, this is the only film Vaughn and Coburn made together.
- The script was actually written by an uncredited Walter Newman who objected to William Roberts giving lines meant for Brynner to McQueen and Bronson. Newman was also unable to visit the set, meaning that Roberts could adjust the script as necessary for the demanding Mexican censors. After Roberts applied for a co-writing credit, Newman simply asked to have his name removed instead.
- The role of Chris Adams would be reprised by Brynner for the first sequel Return Of The Seven in 1966. It's also possible he reprised the role for a third time when he starred as the nameless gunslinger (albeit one physically identical to Chris Adams) in the sci-fi thriller Westworld.
What's not to like?
I feel the film might have benefitted from some ditching of some scenes and a bit more characterisation, as I've mentioned previously. The most well-rounded character on screen is Wallach's gang leader, driven by both hunger as well as the desire to save face in front of his men. As for the Seven themselves, we're only given fleeting glimpses into their motivations and backgrounds and I wanted more. Take Vaughn's intriguing Lee, a character who clearly has dark deeds in his past that it haunts him but I never got the sense of that turmoil playing out properly on screen.
But apart from that and a noticeable absence of one Clint Eastwood, the film remains a highly enjoyable western that feels more accessible than Kurosawa's sprawling epic. Perhaps that's why this film is that much shorter—it keeps things light and moving ever onward instead of investigating these men and making them feel like proper characters instead of genre cliches. It also feels slightly derivative although that shouldn't be too surprising given how many times it has inspired its own imitators. But if you're looking for a stirring and exciting action western then this is probably one of the best.
Should I watch it?
It might lack the punch of other westerns but The Magnificent Seven is still a worthwhile watch for any fan of the genre. It's a lot of fun, making the most of its enviable cast (as well as ructions between its leading men) to deliver a classic tale of ordinary men trying to overcome the odds at any cost. It doesn't do anything revolutionary in its storytelling but audiences will lap up the action, banter between the characters and McQueen's shameless limelight hogging.
Great For: fans of classic westerns, sports teams looking for a rousing soundtrack, introducing audiences to Japanese cinema
Not So Great For: originality, actors with fragile egos, helpless Mexican peasants
What else should I watch?
The Magnificent Seven is rightly lauded as a classic example of a western film, alongside other films such as Rio Bravo, My Darling Clementine and Gunfight at the OK Corral. But before the Sixties were out, a new type of western was emerging from Italy, of all places. The so-called spaghetti western were initially dismissed by critics at the time but audiences loved their mix of danger, innovative direction, morally ambiguous heroes and the endless charisma of leading men like Eastwood. Sergio Leone's A Fistful Of Dollars (itself, an unofficial remake of another Kurosawa film Yojimbo) strapped a rocket to Clint Eastwood's career, giving him the immortal role of The Man With No Name that would ultimately lead him to arguably the greatest western of all time, The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.
Of course, it's impossible to talk about westerns without bringing up the incomparable John Wayne. It took him almost a decade after his debut in 1930 to hit the big time in John Ford's Stagecoach, after which the Duke would become the face of the frontier spirit in the movies with classic appearances in The Searchers, Red River and his final film The Shootist among many others. Wayne would finally pick up his only Oscar win as the one-eyed marshal Rooster Cogburn in the 1969 film True Grit before he eventually lost his battle with cancer in 1979.
© 2020 Benjamin Cox