Revisiting the The Magnificent Seven (1960)
By chance, my Epix Westerns movie channel was running John Sturges’ 1960 oater The Magnificent Seven while on the very same night, SyFy (whose label, in my view, is becoming ever more meaningless) was running Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 remake (which it really isn’t, but we’ll get to that). Those parallel airings sparked an unflattering memory; a chat I’d had some years ago with a former student of mine whom I’d been advising on a novel he was writing.
I was using Sturges’ flick as an example of how to juggle an ensemble cast of characters. My former student asked if I was going to see the then upcoming remake by Fuqua and I said, with a snooty dismissiveness, “No.” I made some equally haughty predictions about what the remake would probably change and said those were precisely the reasons I had no wish to see it.
I was, at that moment, doing everything I try to teach my students not to do; be close-minded, think you have nothing to learn from what you might not like, be dismissive of work that falls outside your preferences. In sum, I was evidencing a pretty crappy example for an aspiring writer, and an even crappier example of what a teacher should be.
So, when the remake came to cable, in a form of atonement for my previous misconduct I made a point of watching it. It proved a painless exercise. I’ve always been a fan of Denzel Washington, all the way back to his St. Elsewhere days (for you youngsters out there; look it up), and while the movie pretty much did what I’d expected it to do (I hadn’t been wrong about that), I found it a lot of fun.
But here’s the thing:
Having seen Fuqua’s The Magnificent Seven, entertaining as it was, I’ve felt absolutely no desire to see it again. Ever.
John Sturges’ 1960 version? I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve watched it…and I’m still counting.
This October will mark the 61st anniversary of the release of what – according to an HBO film evaluator’s tip sheet I peeked at when I used to work there – remains after six decades one of the most persistently popular Westerns – hell, one of the most persistently popular movies – in the American canon. One article from around the time the 2016 remake premiered claimed it was the second most played movie on television. Stephen Prince, in his essay about the film for the National Film Registry, labeled it “…one of the most enduringly popular Westerns ever made.” When The Magnificent Seven aired for the first time in the UK on the BBC in 1974, 40% of the population tuned in to watch!
Ok, popularity doesn’t necessarily mean something is any good, otherwise The Hangover (2009) would rate up there with the comedies of Chaplin and Keaton (and, no, it doesn’t). John Carpenter, in a documentary on the making of the film, said the key to the film’s popularity wasn’t that it was a great Western but was “…the most fun.” Another article I came across called it a “second tier classic” – a nice way of saying good but not great with presumably the works of the likes of John Ford and Howard Hawks and that crowd taking the top tier.
But even with that being the case…
In 2001, the American Film Institute included Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven on their list of the “100 Most Heart-Pounding American Movies,” and in 2013, the movie was put on the National Film Registry by the Library of Congress, the registry consisting of “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant films.” And, for what it’s worth, on Rotten Tomatoes the film has an 89% positive rating with critics (87% with viewers, vs. 64/72 for the remake).
Ok, so maybe it’s not great; “just” significant, and even Carpenter won’t argue that, calling it “…a template for almost every single action Western and action movie since…” Stephen Prince seconds that view, writing Seven “…blazed the trail for much later Westerns as The Professionals (1966) and The Wild Bunch (1969).”
And maybe that’s what makes a classic classic; that evergreen value, that watchability which even sixty years after its release and countless airings on TV will still pull an audience.
All that in mind, here’s maybe the most fun part of the movie’s classic standing: when it was released, it was a flop and hardly a critics’ darling.
(FYI: A lot of the following information comes from the 2002 documentary Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven which you can find on some DVD editions of the film and on YouTube.)
The Magnificent Seven is a case of the right director with the right story and the right cast, but the project went through the usual Hollywood pinball game to get there.
In the late 1950s, Lou Morheim was a young writer who’d been doing a lot of work for TV and some features (he was co-writer with Fred Freiberger on the 1953 creature flick favorite, The Beast from 20,000 Fathoms). Morheim caught an art house screening of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 period actioner, Seven Samurai, and came up with the idea that Kurosawa’s story of seven ronin (samurai without a master) coming to the aid of a farm village plagued by a bandit band could be transplanted to the American Old West. This made an odd kind of karmic sense since Kurosawa said his work was influenced by American Westerns, particularly the work of John Ford. Morheim scooped up the remake rights for an incredibly paltry $250 (years later, after Seven morphed into a franchise, lawsuits would follow over problems with that arrangement).
Morheim brought the project to the attention of Anthony Quinn who was then making his only stab at directing a feature with The Buccaneer (1958) starring Yul Brynner. Brynner, in turn, bought the rights from Morheim with the idea that Morheim would produce, Quinn would star, and Brynner, who had directed some TV, would make his feature directorial debut. Brynner at some point decided not to direct but to star instead (when Quinn found himself pushed out of the project, he unsuccessfully sued). Brynner then brought on director Martin Ritt with whom the actor had recently finished working on the big screen adaptation of William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury (1959). Ritt, whose career had only recently recovered from having been blacklisted in the early 1950s’ McCarthyist purges, brought in fellow former blacklistee Walter Bernstein to do the screenplay.
