The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Director: John Sturges

“The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”

★★★★★

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The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s amazing re-imagining of Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Seven Samurai (which was, itself, inspired by classic John Ford Westerns). John Sturges offers a star-studded and grippingly simple tale about seven individual veteran gunslingers who are hired to defend a rural Mexican farming village from a brutal bandit who is extorting their food supply. In watching the film we are asked to contemplate the stories and personalities of each individual gunman (i.e. what motivates him to defend these remote farmers) and also we are invited to contrast the bandit, Calvera, with our seven heroes. What is different? Why is Calvera, a profit-seeking warlord, considered evil; whereas the gunslingers, many of whom are also profit-seeking mercenaries, honored as heroes? When is a hero forced to choose the noble path?

“The fighting is over. Your work is done. For them, each season has its tasks. If there were a season for gratitude, they’d show it more…Only the farmers remain. They are like the land itself. You helped to rid them of Calvera the way a strong wind helps rid them of locusts. You are like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on. Vaya con Dios” -closing words from the village elder to the hired gunmen.

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The lead actor, Yul Brynner, initially approached producer Walter Mirisch with the idea of acquiring the rights to the story from Toho Studios in Japan (Brynner was late unsuccessfully sued by friend and fellow actor, Anthony Quinn, who claimed they worked on the idea together). The Magnificent Seven was shot on location in a variety of Mexican locales and interestingly enough Yul Brynner was married on the set while making the movie.

The film is about a small Mexican farming village that is being extorted by a ruthless group of bandits led by a man named Calvera (Eli Wallach who also memorably appears as “the ugly” in The Good, The Bad and the Ugly). Calvera steals food from the farmers under threats of death. After a villager is killed, several men consult the village elder (played by Russian actor Vladimir Sokoloff) who advises them to fight back against Calvera. So they ride north to a town across the United States border. Initially, they intend to barter for weapons, however they soon witness a remarkable scene. A veteran Cajun gunslinger named Chris Adams (played by Yul Brynner) offers to deliver the body of a recently dead Indian to the cemetery on the hill, which is guarded by a group of racist cowboys who prevent Indians from being buried in the cemetery. Chris is then joined by another gunslinger, Vin Tanner (played by Steve McQueen). Apparently Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen had quite a rocky relationship offscreen, though they play compatriots in the movie. McQueen was upset with his minimal dialogue, and as recompense he would use various tactics to distract the audience while Brynner spoke -such as by lowering his hat, flipping a coin, or rattling his shotgun shells. Also, the actors battled over their height on camera. Brynner was slightly taller than McQueen and he would build a small mound of dirt to stand on just before a shot to highlight his height advantage, but McQueen would often kick the dirt away before the take.

At any rate, returning to the story, the villagers hire Chris and Vin, who recruit Chris’s friend Harry Luck (played by Brad Dexter) who only joins because he believes there may be riches hidden out in the hills; Bernardo O’Reilly (played by Charles Bronson), an Irish-Mexican gunslinger in need of money; Britt (played by James Coburn), an expert knife-fighter and gunner who handily wins a random duel using only a knife; and a well-dressed gentleman named Lee (played by Robert Vaughn), who is haunted by fears that death is chasing him after many gunfights over the years. En route they are drunkenly confronted by a hot-headed young man named Chico (played by Horst Buchholz) who demands to join the group, and when denied he follows them to the village and ultimately earns their respect.

Upon arrival in the village this ‘magnificent seven’ begins training the farmers to fire guns and build fortifications and traps for Calvera when he arrives. Chico discovers the women in hiding, out of fear that the gunslingers might rape them, but they are invited to join the group again. One day, three scouts visit the village on behalf of Calvera, but the seven gunslingers kill the scouts. So Calvera, himself, surrounded by a large force arrives but this time he is scared him off into the hills. In the evening Chico infiltrates Calvera’s camp and learns that Calvera’s men are starving and struggling. However when the seven plan a raid on Calvera’s camp they return to the village to find they have been betrayed by some of the farmers. Calvera confiscates their weapons and he banishes them from the village, but fearing reprisals from their friends, he lets them live and returns their weapons several leagues from the village, mistakenly believing they have learned their lesson, only for six of them to return with a vengeance (the seventh later joins). In the end, three of the seven survive the shootout: the original compadres Chris and Vin, and also the young buck, Chico, who stays behind in the village with his young lover (played by Mexican actress Rosenda Monteros).

“The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”

Elmer Bernstein composed this inspiring score -one of many including To Kill A Mockingbird, and The Ten Commandments among many others. The Magnificent Seven spawned several unsuccessful sequels (and a remake in 2016 that I refuse to see as a protest against more recycled unoriginality from a lazy, contemporary Hollywood).

Despite receiving mixed reviews, John Sturges got the one vote of approval that mattered – when Akira Kurosawa saw the film he was so impressed that he reportedly sent a ceremonial sword to Sturges.

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