It has always been disparaged as a Hollywood version of Kurasawa's
Japanese classic, yet now that it has broached its 50th birthday, John
Sturge’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) as religious parable rewards a revisit.
The story of how seven expert professional mercenaries volunteer to save a poor Mexican village from over 40 marauding bandits is more than familiar even to anyone who has never even seen a film before. The narrative pattern that begins with the leader Chris/Yul Brynner recruiting the seven became a recurring refrain in the decade that followed, ie The Professionals (Brooks, 1966), The Dirty Dozen (1968). Variations on the theme continued with Kaufman's The Right Stuff (1983) and in a more subtle form in Ridley Scott's more recent American Gangster (2007). Elmer Bernstein’s stirring and often plaintiff score is often regarded as one of the finest to grace any Western.
In terms of its place within the genre, the film is central placed amongst those South of the Border Westerns that began with Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954) and ended with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). All three films track the ramshackle adventures of quick-fire mercenaries for whom the promise of American West has become all too civilized. Mexico beckons as an extension of a questionable Manifest Destiny.
What distinguishes The Magnificent Seven (1960) as religious parable is how precisely it is located in terms of its place in Hollywood history. The shift that it marks in terms of representing the nominal hero is noticeable in its opening gambit. Whereas it would be customary for the Western opening to feature the arrival of the lone hero into the town, we have instead the arrival of the threatening bandits led by Calvera/Eli Wallach into the village. Dressed in vicious silk red shirt, he signals his villainous status with ironic reference to "So much restlessness and change in the outside world. People no longer content with their station in life. Women´s fashions? Shameless...!Mire! Religion! You´d weep if you saw how true religion is now a thing of the past. Last month we were in San Juan - a rich town...Rich town, much blessed by God. Big church. Not like here - little church, priest comes twice a year. Big one! You think we find gold candlesticks, poor box filled to overflowing? You know what we found? Brass candlesticks, almost nothing in the poor box....l´m trying to show him how little religion some people now have..."
The killing of a protesting villager heralds a determination by the villagers to seek help - first from The Old Man - and then, at his prompting, at the nearby border town of Tombstone.
This original set up that now serves answer one crucial scriptwriting dilemma - how to create empathy in the audience for characters who make their living as hired killers. Not the usual concern for a Hollywood Western. If meaning comes from difference, the presentation of the Seven can only succeed once the ruthlessness of the bandit enemy has been secured. The script mechanism that introduces the first of the seven - Chris and Vin/Steve McQueen - must therefore witness the duo as serving not themselves but, instead, a Greater Purpose - in this instance, facing off armed citizens who are determined to deny the burial of an old Indian in the town cemetery. The resulting dramatic face-off and galloping success (atop a hearse) is wildly celebrated by the (betting) town folk and - by extension - the film audience.
Additonally, what makes the Boot Hill showdown sequence particularly intriguing is its acute self-knowingness - despite their wity and engaging repartee, Chris and Vin as characters in search of work have become showmen, providing entertainment for a bored town (“I wanna see this!”) and at the expense of their own professional skills that, with the advent of civilization, are no longer required. Chris distinguishes himself as a leader with his relish of the combat, his superior gunplay but, more importantly, the steely stare that, with cool wavering of a cigar, establishes a moral command over the subdued opposing force that step aside. By the time they arrive trimphantly back down the hill the audience capture is complete.
The sequence, then, is a carefully modulated scene within a scene which is finally applauded by travelling ladies’ corset salesmen (Val Avery and Bing Russell) who can’t wait to head back East with their heroic tale of Wild West heroes and villains of the kind Old Hollywood itself might have served up in its earlier days. Here, though, the whole three part sequence is knowingly framed and coolly delivered by the scriptwriters and by the subdued performances that bind Chris and Vin at its close. They have performed, and they know it. The theatricality of the sequence emerges from Sturge's stately mise-en-scene and Brynner's superior kingly poise. But unless they are careful, this will be their lives from now on, shades of a frontier past that is fast receding into dubious myth.