Bernstein’s adaptation held pretty close to Kurosawa’s original. In Bernstein’s version, the Seven were veterans of the Civil War, older than the group that would appear in Sturges’ movie with the production looking at Spencer Tracy as a possibility for the group’s leader.
Ritt left the project which then landed with producer Walter Mirisch. Mirisch had started his producing career overseeing low budget stuff for Monogram in the early 1950s, but in 1957, along with his brothers, launched The Mirisch Company. Known as a perfectionist and – in the words of Ron Howard – a “brilliant producer,” Mirisch was heading what was already looking to be one of the most successful indie companies of the time. Mirisch, in turn, reached out to John Sturges to direct.
When Sturges came on, he wanted a sole producer’s credit. Morheim understandably objected, and it looked like the whole business was going to go to court. A compromise was offered to Morheim involving a payout and an associate producer’s credit. Rather than risk a suit in which the possibility existed of coming up empty-handed, Morheim took the compromise.
Other Western directors than Sturges may have had and still have greater critical standing – John Ford, say, or Howard Hawks – but as things turned out, and despite that bit of contractual bloodletting with Lou Morheim, Mirisch couldn’t have made a better or more important call.
Despite having two films on the National Film Registry (his contemporary Western Bad Day at Black Rock  was added in 2018), and multiple nominations for DGA awards, Oscars, etc., the critical consensus on Sturges is, well, maybe “ambivalent” is a good word. The major knocks on Sturges are that he had no distinctive style, and maybe the bigger problem was that, as one source put it, he couldn’t “redeem” weak material. Andrew Sarris, in his seminal The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1920-1968, was especially hard in his appraisal, writing severely of the director, “…it is hard to remember why Sturges’s career was ever considered meaningful…” .
If you look over Sturges’ body of work, it’s hard to come up with a firm rebuttal to that. There’s a lot of flicks in his library that don’t quite come off, some that try really hard but just flat-out don’t work (like his shot at Hemingway’s The Old Man and the Sea , but then I’m not sure what any director would do with a story where most of the running time is spent on an old guy sitting in a boat holding his end of a fishing line).
But then there’s these other titles… Let me put it this way: when Sturges was on, he was really on, and with a few exceptions – especially The Great Escape (1963) – he was never more on than in the Westerns he turned out in the 1950s: Escape from Fort Bravo (1953), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957), Last Train from Gun Hill (1957), The Law and Jake Wade (1958), and the modern day Western – and easily one of the director’s best – Bad Day at Black Rock. The genre seemed to engage his dramatic and visual sensibilities in a way other types of stories rarely did, and he seemed to have a feel for the genre – despite those dismissals of his styleless style – that in my personal, highly subjective opinion, at least comes close to rivaling the work of more respected directors. On balance, he may have been a not-great director, but there were times when the planets lined up and he turned out a great (or near-great) movie.
I know it’s heresy to say anything against Ford or Hawks, but what I particularly like in Sturges’ Westerns is that I view him as the anti-Ford/Hawks. Don’t get me wrong; I appreciate and respect their stature in the American film canon, and especially what Ford contributed to the Western. You can make a case that he almost single-handedly turned the Western into a genre to be taken seriously, as something more than just Cowboys-and-Indians and Good Guys-vs.-Bad-Guys action/adventures. I get it. But purely from a position of personal taste, I’ve always had a problem with the sentimental, romanticized, mythologized West of both directors.
Ford’s credo (and it seemed to apply just as much to Hawks), when it came to how he articulated the Old West on the screen, was expressed by one of the characters in his late-career effort The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (1962): “This is the West, sir. When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” But legends, by their nature, are larger than life and that’s what flavors most of Ford’s work: the settlers are humbler than humble, his good guy gunfighters are gooder than good, his villains badder than bad, the humor is broad and almost adolescent as are romantic subplots which have the quality of high school hallway crushes. All of this is set against the undeniably magnificent visual poetry of his favored Monument Valley settings – a place which, in real life, is so unforgiving that some sod-busting farmer or pioneering rancher would have had to be out of their minds to settle there. But, damn, it looked grand! This all gave Ford’s Old West a sweet, inspiring, and certainly attractive moral simplicity, even in his supposedly darker late-career works; the West viewed through a Boy’s Life prism.
And if Hawks was more action-driven, he was no less a romantic, only it was the machismo-juiced testosterone-fueled mythology of Manly Men Doing Manly Things.
