Far East becomes Old West.
A small Mexican farming village, tired of being ransacked annually by a marauder and his henchmen, hire seven gunslingers to repel them. Soon enough, the villagers realize meeting violence with violence has a price that some of them are unwilling to pay, and the gunslingers in turn come to realize that the price of living by the gun is dying by the gun.
Sturges, with writer William Roberts (staying very true to the SEVEN SAMURAI script by Kurosawa), actually manage to make improvements on Kurosawa’s original tale of mythic heroes.
As well as the montage of gathering the heroes and showing off their expertise, Roberts inserts more human frailty into this story, such as giving the villain moral ambiguity, making the villagers betray their own hired guns when they realize they have opened themselves up to a feedback loop of violence, and making one of the heroes a blowhard coward who must redeem himself.
And then – there is that MUSIC!
Fully half the appeal of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is Elmer Bernstein’s breathtaking soundtrack. It is everything we believe the Old West to be: the heady freedom of the high sierra, as expansive as the azure skies over the tinted mountains; it embodies the iron desert, the horse flesh in your nostrils, the trail dust in your throat; that music would come to signify righting wrongs and avenging truth; it’s about being a man, riding high in the saddle, transcending all ages, eras, trends and genres.
Before earworms were called earworms – THAT MUSIC is Earworm Zero!
They were the epitome of cool. Chris (Yul Brynner) strides into frame like an Aztec king, bedecked in black, with a Continental accent that screams Not From Texas. The Mexicans from the village (led by Jorge Martinez de Hoyas) seeking gunmen come upon Chris righting a wrong. By his side, another King of Cool – Steve McQueen as Vin.
Thus begins the quest to find other guys as cool. They succeed (except for Brad Dexter).
Doughy Brad somehow squeaked in as a hardguy when criteria for hardness was obviously not so stringent. He’s Harry Luck, Chris’s pal from previous outings, presuming an ulterior agenda – that there’s gold in them thar Mexican hills they are defending. Chris and Vin locate Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), a high-paid merc down on his luck, chopping wood. Then Britt (James Coburn), faster with a knife than a gun; finally, Lee (Robert Vaughn, garbed as a gambling dandy) offers his services to Chris, with an extra helping of smug.
Last to find favor with Chris was the first to “audition” – the young hothead Chico (the James Franco of the WWII generation, German-born Horst Buchholz – playing a Mexican (??); as kids, we loved the toughness of his name, never minded the incongruity!), who proves himself a spiritual member of the Seven, if not as fast or experienced as the other guns. With Yul at the top of the pyramid and Horst at the bottom, they bookended the Seven with their exotic angular momentum.
Yul came into SEVEN from blockbusters like THE KING & I (1956), THE TEN COMMANDMENTS (1956), THE BROTHERS KARAMAZOV (1958); already enough of a superstar to choose the actors whom he wanted as his Seven, much like Chris selected them in the movie. But all the other men whom we now know as stars were actually jolted into superstardom by this movie, that firmly landed them on the Hollywood toughguy landscape (except for Brad Dexter). It’s an amazing sight to see all these guys in their iconic cowboy duds, all their faces unlined by age, all handsome, all cool, all slim-to-the-bone (except for Brad Dexter).
Really, subtitle of this film was rumored to be: THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (EXCEPT FOR BRAD DEXTER).
To be honest, it took a bit of getting used to seeing King Mongkut as a cowboy – I mean, what American cowboy you know has a shaved head, olive skin and a Continental accent? (Or maybe this movie was more realistic than its contemporaries in portraying the truly mixed-breed Old West?) Thus, Yul only ever takes his hat off but once for a few seconds, to retain the cowboy “look.” Then, even his reluctance to remove his hat becomes strange-looking after awhile, as all the others go hat or hatless nonchalantly.
There are many anecdotes about Yul being annoyed at upstart McQueen for wanting more lines, or trying to steal his thunder (in subtle ways, like playing with his hat, or doing something interesting on his horse in the background – according to Eli Wallach’s biography at least). Which seems petty when weighed against the reality of Yul being a bona fide superstar and magnetic screen presence that no one could steal from. I’m inclined to believe that McQueen never “intentionally” wanted to upstage Yul, but that he put everything he had into his Method fervor, bringing a real sense of authenticity to his character – as in his first scene on the hearse wagon, where he shakes the shells before loading them (to see if they’re full). Also, we take into account Yul’s biographer-son Rock Brynner, who writes in Yul: The Man Who Would Be King (1989) of how he (Rock) was amazed to discover on set that his idol – Steve McQueen – idolized his dad, Yul!
Some of the situations in MAGNIFICENT are directly plucked from SEVEN SAMURAI: Harry being cautious entering a doorway, “No tricks now, Chris!” (like Gorobei, “Please sir, no tricks!”); finding Bernardo chopping wood (like Heihachi), finding Britt knife-drawing a petulant contestant (like Kyuzo), Chico breathlessly telling Britt it was the best shot he’s ever seen (like Katsushiro admiring Kyuzo; coincidentally, boy-band-hot Horst looks like Katsushiro); the village women hidden away, the poverty-stricken farmers simultaneously admiring and despising the hired warriors…
Brooklyn-born Polish Jew Eli Wallach plays the oily Mexican villain Calvera. Perfectly. In this modern age of whitewashing and SJW protestations, no one could ever conceive that back in the day, this American method man pulled off the perfect Spanish bandit without anyone being the wiser. With his followup success in THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY, it would take me decades to realize Wallach was neither Mexican nor oily.
