The Magnificent Seven (1960)

After having watched Akira Kurosawa’s brilliant Shichi-nin No Samurai last week, I figured it was time to rewatch this film, which goes so far as to mention that it’s based on Shichi-nin No Samurai. For me, The Magnificent Seven has much to recommend it. Firstly, it’s a Western, a genre I’m usually fond of (as long as it steers clear of the run-of-the-mill formulas that John Wayne acted in during the early 30’s—and which, sadly, continued in a lot of films well past the 30’s). Secondly, The Magnificent Seven stars one of my favourite actors, Yul Brynner. Thirdly, it was directed by John Sturges, the very capable man behind classic adventure films like Escape from Fort Bravo, The Great Escape, and Ice Station Zebra.

The story starts off pretty much like that of Shichi-nin No Samurai, except that in this case, the beleaguered village is in Mexico, not Japan. Furthermore, the bandit chief Calvera (Eli Wallach), instead of snarling from astride his horse as he leads his gang off, sits down in the village, drinking and smoking and silkily telling the frightened villagers that he “loves their village”, while his men systematically pillage the place.

This, obviously, can’t go on for long, and the people of the village, after an initial bout of despair/resignation/defiance, go to the wise old man of the village for advice. Go to the border town up north in the US and buy guns, he says. One of the men points out that you need money to buy guns, and the old man gives them an old pocket watch, which will probably help get them some of that money.

So three men from the village go to the town carrying their little hoard—everything valuable that the villagers possess—so that they can buy guns. They’ve barely ridden into town when they come upon a scene charged with tension: two salesmen have come upon a corpse in the street and have paid the undertaker to have the dead man buried. The problem is that the dead man was an Indian, so most of the townspeople are against having him buried in their cemetery—and nobody’s ready to even drive the hearse there.

In the middle of this, a stranger man named Chris (Yul Brynner) steps up, offering to drive the hearse. He’s joined by another man, Vin (Steve McQueen), who offers to ride shotgun on the hearse. They start off up the road, trailed by a small crowd eager to see what’s going to happen. At the head of the crowd is the eager-beaver hot-headed young Mexican, Chico (Horst Buchholz, in his Hollywood debut), who thinks these guys are quite something—especially when they effortlessly ward off attacks by gunfighters sprinkled all along the way.

Also very impressed are the three Mexican villagers. Later that day, they visit Chris and tell him about the mission they’re on. They say they’re farmers; they know about sowing and tilling and so on, but nothing about guns. Will Chris do them a favour by buying good guns for them?
Chris, when he realises how poor this lot is, tells them that hiring gunfighters would be cheaper than buying guns. And more effective, too, since the villagers don’t know how to use guns, in any case.

This sounds logical enough, and the villagers agree quickly. Chris cautions them, though: he’s not offering his services as a gun for hire. He’ll just vet applicants for the job and ensure that only good men are hired.
The first to turn up is Chico, rarin’ to go kill Calvera and his lot. But how fast is he? Chris puts the young man to the test—draw your gun out of your holster and up between the swiftly clapping hands of the man opposite (Chris demonstrates how it’s done)—and Chico, sweating profusely and keenly aware that he’ll never manage, fails miserably.

He storms out, but Chris’s (and the villagers’) luck turns soon enough. Chris has by now decided to fight for the village, but he needs six more men. In quick succession, he finds them, too. The first is Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), an old friend and associate of Chris’s, who also arrives as a candidate for the job. Chris tells Harry the terms: $20 and all meals for a job that’ll take 4 to 6 weeks. Harry is convinced that there’s something more to it: gold in the hills? Silver? Hidden Aztec treasure? He’s so convinced, he joins up.

Next is Vin, the man who’d ridden shotgun with Chris on that hearse. Vin’s a gambler, and when Chris runs into him that night at the local saloon, Vin’s just been cleaned out. He badly needs money, even if it’s just $20.

Then there’s Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), half-Irish, half-Mexican, and so broke he’s been reduced to chopping firewood to pay for his breakfast.

There’s the very quiet, very adept with a switchblade Britt (James Coburn), who initially refuses but later decides to join up. [Trivia: James Coburn liked Shichi-nin No Samurai a lot, and his favourite character in the film was the reclusive master fencer Kyûzô. In The Magnificent Seven, Britt is one of the most faithful replicas of a character from Kurosawa’s classic film].

And there’s Lee (Robert Vaughan), on the run and looking for a place he can hide out until things have quietened down a bit.

The six men set off for the village along with the villagers, followed by Chico, who refuses to give up. Fed up, they finally let him come along. When they reach the village, the seven discover that the villagers are actually pretty scared of the gunfighters themselves (‘these ruthless, rootless men will rape the girls’ is the general feeling—so the girls have all been made to dress as boys and have been hidden away).
Chico shows a sudden burst of initiative and begins ringing the church bell as an alarm for the coming of the bandits. It draws the villagers out, rushing to the gunfighters for protection, and Chico gets to show them how much they need the gunfighters. It helps loosen the tension between the gunfighters and the villagers; and it gets Chico a place, finally, in the group. Now they’re seven.

And so they settle in, training the villagers to handle guns; setting up barricades and traps for the bandits; and waiting for Calvera to show up. O’Reilly quickly makes friends with the village children, who warm to him enough for them to promise that they’ll “put fresh flowers on his grave”…

Harry spends his time trying to interrogate the villagers on the whereabouts of that secret gold mine or treasure or whatever it is:

Chico one day runs into a ‘boy’ who turns out to be the sultry Petra (Rosenda Monteros), and life takes a sudden turn for the romantic.

