Man, you’re looking for a movie with seven dudes who possess some level of magnificence, you could do worse than John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960). I wouldn’t personally use the adjective “magnificent” to describe any cowboys, but if I did then Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn would be good candidates. And Robert Vaughn wouldn’t be out of the question. That there is a hell of a cast, and then they’re facing off against Eli Wallach in a more large-and-in-charge character than he usually plays as Calvera, the leader of a gang of bandits terrorizing a small Mexican village. He’s one of these bullies who gets across his true evil by doing a really unconvincing fake nice guy act to your face. He keeps saying how much he loves the village in the process of threatening it. Make Cuernavaca great again!
This is, of course, a remake of SEVEN SAMURAI, so some of these poor farmers go into town looking for gunmen. Brynner plays Chris Adams, the first one they find, who becomes leader and recruiter. That’s funny, ’cause he’s bald just like the impostor monk Kambei, but not for any narrative reason (and he wears a hat anyway). He’s introduced as a bystander who intervenes when the local funeral home director won’t take a rich traveler’s money to bury an Indian on Boot Hill. He says he wouldn’t have any problem with it (some of his best friends are Indians buried in white cemeteries), but he’s scared of the local whites who he knows won’t stand for it.
Chris proposes that he drive the hearse, and then another drifter onlooker, Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), calls shotgun (oh yeah, that’s where that term comes from). The crowd follows along, watching in awe, as the two drive up the hill while fending off racist snipers.
It’s a great – hell, it’s a magnificent – scene because these two strangers have an instant rapport that comes from being fellow crazy gunmen willing to take on a dangerous job on a whim, kind of for the fun and the challenge, kind of to fuck with dumb people. It’s such a great introduction to them I didn’t realize at first that this is the equivalent of the scene where Kambei dresses up as a monk to save the hostage. It works really well because it’s very different, adapted for the shift in cultures, and also it sets up that these guys might be willing to take on bandits for the paltry sum the village is offering, as long as they’re in the right mood when you ask.
The recruiting sequence is a little closer to what happened in the original, with lots of dry humor about how pathetic the payment is, but these cowboys’ prospects are so poor they’ll do it anyway. Bronson is the guy they find chopping wood, called Bernardo O’Reilly in this one. Coburn is Britt, introduced in a knife throwing bet with some asshole.
Chico, a character who’s a mix between young Katsushiro and crazy Kikuchiyo, is credited as “introducing Horst Buccholz.” Ah, so this is the movie that introduced Horst Buchholz!
Okay, to be honest I never heard of him (had you?), but he was in ACES: IRON EAGLE III. Apparently before THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN he was “the German James Dean” because of movies like DIE HALBSTARKEN, or TEENAGE WOLFPACK. This was the start of his Hollywood career that included FANNY and Billy Wilder’s ONE, TWO, THREE. But then he had some bad luck and couldn’t do WEST SIDE STORY or LAWRENCE OF ARABIA due to scheduling or A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS due to not knowing that he should say yes to that. His last movie was LIFE IS BEAUTIFUL.
Also, I don’t think I realized he was supposed to be Mexican in this. Similarly, I read on Wikipedia that Chris is supposed to be Cajun, and I don’t remember noticing that. Shoulda had Van Damme help him with the accent.
The best thing about the movie is this team, and the best chemistry is between Brynner and McQueen. According to the book World Cinema Through Global Genres by William V. Costanzo, “Throughout the shooting, Brynner and McQueen kept trying to upstage each other, a rivalry that Sturges reportedly encouraged because he liked the effect on their performance.”
Brynner had actually convinced them to cast McQueen, but then got upset that he’d be doing something with his hat or his shotgun that would make everybody pay attention to him while Brynner was talking. And he was always trying to make sure it was clear that he was a little taller than McQueen. Apparently they made up when McQueen was dying, much like Eazy E and N.W.A.
By the way, while this is a remake, the year of 1960 gave back by providing new movies that would eventually be remade themselves: PSYCHO, VILLAGE OF THE DAMNED, THE VIRGIN SPRING, OCEAN’S 11, LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS, maybe others.