As quintessentially Western as the main theme music is, Calvera’s theme is like a Roman gladiatorial anthem. In the movie’s first scene, leading 40 bandits (that mythic number – think: Ali Baba & the 40 Thieves), Calvera behaves like an avuncular friend of the villagers, “accepting their offerings,” while his henchmen are in reality ransacking them mercilessly, as they look on, helpless. Wallach’s performance is delicious, even as his character is toxic. This was what SAMURAI neglected – a compelling villain that added weight to the heroes’ opposition.
In his first meeting with Chris, Calvera reveals another layer that Kurosawa’s masterpiece missed: he appeals to Chris and his gunmen – all drifters – as being kindred spirits, proposing they join forces against the farmers, adding that it’s neither of their responsibilities if the farmers starve, “Can men of our profession worry about things like that?” If we know the original – where the villain was but a screaming trope – this development takes us by surprise, and we find ourselves empathizing with Calvera’s claim that he needs the supplies for his men, that he is responsible for seeing them through the winter… An incredible take on the hero and villain being two sides of the same damaged coin.
Calvera: “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.” He turned me with that one. I even saw Yul’s eye twitch a little.
myths becomes men
The first gun battle. Heroes shoot, villains die, lead villain escapes; bullets don’t make entrance or exit wounds, and everyone’s gun pops with the same foley, no matter the type of gun, no matter the distance, no matter the surroundings. (Note the intro scene where a gun is fired from a second-storey window and McQueen returns fire with a rifle – one gun is from inside a room, one gun is in the open / one is a pistol, one is a rifle / one is far away, one is nearby – yet both sound EXACTLY the same – PAKOW! PAKOW!).
During the battle, Lee (Vaughn) hides with a smug expression on his face. No one discovers his cowardice, and he redeems himself later without fanfare or adulation from others; in this respect, the 2016 remake improves on the coward’s arc, represented as PTSD which everyone witnesses, and which he subsequently conquers in full view.
Calvera and his men are driven back, and the villagers feel an over-confidence that is soon dashed when sniper fire hits them. Each of the Seven fan out seeking the snipers, allowing them moments of introspection that would surprise the farmers (and us)…
Behind cover, Bernardo meets three boys duly appointed to “see to it there’s always fresh flowers on your grave.” At first, it’s comic relief, “If you’re still alive, we’ll be just as happy. Maybe even happier.” Later, Bernardo would school them on heroism: “You think I am brave because I carry a gun?! Your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility!…I have never had this kind of courage…”
Behind cover, Vin envies the farmer by his side, tasting the exhilaration of power for the first time, while to Vin, shooting a gun has just become a job. The farmer is surprised to learn from Vin, that after all Vin’s experience, his hands also still sweat before a fight.
Behind cover, Chico is accosted by the young village girl Petra (Rosenda Monteros), braving the danger to be with him. He would constantly remind her that a farmer’s life is not for him, as he would follow Chris and Vin wherever the action was – until her wordless writhing becomes too lubricious not to be met with a hard tongue.
Regrouped, the Seven lament their lives: no wife, no kids, no home, with some turning it round to mean no one to answer to, tied down to no one… Ironic when Lee pipes up smugly about no enemies “left alive” – when he is cursed with the most Post-Traumatic Smug Syndrome over his profession, “and then you wait for the bullet in the gun that is faster than yours…”
fixing what ain’t broke
MAGNIFICENT takes interesting turns that might surprise even aficionados of SAMURAI: the villagers – discontent with the seemingly escalating war they have started with Calvera – rebel against the Seven, “It is easy for them to say ‘continue to fight’ – they have no sons, no daughters!” And Chris becomes the tyrant that the farmers feared, “The very first man to talk about giving up, so help me, I’ll blow his head off!” As Chico confessed earlier to Chris (echoing Kikuchiyo from the original), “Yes, I’m one of them [a farmer running from his past]. But who made us the way we are? Men with guns; men like Calvera… and men like you!”
And the villagers sell them out! BETWAYED! At gunpoint, Calvera divests the Seven of their heavy metal and bids them “Ride on!” A compelling reason for not killing them: maybe they’ve got powerful friends that would come gunning for Calvera. But then – plot hole – Calvera returns their weapons to them after escorting them out of the vicinity. Why?
Because Calvera wholly misunderstood Chris and his minions. A creature of money, possessions, worldly goods, Calvera could never comprehend the honor of a handshake contract, could never hope to understand helping people in need. Could never get it through his thick Polish Jewish Mexican skull why the Seven came back to reclaim the village. That’s when the Seven became true heroes – not when they accepted a job for minimal pay, but when they came back. When there was absolutely no reason to.
With his last breath, Calvera beseeches Chris, “You came back!… A man like you… Why?…”
living cool, dying cooler
Just like its predecessor, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN perfectly exemplifies “live by the sword, die by the sword,” as many of the Seven pay for their heroism with their lives. They knew that was their ultimate fate. They expected it, and probably even welcomed it, after lives led with nothing to show for it. And there are no regrets from any of them or their survivors, just an acceptance.
SEVEN SAMURAI: “In the end, we lost this battle too. The victory belongs to the peasants, not to us.” Echoed in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN: “Only the farmers won. We lost, we’ll always lose.”
Only it made them immortal (except for Brad Dexter).