But with the exception of his uncharacteristically Fordian Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Sturges’ West is truly darker and harsher than either Ford or Hawks, often bordering on moral ambivalence, and it was certainly more life-sized. Those darker hues apply to Sturges’ characters as well. There are no heroes, just men who perform heroic acts out of often desperate necessity rather than some knight errant nobility (the Hawks model). Fort Bravo, for example, opens with Union Cavalry captain William Holden on horseback, tugging along a bedraggled, lassoed wannabe Confederate POW escapee who’d ridden his horse to death.
Appalled that it wasn’t enough to bring the man back but to humiliate and abuse him, the Confederate commander objects. Holden’s harsh response: “If he’d escaped like a man, I’d’ve brought him back like a man.”
Or there’s Last Train from Gun Hill, with Kirk Douglas as a sheriff holding the man who’d raped and murdered his Native American wife in a hotel room waiting for a train out of town. Tired of his wife’s killer’s taunting, Douglas mentally torments the man by detailing what his last moments will be like when he’s hung for murder: “Your Adam’s apple turns to mush…your brain begins to boil…” And if that’s not dark enough, his wife’s killer is the son of his best friend.
Sturges also had a flair for action few directors of the time could match. According to Stephen Prince, Sturges was “…one of the era’s most skillful filmmakers at staging action for the anamorphic widescreen frame…”
There’s another color to Sturges’ Westerns that gives them a still-contemporary feel: an emotional leanness unusual in the genre at that time that Stephen Prince described in Seven, but which applies to most of Sturges’ other Westerns as well, as “…cool as a style and attitude.” One of my favorite representative such moments comes from Jake Wade.
Robert Taylor’s lawman Wade has been taken captive by old outlaw buddy, Richard Widmark, and forced to lead Widmark and his gang to long-ago buried loot. When Taylor finally manages to turn the tables on Widmark, holding him at gunpoint, he asks Widmark if, after finding the loot, he’d planned to shoot Taylor or give him a gun. Widmark says he’d planned to give him a gun. Taylor hands Widmark a gunbelt but then tosses the pistol to the end of the street.
“I was gonna hand you yours,” Widmark snarls.
Taylor smirks ever so slightly. “Well, you like me more than I like you.”
Sturges scrapped Bernstein’s screenplay and brought in Walter Newman who’d worked on the script for an earlier, lesser Sturges work, Underwater! (1955). With past credits like Billy Wilder’s bitter Ace in the Hole (1951) and Otto Preminger’s equally downbeat tale of addiction, The Man with the Golden Arm (1955), Newman understood those darker, morally gray thematic hues Sturges favored.
Newman changed Bernstein’s Civil War veterans to out of work gunfighters, and while some characters closely paralleled their Seven Samurai counterparts, others were mix-and-match composites or totally original. Newman pretty much adhered to the plot structure of the Japanese original and even kept, more or less, some of the dialogue, but he made it more compact (Seven Samurai’s running time is 3 hrs 27 mins; The Magnificent Seven runs 2 hrs 8 minutes) and moved the death of one of the seven from the original’s second act to be part of the climactic battle.
But the biggest change, and probably what made the material so perfect for Sturges, was Newman’s take on the soul of the story. Kurosawa’s samurai have a unifying sense of moral responsibility, an air of nobility of purpose. They are truly knights errant; samurai without a lord looking for a cause to commit to.
But Newman’s Seven? In a TV interview at the time, Brynner described his character, Chris, leader of the Seven, as “a bum.” And so are most of the Seven because the West – their West – is disappearing.
It had been a developing theme in the post-WW II Western about the Wild West; that the West was becoming, well, less wild, with the rule of law pushing out the law of the gun. You see the idea in movies like My Darling Clementine (1946), The Gunfighter (1950), High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), Man Without a Star (1955), Forty Guns (1957), The Tin Star (1957), The Big Country (1958), Warlock (1959), Sturges own Gunfight at the OK Corral.
Newman sets up this dying universe in the opening scene as the bandit leader Calvera – just as much a victim of the evaporating West as the Seven who will oppose him – lectures one of the villagers on which he preys:
“The days of good hunting are over. Once there were horses, cattle, gold, fruit from the trees…No more! Now I must hunt with a price on my head, rurales at my heels.” Later it will be revealed Calvera’s situation is even more dire; his band of forty thieves is already “starving and broke.”
North of the border, the Seven are dinosaurs, the world in which they’d thrived now gone. When Chris asks Vin, the character who will become Chris’ sidekick, if there’s any action in the border town in which they find themselves, Vin tells him no, “People all settled down-like.” And in this particular town, the only job opportunities are “grocery clerk, bouncer in one of those bars…”
When the villagers approach Chris about taking on Calvera, Chris is the only one of the Seven who seems to take the job for anything resembling an altruistic motive. As the village representatives lay out the few things of value from their village as payment, Chris says, “I’ve been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.” But even then, he only initially promises to “put the word out,” not go himself.
