RECAP: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
The Magnificent Seven (1960): John Sturgis
Hollywood has remade so many films in its century-plus of moviemaking that it can be forgiven remaking remakes. Ideas might cost nothing, but filming those ideas is expensive.
Widely regarded (by Americans, anyway) as Japan’s finest film, John Sturgis remade The Seven Samurai as The Magnifcent Seven. America and Mexico never had samurai, so Sturgis and company threw in the best New World equivalents: gunslingers.
And the stars lined up in droves. Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn all feature. Clint Eastwood was busy that year, perhaps. The septumvirate helps elevate the film into one of the gold standards of Westerns.
ONE SENTENCE PLOT SUMMARY: Seven magnificent hired guns help save a Mexican village from perennial food thieves.
Seven. The number’s right there in the title. The first third of The Magnificent Seven is a getting-the-band-together movie, and the lead player is Yul Brynner as Chris.
We first meet Chris in the American town to which three Mexican farmers, fed up with giving their corn harvest to a local thug named Calvera (Eli Wallach), have traveled. We have to wait a bit, though, to meet Chris, because the town’s undertaker is arguing with two out-of-towners about burying a dead body.
Turns out that dead body is an Indian’s, and the locals don’t want said body buried in hilltop cemetery with the white bodies. Because bodies don’t decompose, so they are all still white-skinned, you see. That’s science.
The slick city folk are incensed, and the undertaker won’t drive the hearse because he fears being shot at. “Oh hell, I’ll drive the rig,” says Chris. A crowd gathers to watch him. Chris takes the reins of the hearse. But hold on, pardner, you need someone to ride shotgun. Enter fellow cool hand and steady shooter Vin (Steve McQueen), willing but not eager, to shoot the enemies for Chris.
Chris and Vin have never met. One is from Dodge City and the other Tombstone, and, in one of the best jokes in Western history, they brush off those towns as dull and action-free. They also exchange pleasantries in the way all adult men do, with an economy of words. They know people are going to shoot at them, so their attention is divided.
Chris coolly guides the shuffling horses uphill toward the cemetery. He spots an open window on a second floor and asks Vin to investigate it. A shot blasts from the window, and Vin immediately shoots back, shattering the glass.
Chris and Vin are all cool lines and demeanors. Chris sees his cigar shot away, and all he can say for it is, “Got nominated real good.”
They reach the hilltop and see five men who demand they Stop. Right. There. All the men wear grim faces. This is the Old West. But only two of the five carry guns. They make their move. Chris and Vin shoot them in a flash, not to death, but in the gun hand and gun arm of each man. Confident they won’t try anything again (but faces still grim), Chris and Vin holster their weapons and bury the dead Indian.
Later, Chris meets the farmers and accepts their job. He and Vin round up a quartet of gunslingers, perhaps the best in the west, who they seem to know personally. The Magnificent Seven is just like Space Jam.
Chris later proves himself a capable battle commander. Hired guns typically don’t mix well with others, but Chris seizes the leadership role. He bosses the other magnificent six and the villagers with equal aplomb. Chris develops the anti-Calvera strategy and helms the villager fight training.
Yul Brynner was a strange choice to play Chris, but, then, he’s a strange choice to play anybody, because he resembles a mannequin. Wearing a blue button-up throughout the film, Brynner’s body might be made of concrete.
But concrete toughness is what one needs to face down 40 horse-riding gun-toters, and that’s what Chris does. His resolve never wavers, especially when the villagers, fearing a reprisal from Calvera, ask the Seven to leave their village. Chris threatens to kill anyone who chickens out. (That’s a Soviet army tactic. Maybe Brynner heard about it when he grew up in USSR?)
When Clavera rides into town, Chris stands in front of him. He essentially tells him to take his three dozen men and screw off. That’s toughness. Chris never shakes.
