"Each man has a song and this is my song." (Leonard Cohen)

Monday, December 3, 2012

The Magnificent Seven (UA, 1960)

Utterly splendid

Is it the greatest Western of all time? No. Is it the most transforming Western? No. Is it the most fun? YES! So said John Carpenter and he hit the nail on the head. The Magnificent Seven would be at the top of many people’s most-watched Westerns. It is the second most played film on American TV. It spawned three sequels and a TV series and a recent remake. The music has become a paradigm. The cast contained some names soon to become great stars – McQueen, Bronson, Vaughn, Coburn. It was the last hurrah before the spaghettis came in. It actually has something to say about the morality of being a gunfighter. Being based on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, it had art pretensions. It was (eventually) a huge earner. It is just a great movie.

There were an awful lot of politics in the production as various persons jostled for the rights. One who lost out was Anthony Quinn and he would have made a great Chris, or even Calvera. As it was, it is difficult now to imagine the Seven without Yul in charge and without New York stage actor Eli Wallach as the bandit chief, riding into the village to the strains of Bernstein’s rip-off of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The casting was bizarre, especially of a young German, Horst Buchholz, as the Mexican kid (getting hired as mercenary by a Mongolian from Brooklyn). But it worked.

Testosterone-ridden Steve McQueen, frantic to upstage everyone; macho Charles Bronson as the strong, silent type; dude gunslinger who has lost his nerve Robert Vaughn; steely, taciturn knife-thrower James Coburn (he only had eleven lines in the whole picture); cheerful rogue Brad Dexter, film producer and Sinatra’s friend; Buchholz surprisingly good as young Chico (the only winner, finally); and of course Yul Brynner, all in black (he loved that costume), the leader, the king (and I), the boss. In the original Walter Bernstein draft script they were older men, more like the aging samurai, but as it was they were to become the archetypal young Turk gunslingers. The actors loved it. They practiced all the time. They were little boys playing cowboys and that’s why the film appeals to all us little boys and girls watching it now. Dexter said, “I made about forty pictures. I had more fun on that picture than any picture I ever made.”

The American suits had to fight the Mexican suits, who tried to censor it (the fall-out from the very poor Vera Cruz was huge) and insisted on the Mexican villagers all being in Daz-white costumes.

The screenplay is tight, economical and full of memorable one-liners. The script doctor William Roberts got the credit instead of Newman. Pity. The Ferris Webster editing is objective and incisive. Of course director John Sturges was also an editor for many years. The photography is by Charles Lang Jr., “Charlie Lang, one of the great ones,” said Coburn. And of course the score is the greatest ever Western music. The soaring theme when Yul and Steve turn the hearse around and gallop down the hill is on my iPod and always with me. You can’t helping shouting Yeehar! (A bit embarrassing on the train).

The film misses the irony of The Seven Samurai and the great art-film quality, but boy, The Seven Samurai is long and this one just races along with zip and pzazz and is just so energetic and fun. Sturges (and let’s not forget legendary El Indio, Emilio Fernandez, who was the assistant director) did a first class job. This was certainly Sturges’s greatest Western and puts him up there on Mt Olympus.




  1. Hi Jeff. I tried to watch this a little while ago for the first time in years. Tried and failed. To me it was just too silly. So I had to read this review after you mentioned it in your recent comment. Is your review the triumph of nostalgia over objectivity? Let me make it absolutely clear there are poor movies I love out of all proportion to how good they are. Two examples are Danny Kaye's The Five Pennies and Stewart's Thunder Bay. I really love both films - not just quite fond of them like I am of Wayne's The Train Robbers. It's something personal that I assume is to do with childhood and nostalgia. Thunder Bay is Anthony Mann as you know but I know it's not The Man From Laramie or Man Of The West. You assert - and you've every right to - it's John Sturges's greatest western. Even if for sake of argument Bad Day At Black Rock isn't counted surely even Last Train From Gun Hill is better. Of course, in the end it's all subjective. I am rating Last Train From Gun Hill for it's relatively realistic depiction of the characters and their motivation. I said earlier that The Magnificent Seven was too silly for me but the characters in Thunder Bay are much more silly and I love it. Paul

    1. I hope it isn't just the dreaded nostalgia (which anyway isn't what is used to be). The movie is so full of energy and pzazz, and the characters are so COOL. The swirling action. The great lines. The chief goody dressed all in black. I could go on and on. I'm sorry you didn't like it. It is my mission to make The Mag 7 universally loved and admired, preferably studied at school and given posthumous Oscars.