How I Came To Write “The Making of The Magnificent Seven”

To round off my week of celebration of The Magnificent Seven, I’ve made a 10-minute video for Youtube (link below). A number of people contacted me to ask why I wrote the book in the first place. As that was quite unusual in itself, I thought i would explain myself.

A decade ago as a treat to myself I purchased an annual subscription at considerable expense to the archive of daily trade magazine Variety. This allowed me to look back at over 100 years of this legendary publication. I used to just pop around the archive wherever fancy took me. At the time I was – and still am – a box office hound. Every week Variety published upwards of three pages of box office stats, listing how movies performed in all the major cities in America. I was poking around the stats for Butterfield 8 (1960) which delivered sensational figures wherever it opened. Every now and then I would come across a listing for The Magnificent Seven and since that was one of my favorite pictures I back-tracked a few months to see how well it had opened in New York.

I must have spent well over a week going over again and again three months of box office figures. Again and again because I couldn’t find any mention of how well the movie had done in New York. I went through the pages with a fine tooth comb, thinking I must just have missed it. But once I had done that, I came to the conclusion that the movie had not opened in New York at all. In those days, every big picture opened at one of the top theaters in or around Broadway. And The Magnificent Seven counted as a big picture. When I got to the year-end results – Variety published an annual chart – I realized the movie had not done well at all. It was, in fact, a flop.

So I began to wonder why a movie that I had always considered a big hit had been the reverse. I judged it a hit because it was reissued several times. It popped up every time there was a sequel, sometimes in a double bill with another from the series, sometimes dualed with a separate picture. For about 15 years after its release it made regular appearances on the reissue circuit – and this was even after being shown on television in the United States as early as 1963.

It didn’t make any sense. Who would reissue a flop? Why would a flop inspire sequels?

So I dug around a bit more and eventually found out all about the tortuous release history of The Magnificent Seven and my research revealed more of its dramatic history. I became fascinated by the flop that became a hit. It took me more than three years to find out as much as I could about the film from a variety of sources – including the United Artists and Mirisch archives held at the University of Wisconsin, and other trade publications like Box Office, Motion Picture Daily and Motion Picture Herald – and conversations with the screenwriter Walter Bernstein and anybody else I could find who had anything to do with the film. And then it took another year to write the book.

The story behind the making of The Magnificent Seven could have been a thriller itself. Filming was delayed for two years and on the eve of the shoot nearly halted by an actor’s strike, a writer’s strike, interference by the Mexican government and two million-dollar lawsuits. Spencer Tracy, Clark Gable, Marlon Brando and even Swedish boxer Ingemar Johansson (then world heavyweight champion) were all considered for roles. Anthony Quinn was fired.

The book also reveals how Brynner became the biggest independent producer in Hollywood, why United Artists hated it and denied it a prestigious premiere in New York and why it subsequently flopped at the box office. Also revealed is the truth behind the Brynner-McQueen feud and the scene-stealing battle among the actors. The landmark study also forensically examines the screenplay and shows for the first time who – out of the seven screenwriters involved – wrote what, as well as providing a critical examination of the direction.

Youtube Link below.

The Making of The Magnificent Seven (1960) by Brian Hannan

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.

By 

DAVID A. PRICE

Oct. 2, 2015 4:14 p.m. ET

1 COMMENTS

‘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.”

Bandit lead Eli Wallach.

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.”

Book Into Film – A Girl Called Fathom by Larry Forrester (1967) ***

The blurb gives the game away. The British paperback published by Pan went: “She was blonde. She was beautiful, she was six foot tall. She’d killed the man who had dragged her to the lowest depths of addiction and lust.” The American Fawcett Gold Medal paperback was more succinct: “lady by birth, tramp by occupation and murderess by design.”

If any of that rings a bell, it was not from the film Fathom (1967) starring Raquel Welch which chose to ignore her background and her venomous skillset. The novel opens with the heroine killing a man in cold blood. He had promised her a film career but turned her into a call girl and heroin addict. Her father, now dead, was in the British secret service.  Once she has committed her first murder, she is immediately kidnapped by a secret organization (C.E.L.T.S. – Counter Espionage Long-Term Security) and trained to become an even more ruthless government-sanctioned killing machine.