But it’s Calvera they’ve come here for. Everything—romance, avarice, friendship, even Lee’s secret terror, which manifests itself in occasional nightmares that send him flapping helplessly across the room—must be put aside to face and defeat Calvera and his men. Will the magnificent seven succeed?

What I liked about this film:
It’s a good old-fashioned Western. Enough gun-slinging, horses racing through dusty streets, and oh-so-fast draws to satisfy every admirer of Westerns. And it has the right amount of humour, romance, and drama to make it interesting even for those who aren’t die-hard fanatics of the genre at its very basic.

The score. Elmer Bernstein composed the music for The Magnificent Seven, and the theme is one of my most favourite ever. It swells uninhibited and powerful as the men make their way into the village they’ve come to protect, and it plays gently, a mere strumming on a guitar, in quieter scenes. Superb.

Lastly, how could I forget Yul Brynner? Mmm. Also Horst Buchholz—young, outwardly belligerent, but so likable.

What I didn’t like:
The depiction of the Mexican villagers. There’s just something about them that didn’t ring true. Part of this is because the Mexican censors insisted that the Mexicans be shown always wearing spotlessly clean clothes, which probably contributed to my feeling that these people weren’t really pitiable. More than that, though, is the fact that they don’t appear too scared, almost as if Calvera and his men were more a niggling inconvenience than anything else… and they always seem to have enough to eat (despite the scene where someone mentions that they’re subsisting on tortillas and beans). And they have the time and the wherewithal to hold a fiesta to celebrate the foundation of the village.

Comparisons, comparisons
So how does The Magnificent Seven compare with Shichi-nin No Samurai?

I think it’s hard to compare: the tone of the two films is so very different. Even though The Magnificent Seven starts off looking like a faithful copy of Shichi-nin No Samurai (down to the scene where Hayashida/O’Reilly is chopping wood to pay for food, or where Kikuchiyo/Chico catches fish with his bare hands in a stream), it soon becomes obvious that there are definite differences. The hot-headed and boorish Kikuchiyo and the youthful, very earnest Okamoto, for example, are brought together in a single character, Chico. And while Chico is young, impressionable and arrogant (besides being the one involved in a romance), he isn’t the crude lout Kikuchiyo is portrayed as. Later in the film, though, there’s an attempt to show glimpses of Kikuchiyo’s depths in Chico. Like Kikuchiyo, Chico convinces the villagers the gunfighters aren’t bad men—and still later, shows the gunfighters that the villagers have been driven to being scared or possessive or otherwise seemingly contemptible because of men with guns.

Well and good, so far. The problem is that where Kurosawa took pains to reveal Kikuchiyo’s character slowly and painstakingly, Sturges does it swiftly and perfunctorily. Chico, generally a sweeter and more innocent character than Kikuchiyo, ends up being nowhere as interesting.

This is probably the main shortcoming of The Magnificent Seven. Shichi-nin No Samurai takes its time about building up characters and making them believable (it’s also a whole lot darker). The villagers, their problems, and their individual characters are much better depicted in the Japanese film, making them easier to empathise with. The samurai also emerge as more complex characters when compared to the gunfighters.

Interestingly, The Magnificent Seven differs from Shichi-nin No Samurai in its exposition and exploration of the fighters’ psyches. In Shichi-nin No Samurai, the story focuses on the characters of three samurai: Kikuchiyo, Shimada, and Okamoto. They are the ones the camera travels with, showing them through a range of situations that help reveal their pasts, their emotions, and their ambitions. The Magnificent Seven expends far less energy on characterisation, but spreads it out across more men. O’Reilly emerges as the man who’s gentle at heart and loves children; Lee is plagued by his nightmares but is all bravado on the outside; Harry is always looking for hidden treasure, but his avarice, even perhaps to his own surprise, doesn’t control him completely.

Shichi-nin No Samurai is deeper, darker, more magnificent and more accomplished. The Magnificent Seven, though it has its moments, is really more a thoroughly enjoyable Western than anything else. The passing nod to Shichi-nin No Samurai during the credits is just that: a passing nod.

And, by the way, the plots of the two stories differ quite a bit in the second half, even though the last dialogue is almost the same.

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9 thoughts on “The Magnificent Seven (1960)

  1. Steve McQueen was in it?! All I remember from this film is Yul Brynner (that shows just where my priorities are!) – though I have only seen parts of it on TCM, at different times. Sturges was probably more an action/thriller person than one interested in exploring human psyches. This one follows more the letter than the spirit of Shichi-nin No Samurai, then?

  2. Yes, Steve McQueen was in it. I know, even I didn’t remember him – all I remembered was Yul Brynner, and Horst Buchholz (the latter was a bit of a surprise: he looked so convincing as a Mexican, it took me some time to get used to the idea that he was actually German)!

    I agree with you: Sturges seems to have definitely been more the action/thriller type of person: even in the other films I’ve seen of his, exploring a character’s psyche or building up a character isn’t top priority. Still, enjoyable films.

  3. This is one of the films I thoroughly enjoyed and since I saw it first, did not have any comparisons to make to the Kurosawa masterpiece. The pacing was taut, and I forgave the director any lapses in the plot or characterisation. :) And the music! And Shinchi-nin No Samurai *was* a lot darker, as you mentioned. Thanks for bringing back memories :)

  4. Believe it or not, I watch it for Eli Wallach. Along the way, of course, I have been able to appreciate other assets this film has to offer; but alas, Eli is The Man!

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