As well as contrasting with the overblown Calvera, the scene also achieves two other purposes: firstly, it evokes the spirit of 1960 in that what motivates Chris and Vin is the basic human right of a dead Indian, a political gesture that would chime with what was soon to become the Camelot Presidency; secondly, the scene echoes and sustains what will become a core theme throughout the film - the motif of religion and the idea of salvation (Chris is called ‘Chris’ after all!).
With their heroic status secured, the film proceeds to follow Chris and Vin on their noble recruitment drive. Old friends/disciples are called upon - (Britt/James Coburn, Bernardo O'Reilly/Charles Bronson), some invite themselves into the adventure (Harry/Brad Dexter, Lee/Robert Vaughn) while some, the youngest, most eager, are initially turned away and finally accepted after taking charge of the village church bell (Chico/Horst Buchholz). The Western hero by this time was quickly succumbing to Method Freudian invasions (The Left Handed Gun, Penn, 1958). Here, two years later, the tragic internal contradictions in the lone Western figure becomes extenalised across the seven. What is amazing is that casting was completed just hours before the Hollywood actor's union shutdown.
With the assembly in place, all seven characters and their disparate motivations are then brilliantly etched and challenged as they set the village defenses, train its villagers, fight the oncoming bandit attacks and manage the local gender politics - aspects of questionable representation that no doubt prompted the Mexican government to forbid its exhibition in that country. Holding the spine of the film together is of course Chico/Horst Bucholtz whose stagy gunslinger getup disguises a deep uncertainty about becoming a hired killer in his own country. In this respect the casting can not befaulted - Buchholtz looks out of place because, as the denouement will reveal, his character is out of place amongst the hardened and often bitter comrades.
What impresses on a *screenwriting level is how deepening character and rising action become inseparable towards the film’s conclusion. In face of mounting odds the Seven leave the village to attack the bandit camp. They return to find that in their absence the Mayor of the Village Sotero/Rico Alaniz has turned against them and invited the bandits in. With roles reversed, they opt for a resurgence and attack the village the next morning; in quick succession Chris and Vin become ambushed in a store house - and it is Harry, the gold adventurer, who, finally inspired by friendship, returns from nowhere and dies trying to save them. Surrounded and outnumbered by the bandits they are then saved instead by the villagers who themselves have been freed by the valiant actions of Lee - the first time we have seen him in action. At this moment of personal triumph over his demons he is cruelly shot down by a stray bullet. Hence the saviors have become the saved. When asked by a dying Calvera why they returned, Chris only looks stoically at his dying foe whose question goes unanswered.
The closing sequence serves as the perfect bookmark ending. The three surviving members - Chris, Vin and Chico - witness the laying of flowers on the four graves of their erstwhile colleagues, a somber and poignant reminder of an earlier graveyard scene back in the aptly named Tombstone.
Noteworthy is the central location of the village cemetary throughtout the film, including even the battle sequences where O'Reilley is killed. The rights of mercenary killers are not, after all, so far removed from those of the old Indian who we began with. In saving the village they too have in a sense properly saved themselves and have found their peace. It was, indeed, at his end that Harry claimed “I’ll be dammed”. But it was Chris, holding his dead friend in the heat of battle, who quietly replied “Maybe you won’t be”.
The Magnificent Seven was first released in 1960 in the United States to what was disappointing box office. Its subsequent successful release in Europe the next year, however, helped establish its classic status as a Kennedy Western - one that uncannily provokes parallels with the Peace Corps disaster in Vietnam that soon followed. It has gone onto be amongst the most successful Westerns ever made.
As such it looks back to a Hollywood that by 1960 was already fading fast and ahead into what would become the tortured tragic uncertainties of the sixties. Its generic blood brothers would be Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (also featuring Wallach, Coburn and Bronson) and Peckinpah’s grim and unrelenting ‘The Wild Bunch’ of 1969.
But even in 1960 when a central hero with a black hat tells you at the end of the tale that, "Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose", you know you have seen and heard something special.
Alan Taylor, UK, EU, Africa
Professor, Film Studies, Tshwane, South Africa. See KINOWORDS.
*Screenplay: William Roberts, Walter Newman (unaccredited) & Walter Bernstein (unaccredited)