Larry Forrester was a Scottish television scriptwriter who had worked on a stack of British series such as Whirligig (1953), Ivanhoe (1958) and No Hiding Place (1960-1964) before publishing his first novel A Girl Called Fathom. His sole screenplay was Tora! Tora! Tora! (1970) after which he concentrated on U.S. television including episodes of Fantasy Island (1980-1983) and Hart to Hart (1983-1984).   

A Girl Called Fathom is split into two. Comprising roughly two-fifths of the book, the first section concentrates on her brutal training and on getting her off drugs. There’s a fair amount of sexual intrigue not to mention sex. But also a lover’s betrayal.  For the final part of her training she is abandoned in the middle of nowhere in scorching heat and barely makes it home. “She had passed over a great divide. She was empty, hard – dehumanized. Alone. She would always be alone.” And then she is forced to kill again.

As was common with this kind of book in the 1960s, it was fast-moving and globe-trotting with plenty of realistic detail to offset the preposterous plot. For the remainder of the book, which shifts location to Europe, Fathom is up against an organization called W.A.R. (World of Asian Revolution) which aims to destabilise the existing world order. Her arch enemy is an American-born Soviet agent (and whip and knife expert) Jo Soon (who turns up in the film Fathom in slightly different form as Jo-May. Fathom’s team must protect French elder statesman Paul-Auguste Valmier whose playboy son Damon (who fantasizes about burning people alive), a friend for her past, is her main contact.

British paperback.

The book is peopled by interesting and occasionally outrageous characters – for example Tin, who has hardly a human bone left in his body; the far-from-harmless Aunt Elspeth; and a sadistic colleague who loves her but dare not let his emotions out lest he loose on her his love of pain. The central plot is driven by a mass of twists and turns, heroine endangerment, fights with knife and gun and fist, traitors (naturally) and the clever idea of killing off the leaders of the free world with a bomb hidden in the coffin of a man worthy of a state funeral being held in Paris.

At the end she is counting the human cost of victory and sees herself as one of the walking wounded, a reject, driven from the herd.

The film Fathom was apparently based on an unpublished sequel so it’s conceivable that the plot concerning the Chinese heirloom was pulled from that in its entirety. But even so the film’s heroine was neutered, not a patch on the ruthless killer with a sordid past outlined in A Girl Called Fathom.

A review of Fathom (1967) was published in tandem with this.

Manny Farber, Critic’s Critic

Gunning for You – Manny Farber

You wouldn’t want to pick a fight with Manny Farber, generally considered along with Andrew Sarris, the godfather of serious film criticism. “Visceral” was the word most commonly associated with his writings.

He came to movies from an unusual perspective. He was a painter, one of the most celebrated still life artists of his generation. He never worked for a big paper like the New York Times or a stylish magazine like the New Yorker. Instead, his work appeared in Film Culture, Artforum, The Nation and men’s magazine Cavalier.

An early advocate of the work of Howard Hawks, Anthony Mann and Raoul Walsh, he was also inclined towards lean B-films over more profligate big-budget pictures.

Chances are you will disagree with everything he said, especially when he was slicing-and-dicing one of your favorites, but it is equally guaranteed that you will marvel at his prose. His work had punch and clarity and it might just make you laugh.

Here are some of his musings on the 1960s movie scene:

Easy Rider (1969): “Dennis Hopper’s lyrical, quirky film is better than good in its handling of death…The death scenes, much more heartbreaking, much less programmed than Peckinpah’s (The Wild Bunch), come out of nowhere…The finality and present-tense quality of the killings are remarkable: the beauty issues from the quiet, the damp green countryside and a spectacular last shot zooming up from a curving road and a burning cycle.”

Lawrence of Arabia (1962): “The most troublesome aspect of Peter O’Toole’s Lawrence is that the story moves faster and further than the actor who is not unlike the Tin Woodsman of Oz (O’Toole starts with a springing outward movement, to walk over the world, then turns into a pair of stilts walking in quick, short strides.)”