When he offers the job to Vin – a microscopic $20 for six weeks – Vin at first turns it down. “That wouldn’t even buy my bullets.” But faced with his only other job offer as “a crackerjack grocery clerk,” he takes the job.
Harry Luck, an old friend of Chris, only takes the job because he can’t believe Chris would take such a pitiful contract unless there was a much bigger payday somewhere down the road.
O’Riley has been a high-priced gunman, the numbers big enough that when Chris and Vin go to see him with the offer, Vin remarks, “You cost a lot.”
“That’s right,” O’Riley says, “I cost a lot.” But now reduced to chopping wood for his meals, O’Riley concedes, “Twenty dollars? Right now, that’s a lot.”
Knife-throwing Britt, now making his living as a cattle drover, takes the job for the challenge.
The silky Lee signs on because he’s on the run and, as we later find out, also because he’s lost his nerve: “The final supreme idiocy; a deserter hiding out on a battlefield.”
And finally Mexican-born Chico, who’s bought into the mythology of the gunfighter, takes the job to be the kind of Big Man with a Gun he mistakenly thinks will make him someone to respect and fear.
Even when the Seven, driven out by Calvera, decide to go back to the village for the Third Act climax, not all are going back for the noblest of motives. While Chris, Vin, O’Riley and Chico have developed an attachment to the villagers, it is Britt who is the first to say he is going back because “No one throws me my own guns and says run. Nobody!” Lee goes back in an attempt to regain his self-respect, and Harry eventually rides into the village during the fight to save a cornered Chris.
Newman delivers one scene totally demolishing the mythology of the western gunfighter (you’d never hear any of this out of the mouth of a Hawksian hero). After taking out some of Calvera’s snipers, Britt tosses Chico a sombrero taken from one of the dead men. Chico models it in front of a mirror, going on about how some villager will probably make up a song about the event:
Chico: Villages like this they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years.
Chris: You think it’s worth it?
Chico: Don’t you?
Chris: It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.
Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn’t that true? Hmm? Well, isn’t that true?
Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After a while you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name – maybe two hundred of ’em! Rented rooms you live in – five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses – a thousand! Home – none! Wife – none! Kids… none! Prospects – zero.
Newman hammers home the eventual, ultimate emptiness of a gunfighter’s life at the end of the movie. Chris and Vin are riding out of the village, recognizing there is no place for them there now that the fighting is over. As they head out, they stop and turn to look back. “Only the farmers won,” Chris says. “We lost. We always lose.”
Newman’s great accomplishment in the script – and the reason I so often use it as a teaching tool – is his ability to give enough weight to all of these characters that when that final fight comes and some of these men go down, we feel that loss. How does Newman do this? Brynner in the lead would obviously have a heavy presence throughout, but Newman clearly couldn’t give the rest of the Seven equal time. That would’ve been a miniseries (besides, Brynner, highly protective of his star status, would’ve gone batshit). Well, it’s actually something of an illusion; you think you’re seeing more than you are. The screenplay is an elegantly constructed piece of work, something of a waltz as Newman revolves his focus around the group giving each just enough time to score a point before moving on.
Considering how indelible each of the Seven become, it’s surprising to learn how small their parts are. Even though Steve McQueen was billed above the title along with Brynner, his part consists of just 75 lines of dialogue. The parts for Robert Vaughn and James Coburn have only 16 and 11 lines respectively!
Newman bookends each of the Seven with a strong introductory scene – something that, with a deft writer’s precision, quickly establishes both the nature and plight of each character – and their part in the finale, particularly the death scenes for the four who don’t survive (although Newman didn’t write out the final battle; that was worked out on location). Between that intro and finale, Newman gives each of the Seven at least one or two scenes, usually brief, that act like a second stage booster rocket, something that adds to their character arc and moves us closer to caring about what happens to them come that final shoot-out. In between those “anchor” scenes, Newman gives them a line and/or an action here and there, just enough to keep their presence vital. Without giving each character a complete arc, Newman provides just enough points for the viewer to connect those dots and get the impression of a complete arc.
Take the character of O’Riley. Chris and Vin first meet him while he’s chopping wood for his breakfast. He’s given a couple of lines on the trek to the Mexican village, has a wordless scene giving a small girl a handmade flute during a village festival, gets a line about how the villagers have been starving themselves so the Seven can eat well, then finally gets a beefier scene when he’s approached by three young boys who’ve become his fans. He gets another three-line scene with the kids which is where we find out his first name is Bernardo and that he’s half-Mexican. His big showcase moment comes when Calvera is running the Seven out of the village and he gives a reprimanding lecture to his three fans on why their fathers are not cowards. And then he has his death scene which punches home the identity issue which has been simmering in the subtext since the “Bernardo” reveal. As he’s on his knees dying, he looks up at the three boys:
“What’s my name?”