Only one guy could be considered the villain. Eli Wallach, not yet Bad, plays Calvera, who is plain bad. Calvera leads a troop of 40 men who ride around northern Mexico extorting grain from penniless farmers.
It’s a long time before we learn Calvera’s true reason for pestering the village, but when we do, he’s easy to understand. Hombre’s hungry. He and his crew haven’t eaten for three days, and if the villagers won’t give him food, how will he eat? I ask again, HOW WILL HE EAT?
Calvera lays out his ethos in the opening scenes. He talks down to the village spokesman, asking him, “What if you had to carry my load? Guns, ammunition, you know how much money that costs?” He has a family to feed, as do the farmers. Calvera’s family is not one of women and children, but grown-ass men who are, Calvera insinuates, incapable of growing or working for their own food.
If Calvera is hungry, he doesn’t reveal it. Wallach is as crafty and rotund as ever, jovial throughout and when facing down a gun barrel. He sneaks his men into the village after luring the Seven to his lair in the hills. When the gunslingers return, and Calvera has convinced them to give up their arms, he smirks triumphantly, as if he can hardly believe he did it. “I don’t want to kill you,” he says. “They hear about it up north, maybe some friends of yours, make more trouble for me.”
Calvera poses a threat for most of The Magnificent Seven. Too many good guys have gathered to allow Calvera to hog the screen, and that’s a shame, because Wallach was the film’s most charismatic player, fantastic, every line weighted and integral to his character. He’s an actor who could take any sentence and speak it in a way that belies all the essential character traits, exactly the actor needed for such a small and important role.
The first shootout occurs shortly after the Seven arrive in the village. They spend a few days training the farmers to fight and to shoot, a skill some acquire better than others. Each man pitches in to fortify the town. This part of the movie is heavy in animal appearances, including a bull and several donkeys carrying reeds.
Calvera finally shows up, as promised. (Say what you will, Calvera is a man of his word.) The camera pans across the village again, exactly as the the first time Calvera appeared, in the film’s opening sequence. The villain rides to the local cafe, but he finds a few men he doesn’t expect. Chris greets him.
Calvera and Chris exchange tough talk. Wallach, his eyes shifting, studying the scene, is not threatened, instead confused. The walls of piled rock were not meant to keep out Calvera, they were meant to keep them in. “There won’t be any trouble if you ride on,” Chris says.
Calvera offers equal shares to the Seven, hoping to gather them and not to fight them. “If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep,” Calvera says of the farmers.
“Ride on,” Chris says.
“He said, ‘Ride on,’ to me,” Calvera says, the rage obvious. Calvera’s men surround the gunslingers.
Vin, part of the welcoming committee, shoots first. He spins and shoots. Three other gunslingers shoot as they run for cover. The enemy horses scatter. Now come the hastily made impediments. A net is drawn up, forcing the horses back into town. Several riders are gunned down. Others flee through the other side of town, right into a row of farmers turned shooters.
The music kicks in as Calvera rides through the village, hopping short barriers as the camera tracks the riders in full gallop. It’s the film’s best visual.
Finally, the villains flee through the old corn stalks to safety. Later they count their dead: at least eleven, probably more. Not one good guy is harmed.
The tactics are interesting. The Seven reveal themselves before the fight, when they should have stayed hidden. When the shooting starts they are exposed, and waste bullets retreating to covered positions. They must have known that the first attack, with the element of surprise, was their best chance at total victory.
Calvera waits until the farmers start the party to set up three snipers. Chico gets his hat shot off. he can’t play it cool. Chris and Vin run into the hills, but they don’t find the shooters.
This scene tricks viewers into a false finale. We expect both parties to face each other in a deadly showdown. That’s what happens, but it is not the shootout we expect, because not one of the principal players dies.
Brynner’s Chris edges out the other magnificent men to win the Hero role. He has the best backup band in Western history.
Vin (Steve McQueen): “We deal in lead, friend” That line sums up each gunslinger’s attitude toward the world. Still, his hands sweat “every time” before a fight.
