They were seven – And they fought like seven hundred!
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is an American western film released on October 12, 1960. The director was John Sturges and the film starred Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholtz, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn. The movie is a reinterpretation of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa film SEVEN SAMURAI.
Yul Brynner as Chris Adams – A Cajun gunfighter and leader of the seven
Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner – An out of work drifter
Charles Bronson as Bernardo O’Riley – Irish Father and Mexican mother and him in the middle
Robert Vaughn as Lee – A traumatized warrior afraid he has lost his nerve
Brad Dexter as Harry Luck – He is convinced they are fighting for bigger stakes
James Coburn as Britt – Gun or knife there is no one better
Horst Buchholtz as Chico – Very young and very proud and out to prove himself
Eli Wallach as Calvera
Jorge Martinez de Hoyos as Hilario
Pepe Hern as Tomas
Natividad Vacio as Miguel
Rosenda Monteros as Petra
Vladimir Sokoloff as the Old Man
In the Old West, three Mexican farmers hire seven American gunfighters to defend their village from bandits.
As the story goes, Yul Brynner approached producer Walter Mirisch with the idea of redoing Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI as a western. However, once pre-production got underway actor Anthony Quinn sued Brynner for breach of contract. He claimed that he and Brynner had developed the concept together and they had worked out much of the film’s details before they had a falling out. Because there was nothing in writing, Quinn lost his claim.
Walter Bernstein wrote the first draft of the screenplay. Executive Producer Mirisch and Brynner then brought in Walter Newman whose version is pretty much what we see on the screen. But he was unavailable for re-writes so William Roberts was brought in make changes during filming. When Roberts asked for co-credit status Newman got mad and had his name removed from the credits.
Yul Brynner wanted Steve McQueen for the movie. So did the director John Sturges. The problem was McQueen was in a TV series called WANTED DEAD OR ALIVE and couldn’t get the time off to do the movie. As the story goes, on the advice of his agent, McQueen (who raced cars) staged an accident and then claimed he couldn’t work on the series because of injuries. While supposedly recuperating he filmed THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN.
The part of Britt the knife-thrower was turned down by Sterling Hayden and John Ireland. On the recommendation of Robert Vaughn the part was offered to James Coburn. It just so happened that Coburn was a big fan of the SEVEN SAMURAI and especially loved the character Kyuzo – which his character Britt is based upon.
Filming took place in Mexico, which was problematic. Because of the movie VERA CRUZ (1954) the country wasn’t looking too kindly on Hollywood productions. It was agreed to let them shoot the film if Mexican censors were allowed on the set to make sure another disaster wouldn’t occur. This is why a screenwriter was so badly needed on the set to incorporate changes demanded by the censors. This is also why the Mexican farmers’ clothes always appear so white and clean. The censors demanded it and clean clothes had to be provided before each shoot.
During filming a feud developed between Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen as the younger actor – eager to make a name for himself – continuously tried to upstage the veteran Brynner. Examples: rattling his shotgun shells, flipping a coin, bending over to scoop up water with his hat while crossing a river. Brynner responded by trying to one-up McQueen – such as making a mound of dirt and standing on it to appear taller than him. It got so bad it spread to the other members of the Seven cast and they all began doing things to make their characters stand out. Most of what they did actually made it onto the screen but director Sturges was dismayed at how quickly he lost control of the cast. However, some time later when Steve McQueen was dying of cancer he called Yul Brynner to apologize and the two reconciled.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was considered a box office disappointment because of the low returns from the United States and Canada. However, it proved to be a smash hit in Europe and ultimately made a profit – enough to produce three sequels.
When released reviews were mixed to positive. Come critics felt it compared poorly with the source material SEVEN SAMURAI. Others thought it was a rootin’ tootin’ western. Over time the film has grown in esteem mostly because of the cast going on to become stars but the music and the writing has also been highly praised.
At the 33rd Academy Awards the score was nominated for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture but unfortunately lost to the score for the movie EXODUS. However, the American Film Institute’s list of the top 25 American film scores has THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN as number 8.
In 2013 the Library of Congress selected this film for the United States National Film Registry as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant.”
This film led to three sequels (RETURN OF THE SEVEN (1966), GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969), THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE (1972)), a television series that lasted 2 seasons (1999-2000), and a remake THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (2016). Despite everyone’s best efforts none of them have matched the original.
The basic theme of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is the tale of warriors with no war to fight. In that respect it is much like the original SEVEN SAMURAI that tells the story of seven Ronin – masterless samurai – who lack purpose. In this film it is hired gunfighters – mercenaries – that have outlived their usefulness. McQueen’s character can only find work as a grocery clerk. Bronson’s character is chopping wood for his supper. Coburn’s character has become a cowboy. Brynner’s character laments on how things have quieted down. Their time has passed and this sense of no longer fitting in – whether in a border town or in a Mexican village – permeates the film. It never lets go and it is one of the things that make this movie rise above the rest. Down to the last line uttered by Yul Brynner as we see the graves of the seven that have fallen, “The old man was right. Only the farmers won, we lost. We always lose!” Wow! Of all the products bearing the name MAGNIFICENT SEVEN this is the only one that promotes this theme. For me this is one of the main reasons why the sequels, the TV series, and the remake all fall short of reaching glory.
Let me say now so that there are no misunderstandings – not only is this my favorite western but also I consider it the greatest western ever made. I have seen this movie scores of times and never get tired of it. I saw it again recently to write this post and loved it as if I were seeing it for the first time.
What do I love about this movie? To begin with I love the music and even now sixty years later my heart races whenever I hear it again. I love the actors from Yul Brynner to Eli Wallach. At the time I was already familiar with Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Imagine my delight when as time passed each of the others became better known and stars. By the way, I know it has become commonplace to see Brad Dexter, who played Harry Luck, as the odd man out and never becoming a star. But let me point out he went on to appear in more than seventeen movies, has had countless appearances on TV and was a producer as well working for Frank Sinatra’s production company. His career was nothing to be ashamed of. I also love the writing with some of the best dialogue I have heard in a western. It’s almost poetry to me.
What do I dislike about this movie? Nothing! There is not a blessed thing I dislike about this movie.
With apologies to all my peers out there in the real world I understand if you disagree. I too love HIGH NOON and UNFORGIVEN two films often mentioned as the greatest western. I love THE SEARCHERS and TRUE GRIT and THE OX-BOW INCIDENT and all those other westerns that have proven to be fan favorites. But for me it will always be THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. For that reason I am giving it five gray geeks in our rating scale!
Thank you pardners for letting me take up your time. I love talking movies and I hope you do too. Until next time happy trails and may you always ride into the sunset with the one you love.