Though it’s now looked on as a classic Western, it was hardly considered such at the time.
Editor’s Note: We once asked Bill, what movie turned him into a film fanatic? Here is his reply.
There was no a-ha! moment, no seeing of the light, no epiphany. I’d loved movies since I was a kid, had been a buff since my early teens, but there was no one, shining instance of enlightenment where my relationship with film graduated to something greater. Instead, it was a cumulative experience for me; my road to that point was a long, winding, gradual one. Here and there along that road something would lodge in the ol’ gray matter, tickle at some deep place, until enough of those somethings gathered up over the years finally coalesced into a critical mass.
But I can tell you where that first turn in that road was; that first stop where I picked up that first something. I was six years old, it was 1960, and the movie was The Magnificent Seven.
It’s the waning days of the Old West and gunfighters are going the way of the dinosaurs. Chris (Yul Brynner) is approached by some Mexican farmers hoping to hire gunmen to protect them from the predations of a bandit gang led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). Though the farmers can only offer a mere pittance in payment, Chris takes the job and enlists six other gunmen – Vin (Steve McQueen), O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), Britt (James Coburn), Lee (Robert Vaughn), Harry (Brad Dexter), and young Chico (Horst Bucholz), most of whom are down on their luck, and who would rather be gunfighters for another day on the farmers’ few dimes than face alternatives like clerking in a grocery store. Once in the village, they begin to bond with the campesinos and train them to work in their own defense. They fend off one attack by Calvera, but then, when they leave to raid the bandit camp, they are betrayed by one of the villagers. Rather than kill the Seven, Calvera sends them packing, but the Seven return to the village, and the farmers help them kill or run off the remaining bandits. In the final battle, four of the seven are killed. Afterward, Chico elects to stay with a local girl he’s fallen in love with, and Chris and Vin – realizing that, with the job done, they have no place in the village – ride off.
Though it’s now looked on as a classic Western, it was hardly considered such at the time. An Old West re-working of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai, it was often judged a poor relation to the original, and its director – John Sturges – hardly in the same league as Kurosawa, or even among the notable American directors of the day for that matter. At best, Sturges rarely rated in the critical community as more than a craftsman-like entertainer. At worst… In his seminal The American Cinema: Directors and Directions 1929 – 1968, film critic Andrew Sarris dismissed his work with, “…it is hard to remember why Sturges’s career was ever considered meaningful.” Ouch.
And that cast which, by the end of the decade, would be viewed as an action-adventure dream team? At the time, it was one big star (Brynner) backed up by what was then a strictly B-list roster.
Even the public didn’t take to the movie at first. Domestically, The Magnificent Seven was a so-so performer on its initial release, doing far better for overseas audiences than it did at home.
But something in it – all those things designed and accidental which, over the years, have come to be recognized in the movie – worked on me.
It was not my first movie, not by any means. My cousins and I, practically since the day we’d graduated from our strollers, had been regularly taken to Disney movies and cartoons as well as been dragged along to more adult fare which bored us to tears because we didn’t get most of it, like – and don’t ask me why I remember this one – the Lana Turner/Anthony Quinn meller, Portrait in Black (1960).
But The Magnificent Seven got to me in a way the Disneys and the drippy dramas didn’t. I still remember the way it resonated in my head on the way home, the way I could still see it in my mind when I closed my eyes that night in bed. Part of it was certainly that I was a six year old boy, and here was a cowboy adventure full of cool, gun-totin’, eminently quotable tough guys, and always that twain shall meet…at least in the early 60s. But there was something else…
I’ve come to believe that we “serious” film folk don’t always appreciate how much serendipity plays in making memorable films memorable. Like Casablanca (1943) and Bogart and Bergman being third choice leads working with an unfinished script based on a lousy unproduced play being adapted on the fly. Or Jaws (1972) and Steven Spielberg using that gnaw-at-your-vitals shark-POV shot only because that damned mechanical shark rarely worked. Like the poker players say: sometimes you just get lucky.
Not to diminish what Sturges brought to the Magnificent Seven, but there were a number of elements on that picture where luck was with him.
Take that classic score – da daaaah…da da da daaaaaaaah — easily among the most memorable in movie music. The great Dmitri Tiomkin had been Sturges’ go-to music guy for several years. But Tiomkin had wanted to lay in an Old School Hollywood song over the opening credits as he’d done for Sturges’ Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1958). Sturges said no, they argued, and Tiomkin was axed. Enter Elmer Bernstein and his New Hollywood, high energy dynamic which earned the film its only Oscar nod. Almost 20 years later, the music was still echoing so clearly in the pop culture zeitgeist, John Barry could get a laugh by lifting a few bars for a quick, jokey homage in the James Bond flick, Moonraker (1979).