On Albert Finney: “The Big Eat is a growing factor in films, in effect probably invented by Finney in his Saturday Night. In his case, it was a combination effect, involving a big chomp, heavy breathing, slashes of braggadocio, a side swivel, and baring of teeth. This emphasized eating has been fined and slowed down in his latest work, but within the timespan of four Finneyfilms it has taken hold, cementing a new convention for giving an underside, the animalistic traits, to character.”

The Ipcress File (1965): “This is a Chandleresque thriller that has no thrills, with an antihero who is more like a sugary flavor than an actor doing a Philip Marlowe…the only suspense is how slowly a knight (non-played ‘superbly’ by Michael Caine) can put dimes in a parking meter, crack eggs in a skillet or flatfoot his way through a library.”

The Rounders (1965): “Fonda’s entry into a scene is of a man walking backward, slating himself away from the public eye. Once in a scene, the heavy jaw freezes, becomes like a concrete abutment, and he affects a clothes-hanger stance, no motion in either arm.”

Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966): “The most famous scene is an erotic nondancer, which is neither erotic nor dancelike, in which Elizabeth Taylor suggests a gyrating milk-bottling mechanism.”

The New York Film Festival 1968: “In the category called Bloody Bores, the Festival offered Capricious Summer, Hugo and Josefin and Twenty Four Hours in a Woman’s LifeHugo and Josefin is life as seen through the eyes of a Kodak camera ad.”

On Rita Tushingham: “An even worse example of megalomaniac star who can make the simplest action have as many syllables as her name. The myth that a director makes or breaks a film is regularly disproved by this actress who…carries on a war of nerves against the other actors.”

The Graduate (1968): “Benjy…leads a split life on screen; half the time he’s hung up between Mrs. and Miss Robinson; the other half he’s at half mast; a flattened silhouette…Dustin Hoffman is laid out like an improbably menu. People are always darting into his periphery to point him out as a boy wonder…Benjamin, as it turns out, is Bill Bradley crossed with Denny Dimwit.”

It is unlikely you’ll get hold of this book Movies at a decent price since it is long out-of-print and a collector’s item but you can easily find Farber on Film, a whopping 800-page tome which covers his compete writings.

The Gunslingers of ’69 – The Western’s Greatest Year

While Easy Rider was triggering a “youthquake” and Midnight Cowboy breaking censorship taboos, the western in 1969 hit a new peak. Or so I had thought for many years.

So I set out to see if my theory might have some truth in it. Four true masterpieces in The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Once upon a Time in the West and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid – more than in any other single year – were helped along by a few others that for various reasons fell shy of greatness such as The Stalking Moon, Tell Them Willie Boy Is Here, and the hilarious Support Your Local Sheriff.

I watched the 40-plus westerns that were released in 1969 to write this book. New directors like George Roy Hill reinvigorated the western while veteran Sam Peckinpah at last found popular approval and the even more experienced Henry Hathaway turned his decades of skills onto True Grit.

Andrew V McLaglen fulfilled the promise of Shenandoah with the vastly underrated The Undefeated. Raquel Welch was anointed Queen of the Western. Old-timers John Wayne (True Grit and The Undefeated), Gregory Peck (The Stalking Moon and Mackenna’s Gold)and Robert Mitchum (Young Billy Young and The Good Guys and the Bad Guys) appeared in a brace of westerns each, as did newcomer Robert Redford. While Clint Eastwood and Lee Marvin tried their hand at a musical (the latter scoring a hit single) it was Jean Seberg who stole that show.

Taken as a whole, I found themes repeated again and again. The most obvious, of course, were allusions in one way or another to Vietnam. But pursuit and escape were other dominant themes, and the movies also took a good hard look at women’s rights, changing attitudes towards African-Americans (100 Rifles turned Jim Brown in an action star) and Native Americans.

Watching so many movies from a single genre one after the other I also became very conscious of how directors used the screen, Hathaway’s use of extreme long shot, for example, or McLaglen’s widescreen compositions. Of all the books I’ve written this was the most enjoyable to write because I had so much fun watching the movies.