I must admit to being more than a little partial to John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven,” a 1960 film that adapts Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai” into a western. The adaptation is well done, with many elements from Kurosawa’s movie faithfully transferred over. Instead of samurais, the heroes of “Seven” are gunfighters in the old west, but like Kurosawa’s epic, poor peasants who are menaced by marauding bandits journey into a town seeking professionals to protect them.
Led by gunfighter Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), who helps the Mexican villagers recruit gunmen for the job, the seven men journeys back to the village, where they train the villagers to fight, all the while engaging in background guerilla tactics against the bandits, before the final showdown. The bandits are led by Calvera (Eli Wallach), a happy-go-lucky fellow who doesn’t think he’s asking all that much when he demands the villagers feed him and his men whenever they need it, even if the villagers themselves have to go starving. When the gunmen show up, Calvera is more than a little angry. He feels that his “generosity” has been betrayed. You gotta love this guy!
Like “Samurai,” not all the gunfighters will survive the final battle, but it’s a good bet those who survives are easily distinguishable from those who won’t just by the way the movie introduces them. This is because everyone has such distinctive personalities that they never, not even for a moment, become indistinguishable from one another. It’s not just their clothes, but it’s the way they talk, walk, and prepare for the coming battle. This is one of the film’s strongest traits.
Chris Adams will most certainly survive because he’s the cool, calm, and collected leader; his sidekick Vin (Steven McQueen) also has a good chance at coming out of this alive because he’s a jovial fellow. The characters who most likely won’t see the end of the battle is Lee (Robert Vaughn), a gentleman gunman with a dark cloud permanently hovering over him. The other one is Britt (James Coburn), a knife-wielding gunman who may or may not be looking for death, and who kills a man in a duel with his knife when we first see him. (The fellow wanted to test out Britt’s speed with the knife. He lost.)
Made in 1960, “The Magnificent Seven” has none of the gore that one has become accustomed to in westerns like “Unforgiven.” Even the direct-to-video “Texas Rangers” is very “Saving Private Ryan”-esque compared to “Seven”‘s (lack of) bloodshed. Like a lot of westerns (and most movies, in fact) made during this time, the violence, although front and center, is of the bloodless variety. People who get shot fall down, but you never see blood on their clothes or bullet impacts.
Back then this sort of “extra visual mayhem” wasn’t necessary and indeed “Seven” doesn’t need it. There’s enough story and characterization here that the film never needs to resort to gratuitous bloodshed to keep audiences interested. If you don’t find the plot points and characters in “Seven” interesting, then you don’t appreciate good writing, good direction, and terrific acting.
Led by Brynner, the cast is stellar, and almost everyone went on to become giant stars. “Seven” consists of the kind of all-star cast that was much more common back then. Nowadays a movie like “Ocean’s 11”, with its big name cast, is an anomaly, and indeed I’m hardpressed to think of the last Hollywood film with that kind of casting in the ’90s alone. Is it the fragile egos of today’s stars? Who knows.
It might be surprising to hear, but the film isn’t all action. There is a lot of character interaction to keep one occupied, and with actors of this caliber, what more could you possibly ask for? Everyone here is in his prime, from Brynner to McQueen to Charles Bronson to Vaughn to Coburn. If just seeing these men working off each other doesn’t make you run out to get a copy of “Seven” now, then you are unable to appreciate great actors and great acting, and as such you should probably stop watching movies from now on because they’re hopelessly wasted on you.
Look, I mean it. If you can’t appreciate “Seven,” then stop watching films. For good. I mean it. Go. Leave. And don’t come back.
John Sturges (director) / Walter Newman, William Roberts (screenplay)
CAST: Yul Brynner …. Chris Adams
Eli Wallach …. Calvera, Bandit Leader
Steve McQueen …. Vin
Charles Bronson …. Bernardo O’Reilly
Robert Vaughn …. Lee
Brad Dexter …. Harry Luck
James Coburn …. Britt
Jorge MartÃnez de Hoyos …. Hilario