The strains of the main theme to The Magnificent Seven (1960), highlighted in the opening credits and woven into the score throughout the movie by its brilliant composer, Elmer Bernstein, are instantly recognizable, even if you have never seen the film. So iconic is the music that underscores this epic tale of dusty desert adventure that it has become associated with the Western genre as a whole, borrowed numerous times for other thematically-similar enterprises over the years—enterprises as disparate as commercials for a particularly popular cigarette brand and a cowpoke-centered episode of The Simpsons. The rousing tune immediately sets the tone for the film–it’s a battle cry, a call to arms that thoroughly anticipates the heart-pounding action ahead.
And boy, what action. Upon my recent first-ever viewing of The Magnificent Seven—a movie that has been wholeheartedly recommended to me by several of my favorite Western fanatics over the years—I honestly did not know what to expect. I was aware that it is based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), a movie I have seen and enjoyed. I knew that it featured a strong cast headed by Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, and Eli Wallach, and that its success had spawned a series of increasingly ill-received sequels. What I did not realize, however, is that the film transcends the familiar tried-and-true cliches of the Western: no mere “cowboys and Indians” flick, it is filled with genuinely thrilling stuntwork, many touches of humor (which, admittedly, add some much-needed levity) … and the very pleasant sight of McQueen’s rear end in those tight pants (it had to be said). By the time the final scene faded to black, I realized the most unexpected thing of all: I honestly, completely, wholeheartedly LOVED this movie. [And if the other Westerns on my “must-see” list are this damn good, then this whole “Learning to Love Westerns” experiment is going to be a snap.]
The plot of the film is simple, yet effective: Chris (Brynner), a fearless gunslinger, is approached by a trio of poor Mexican villagers for help. Their town has been raided by the bandito Calvera (Wallach), whose men take most of the harvest, leaving the villagers with barely enough to survive. They have crossed the border into Texas in search of guns to ward off Calvera’s promised return, but Chris tells them that they would be better served by hiring experienced men to defend the town. Though the pay is meager–a mere twenty dollars per man for an estimated six weeks’ work–Chris is eventually able to recruit six other gunslingers to accompany him into Mexico: Vin (McQueen), a handsome gambler; Bernardo (Charles Bronson), a gruff, strong man with a soft spot for kids (especially one particular trio of nosy little punks); Lee (Robert Vaughn), a hired gun dodging the authorities; Britt (James Coburn), a taciturn fellow who demonstrates a knack with a knife; Harry (Brad Dexter), an old friend of Chris’ anticipating a rich payment of gold and jewels for his work; and Chico (Horst Buchholz), a young, temperamental man who left his own village in Mexico seeking adventure as a hired gun. Though the Seven’s reception in town is somewhat chilly due to the farmers’ initial fear of them, they eventually manage to fortify the town and teach the townspeople to fight, just in time for Calvera’s reappearance. But the showdown between the gunslingers and the bandits does not go quite as smoothly as the Seven had hoped.
The Magnificent Seven borrows quite heavily from its Japanese predecessor, from the general mirroring of the plotlines and the similar characterization of each film’s respective “warriors.” And while they share some thematic elements–such as the importance of honoring commitments and responsibility to those who have contracted their trust–the central conceits of each film are quite different. Samurai focuses largely on the inherent class differences between the farmers and their champions, an issue that is rather obliquely addressed in TMS, mostly through the character of Chico, a farmer’s son who understands–and resents–the fearful nature of the villagers; because of this, Chico spends the final third of the film fighting his feelings for a young village woman, Petra (Rosenda Monteros), as he is loath to return to that limited life.
Instead, the main idea underlying TMS (and a rather intriguing one, at that) is the immutability of the past. At some point or another throughout the film, each of the main characters comes to understand that the past is both irretrievable and inescapable. The gunslingers seek a place in a world that no longer values them; they are living relics, unable to cast their anchors anywhere–as the Mexican elder tells Chris at the end of the film, “You’re like the wind, blowing over the land and … passing on.” Theirs is a dying breed (literally, as it turns out for most of them), something Vin realizes early on in the film, when he faces the unwelcome possibility of becoming a grocery clerk because there are few other options available to him. When Chris and Vin compare notes about their respective pasts, dryly commenting on the lack of action that drove them each out of Dodge and Tombstone, it reflects an overwhelming sense that civilization has finally begun to reach, and reform, the wild, wild West, marking the gunslingers as outsiders rather than the norm. And while the gunmen obviously cannot go back to the old days, they cannot adapt and move forward, either, because even when they try, they cannot escape their respective pasts–physically, mentally, and emotionally. Chico goes back to his farming roots; Chris and Vin, for whom settling down is not an option, ride off into the sunset in search of new adventure; Lee cannot let loose his demons until the very end, when redemption simply rings hollow; Harry spends the film anticipating a big score, even down to his final breath. The virtual decimation of the Seven is almost painfully predestined–as Chris gazes at the freshly-dug graves of his fallen comrades, he underscores this depressingly irrefutable notion: “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
Still, despite the heavy material and the decided lack of a sunshine-and-lollipops ending, the film deftly manages to avoid wallowing in its own sense of inevitability, largely due to the welcome touches of humor utilized throughout (again, something the film shares in common with Kurosawa’s original). Indeed, there’s an almost anarchic vein of humor running through The Magnificent Seven; as serious as their situation is–what with its not-so-great pay and even worse odds for success–the gunslingers face the fight ahead with a sardonic (and strangely graceful) collective self of self, cracking wise and biting off sarcastic remarks even in the direct face of trouble. One of my favorite exchanges in the film is between Bernardo and the insufferable brats children who “adopt” him–a conversation that features a wrenching bit of foreshadowing mixed with wryness:
Boy #1: “If you get killed, we take the rifle and avenge you.”
Boy #2: “And we see to it there’s always fresh flowers on your grave.”
Bernardo [deadpan]: “That’s a mighty big comfort.”
Boy #2: “I told you he’ll appreciate that!”
Bernardo: “Well, now, don’t you kids be too disappointed if your plans don’t work out.”
Boy #1: “We won’t. If you stay alive, we’ll be just as happy.”
Boy #2: “Maybe even happier.”
Boy #1: “Maybe.”
(Note: as you can no doubt tell, my liking of this scene does not extend to liking the idiotic kids themselves, as their recklessness eventually spells Bernardo’s doom. Yeah, I’m a little bitter. I liked Bernardo. Little shits.)
Overall, with its strong performances, beautiful desert vistas (thank you, Panavision), and entertaining, engaging storyline, The Magnificent Seven is an appealing mix of drama, well-staged action, and light comedy–and in my thus-far limited experience with the genre, this film is on par with Cat Ballou (1965) in combining those elements into an effective, singularly enjoyable Western adventure. I am glad to say that this movie is, without a doubt, one I’ll be returning to again and again in the future.
Look for another entry in our ongoing “Learning to Love … Westerns” series next month!