“Bernardo!” several of them cry.
“You’re damn right.”
The character of Lee has even less to work with. Again, an introduction, we see his loss of nerve in a couple of scenes but he has no dialogue until a self-inflating conversation about his stature as a gunman, and then he gets a monologue when he wakes up during the night plagued by nightmares. It’s a short scene – like most of those given to the supporting characters – but Newman hits a bull’s eye with it. As Lee talks about his loss of nerve, he looks down at the table in front of him and sees three flies. His arm dashes out; he catches one.
“There was a time when I would’ve caught all three.” Precise and defining.
Lee gets a line when the Seven decide to go back to the village after being run out, and then he has his final scene: freeing locked-up villagers by gunning down three of Calvera’s men. And then he dies.
Perhaps the most significant change in character that Newman made was in the role of the bandit leader, Calvera, a character that doesn’t even have a name in Seven Samurai. Kurosawa’s bandit leader is just that: a bandit. But Newman’s Calvera fancies himself something of a feudal lord ruling by divine right, with the villagers as his vassals who, also by divine right, exist to serve him.
His village raid is not a one-off but apparently a regular ritual, yet he seems to have a sincere affection for the place: “I love this village!” He admires the religious devotion of the villagers when compared to “how little religion some people have” in the bigger cities. When he is forced to shoot one of the villagers who comes at him with a machete, even though he does it coldly there seems to be a bit of regret about the uselessness/wastefulness of it: “Stupid.”
He has a self-justifying social Darwinist take on his relation to the village. When he first confronts Chris and the Seven and Chico responds angrily to his offer to Chris to make the Seven partners “…down to the last grain” with “And what about the people of the village?” Calvera explains his worldview:
“I put it to you; can men of our profession worry about things like that? It might even be sacrilegious. If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
He sees himself as a patriarch when it comes to his men. When one of the villagers gets a bit snippy with him, Calvera slaps the man: “What if you had to carry my load? The need to provide food, like a father, to fill the mouths of his hungry men?”
Throughout, Newman weaves a dry, droll humor, even during the tensest moments. When Calvera captures the Seven, he is still mystified by why these men, whom he sees as being of the same breed as himself, took such a “sacrilegious” job. Vin replies:
Vin: It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”
Vin: He said, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.”
Or in one of the most memorable scenes in the film, Britt, Chico and Lee have been sent out to deal with three of Calvera’s scouts with orders from Chris to bring one back alive. The scouts stumble onto the three, two of the scouts are killed and the third tries to escape on horseback. As he reaches a far-off rise, Britt takes careful aim, pulls the trigger and, in the distance, a second later the man topples from his horse. Chico babbles on about how “That’s the greatest shot I ever saw!”
“It was the worst!” Britt snaps. “I was aiming at the horse!”
For a movie that, as John Carpenter said, became a template for action movies forever after by a moviemaker noted for being a top director of action, there is actually surprisingly little action in The Magnificent Seven. That’s not uncharacteristic of Sturges’ supposed actioners. “I’ve no objection to being called an action director,” Sturges said in an interview, “…but I don’t think people realize how much they’re laughing, how many lumps in the throat there are in my films.” Out of Seven’s 128 minutes, only approximately 15 are dedicated to action, the bulk of that during the two battles with Calvera and his men. Sturges always knew that for the action to matter, the characters had to matter, and he was consistently willing to invest great amounts of screen time in making the audience care about his characters.
At the same time, Newman’s screenplay is very lean, saying a lot with a little. Writer/director Lawrence Kasdan, talking about the film, describes the script as “very economical.” Stephen Prince points out, in his essay, “…nothing is revealed beyond what matters.” For instance, at the end of the scene which introduces Chris, he’s asked where he’s from and simply points behind him, and then asked where he’s heading, he wordlessly points in the opposite direction. A few moments later, talking to Vin he explains that he’s “Drifting south more or less. You?”
And that’s all we need to know: drifting without a destination because there’s no place left in the West for these men to go.
There’s a punchline to all this talk about the screenplay: Walter Newman’s name is not on the movie.
When the production went off to Mexico for filming, rewrites were needed. Newman refused to join the production in Mexico. In a 1991 interview, Newman explained he was preoccupied at the time with the birth of his first child. Sturges then hired William Roberts to do the rewrites. In a Writers’ Guild arbitration over screen credits, the WGA ruled that Newman and Roberts should share credit. Newman was so incensed, feeling Roberts’ contributions were minimal, that he pulled his name completely from the movie. Lou Morheim, however, has always maintained that most of the finished film comes from Newman’s screenplay.
All that deft character work Walter Newman put into the script would’ve been for naught without a cast to bring it to life, and part of the story around the making of The Magnificent Seven has always been its extraordinary supporting cast of future major movie stars.