Then there’s that once-in-a-lifetime all-star-before-they-were-stars cast. Brynner had an ego as big as the strutting royal he’d played in The King and I (1956), and saw Seven as a star vehicle. As the project’s one headliner, he retained casting approval and tried to engineer a supporting line-up he could easily overshadow. At the time, on first glance it looked like he’d gotten exactly what he’d wanted: Dexter (treasure-chasing Harry) was a reliable but unexceptional supporting actor, and German-born Bucholz (as Mexican-born gunfighter wannabe Chico) was a non-entity in his first American film. As for the rest of the Seven…
McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, and Vaughn had been bouncing between TV and movies for several years. McQueen’s most visible feature work had been in the teen-targeted sci-fi cheapie The Blob (1958), and his career had only recently gotten traction with his starring role in the popular Western TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. Vaughn’s film credits ranged from supporting parts in B-flicks like Good Day for a Hanging (1959) to the lead in schlock-meister Roger Corman’s Teenage Cave Man (1958). With the exception of McQueen’s TV show, not one of them had a resume worth a damn.
Brynner had pitched the project to Sturges, an understandable choice as the director had turned out a string of successful adult Westerns throughout the ‘50s i.e. Escape from Fort Bravo (1955), Bad Day at Black Rock (1956), Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, The Law and Jake Wade (1959), Last Train from Gun Hill (1960). As it happened, on one of Sturges’ recent non-Westerns, the 1958 WW II actioner Never So Few, the director had been impressed by the work of two young, struggling actors in the supporting cast — McQueen and Bronson – so much so that he tapped them again for Seven. Sterling Hayden had originally been cast for the part of the Zen-flavored, knife-wielding Britt, but when Hayden dropped out, Sturges couldn’t find a replacement. Robert Vaughn, who’d already been cast, recommended his good friend James Coburn.
Sometimes you just get lucky.
Brynner had judged them by their status, not their talent, nor had he anticipated how damned hungry they were. They seemed to know – small as most of their parts were – they’d each been given a hell of a showcase. Instead of a one-man show, every time Brynner turned around he saw them all blatantly trying to steal focus every time they got within camera range. There’s a story about shooting a very simple shot – the Seven riding across a shallow stream – but behind Brynner in the lead there’s a six-act play going on: who’s fussing with his hat, who’s wiping at sweat, etc. Maybe with a less talented cast or a different director it might’ve come off as showboating, fussiness, too much business in the background. Instead, they came off as a full-bodied ensemble.
And for that they all owed Walter Newman because they’d been right: his screenplay would boost almost all their careers with what would forever remain among their best- and most fondly-remembered parts.
Walter Bernstein had originally gotten the job of adapting Kurosawa’s film but his script was tossed. The job then fell to Newman (William Roberts was later brought in to tweak the screenplay on location; in a dispute over credit, Newman took his name off the film and Roberts’ remains, although supposedly Seven, as shot, is substantially the movie Newman wrote).
The challenge for Newman was to bring the full ensemble to life. He couldn’t give them all the same amount of screen time (Brynner would’ve popped a vein), but he did work out a rather elegant construction for his screenplay for the supporting tier (Brynner and McQueen – as his #2 in the group – are present throughout). Each of them has at least – for lack of a better word – three “anchor” scenes: their introduction, their death scene (for four of them), and somewhere in the middle at least one scene which gives the character room to breathe; to be. Then, sprinkled here and there between those anchors, a line or two here, a small action there…just enough to convey the impression of a movie-long presence. Coburn’s indelible character – beating a braggart to the draw with his knife; studying the petals of a flower with Zen-like focus while waiting to ambush some of Calvera’s men – speaks less than 100 words in the whole movie (I counted them). Vaughn’s silky Lee has only 16 lines. Yet, you feel them present throughout the movie. It’s the writer’s version of a magician’s illusion, offering just enough suggestion for you to believe something is there when it isn’t.
But for that construction to work, everything has to work. The writer has to nail it; the performer has to nail it; and the director — … Well, you get the picture.
On Seven, they did, and it’s that part – not the beautifully choreographed gun battles, but the human part of the story – that hit me and hung with me, even as a kid. I’d seen people die in movies before: shot, stabbed, drowned, beaten, drained by vampires, eaten by monsters. But Seven was the first time I’d felt loss.
While the Seven may be master gunmen, these are not the steroidal superheroes that would dominate action movies from the 1980s on, trying to pass off quirks as character (“I got it! We’ll have the one guy always eating! And this other guy, we’ll have him always eyeballing women!”). They’re human with all the limitations that infers.
With the exception of Chris, who seems touched by the campesinos’ initial request, none of the others take the job out of the better angels of their nature. They’re out of work, broke, some of them literally hungry. Chris and Vin find O’Reilly chopping wood for his breakfast. When Vin recounts the monster paychecks O’Reilly’s been paid in the past, he sums up with, “You cost a lot.”
