The Yeehar factor
Jeff on The Mag 7
I have decided to say a little more on The Magnificent Seven, partly because I have been reading Richard Slotkin on the subject (he devotes a wordy eleven pages to it in Gunfighter Nation), partly because I really love it and partly also because I have just watched it (yet) again.
I have seen this movie more than any other Western, indeed any other film, ever since I first watched it at the age of 11 back in 1960, in a slightly dubious movie theater. I went with a pal from school and though it was considered an ‘adult’ movie (some nonsense about it being unsuitable) the guy at the window just took our money and waved us through. I thought it the best Western I had ever seen. I still don’t think I was all that wrong. It was entirely thrilling. It has become the second most played film on American TV (after The Wizard of Oz) and I wouldn’t mind betting that it’s high up the listings on the TV stations in European countries too. I know the dialogue pretty well by heart in three languages.
Once, I was in a wine bar with some friends, I forget where now, it might have been in Germany because I remember we were discussing High Plains Drifter with Clint speaking a guttural German. Anyway, the owner came up, clearly a Western buff, and said (he thought he was safe) that if we could name all the seven characters of the gunmen, and the actors who played them, we could drink there free all evening. So I did. I remember his wife was not at all pleased. Little did her husband know he had Jeff Arnold in his bar. But a bet’s a bet, and the owner was true to his word. We had headaches the next day.
I have been accused of the dreaded nostalgia for rating this movie so highly but I don’t think that’s right. I loved it when I was a kid and I loved when I was grown and I love it still now that I am aged. It’s not nostalgia if you love a great thing always. I’m not nostalgic about Bach’s cello suites or Rembrandt self-portraits or dry martinis. I just think they’re fab.
Some opinions on The Mag 7
John Carpenter hit the nail on the head when he said, “Is it the greatest Western of all time? No. Is it the most transforming Western? No. Is it the most fun? YES!”
The late Brian Garfield said it was “a compelling movie, masterful entertainment.” On the button as usual, Brian.
$$$ for The Mag 7
The film was an initial box office disappointment in the United States, though it did recoup its estimated $2m budget. The USA was small change, however, because the picture proved to be such a smash hit in Europe, and later of course there were all those TV showings. It has grown enormously in esteem in the years since 1960. In 2013, The Magnificent Seven was selected for the United States National Film Registry by the Library of Congress as being “culturally, historically, or aesthetically significant”. About time too.
Reviews of The Mag 7
Many of the reviews at the time were quite snooty. Variety damned it with faint praise: “Until the women and children arrive on the scene about two-thirds of the way through, The Magnificent Seven is a rip-roaring rootin’ tootin’ western with lots of bite and tang and old fashioned abandon. The last third is downhill, a long and cluttered anti-climax in which The Magnificent Seven grow slightly too magnificent for comfort.” Howard Thompson in The New York Times called it “a pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original.” He added, “Don’t expect anything like the ice-cold suspense, the superb juxtaposition of revealing human vignettes and especially the pile-driver tempo of the first ‘Seven.’”
Myself, I think this is the exact opposite of the truth. Kurosawa’s film is desperately long, a seemingly interminable 3 hours 27 minutes in some versions, and runs like an obese snail on Valium. The Magnificent Seven’s 108 minutes gallop by in comparison. In any case, The Mag 7 was never supposed to be an art film. It was designed to be a commercial Western with pzazz. And it is. Pzazz is never a word that would be applied to Kurosawa’s work, though this opinion will probably give cinéastes palpitations.
In many ways, palpitating cinéastes notwithstanding, John Sturges’s picture was an improvement on Kurosawa’s. Kurosawa’s bandit chief is a two-dimensional caricature of evil. Eli Wallach’s Calvera, by contrast, is amusing, sardonic and complex. He harks back to all those Pancho Villa movies, half-bandit, half-charismatic revolutionary. Calvera was a good name: calavera is the Spanish for skull.
And Kurosawa’s villagers do not have second thoughts and let the bandits in while their brave champions are away. Sturges made a radical departure here – for the better.
Kurosawa on The Mag 7
Akira Kurosawa, for his part, was reportedly so impressed by the film that he presented John Sturges with a Samurai sword. The man was a sport.
For those not brought up in the Japanese tradition, the 1960 mercenaries were far more recognizable and identifiable types. Led by Chris, all in black, ultra-competent chief, with folksy Vin as right-hand man, then the charming-rogue Harry, the children-loving half-breed Bernardo, the silent knife-man Britt, the dude gunfighter who has lost his nerve Lee, and finally the hot-headed Mexican kid, wannabe gunslinger Chico, we’ve seen these men in countless Westerns (and also in platoon war movies). We know these characters.
