In 2015 I published my first major book about the movies – The Making of The Magnificent Seven – and I was lucky enough to receive a review in the Wall St Journal. So I thought I would reprint it below since this month marks the 60th anniversary of the film opening. In recognition of the anniversary the publishers have made substantial price reductions for the print and Kindle version – the latter being less than half the original cover price.
Wall St Journal
These Guns for Hire
Heroism, the film subversively suggests, can sometimes lie in settling down to domestic life.
DAVID A. PRICE
Oct. 2, 2015 4:14 p.m. ET
‘The Magnificent Seven,” when it appeared in theaters in 1960, would have seemed an unlikely addition to the canon of classic films. Its initial release was a flop at the box office, and the reviews were mixed. Even today, film writers commonly place it in the second tier of westerns, beneath “The Searchers,” “High Noon” and a few others.
All guns blazing – The Magnificent Seven launch an empire – three sequels, a remake and a television series.
But if it’s only a runner-up among critics, the story of tough but emotionally vulnerable gunmen coming to the aid of a poor Mexican village is within the top ranks of another canon—what might be called the people’s canon. The film’s popularity grew over time, both in America and abroad. It earned more at the box office in its second four years than in its first three; when the BBC showed it on British television for the first time in 1974, it drew an estimated 40% of the population. “If not the most critically-admired western of all time,” Brian Hannan notes in his account of the making of the film, “The Magnificent Seven can certainly lay claim to being the most loved.”
The film was a pioneering attempt by an American studio to remake a foreign feature. Its source was Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “Seven Samurai,” which the actor Yul Brynner had learned about from his friend Anthony Quinn. Brynner bought the rights with the intention of directing rather than starring.
In the volatile development process that followed, the film ended up not in the hands of Brynner but in those of John Sturges, who had started his directing career making short films for the Army in World War II. The Vladivostok-born Brynner would play the lead gunman. He would be joined by, among others, television actors Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson,James Coburn and Robert Vaughn, for whom the film would be their big break.
The composer of the film’s music, Elmer Bernstein, was the director’s third choice, possibly his fourth. But Bernstein’s hiring proved a stroke of luck: His stirring symphonic score, now practically synonymous with the Old West, would be the film’s unseen co-star.
The screenplay by William Roberts and Walter Newman—the latter took his name off the film over a dispute about credits—was broadly similar to that of Kurosawa’s original. In both films, a farm village impoverished by the raids of a bandit gang sends a few men off in search of deliverance. The men meet a master fighter who agrees to help and enlists a fighting force. When the recruits arrive at the village to drive the gang away, both the bandits and the farmers themselves prove to be more formidable obstacles to the gunmen than expected.
Yet Roberts and Newman seemingly defied the laws of physics, reducing the 31/2 hours of Kurosawa’s film to two hours while making “The Magnificent Seven” richer in both incident and characterization. The supporting gunmen have distinct, vividly drawn personalities and motives. In “The Magnificent Seven,” the chief bandit—who is all but faceless in “Seven Samurai”—has an ignoble nobility that makes him almost sympathetic. Indeed, hardly any of the characters in the film are ciphers, not even the dunce who refuses to let Coburn’s gunman and knife-thrower walk away from a duel. One of the useful contributions of Mr. Hannan’s account is to show in detail just how the writers—with, among other things, efficient storytelling devices and shrewd shifts in emphasis—accomplished what they did.
“The Magnificent Seven” is also, to a surprising extent, a film of ideas. Although its precise period is never specified, it ties the gunmen’s limited work prospects to a force that will never stop bearing down on them—the encroachment of civilization. Also notable is the film’s subversion of its own foundations with its suggestion that heroism can lie in settling down to domestic life. For several of the gunmen, the possibility exerts an attraction that they let slip in unguarded moments. The question is whether, as Mr. Hannan puts it, “they have come too far down the road to change.”
The filmmakers, Mr. Hannan tells us, had an unwanted collaborator in the Mexican government. Perturbed by Hollywood’s earlier unfavorable portrayals of the country, the Mexican film bureau demanded and got significant sway over the script as a condition of shooting the film in Mexico. Among the bureau’s requirements was that Mexicans would not go in search of American fighters, an implication of Mexican inferiority. (Modern academic commentary on the film has suggested that the filmmakers set “The Magnificent Seven” in Mexico as a positive metaphor for U.S. intervention overseas during the Cold War; the more mundane truth is that Brynner had decided not to work in the U.S. for tax reasons.)
As Mr. Hannan recounts, screenwriter Roberts found a clever solution to Mexico’s demand: The farmers would go not to find mercenaries, American or otherwise, but to buy guns with which to defend themselves. While looking for guns in a border town, they would encounter Brynner’s character, who would introduce the idea of hiring men, telling them that “nowadays” gunmen are “cheaper than guns.” The shift gave Roberts an unexpected chance to strike the film’s thematic note of societal change and the gunmen’s struggles with it.
Mr. Hannan’s research for “The Making of the Magnificent Seven” is impressive. Although he apparently spoke to only one of the principals (most are dead), he makes the most of archival material. If anything, he sometimes goes over the line from authoritative to exhaustive. But on the whole, it’s a story well told.
As it happens, Hollywood is remaking the movie with Denzel Washington and Chris Prattamong its stars. In an ideal world, the remake, like the original, would be a film that parents can watch with their teen and preteen children—while also seeing them absorb lessons deeper than the “believe in yourself” of today’s standard fare. But as “The Magnificent Seven” tells us, it’s not an ideal world.
—Mr. Price is the author of “The Pixar Touch: The Making of a Company.”