“That’s right,” O’Reilly replies. “I cost a lot.”
“The pay’s twenty dollars,” Chris tells him.
O’Reilly turns his back on them…at first. And then, “Twenty dollars? Right now, that’s a lot.”
Those middle anchor scenes are just as pivotal, and just as vivid, probably none more than Robert Vaughn’s revelation that he’s taken the job not because he’s on the run from the law or his enemies as he originally implied, but because he’s lost his nerve. Newman gives him a wonderful, melancholic monologue. “The final, supreme idiocy,” he tells the campesinos who come to his aid when he awakes thrashing from a nightmare, “a deserter hiding out in the middle of a battlefield.”
Even when they come back for the climactic battle, they don’t all come back to do good by the villagers. Harry – belatedly – comes back to save his friend, Chris; Lee in a last attempt to dignify himself; and Britt out of pride. “Nobody throws me my own guns and says run,” he coldly declares. “Nobody.”
If they’d all been generic do-gooders, well, I’d seen those heroes in movies before, and they all blurred together. But these weren’t heroes. They were men – unnaturally skilled, granted – who got scared, humbled, vain, horny, shy around women just like anybody else. They were also not invulnerable. They bled, they died.
Sturges’ strength – Andrew Sarris’ opinion notwithstanding – was, in his best films, that he was quite content to spend as much time as he felt was needed in character. In movies like Escape from Fort Bravo, Last Train from Gun Hill, and — his best effort – The Great Escape (1964) there’s surprisingly little action, yet gobs of time are invested in getting us to invest in the characters. Of Seven’s 123 minutes, less than 15 are devoted to action. What made Sturges a top action director – and what distinguishes him from most of what has passed for action fare over the last 30 years — wasn’t his flair for action, but in knowing action had more impact if it mattered, and what made it matter was that the characters mattered.
And that’s where Sturges got lucky again.
Newman hadn’t written in the final battle in any detail. Sturges worked that out during filming. Each actor, striving to make the most of his big exit, made sure his last seconds on film were memorable. Vaughn’s death scene I never forgot. He’s just freed the imprisoned farmers, tipping the final fight against the bandits, when he’s shot and flies against an adobe wall, sliding down, the rough brick pulling at his face until he dies on his knees. That’s precision filmmaking: relying on three key scenes, Sturges, Newman and Vaughn introduce us to a character who initially gives off an unsettling, off-putting vibe, then turn him pitiful, and then finally, sympathetically, bittersweetly heroic.
That night, trying to go to sleep, those death scenes – Vaughn at the wall, Harry shot down trying to save a cornered Chris, Britt trying to make one, last knife throw as he dies, and O’Reilly, surrounded by the village kids who’ve adopted him, acknowledging with his last breath the Mexican side of his heritage he’s denied (“What’s my name?” “Bernardo! Bernardo!” “You’re damn right!”) — haunted me because the characters had seemed so alive, so heroic, yet utterly life-sized.
In time, the popularity of The Magnificent Seven would grow; enough so to spawn three embarrassingly bad sequels and a misguided TV series. For years, the original would remain among one of the most consistent performers first on network TV, than later in syndication and, still later, on cable. It would grow from middling hit to one of the most prominent entries in the American canon of Western movies, and its plot of disparate characters coming together for an impossible mission against overwhelming odds one of movies’ most imitated.
For me, it became a gold standard, even decades later as my interest in film – both academic and professional – grew deeper and more serious. When CGI effects came to mean more than story, when heroes came to be defined by their superpowers or super gadgets or super abs rather than their recognizably human limitations, when the ratio of character and story to action reversed itself to turn out two-hour pyrotechnic fests which still left me feeling, “So what?” I would think back to The Magnificent Seven, and say to myself, “Now that’s how it’s done.”
Was it great cinema? Probably not. Just entertainment. But with the kind of heart “just entertainment” doesn’t often seem to have these days.
All I know is when it still occasionally reruns on cable – and maybe it’s just because I’m older, more nostalgic, and will get teary over ASPCA commercials – I can still feel what I felt 51 years ago: the same building excitement at the beginning, the same mournfulness at the close. When Britt, Lee, Harry, and O’Reilly die, I still sigh.
As opposed to what happens when I come home from a movie these days, and put my head on the pillow at night and remember what I’d seen. Oh, I still sigh, but it’s more of a, “I spent $10.50 on that?”
– Bill Mesce
For more on Bill Mesce’s writing, pick up Idols, Icons, and Illusions and Reel Change: The Changing Nature of Hollywood, Hollywood Movies, and the People Who Go to See Them. Both paperback editions are available on Amazon.