Sturges’ assistant director, Robert Relyea, says Sturges’ casting philosophy was “Be careful of the gut,” meaning the middle of the cast. Sturges had a consistently remarkable talent for putting together smooth-meshing ensembles, and with the exception of The Great Escape, never did it better than in Seven. Even Brynner at the time gave Sturges credit for hiring supposedly heretofore unknown “kids.”
And that’s always been part of the mythology around the movie; that it made stars of a bunch of young unknowns. Well, that’s only partly true; the movie did elevate most of the cast, but none of them were all that young and quite a few of them had actually been kicking around for a few years.
Brynner, of course, had the top spot as Chris. George Peppard and Gene Wilder (!!!) auditioned for the part of Vin, but Sturges went with Steve McQueen. McQueen had been getting parts on TV since the early 1950s, and had appeared in a few small features, most (in)famously, The Blob (1958). His career had finally started getting serious traction when he’d been cast as the lead in the popular Western TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. Sturges had worked with McQueen before, having given him a supporting role in his 1959 WW II actioner Never So Few, seeing immediately the actor’s future star potential on meeting him. Sturges was convinced – correctly, it would turn out — Seven would make McQueen a star.
Brad Dexter (Harry Luck) and Charles Bronson (Bernardo O’Riley) were also Sturges alumni. By the time of The Magnificent Seven, Dexter already had an extensive resume, bouncing between TV and the big screen and having had a supporting role in Sturges’ Last Train from Gun Hill.
Bronson also had built up quite a list of credits before Seven with TV appearances and small parts on the big screen. He’d had an uncredited part in Sturges’ 1951 The People Against O’Hara, and then Sturges came back to him for a larger role in Never So Few.
Like most of the cast, Robert Vaughn (Lee) had done a fair amount of TV but had done little feature work. Then, in 1959, he started getting serious attention after scoring a Supporting Actor Oscar nom for his role in The Young Philadelphians.
Vaughn was responsible for James Coburn (Britt) being cast. John Ireland had been considered for the role of the knife-throwing Britt, but then Sterling Hayden was cast. Then Hayden dropped out leaving Sturges scrambling as the production was racing to finish casting before a threatened actors strike. It was Vaughn who suggested Coburn (friends since college, throughout their careers they would recommend each other for roles).
Coburn was another actor who’d previously done a lot of work in TV and in big screen supporting roles. A fan of the Kurosawa original, he’d seen Seven Samurai “…twelve times in twelve days.” When he got the call from Sturges to play Britt, the counterpart to his favorite character in Samurai — the master swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) – he told Sturges, “That’s the one I want to play!” Coburn would even incorporate elements of Miyaguchi’s performance into his own.
German-born Horst Buchholz (Chico) may not have been known to American audiences at the time, having only done one English-language film (British release Tiger Bay ) but he was a rising star in Europe. During filming of Seven, he and Brynner would laugh at the irony of two of the major roles in an American Western being played by “…a Mongol and a German!”
As bizarre as that casting might seem, Eli Wallach being brought on to play Calvera was, even to Wallach, “a mystery.” Wallach had been working on the stage and TV but had only done his first feature – Baby Doll – in 1956. There was nothing in his c.v. – even in his own eyes — suggesting this Polish Jew from Brooklyn could pull off the heavily ethnic part of an Old West Mexican bandito. Walter Mirisch told Sturges “You’re crazy,” but Sturges pushed for and got Wallach.
Looked at today, with the subsequent careers of McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, Vaughn, and Wallach in mind, the movie seems to feature an all-star cast, and that’s part of the mystique of the film. But if they didn’t have star status at the time, much to Yul Brynner’s irritation, during filming they tried like hell to get there.
As Marshall Terrill tells it in his book, Steve McQueen: Portrait of an American Rebel, Brynner had casting approval and “…Sturges was to handpick Brynner’s costars, to make sure all of them would complement Brynner, not upstage him.” After all, Brynner at the time was a bona fide, Oscar-winning star whose name value was getting the movie financed. But those actors comprising the film’s “gut” had other ideas. They seemed to sense that, large or small, they’d each been given a choice showcase of a role. “All of us wanted to best Brynner,” Robert Vaughn would recall, and none worked harder at it than McQueen, constantly coming up with little bits of business to draw focus from Brynner in the foreground.
Despite criticisms that Sturges had no distinctive visual style, he did have one; he preferred a loose frame, like Ford, using few close-ups and even then, nothing closer than a medium close-up. From Stephen Prince’s essay: “…Sturges and cinematographer Charles Lang adroitly use the full dimensions of the Panavision frame…” populating the wide screen in width and depth, giving plenty of opportunity for those scene stealing “kids” filling out the frame to introduce a little bit of focus-pulling action.
