ONCE YOU’VE MET THEM… YOU’LL NEVER FORGET THEM.
In 2009, Robert Vaughn released an autobiography that revealed the full extent of the rivalry between Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner on the set of The Magnificent Seven. This is something that Eli Wallach, another co-star, has also written about in his autobiography. According to Vaughn, McQueen, who was an up-and-coming star compared to Brynner who had already won an Oscar, was obsessed with making sure that nothing Brynner had or did in the picture outshone him in any way. In the end, McQueen should have found comfort in the fact that the film was very popular and that he became a screen icon, something Brynner never quite achieved.
Running into a gunslinger
A gang of bandits headed by Calvera (Wallach) have made it a habit to raid a Mexican village of farmers, stealing their food. Desperate, the farmers realize that this won’t stop and that they need help. A few of them cross the U.S. border and run into a gunslinger, Chris Adams (Brynner), who listens to their story. He knows that the farmers can’t offer much compensation but agrees to help them and figures that he needs a few more men who know how to handle a gun to fight off the bandits.
After finding Vin (McQueen), whose other option is working as a store clerk, the young and hotheaded Chico (Horst Buchholz), Harry (Brad Dexter), who thinks the farmers might be hiding gold, Bernardo (Charles Bronson), Britt (James Coburn), who’s good with a knife, and Lee (Vaughn), Chris rides with them to the village. The magnificent seven try to teach the farmers to defend themselves, but the fight against Calvera and his gang won’t be easy…
Swift action and pacing
This Americanization of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954) was largely dismissed by critics at the premiere, even though they eventually came around to its charms. Kurosawa’s classic was obviously inspired by American westerns from the start, so the transition is natural.
The Magnificent Seven was by no means made by an amateur, as director John Sturges had previously made Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), which was set in modern times but borrowed heavily from the genre. Sturges is comfortable here, making sure that the action and pacing is swift. He was working from a script that began as a project by Walter Bernstein who was blacklisted at the time. It went through several rewrites by Walter Newman and William Roberts, and the final result is a tight story about courage and conviction. The farmers need to find those qualities, but the hired gunslingers are also subjected to a lifestyle that is very different from theirs. Perhaps it is a sign of greater courage to start a family and make a long-term commitment? Several of the magnificent seven turn out to have less than flattering opinions of themselves; as Chris puts it in the final scene, “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose”.
Beneath the simple, exciting and often humorous adventure lies more substantial thoughts about choosing paths in life and knowing what’s right or wrong for you. It’s a magnificent cast, with several actors in the beginning of long, prosperous careers. Brynner and McQueen may have been rivals in real life, but they make us believe in the camaraderie of their characters; the former created an iconic look with his black garb, rarely seen before on a hero.
Elmer Bernstein also wrote the most famous film score of his career, with a glorious theme that is still instantly recognizable and part of the Western lore. The film may not be a vital part of cinema history, but it’s still a first-rate adventure.
The Magnificent Seven 1960-U.S. 126 min. Color. Widescreen. Produced and directed by John Sturges. Screenplay: William Roberts, Walter Newman, Walter Bernstein. Music: Elmer Bernstein. Cast: Yul Brynner (Chris Adams), Steve McQueen (Vin Tanner), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Horst Buchholz, James Coburn, Charles Bronson… Robert Vaughn.
Trivia: Followed by three sequels, starting with Return of the Seven (1966). The film also inspired a TV series in 1998-2000. Remade as The Magnificent Seven (2016).
Last word: “I almost turned it down. Then I read the script carefully and I thought, Well, I’ll play the part cause it’s a terrific role. I went to Sturges and said, ‘In movie Westerns, you never see what the bandits do with the money. They hold up the trains, they steal the cattle, but you never see what they do with the money. I want to show how they spend it. I want to have silk shirts. I’m going to put in two gold teeth. I want a good horse, a wonderful saddle.’ Sturges said, ‘Okay. You got it.’ So I went to Mexico. We shot it on location there.” (Wallach, American Legends)