Vin is cut from the same mold as Chris. He’s the one who sees through Chris’s bluster when the farmers refuse to fight. Chris is a sucker for the village, and so is Vin. “I just didn’t want you to think you were the only sucker in town,” Vin says.
Harry (Brad Dexter): The lamest of the Seven. Harry Luck followed Chris to Mexico because he was certain there was gold in them thar hills. He pleaded with the farmers to tell him about the “old gold mine” or, when they swore no such mine existed, about the old silver mine. Again, no mine. What about jewels? No jewels. One farmer says, “Would to God we had. I’d be living in a big city in a palace.”
Harry was the only gunslinger to not immediately return to the village after Calvera released him. Harry, remorseful, turned around and rode back, arriving in the midst of the fight. He was immediately shot.
Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson): Chris and Vin approach O’Reilly on his farm outside of whatever town it is he lives outside of, and they find him chopping wood. It’s not manly enough for Bronson to swing an axe, he swings and axe with a log attached to its cleaving end, just to boost the difficulty. O’Reilly accepts the $20/six week job because he is poor.
O’Reilly forms an attachment to three children in the Mexican village. One afternoon, while scouting the outlying lands for Calvera’s men, O’Reilly suddenly contends with three young boys who want to help him. They inform the gunslinger that all the boys drew straws, and they “got” O’Reilly, meaning they would follow him around and, should he die, take his rifle and avenge his death. They will place fresh flowers on his grave. But, should he live, they will be happy, “maybe even happier,” than if he dies. Aww.
Bernardo becomes the film’s moral compass. Those three boys explain how they are brave and will fight, unlike their fathers. O’Reilly first spanks the boy, then lays out the true courage their fathers possess and that he, the presumed murderer, does not: “You think I’m brave because I carry a gun? Your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility. It’s like a big rock that weighs a ton. I have never had this kind of courage.”
Lee (Robert Vaughn): Vaughn is a guy whose gaze makes you take notice. There’s a reason he shills for “The law offices of (fill in your local workers’ compensation litigator).” Vaughn makes Chris take notice when he shows up sitting on Chris’s hotel bed. That’s a good reason to get shot, but Lee ain’t scared.
Chris asks Lee, “I thought you were looking for the Johnson brothers.” Lee answers, “I found them.” Lee accepts the $20 defense contract and dutifully guards the village. Except…he hardly does. When Calvera first enters the town, and a dozen of his men are killed, Lee does nothing. We see him multiple times, not fighting, but appearing to hold up a drainpipe on a wall. What’s he doing? Being scared.
Later, Lee awakens from a nightmare, one possibly caused by the wine he drank from a gourd tied to his wrist. Two villagers rush in to comfort him. Lee admits that he’s scared. “The lies you tell yourself. ‘No enemies, alive.'” The film cuts to three flies buzzing around the table. Lee snatches one. We are shocked. Then he says, “There was a time when I would have caught all three.” The farmers soothe him, saying, “Only the dead are without fear.”
Lee’s reticence in fighting reminds me of an old episode of The Simpsons, in which Marge joins the snack food industry. The episode ends with Japanese Yakuza fighting the local Mafia on her lawn (obviously). Homer, watching the fight, bemoans Marge by saying, “But Marge, that little guy hasn’t done anything yet. Look at him! He’s gonna do something and you know its gonna be good.” What he does I’ll discuss later.
Britt (James Coburn): Coburn’s Britt receives the best origin scene. Chris and Vin ride to a train station to meet him, but they find another argument is going on. Two men awaiting the train discuss Britt, as yet unseen. The brash man of the pair decides to settle a bet with the other.
Britt relaxes on a fence post, hat over his eyes. The brash man forces his attention, kicking his legs. Britt ain’t interested, but he obliges, to get the guy to stop bothering him. No one explains what they’re doing, but we soon gather a draw is to take place.
