For an action-packed western, The Magnificent Seven begins with a piece of such subtlety that you probably won’t notice it. The credits appear over what looks like a tableau – mountains in the background, ricks of corn in the foreground. After a minute-and-a-half, the tableau comes to life, a tiny figure walking out from behind a corn stack and a few seconds later tiny horsemen – the Mexican bandits about to terrorise the village – enter from the opposite side of the frame. This is a far more subtle picture than generally given credit for. Although the protagonists often verbalize their intentions, it is the visual that gives away hidden emotions. Charles Bronson hands a child a whistle, Steve McQueen looks wistfully at women doing laundry by a stream, Robert Vaughn braces his back against a wall to avoid combat, young villager Rosenda Monteros displays her true feelings for Horst Buchholz by soundlessly dumping food on his plate.
It is a violent film that questions the nature of violence. Whether being a gunman is fulfilling or detrimental. It is a film about standing up or giving in. Those new to bearing arms take the optimistic view, the villagers at first exhilarated by being able to tackle the invaders before falling prey to age-old fears, the young Mexican played by Buchholz idolizing the gunfighters. But the gunfighters themselves are a disillusioned bunch. Their calling has brought them neither wealth, roots nor satisfaction. When we first encounter Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen, they are drifters, and impoverished at that. Charles Bronson chops logs to pay for his breakfast, Robert Vaughn is on the run without the wherewithal to pay for his room. Brad Dexter is the stereotypical cowboy, looking for one last big score. Only James Coburn appears self-contained. All are so poor they are willing to take on a job lasting six weeks for a paltry twenty bucks.
They might have a code of honour – but then again they might not. Mexican bandit chief Eli Wallach sees them as no different to himself. The villagers fear them as much as the bandits, to the extent of hiding away their women. Of the seven, Brynner and Coburn are the only two willing to stick to the letter of their contract. The climax of the film might appear to be the battle royal at the end, but, in fact, the emotional highpoint has taken place some time earlier when the hyped-up Buchholz is brought down to earth by the gunfighters’ tally of their achievements – no wives, no children, no homes. The village, a nothing place in the middle of nowhere, has become more than a job, it has turned into a fantasy, a place where Bronson is adopted by children, where Buchholz is seduced into the life he abhors, and where the gunmen will give up their own food to the starving villagers.
The picture is surprisingly full of twists and turns. The bandit leader is far more affable – a benevolent dictator – than such a role normally demands. And he is pretty savvy, so that at points the movie becomes a game of cat-and-mouse. The villagers go from despising the gunmen to hailing them as heroes to betraying them. The seven trap the bandits only to be trapped in turn.
And it is all held together with terrific verve. The tracking camera had never before been used with such skill in a western. There are two brilliantly choreographed knock-‘em-dead battles, added to which are several outstanding sequences. The 20-minutes recruitment section contains three such scenes. Confronted by an act of racism, Brynner and McQueen team up to drive a hearse taking a dead Native American to a graveyard, their sole reward a few swigs of whisky. Then there is the initial dismissal of the callow Buchholz who cannot draw his gun before Brynner has clapped his hands. And there is the knife-throwing expertise of James Coburn.
While the hiring of the others – Harry (Brad Dexter), Bernardo (Charles Bronson) and Lee (Robert Vaughn) – is more prosaic, time is taken to establish their characters. Most movies do not waste time introducing secondary characters, but in taking all the time in the world Sturges gives the audience investment in these men. Courtesy of their actions, Chris, Vin and Britt have nothing to prove to the moviegoer, Harry is set up as the greedy one. Young Chico is most likely to get his head blown off. But that still leaves mystery about the shifty Lee and the inscrutable Bernardo.
Although roughly sticking to the source material, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven lacked its epic running time of three-and-half-hours. Cutting the film back to a trimmer two hours created a western with its own rules. Yul Brynner dressed all in black, chomping on a cigar, barking orders, strode around as if he owned the place. But at the same time displayed the world weariness of his profession. McQueen brought a new kind of persona to the screen. Coburn’s screen charisma was in its early stages but his easy lope and self-assurance stood out. Bronson demonstrated a taciturnity that could have spelled the end of a career never mind the start of one. Buchholz and Robert Vaughn had the hardest parts. The former had to bridge the gap between immaturity and responsibility and to shoulder the picture’s sole romance. The latter was on the edge of a nervous breakdown.
The Magnificent Seven was the link between the classic westerns of John Ford and Howard Hawks and the more violent offspring of Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah. In previous westerns, cowboys raced to rescue for love, revenge or out of a sense of duty, never for anything as shabby as money. But this was a more realistic example of the genre and a study of the type of man who ends up as a mercenary. Civilization has driven mavericks down to the border. The past has caught up with them. Perhaps all the future holds is the prospect of one last stand.
At the time few recognized the terrific job director John Sturges had done in marrying action with the psychological and the philosophical. The only Oscar nod was for Elmer Bernstein’s bracing score. Sturges had become something of a western specialist. Six of his last ten films had been westerns. These included modern western Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) with Spencer Tracy, Gunfight at the O.K. Corral (1957) with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas and Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) with Douglas again. But this was without doubt his masterpiece. He moved the camera with aplomb, he allowed time for characters to develop, he built up the tension, and he handled the three big action scenes with the skill of a proven battle master. Although the stand-offs against the Mexicans tend to hog the action praise, the hearse sequence deserves equal attention. For a start it is hell of a slow. The horse is going, understandably, at a funereal pace. And the hearse is headed uphill so we have no idea what lies ahead. In terms of structure and execution it is beautifully handled.
This month marks the 60th anniversary of the release of the film. It is supposed to be available on Amazon Prime. But if not there are no shortage of DVD options. You might also like to know that I wrote a book about the making of the film which is available on Kindle and Amazon.