Now days the kneejerk reaction is to be automatically disgusted by the very idea of American remakes of foreign films. There is even skepticism about ones as good as THE DEPARTED, THE RING and LET ME IN. But as far as I’ve seen THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN has outlasted that sort of criticism, despite being based on what many would agree is one of the best movies of all time, and coming only six years later. Part of this can definitely be attributed to the shift in genre/culture from samurai to western, a fun tradition that later worked well for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS and (in the other direction) UNFORGIVEN.
But, like with YOJIMBO and FISTFUL, one way to diminish THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is to watch it immediately after its predecessor. So many beautiful qualities of SEVEN SAMURAI are lost in the translation. Most significantly, there is not the same class difference between the protected and the protectors. There’s not as much of a feeling of the seven violating social protocols in order to do the right thing. They are not warriors trained to fight for The Man now using those skills to help the little guy.
Of course the love story between the youngest fighter and the only female character is greatly simplified. We don’t see her father at all or confront the attitudes about love and sex between different classes.
And the structure ends up being different in a way that I think detracts from the beautiful simplicity of the original story. The attack is not timed to a harvest, so it doesn’t have the same ticking clock. And Calvera comes into town and talks to them and leaves and comes back. It’s not the same tense waiting game, with the samurai trying to hide their presence from scouts in order to have the advantage of surprise. MAGNIFICENT SEVEN’s kind of arbitrary and meandering in comparison, despite the much shorter running time.
But the western remake does have some contributions of its own, most notably Elmer Bernstein’s famous score with an unforgettable main theme and equally good bad guy theme. I also like the joke about the one who participates because he assumes there is some treasure hidden in the village or something. He can’t wrap his head around doing something for the principle, so everytime someone tries to tell him that’s what’s going on he’s like “Yeah, I gotchya loud and clear. Nothing to see here. Wink wink nudge nudge say no more.” (mimes zipping lips)
There are somewhat conflicting stories about Kurosawa’s reaction to the remake. There’s at least one interview where he says he was disappointed in it and didn’t consider it to capture the original, but there are also stories that he loved it and presented Sturges with a ceremonial sword, which I wouldn’t think you would do just to be polite. Either way, can you imagine how great it would be to have a sword presented to you by Akira Kurosawa?
Friend having cocktails in John Sturges’ living room: Oh shit John, you have a sword?
John Sturges: What? Oh, that one? Yeah, that was presented to me by Akira Kurosawa.
I think I’ve said this before, but I hope some day to be presented with a ceremonial sword. Just putting that out there.
Sturges had had some experience in westerns, having directed GUNFIGHT AT THE O.K. CORRAL, among others. He also had some experience in magnificence, having directed the 1950 Oliver Wendell Holmes biography THE MAGNIFICENT YANKEE. And three years later he’d do what I think is a better team of badasses movie featuring McQueen, Bronson and Coburn with catchy Bernstein theme music: THE GREAT ESCAPE.
Brynner is a strong center to the movie. At the time he was was heavily associated with THE KING AND I, having starred in it on stage and in the movie. In film he’d mainly done costume dramas at that point: THE TEN COMMANDMENTS, ANASTASIA, SOLOMON AND SHEBA. That made him an unlikely choice for this role, but his intense eyes and stately comportment were such a perfect fit for the gunslinger of gunslingers that the same basic persona was immortalized as a robot in WESTWORLD.
What now seems like an impossible all star cast was actually ahead of the game. Though they’d both worked with Sturges in NEVER SO FEW, McQueen and Bronson were just getting started. McQueen was only two years past being a teen heartthrob in THE BLOB, and would really cement his status as a great cinema icon over the next several years. Bronson’s first lead role, MACHINE-GUN KELLY, had been two years earlier, and he was still working mostly as a guest star on TV shows. It was only after THE GREAT ESCAPE and THE DIRTY DOZEN and then going to Europe in the late ’60s that he started to seem like an impressive get for this cowboy movie. Coburn was in a similar place in his career. Basically, most of the cast ended up having the careers that the movie was trying to push poor Horst Buchholz into.
And THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN sort of needed that retroactive boost, because there are many things you could compare it to that it’s not as good as. Not only is it not as good as SEVEN SAMURAI, or THE GREAT ESCAPE, it’s also clearly not as good as Sergio Leone’s remake of a Kurosawa samurai film. It doesn’t have the style or the wit or the fierce economy of words.
But it’s a cool idea, a great cast and a fun time. And that’s good enough for me.