Britt, silent, points to a pole. The brash man goes and faces Britt. Both men crouch, ready to draw, but Britt is using a knife! Britt sets a cup on the fence beside him. A third party calls the draw by firing his pistol.
The brash man shoots the cup and Britt throws his knife into the electric wire pole. The contest is over and Britt returns to his reclined position.
The brash man isn’t satisfied. Most of the men gathered think Britt won the fight. Only the brash man disagrees. He pleads with the crowd, begging them to proclaim him the victor. No one listens. To the viewer, it’s impossible to tell who won.
The guy bothers Britt for a rematch. Britt still ain’t interested. The brash guy shoots near Britt’s legs. Britt hops up, angry and stands by the fence again. This time someone will be hurt.
The same third party fires his pistol to signal the draw. Britt throws his knife into the guy’s gut before the latter can draw his gun. Game over.
Britt agrees to become one of the Seven, but none of his acts approach killing an insecure braggart with a knife.
Chico (Horst Buchholz): And Introducing Horst Buchholz! The credits made it clear that Buchholz would be a star in the coming year, and the producers expected The Magnificent Seven to be his launchpad.
Chico begins the film as a brash kid eager to follow Chris anywhere. Chris plays a little game with him. Chico claps, and Chris draws his gun on him before Chico can finish a clap. Well, that shakes Chico up plenty good, and the kid dashes from room. The camera frames Buchholz’s face, and the actor shows the mix of terror and anger and confusion in one moment. We see the breakdown of Chico’s self esteem and image.
The kid shakes those fears and adds bluster when he arrives in the village. It’s Chico who rings the church bell and berates the farmers for hiding from the gunslingers. Clearly, Chico is priming himself to be on Chris’s level, but the villagers don’t know that.
Later, Chico takes a dangerous mission by sneaking into Calvera’s lair to learn of their motivations. Chico, the worst of the bunch to send on a mission of subtlety, finds himself standing beside Calvera. Smartly, smugly, he lights a match on a tree for Calvera. The scene works because the act of lighting a match for his chief enemy is exactly the level of bravado Chico would show, and exactly the deferential act Calvera would expect.
Buchholz was good, the comic relief the film desperately needed. It’s a wonder he could brighten a room boxed in by the brick walls of the American gunslingers and accented by the beige mats of the farmers limping through their lives. Decades removed, that Buchholz was outshone by ALL his costars seems like a sad joke.
The Magnificent Seven is an all-Calvera show. His henchmen, his family barely have their faces on screen, forget speaking lines. These men are threats of violence, more than actual violence.
Only in the climax do these men do any damage, but they do a lot. Four of the Seven die in the shootout, all by henchmen guns. Those are points in their favor. However, they are easily beaten by the farmers with stools and farm tools. Points against.
For danger, they score well, but for lack of screen time and charisma they get score poorly. That lack of screen time, again, is a function of finding room for seven heroic screen legends.
Stunt work in The Magnificent Seven involves plenty of horse work and shooting. When the Seven first confront Calvera, they shoot ’em up. Calvera and his men ride around the village and find themselves trapped.
Chris and company shoot several bad guys off their horses. Some men are snatched from horseback in stunts that must have hurt, if not caused injury. Horses take falls that make you cringe, but they pop back up. Here’s hoping no animals were harmed.
This movie was made in the days where blood packets were unused. Guys get shot and clutch their chests, yet no blood is spilled. Later you can spot a few drops added to their shirts.
Death throes are comical. Lee is shot in the climactic battle. He doesn’t fall. He stumbles backward, slaps his hands on a wall, and crumples to the ground. If you listen closely you might hear him cry out like a stodgy British Victorian woman who has had her decency scandalized.
In the final battle come the dangerous stunts. O’Reilly, shot in the arm, falls from a roof onto an awning onto the ground. Calvera’s men flee when the battle turns against them. Some men ride away, others are dragged, others are dragged from their horses.
