Directed by John Sturges
Seven gunmen are hired to protect a poor Mexican village from marauding bandits in this Western classic.
The Magnificent Seven is famously a Western remake of Seven Samurai (1954) by Akira Kurosawa. I admit to having never seen the film. The best I can say is I have looked at the Blu-ray cover one time though I have seen Battle Beyond the Stars which is a science fiction remake of this film and not of Seven Samurai. Coincidentally (or not) Robert Vaugh stars in both films playing very similar characters.
This is one of my favorite westerns. It is an amazingly well-crafted film. The pacing is even, and the story is tight. There is just enough extra to establish the characters and not so much that they are just filling time. We are not choked with sweeping establishing shots that let us know this is the West. The arcs are good with each getting a satisfying resolution.
This is quite possibly one of the best Western movie casts ever. I think the only way you could have gotten a better cast at the time would have been to toss in John Wayne. Everybody here was not only very talented, but most were about to become very big stars. The amazing Yul Brynner plays veteran gunfighter Chris Adams who while only initially deciding to help the villagers choose who to hire decides to sign on to help fight the bandits. The legendary Steve McQueen plays gunfighter Vin Tanner who would rather shoot guns than become a local grocery clerk. McQueen added little touches to his character Tanner such as shaking a gun before loading it or checking his gun while in the background much to the irritation of Brynner who felt McQueen was trying to steal scenes.
Charles Bronson is Irish Mexican Bernardo O’Reilly who takes the job because he is seriously broke. James Coburn is the knife throwing Britt who takes the job just for the challenge. The character of Mississippi (James Caan) in El Dorado reminded me of him. Knife throwing is an unusual skill to have in a Western. As mentioned earlier Robert Vaughn stars in this film as well-dressed gunman on-the-run Lee who is afraid he has lost his nerve and is plagued by nightmares about the enemies he has killed. Horst Buchholz, who has been referred to as the German James Dean, plays aspiring gunfighter Chico. Character actor Brad Dexter plays Chris’s friend Harry Luck who joins up under the assumption Chris has a bigger score than he lets on.
And what are heroes without a good villain? Eli Wallach is Calvera, the ruthless leader of the local bandits. Calvera’s threat is not that great in the scheme of things but it is great to those involved. Not every threat or villain needs to be insanely huge. The problem to be overcome just needs to be big to the characters involved. And that is Calvera and his gang.
The introspection of the heroes is something I really enjoyed here. They were not just gunslingers doing a job. They were people with emotional baggage who saw this has a chance at redemption of some type. Maybe for some it was spiritual redemption or maybe it was just finally proving that the chasing of the life they were leading would actually pay off. They grew along the way with the real turning point being when they realized that the villagers had been giving them the choice food and these killers decided to share.
The romantic subplot that was required in this film (I use that tongue in cheek since it seems a love interest for at least one character was a prerequisite of films of the day) worked very well. At times Horst Buchholz over acted while playing Chico but the character of Chico connected really well with Petra (Rosenda Monteros) when they were together. The chemistry was very good.
Some have complained about Chico remaining in the village, but I could not see the character continuing on as a gun for hire. What drove him from his village was their broken spirit. With Petra and the other villagers he found a spirit renewed. He could not stand people willing to live on their knees. Remaining in a place of people that were doing more than existing in fear fit with the character.
This is a bit like The Dirty Dozen or Suicide Squad in execution where they wipe out the majority of the central cast by the end of the film. Not many happy endings but plenty of logical conclusions. Sequels were not normal back in the day, but this film got three along with a television series and the (these days) inevitable remake. The film even inspired the aforementioned Battle Beyond the Stars as well as the classic 80s series The A-Team. James Coburn was supposedly approached to play “Hannibal” Smith but the role went to George Peppard who would co-star in Battle Beyond the Stars with Robert Vaughn who would join The A-Team in the final season. Follow that?
We have great gun battles. We have evenly matched intellectually but not numerically opponents. And how the villain dies is just great. He cannot understand why the heroes did what they did, and it is just such a hard-hitting moment. Eli Wallach was a great actor, and this stands out as a great death scene. Not too long and just the perfect cap on the story.
Themes of loyalty, duty, and redemption flow through this film. The characters find something greater than themselves by helping this destitute village. They regain some humanity and maybe even heal a little personal damage. They stick by the villagers when given the option to walk away because helping them is the right thing to do.
With great acting and a great story all around, the original The Magnificent Seven is a classic that is hard to beat. It is an amazing Western that you cannot go wrong by watching.