Robert Relyea talks about the first day of shooting, a simple scene of the Seven riding across a stream. Brynner, of course, was in the lead, but every one of the Seven following him gave themselves a little something to do. There’s Brad Dexter bringing up the rear, Relyea would remember jokingly, doing “…three acts of Hamlet…”
Sturges beefed up some parts by giving some of what were written as Brynner’s lines to some of the other characters (which irritated the hell out of Walter Newman). A spontaneous bit of inspiration brought Buchholz a scene all to himself. Someone on the crew had found an old, bony bull and brought it into a scene where Chico is supposed to spot one of the village women who have been hidden by their men. Buchholz improvised a fun mock bullfight with the animal who, apparently, couldn’t have cared less.
It was to Sturges great credit that he was able to juggle all these competing egos and come up with an end product which seemed to boast a seamless ensemble yet in which each part still had a distinctive, indelible character.
One of the reasons William Roberts was on the set was for rewrites dictated by the Mexican government. The Mexicans had been grossly offended by their depiction in Robert Aldrich’s 1954 actioner, Vera Cruz, and hadn’t forgotten it. The Magnificent Seven production hired a number of Mexican craftspeople to help smooth relations, but the government still assigned what was essentially a censor to the production to exact changes on any material felt denigrating to the Mexican people. This is one of the reasons why the village farmers in the movie are always dressed in improbable immaculate white; Vera Cruz had shown them as often dirty.
One of the enforced changes actually improved the story. In Newman’s draft, the villagers go north of the border to hire gunmen. The censor objected to the idea that the villagers couldn’t fight for themselves. The script was changed to have them go north to buy guns, and they approach Chris as someone who can help them with this. Chris is the one who suggests hiring gunmen since “These days men are cheaper than guns,” a line which plays into the idea that we’re witnessing the end days of the gunfighter.
The ego-induced competitions on the set may have been inevitable; McQueen’s wife at the time, Niele, said in a later interview of the male-heavy cast, “The set was fraught with testosterone.” But evidently things were more relaxed off-set, with Yul Brynner’s then-wife Doris saying the men in the cast acted “…like little boys playing cowboys.” Brad Dexter would look back on the shoot and say that of his forty or so features, “I had more fun on that picture…” than any other.
Filming completed, there was still one major creative element left to add, and it would become perhaps even more iconic than the film itself.
Sturges at first wanted Dmitri Tiomkin to compose the musical score for the film. At the time, Tiomkin was already considered one of the top movie music composers in the business; a multi-Oscar-winner (and frequent nominee). He’d also worked with Sturges several times before: on Gunfight at the OK Corral, Last Train from Gun Hill, and The Old Man and the Sea. But despite those productive collaborations, the two were at odds on The Magnificent Seven. As he had on OK Corral, Tiomkin wanted a song under the opening credits a la High Noon (1952). But Sturges said no and replaced Tiomkin with Elmer Bernstein. Bernstein, with a more contemporary sound than Tiomkin, would turn out to be an inspired choice.
Bernstein had been composing for the movies since 1951 but had suffered a career setback when he’d been “grey-listed” during the McCarthy years for his affiliation with left-wing groups. For several years he’d been stuck composing for TV and low-budget flicks like the godawful sci fi cheapie Robot Monster (1953). His scores for The Man with the Golden Arm and The Ten Commandments (1956) resurrected his status as a top-line film composer and with The Magnificent Seven, he would turn out one of the most memorable scores in American movies and cop an Oscar nomination; the only one for the film. Glenn Lovell, in his book, Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges, hit it on the head writing, “…after John William’s Jaws and Star Wars themes…” The Magnificent Seven has “…the most recognizable overture in the history of the medium.”
(FYI: Speaking of John Williams, he was part of the orchestra on Seven!)
Creatively complete, it only remained for the film to be released and for reviewers and the ticket-buying audience to judge the end product. It was not a pretty verdict.
“(The Magnificent Seven) is not a success,” pronounced The Hollywood Reporter when the film was released in October of 1960, “as a story or as entertainment.” While there were positive reviews, the best one could say is the critical reception was mixed. Getting positives may have been an uphill battle from the get-go, standing, as the movie did, in the shadow of Kurosawa’s already acknowledged classic. From The New York Times: “(A) pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original.”
It didn’t help that, according to James Coburn, interviewed for a making-of documentary, United Artists, which distributed the film, didn’t have much faith in the project and didn’t give it the push that might’ve resulted in better box office. As it was, U.S. domestic rentals tallied $2.5 million which, against a budget of $2 million, made the film a significant underperformer.
Akira Kurosawa’s opinion, however, was one John Sturges would always treasure. Kurosawa avoided getting into comparisons between his original and the Sturges’ movie but thought well enough of it to send the American director a ceremonial sword in tribute (years later, however, in an interview, Kurosawa would call the movie “a disappointment” saying “…it is not a version of Seven Samurai”).