Chico spots a bad guy galloping his horse away and grabs him in mid gallop. Horse and man fall, and Chico mounts the horse as the horse stands. Terrific stunt.
The Magnificent Seven have left the village to scare away Calvera’s horses in the hill. When the gunslingers find the hideout empty, they worry and ride back to town.
Uh oh, Calvera’s there. And so are all his men. They were sold out! The bad guys surround the Seven, Calvera smirking all the while at the success of his grand plan. When a good guy threatens to draw his gun Calvera says, “You’ll be dead, just like that, if that’s what you want.”
One of the villagers gave it up to Calvera. The villain understands why. The gunslingers ask them to make too many decisions. “With me,” Calvera says, only one decision: do what I say.”
Calvera doesn’t want to kill the Seven. He fears American reprisal should he do so. Instead, he takes their guns and will escort them to far outside of town, where he will return the guns and they can carry on to America. That Calvera actually returns the guns is a testament to his character.
Chris doesn’t like it. No one likes it. Chico says he hates farmers. Chris understands why. “because you come from a village just like that one.” Chico, under different circumstances, might have sold out for a simpler choice like the Mexicans did.
The sunrise paints the land melancholy tones as the gunslingers debate their next move. They have two choices: keep going or turn back.
What do you think they did? They turned back. “Nobody throws me my own gun and tells me ‘Run,'” Britt says. Only Harry departs.
On foot they creep into town with pistols and rifles. O’Reilly and Chico take high positions. As before, Vin is the first to shoot. He creeps past a horse and spots a guy. That sets about everybody off. Chris ends up in the village center, toting a shotgun, blasting everyone. Vin kicks in doors and shoots at anyone.
Chico runs around with no plan, all youthful energy, shooting at some guys. All told, the Seven probably kill eight guys before Calvera is roused to strike.
Vin runs around popping off shots with no plan in mind. He’s shot in the arm and leg from behind by STINKING COWARD who Vin kills.
Calvera joins the fight with the largest contingent of his men, who run into the village square. Chris and Chico are there. O’Reilly shoots from above. Vin is in a room tying up his leg. Harry returns and is immediately shot. Greed gets you killed, remember that.
Chris, holed up with Vin now, tells the dying Harry that there really was gold surrounding the village. Harry can die happy.
Lee finally gets his moment. He looks into a building and see some farmers being held hostage. His gun drawn, he holsters it. He will test his reflexes one last time. Lee kicks in the door, draws his gun, shoots three men dead before they can take a lick at him, and frees the prisoners. It’s probably the fight’s most important moment. Then Lee goes outside and just stands there while getting shot and stumbling back into one of Western cinema’s most overdramatic deaths.
Now the farmers are into it. They’re throwing axes and machetes, even the ladies are involved. Calvera hasn’t done anything except creep around and organize his men to break down the barricaded door protecting Chris and Vin. Calvera sneaks to the back and grins as he takes aim at Chris. Chris just shoots him.
The music stops. Fight’s over. Chris stands over Calvera. Calvera asks him why he came back. “A man like you. Why?” He hears no answer and dies.
Sadly, Britt and O’Reilly die after Calvera dies, when the fight was won. The children mourn their fallen friend, as they promised, and later lay flowers on his grave.
Chris, Chico, and Vin survive. Chico returns to the village to chase some local lady. Old Man, the village’s wise sage, seems to be the only happy person. “Only the farmers won,” he says. “They remain forever.” The Seven are like a wind blowing away locusts and passing on.
Chris and Vin, before riding into the distance, finally understand their lots in life. Chris, speaking of lonesome gunslingers, says, “We always lose.”
Westerns, with male stars as hardscrabble as the landscapes that make them, are not known for comedy.
Horst Buchholz, deliver us from tedium. Producers brought him on for one reason, to make us laugh, and he mostly did.
