Revisiting John Sturges 1960 cult classic, in preparation for Antoine Fuqua’s new version, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt.
The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges’ version of Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, The Seven Samurai, is a successful, westernized remake, boasting a stellar cast and a most memorable music score by Elmer Bernstein.
In fact, the movie is enjoyable as a stand-alone, even if you don’t know the Japanese classic, which was an international hit.
Yul Brynner plays Chris Adams, a mercenary hired to protect a Mexican farming village from its periodic invasion by the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his cutthroats. The townsfolk are too weak and fearful of the bandito and his desperados to fight back. Chris then rounds up six soldiers of fortune, the coolest, toughest guys on that side of Ro Grande, to help him form a united front against the bandits.
The remaining “magnificent six” are played by Charles Bronson, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Brad Dexter, the least known member of the cast.
Though action-driven, the film, based on William Roberts’s screenplay, emphasizes the individual characterization and the dynamic relationships among the seven amigos, who form a wild bunch, and also between them and the villagers they defend.
The filmmakers are graceful and generous enough to grant each member of the team at least one or two big scenes, which displays their specialized skills and characteristics.
Chico, the handsome
Chico, played by the handsome Hungarian born actor, Horst Bucholz, is the youngest, hotheaded and the least experienced of the bunch. He is also the romantic one, fascinated by Petra (Rosenda Monteros), one of the village’s young beautiful women.
Brad Dexter is Chris’s friend, Harry Luck, who believes Chris is seeking treasure.
Steve McQueen is Vin Tanner, a drifter who has gone broke after gambling but loathes to work as a store clerk.
Charles Bronson is Bernardo, a gunfighter of Irish-Mexican heritage who has fallen on hard times.
James Coburn is Britt, a cowboy who joins for the challenge involved.
Robert Vaughn is Lee, on-the-run gunman struggling with a personal crisis of confidence.
Yul Brynner was then the biggest name in the cast, having won the Best Actor Oscar for the movie musical, The King and I. He is doing most of the talking, while McQueen and Coburn are largely silent, their acting relying on their strong screen presence. In a few years, both will become major stars.
As expected, the tale is replete with ritualistic behavior. Thus, in one crucial scene, the leaders Chris and Vin force the white hostile racial community to accept an Indian for burial.
Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable theme music, which was deservedly nominated for the Oscar, was later immortalized as the “Marlboro Man” motif in the popular cigarette commercial.
Most suitable for this kind of material, John Sturges was a good craftsman, as he showed in “Bad day at Black Rock,” made in 1955, and especially the cult favorite, “The Great Escape,” in 1963, with some of the same actors of “Magnificent Seven.”
The Magnificent Seven was such as smash hit at the box-office that it was followed by three sequels and numerous imitations, all pale compared to the original.
The movie catapulted Steve McQueen to major stardom, a position he would hold for most of the 1960s and early 1970s.
Synopsis (How the Story Unfolds Chronologically)
A Mexican village is periodically raided for food by Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his bandits. After the latest visit, Calvera promises to return to loot the village again. Taking what meager goods are left, the village’s leaders ride to a town on the American border hoping to barter for weapons to defend themselves.
There, they encounter Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), a veteran Cajun gunslinger. After listening to their compliants, Chris suggests that the village hire gunfighters, which would be cheaper than guns and ammunition. The village men relentlessly try to convince him to be their gunman. At first he agrees only to help them by finding the right men, but later, he decides to recruit six other men to assist him defending the village, despite the poor pay offered.
The group fear they will be outnumbered, but they hope that Calvera will move on to another village when he encounters professional resistance. At the village, the seven gunmen begin to train the villagers to defend themselves, and in the process, get to know them and their lifestyle.
When the amigos realize that the small meal made for them by the women consists of all the food, they decide to share it with the villagers. Chico is fascinated by Petra (Rosenda Monteros), one of the village’s young women. For his part, Bernardo bonds with three of the village’s little boys.
Meanwhile, Lee, struggling with nightmares and fearing the loss of his skills, is comforted by the residents. Harry presses the villagers for information about any treasure. Hilario (Jorge Martínez de Hoyos) and Vin discuss nerves on the eve of battle; Vin confesses that he envies Hilario’s quiet farming life.
Calvera and his bandits sustain heavy losses and are run out of town by the gunmen and the villagers. Chico, who is Mexican, follows Calvera to his camp, pretending to be a bandit, whereupon he learns that Calvera must raid the village because he is desperate for food to feed his men.
After Chico’s report, some of the men believe they should leave but Chris insists on staying, even threatening to kill any villager who considers giving up the fight. Making a surprise raid on Calvera’s camp, they find out that the camp empty. Returning to the village, they realize that the fearful villagers have allowed Calvera to take control. Calvera spares the gunmen’s lives, believing that they have learned that the simple farmers are not worth defending; he also fears reprisals from the U.S. Army if he kills Americans.
Escorted out of the village, the men debate their next move, and all but Harry agree to return and free the village from Calvera. Harry believes that the effort will lead to their deaths and rides off alone.
The six gunmen return and the gunfight begins. The villagers, recognizing the courage of the gunmen, join in the fight. Harry, after a change of heart, arrives in time to protect Chris but is fatally shot. Bernardo is killed protecting the children he had befriended before, and Britt and Lee die after killing several bandits. Chris shoots Calvera, and the latter while dying asks, “You came back… to a place like this? Why? A man like you? Why?”
The three remaining gunmen help to bury the dead. Chico decides to stay in the village with Petra, but Chris and Vin prepare to leave. The village elder bids them farewell and says that only the villagers have really won: “You’re like the wind, blowing over the land and… passing on… ¡Vaya con Dios!”
As they leave, they pass the graves of their dead comrades. Chris has the last word, “The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”
Oscar Nominations: 1
Score (Drama or Comedy): Elmer Bernstein
Oscar Awards: None
The winner of the Scoring Oscar was Ernest Gold for Exodus. Nonetheless, the score for The Magnificent Seven was listed at Number 8 of American Film Institute Top 25 Movie Scores.
Chris (Yul Brynner)
Calvera (Eli Wallach)
Vin (Steve McQueen)
Chico (Horst Bucholtz)
O’Reilly (Charles Bronson)
Lee (Robert Vaughn)
Harry Luck (Brad Dexter)
Britt (James Coburn)
Old Man (Valdimir Sokoloff)
Petra (Rosenda Monteros)
Produced and directed by John Sturges
Screenplay: William Roberts, Walter Newman, Walter Bernstein, based on Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai
Camera: Charles Lang
Editor: Ferris Webster
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Art Direction: Edward Fitzgerald
F/X: Milt Rice
Running time: 128 Minutes