The Magnificent Seven is one of my very favorite movies–of all genres, not just westerns. It’s wild success when it was released in 1960 was pretty much a sure thing, considering the all star cast, director, and musical score.
The movie opens on a small, dusty Mexican border town. A large gang of bandits, on horses and armed with guns rides into the town, led by their dastardly jefe Calvera. They pilage the town regularly; Calvera, played by Eli Wallach, and his gang steal all the food and goods the village farms and makes, and as they ride away, Calvera promises that he and his banditos will be back for more.
Some of the villagers, downtrodden, starved, and frustrated, have had enough. While many of the townspeople are still afraid to stand up to Calvera, the word of the village wise man (played by a convincing Vladimir Sokoloff) to fight sends a small group on their way to cross the border, and purchase guns with the meager valuables they still have. It is in this border town that the desperate villagers cross paths with the gunslinger who will change everything.
The villagers enter a town in a tussle–a man has dropped dead in the middle of the street, and even though a generous soul had decided to do the ‘decent thing’ and pay for his burial, the townies won’t allow it (because their burial ground is for whites only, and ain’t no Indians can be buried up in Boot Hill–even though the burial ground consists mainly of murderers, thieves, and louts). Seems everything is ready to go, the body in the hearse, horses drawn, plot prepared…but the good town folk will shoot any man that tries to get ol‘ Indian Sam a burial.
Steve McQueen as Vin and Yul Brynner as Chris
Enter the older gunslinger Chris, played by Yul Brenner. After hearing the story, he saunters through the men, and with his laconic drawl says “Oh, hell. lf that’s all that’s holding things up, l’ll drive the rig.” Another gunslinger named Vin, played by the one and only Steve McQueen, sidles up to Chris and joins him for the ride, joking “Never rode shotgun on a hearse before.” The two of them manage to thwart the antagonism and bullets shot from the townspeople, and get Sam up onto Boot Hill.
Meanwhile, the tired, hopeful villagers have witnessed everything–and decide that Chris is the man they need to speak with. They approach Chris and ask him where they can buy guns to defend themselves against Calvera and his group of bandits, but Chris tells them that having guns and not knowing how to use them is worthless. The villagers try a different angle, imploring the gunslinger to teach them, show them, help defend them. Chris refuses initially, but after seeing their dogged persistence, he accepts. When he learns that Calvera has a rather large gang, he remarks that he needs 6 other men for the job, and begins recruiting–with only the promise of good action, and a paltry $20 as payment for the job.
One by one, Chris finds men to fill the job (in one of the coolest montages ever). My favorite recruits are Vin (who we met earlier, and accompanies Chris on his ventures), O’Reilly (played by Charles Bronson), and poor Chico (played by a young Horst Buchholz). My favorite sequence is the recruiting of Britt (played by the stoic James Coburn), who shows just how fast he can be throwing a knife. With six gunslingers total, Chris and his recruits make off with the villagers to their town (the spurned Chico follows them, until finally Chris lets him join them as the seventh member).
Initially, Chris’ plan is to teach the villagers how to defend themselves. The seven figure that once Calvera sees that the villagers show their tenacity and willingness to fight for themselves, the bandits will leave to pick on easier, more willing prey. Unfortunately, it turns out that Calvera and his men are starving and desperate themselves–and willing to launch a full scale war on the town to get what they need. The gunslingers are given a choice now–to stand and fight with the grossly outnumbered villagers (who have betrayed the seven to Calvera resulting in their capture), or to turn their backs on the village and leave.
All seven stay, and the resulting battle is the stuff of Hollywood Legends.
The final choice of each man, their sacrifice and choice to fight–even if they are just hired guns, and have been betrayed by the villagers–is what gets me, every time. The last line spoken by Chris captures the essence of the film, in its tarnished hopes and of the lone gunslingers of the west: “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
Just as discussed in the Man With No Name post earlier this week, like Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, The Magnificent Seven is another remake of an Akira Kurosawa classic–Seven Samurai.
Kurosawa’s film came out in 1954–just six years before the American adaptation. Commonly hailed as one of the best films ever made, Seven Samurai uses feudal Japan as its setting–an era not too different from the American Wild West. Instead of gunslingers, the seven protectors are ronin, or masterless samurai. The characters for the samurai are slightly different than those used in The Magnificent Seven, but the story and even some of the dialogue is mimicked very closely.
Shichinin no Samurai, led by Shimada Kambei
Even down to the very last line of the movie, Kambei (the ronin leader) says that the victory belongs to the peasants, and not to the samurai. The division between warrior and farming class is amplified here–as the farmers turn their backs on those that war, and focus instead on their new, life-bringing crops.
And so the gunslingers and the samurai ride off into the sunset, forlorn and alone…and fade away.
Almost everyone has heard some variation of the Seven Samurai or Magnificent Seven tale. Even if you haven’t watched the actual films, or can’t quite place the familiar theme music (later exploited by Marlboro), the influence of these movies is felt in almost every facet of entertainment culture.
My personal favorite non-film adaptation of the story, again, has to be in Stephen King’s Dark Tower Series. Book 5, titled Wolves of the Calla is a retelling in a different universe, and with much higher stakes. Set in a town called Calla Bryn Sturges…well, you get the picture.
Rating: As if you couldn’t guess? Nothing short of a perfect 10! Now go out and rent all the movies. Immediately. And, just because, here’s a little parting gift.
Magnificent Seven Tribute