What saved the movie was its performance overseas where the movie earned almost three times its domestic take with $7.5 million. Those numbers caused UA to take a second look at the movie, re-release it and, as Coburn said in the same interview, “It’s been playing ever since.” According to a Wall Street Journal piece looking back at the original around the time of the 2016 version, Seven earned more in its second four years than in its first three years.
The obvious question is why? Good question, and maybe there is no one answer. Maybe it’s as simple as UA not putting much muscle behind the domestic release. Maybe the eventual big-time success of so many in the cast put a different light on the movie. Maybe overseas audiences, with a different sensibility, were quicker to tip to The Magnificent Seven being something unfamiliar, a new strain of an old genre with its down-and-out heroes, a certain melancholy undertone, and a finish that could, at best, only be described as bittersweet; something which cast member Rosenda Monteros (Chico’s love interest) called “…a totally different kind of Western.”
John Carpenter makes a very astute observation about where Seven falls in the genre’s evolutionary line. The movie was a pivot between the old classicism of John Ford and his breed, and something new. It was, says, Carpenter, the “…beginning of the end of the great American Westerns,” pointing out that Howard Hawks’ had turned out the quintessentially Hawksian Rio Bravo just the year before, followed the very next year by its thematic opposite in The Magnificent Seven.
Or maybe it was that kind of movie magic which brings together the right elements in just the right way and something unique and unrepeatable happens; the difference between, say Casablanca (1942) and putting the same cast and director together to make Across the Pacific (1942 – Across the what? My point exactly). Chazz Palminteri, offering some commentary in the making-of documentary, might have found the heart of the movie’s eventual success and perennial appeal; that it had captured “…lightning in a bottle.”
Josh Sapan, CEO of AMC Networks, offers this on the movie’s everlasting popularity:
“The endurance of classic themes and classic movies seems to touch on something deeper than a standard linear critical evaluation can provide. Generations of people growing up with different technology, politics and environment are attracted to classical stories and charactes like bugs to light…its magnetism remans. It seems to touch on something subconscious.
“I once asked the creator of a legendary dramatic TV series whether the analysis that critics and fans come up with rang true. He said that he just wrote the series and it is in the eyes, ears, and minds of fans to make their own.”
So maybe there’s enough in The Magnificent Seven that at any time, each of us finds something that resonates; that still works and connects.
Or maybe it’s as simple, writes Stephen Prince, that John Sturges & Co. turned out “…one of the coolest Westerns ever made.”
If I had to boil down my take on the 2016 not-really-a-remake, it’s this: It misses the point.
Antoine Fuqua has said he’s been in love with Westerns since he was a kid and had always wanted to do a remake of The Magnificent Seven, one of his faves, but his passion for those movies doesn’t translate into a movie with passion. I’m pretty much in tune with Rotten Tomatoes’ “Critics Consensus” on the movie: “…never really lives up to the superlative in its title – or the classics from which it draws inspiration – but remains a moderately diverting action thriller on its own merits.”
In one sense, Fuqua’s version – written by Nic Pizzolatto, Richard Wenk, and an uncredited John Lee Hancock – is a bit closer to the Kurosawa version in that most of this Seven are out to do a good deed, as opposed to the gunmen in Sturges’ version who are broke, rootless, and willing to take on a lousy, piss-poor-paying job only because it gives them one more chance to do the only thing they know how to do. And as for Fuqua’s villain, well, Peter Sargaard’s Bartholomew Bogue is just a nasty guy who does everything but sneeringly twirl his mustache; he’s a hollow counterpart to Eli Wallach’s Calvera, but then, most of the characters in the remake also lack the same dramatic weight as their counterparts.
Fuqua’s movie seems much more influenced by the big budget actioners of the last 20-30 years than either of its sources. The action is oversized, Calvera’s band of forty thieves looks paltry next to the Gatling gun-armed army Denzel Washington and his men have to fight off, and the special abilities of each of the remake’s Seven gives the movie the feel of an Avengers-like superhero flick camouflaged as a Western. The movie is fun like a fireworks display is fun, but like a fireworks display, it’s lacking that something interior – that heart – that keeps people (well, me, anyway) coming back to Sturges’ version. That sense of melancholy the original had – of lost men who stumble into something meaningful, of a sense of loss for those who survived as much as for those who didn’t – isn’t there. It suffers the too-common contemporary cinema crime of being – gasp! – generic!
Granted, a modern-day audience may find Sturges’ movie too slow-moving and, compared to contemporary actioners, it is. They may feel there isn’t enough action and, again, by contemporary standards, it does come up short. For those who measure an action movie by body counts, pyrotechnics, and noise, yeah, it could seem a bit pallid.
But if you measure the quality of a movie by what it makes you feel, the 1960 The Magnificent Seven is still (you guessed it) magnificent.