The Magnificent Seven

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The Magnificent Seven

"They were seven—and they fought like seven hundred!" screamed the posters for this 1960 western film, which spawned a number of sequels and helped launch the careers of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson. Remade from Akira Kurosawa's Japanese classic The Seven Samurai, the picture's macho élan lifts it above the formulaic and into the high canon of film.

Directed by Hollywood craftsman John Sturges, The Magnifi-cent Seven starred Yul Brynner, still basking in the glory of his star turns in The King and I (1956) and The Brothers Karamazov (1958). Brynner plays Chris Adams, the laconic leader of a band of seven gunmen recruited by a Mexican farming village to defend it from an army of 100 bandits. McQueen, naturally, is the hotshot marksman of the bunch. Eli Wallach is inexplicably cast—and surprisingly effective—as the head bandito, providing the precedent for a similar turn as a Mexican rogue six years later in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly.

Sturges' film has none of the technical wizardry of the Kurosawa original. The Seven Samurai's innovative use of slow motion, a rapidly moving camera, and long-lens photography had helped capture the ferocious conflict in a series of spectacular battle sequences. Sturges opts for more conventional shoot-'em-up scenes that derive their impact from the audience's empathetic association with the main characters. With his black hat and limited vocabulary, Brynner is the epitome of western cool, almost iconic in his glacial stoicism. By contrast, McQueen is still working on the brash rebel persona he would later perfect in films like Bullitt (1968), The Cincinnati Kid (1965), and Sturges' own The Great Escape (1963). The latter film is notable in its use of many of the same actors, large ensemble cast, and the exploration of male bonding to the exclusion of all other themes (Magnificent Seven, to its credit, at least has a few female characters).

That guys love The Magnificent Seven cannot be denied, especially male filmmakers. The film's visual style and antiheroic iconography clearly influenced Sergio Leone and the other pioneers of "spaghetti western" cinema. Clint Eastwood's steely-eyed "Man with No Name" would have fit in perfectly with this band of trigger-happy fatalists. In its time, though, the film was only a moderate hit, though Elmer Bernstein's bombastic score was nominated for an Oscar. The fact that it did not set the world on fire was perhaps a sign that the days of the big Hollywood western were over.

The Magnificent Seven spawned three sequels, each one less interesting than the last. Yul Brynner returned as Chris for 1966's Return of the Seven. He passed on the hero's reins—figuratively and literally—to the less-compelling George Kennedy in 1969's Guns of the Magnificent Seven. Completing the cycle's descent into made-for-TV-style mediocrity was 1972's execrable The Magnificent Seven Ride! starring Lee Van Cleef, Mariette Hartley, and a young Gary Busey. No one was surprised when the property was spun into a short-lived television series in 1998. In an odd sidelight, a character named Chris (his last name changes from version to version) appears in all four iterations of the concept.

—Robert E. Schnakenberg

Further Reading:

Andreychuk, editor. The Golden Corral: A Roundup of Magnificent Western Films. New York, McFarland and Company, 1997.

Pitts, Michael R. Western Movies: A TV and Video Guide to 4200 Genre Films. New York, McFarland and Company, 1997.