The Magnificent Seven—Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Brad Dexter, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholtz, Eli Wallach (1960; Dir: John Sturges)
The exotic Yul Brynner seems an odd choice as the star of a western, but he’s become one of the iconic figures in the history of westerns because of his role as Chris Adams, leader of the seven in this relocated remake of Akira Kurosawa’s marvelous The Seven Samurai. John Sturges’ talent for directing large-scale action was never in better form, and a number of elements combined to make this one of the most memorable westerns of the 1960s—a period that represents the apex of a certain kind of Hollywood western.
The movie opens in a southwestern town with a dead Indian, whom prejudiced locals won’t allow to be buried in the local Boot Hill. A newcomer, Chris Adams (Brynner) volunteers for the dangerous job of driving the hearse to the cemetery, and unemployed cowboy Vin (Steve McQueen) rides shotgun. They make it up the hill, only to be faced at the cemetery by a small mob of armed and angry objectors, whom they handle with ease.
Among those impressed are three town fathers of a Mexican village plagued by bandits. They’re looking for help in ridding themselves of Calvera (Eli Wallach in his Mexican bandit chieftain mode) and his band of 30 or so banditos, who prey on the village regularly and kill any one there who shows signs of resisting. Better employment is hard to come by, and Chris assembles a team of six, starting with himself and Vin. They include Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), an old acquaintance of Chris’s who refers to him (not entirely convincingly) as “You old Cajun”; Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson); Lee (Robert Vaughan), a smooth but high-strung gunslinger now on the run himself; and Britt (James Coburn), a taciturn, knife-throwing cowboy. The final member of the group is Chico (Horst Buchholz), a young Mexican would-be gunfighter initially rejected by Chris. But as the band goes south into Mexico, Chico follows and is eventually accepted as one of them.
The villagers have considerable misgivings about their new defenders. But as they prepare for the return of Calvera, Chris and his band teach the villagers some rudiments of self-defense and begin to form relationships. Bernardo, for example, becomes a favorite of the village children, and there are a few romantic attachments that develop with female villagers, notably for Chico. Cold gunfighter Lee has nightmares, and, after a drinking bout, confesses his fears to a couple of the villagers.
Calvera and his bandits return, and initially they are easily driven away by the unexpected resistance. But they return yet again and Calvera tries to understand what drives these Americans who are now leading the resistance to him. His native humor and ruthlessness both show through. And there is the final battle, which four of the seven do not survive. The action sequences are extremely well directed and edited.
As Chris and Vin leave the village at the end, Chris mutters the bottom line on all the killing: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” But at least he isn’t dead. The movie’s most memorable line might be Calvera’s: “If God had not wanted them sheared, He would not have made them sheep.” A few lines seem a little anachronistic, like Vin’s reference to a man falling off a ten-story building.
There are small touches that work very well, and some that raise questions. When Vin is loading a shotgun and shakes each shell before popping it in the shotgun, and then tells Brynner, “Let ‘er buck,” that seems authentic. In fact, McQueen and Brynner did not get along particularly well, and Vin’s sequence of mannerisms are McQueen’s way of stealing the scene against Brynner’s gravity. The Mexican villagers seem unusually well-laundered, though—lots of bright whites in a very dusty setting.* And one wonders why McQueen’s character Vin wears chaps so much in town, where they’re not necessary. You’d think they’d be too hot and cumbersome in what seems to be a very warm climate. Brynner and Buchholz as actors don’t exactly fit the backstories of their characters. But it all works surprisingly well notwithstanding those quibbles.
No, The Magnificent Seven is not as good as Seven Samurai, and it’s not nearly as long, either—just over two hours in playing time, to more than three for Kurosawa’s masterpiece. It has an epic feel without so much of the epic length, as well as less philosophical darkness. However, it may be the most successful example in film history of transplanting a story from one cinematic genre to another. Kurosawa was said to have given John Sturges a sword in appreciation after the release of the Sturges film. (For another successful western based on a Kurosawa samurai film, see Sergio Leone‘s A Fistful of Dollars, based–without prior permission–on Yojimbo.)
Much of the brilliance of this film lies in the casting and character development of the seven, and of Calvera. The enigmatic, bald Brynner, with his vaguely Asian background, would seem to be an unlikely fit for a western. Even though he’s the leader of the seven and has more camera time than any of them, he remains enigmatic to the end of the movie. His bearing and his all-black dress seem a little unusual, too, but it all makes for one of the iconic characters of the genre (reprised by Brynner in one sequel and in the science fiction thriller Westworld). This was the breakthrough movie role for McQueen, who’d starred on television in Wanted: Dead or Alive. He would go on to have one of the greatest movie careers of the 1960s and 1970s, although that career did not include many more westerns. Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughan, James Coburn—every single one of the seven would be a significant star by the end of the decade, with one exception: Brad Dexter. And as these characters are introduced and later developed, enough time is spent to insure that we are interested, but they remain not entirely explained. Wallach is superb as Calvera, the greedy, human and philosophical bandit chieftain, and an interesting villain contributes significantly to the success of any western. (See him again in a similar role in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.)
One of its elements may be the best of its kind in any western: Elmer Bernstein’s score, especially the theme. Bernstein was the quintessential movie composer of his time; he worked quickly, and in a broad variety of genres. He scored hundreds of movies, and this may be his most memorable music. The cinematography of Charles Lang, Jr. is excellent, too. McQueen, Coburn and Bronson would work with Sturges again in The Great Escape, and this film would spawn three sequels—none remotely approaching this first in the series for quality and watchability. Decades later (1998-2000) it would even be a short-lived television series. And a new cinematic remake is currently in production and scheduled for release in late 2016, with Antoine Fuqua directing and Denzel Washington in the Yul Brynner role.
*The well-laundered whites of the peasants were apparently one result of Mexican authorities not liking the depiction of Mexican nationals in 1954’s Vera Cruz, also filmed in Mexico. For a period of several years thereafter, they were much more vigilant in policing the way Mexicans were shown in American films shot in Mexico. So the villagers in The Magnificent Seven were never dirty in their white peasant clothing.