Chico’s bellringing and lambasting of the farmers evoked smiles from the stoic gunslingers. We’ve seen Chico scared half to death and too drunk to do much more than pass out. So he shows up in Mexico like Julius Caesar in Gaul, proclaiming to be the best and demanding respect.
“What a pleasure it is to see a village like this,” Calvera says in the opening scenes. The Magnifcent Seven was filmed in Mexico at the foothills of the Tepoztlán Mountains, where the crew built the Mexican village and used the gorgeous mountains to anchor the town.
The views make the village an appealing place to live, for the American characters and the audience. Calvera harasses the village because he needs the food, but farmers surely stay because it is beautiful. Were the village placed on a dusty waste, it might merit less sympathy, we might expect the farmers to flee and start anew.
Contrast the village to the American counterpart, which is centered on a dusty plain. A cemetery overlooks the town on a hilltop. How would you like to look up at a cemetery each day?
Thus the Mexican village’s beauty becomes an important part of the film’s appeal. The farmers have a home to fight for, in addition to their lives. The setting adds weight to their cause
And it is a full village. Soundstage scenes are apparent, but twice the camera pans across the crew’s efforts, to prove that the village is a real one. The church and its bell tower dominate, a watering hole centers the one road, a cafe/saloon beckons to weary farmers and gunslingers, and the surrounding streams and thick trees beckon to those seeking solitude.
Filming all this in amazing De Luxe color secures The Magnifcent Seven as a beautiful film to look at.
The Magnifcent Seven is unquestionably a white savior movie, though it bears mentioning that Yul Brynner, being from another planet and constructed to resemble human features, merits exclusion from Earth’s race politics.
The Mexicans can’t defend their village, so they go hire some Yanquis. The three farmers explain to Chris early in the film that the Mexican army twice settled into their village, but Calvera had only to wait for them to leave.
Contrast this theme with the scene that introduces Chris and Vin. They drive the hearse carrying the Indian body to the cemetery. No one else with drive it, because, as the undertaker says, there’s an element in town that won’t tolerate a native body in a white burial ground, even if those bodies belonged to murderers, thieves, and drunks.
The out-of-town salesmen who pays for the burial asks, “How long’s this been going on?” The undertaker answers, “Since the town got civilized.”
The film makes another point. Chris admits that he lost. He lived, but he lost. By 1960 the Western genre was closing down, much like its raison d’être frontier had closed 70 years before.
Chris’s admission of defeat might as well be an admission of the end of the (especially American) western. It exists today, but mostly as a throwback salute to the old days (remakes of 3:10 to Yuma and The Magnificent Seven). Granted, we’re still a generation from Unforgiven, but Unforgiven is exactly the point; it’s a throwback. Chris saw the writing on the wall, and he rode of into the wilderness (but not, curiously, a sunset).
For some reason the Seven get mad when they find out the farmers hid their wives and daughters. At first, Vin lamented a town with no women. Did he not think they were hidden? Of course they were.
When Chico discovers one of the hiding women, a lot of woman-shaking and woman-tossing ensues. It’s very silly and unnecessary and devalues an otherwise terrific film.
The Mexican farmers could have been caricatures, easily. But the script finds room for them to develop. One farmer helps Vin scout for a Calvera sniper. He explains that he is of two minds about Calvera’s extortion. On one hand, it would be easy to give him what he wants and survive. On the other hand, the feeling in his chest when he saw Calvera ride away, “That’s a feeling worth dying for.”
Sturgis had all the farmers wear white, because farmers are pure, I guess, except for the village’s spokesman, who wore a brown shirt. This man was the one who sold out the Seven to Calvera.
- William Roberts got the credit for a script largely written by three-time Oscar nominee Walter Newman. Terrific lines all around. Not a bad one in the bunch.
Summary (46/68): 68%
Remaking the best film in Japan’s history is a tall task, but if any nation were eager to take on tall tasks, it’s America. The Magnificent Seven