Is it the greatest Western of all time? No. Is it the most transforming Western? No. Is it the most fun? YES! So said John Carpenter and he hit the nail on the head. The Magnificent Seven would be at the top of many people’s most-watched Westerns. It is the second most played film on American TV. It spawned three sequels and a TV series and a recent remake. The music has become a paradigm. The cast contained some names soon to become great stars – McQueen, Bronson, Vaughn, Coburn. It was the last hurrah before the spaghettis came in. It actually has something to say about the morality of being a gunfighter. Being based on Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, it had art pretensions. It was (eventually) a huge earner. It is just a great movie.
There were an awful lot of politics in the production as various persons jostled for the rights. One who lost out was Anthony Quinn and he would have made a great Chris, or even Calvera. As it was, it is difficult now to imagine the Seven without Yul in charge and without New York stage actor Eli Wallach as the bandit chief, riding into the village to the strains of Bernstein’s rip-off of Stravinsky's The Rite of Spring. The casting was bizarre, especially of a young German, Horst Buchholz, as the Mexican kid (getting hired as mercenary by a Mongolian from Brooklyn). But it worked.
Testosterone-ridden Steve McQueen, frantic to upstage everyone; macho Charles Bronson as the strong, silent type; dude gunslinger who has lost his nerve Robert Vaughn; steely, taciturn knife-thrower James Coburn (he only had eleven lines in the whole picture); cheerful rogue Brad Dexter, film producer and Sinatra’s friend; Buchholz surprisingly good as young Chico (the only winner, finally); and of course Yul Brynner, all in black (he loved that costume), the leader, the king (and I), the boss. In the original Walter Bernstein draft script they were older men, more like the aging samurai, but as it was they were to become the archetypal young Turk gunslingers. The actors loved it. They practiced all the time. They were little boys playing cowboys and that’s why the film appeals to all us little boys and girls watching it now. Dexter said, “I made about forty pictures. I had more fun on that picture than any picture I ever made.”
The American suits had to fight the Mexican suits, who tried to censor it (the fall-out from the very poor Vera Cruz was huge) and insisted on the Mexican villagers all being in Daz-white costumes.
The screenplay is tight, economical and full of memorable one-liners. The script doctor William Roberts got the credit instead of Newman. Pity. The Ferris Webster editing is objective and incisive. Of course director John Sturges was also an editor for many years. The photography is by Charles Lang Jr., “Charlie Lang, one of the great ones,” said Coburn. And of course the score is the greatest ever Western music. The soaring theme when Yul and Steve turn the hearse around and gallop down the hill is on my iPod and always with me. You can’t helping shouting Yeehar! (A bit embarrassing on the train).
The film misses the irony of The Seven Samurai and the great art-film quality, but boy, The Seven Samurai is long and this one just races along with zip and pzazz and is just so energetic and fun. Sturges (and let’s not forget legendary El Indio, Emilio Fernandez, who was the assistant director) did a first class job. This was certainly Sturges’s greatest Western and puts him up there on Mt Olympus.