The 7 actors
The actors weren’t all that well known, though, not then. Yul Brynner as Chris, yes, because of The King and I and Anastasia in 1956. But the others were relative newcomers. Steve McQueen as Vin was familiar to TV viewers as Josh Randall from Wanted: Dead or Alive but hadn’t starred in any big feature Westerns. Brad Dexter as Harry Luck was a pal of Sinatra’s and been going since the 1940s, and he’d done quite a few Western TV shows, but again he had no notable big-screen Western to his credit. Charles Bronson as Bernardo O’Reilly had worked on Westerns with Robert Aldrich, as one of the gunmen in Vera Cruz and the Apache policeman in Apache, and he’d also been Indian Captain Jack in Drim Beat for Delmer Daves, all three in 1954, and had small parts in a few others. He had even led a Western, Showdown at Boot Hill in 1958, but it was far from a big hit. James Coburn as Britt had been doing Western TV shows for a couple of years and had been memorable in Ride Lonesome the year before, but that was all. Robert Vaughn still had years to go before The Man from UNCLE and was also pretty well an unknown. And the bizarre casting of young German Horst Buchholz as Chico (getting hired as mercenary by a Mongolian from Brooklyn) – casting which, however, worked – came completely out of the blue. This was no team of superstars.
They weren’t magnificently well known then
The story often told about McQueen’s casting is that director Sturges was eager to have him in the picture, having just worked with him on the 1959 film Never So Few, but McQueen could not get a release from actor/producer Dick Powell, who controlled McQueen’s TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. On the advice of his agent, McQueen, as we know an experienced race car driver, staged a car accident and claimed that he could not work on his series because he had suffered a whiplash injury and had to wear a neck brace. During the interval required for his “recuperation”, he was free to appear in The Magnificent Seven. Nice if true.
As for Coburn, he was a huge fan of The Seven Samurai, having seen it fifteen times, and was hired through the help of former classmate Vaughn, after the role of the expert knife-thrower had been rejected by actors Sterling Hayden and John Ireland. Hayden and Ireland probably went grrr for years after. Coburn deliberately incorporated Seiji Miyaguchi’s performance as Kyuzo into his performance.
Vaughn, who died in November 11, 2016, was the last surviving member of the main cast. He would appear in the 1998 TV series.
Wallach is amusing talking about his casting. Once again, a Jewish New Yorker stage actor wasn’t the obvious choice, but he was superb. This was his first ever Western but he developed quite a taste for the genre, returning the year after in The Misfits and then famously working for Sergio Leone. The extras hired as his gang ‘adopted’ him. In the mornings before shooting started, but after Wallach was in costume, he and the group would go riding together for an hour. Additionally, members of the gang insisted on doing the final checks for Wallach’s horse tack and prop gun before he was allowed to use either.
The production of The Mag 7
The whole production was plagued by squabbles and contests. Anthony Quinn was to have been a producer, and would have been a splendid Calvera, I guess. He claimed that he and Brynner had developed the concept together and had worked out many of the film’s details before the two had a falling-out. Quinn ultimately lost his claim, because there was nothing in writing. Brynner did a deal with Walter Mirisch.
Mirisch and his brothers Marvin and Harold were together one of the most successful producing teams in Hollywood history. They would later produce such 60s hits as Some Like it Hot, West Side Story, The Great Escape and The Pink Panther. Walter started as a producer for Monogram back in 1949 on very low-budget stuff. Once Monogram merged into Allied Artists (Mirisch was one of the prime movers of that deal) he would move upmarket, producing Wichita with Joel McCrea in 1955, the first of six oaters he did with McCrea (The Gunfight at Dodge City in 1959 would be the last) and he would also work with Gary Cooper. So he’s a major figure in our beloved genre and if for nothing else would have deserved undying praise for The Magnificent Seven.
The script of The Mag 7
The dialogue is wonderful, though there again there were disputes. Wikipedia tells us (so it must be true) that associate producer Lou Morheim commissioned Walter Bernstein to produce the first draft “faithfully” adapted from The Seven Samurai. Bernstein, a real talent, was one of the many victims of HUAC, blacklisted in the 50s.
When Mirisch and Brynner took over the production, they brought on Walter Newman, whose version is largely what we got in the end. Newman had done the screenplay of Fox’s The True Story of Jesse James in 1957 and would later write Cat Ballou (for which he was Oscar-nominated) so he knew his Western onions.
However, when Newman was unavailable to be on location in Mexico for on-the-go rewrites, William Roberts was hired, also in part to make changes required by Mexican censors. Roberts had done the adaptation from James Edward Grant’s story for The Sheepman, a superb piece of writing, and he was also “dialogue director” on Warlock. Later, he would contribute (uncredited) to Ride the High Country. So we are talking quality here. When Roberts asked the Writers Guild of America for a co-credit, Newman asked that his name be removed.
And then I suppose we also have to credit Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, The Seven Samurai’s writers, for their contribution. If we must.
It’s amazing, really, that the script was so good in the end.
The photography of The Mag 7
The film was shot by cinematographer Charles Lang Jr (“Charlie Lang, one of the great ones,”
said Coburn) in Cuernavaca, Durango, and Tepoztlán locations. Lang was a real expert. He had spent a lot of his career at Paramount and was greatly responsible for that studio’s rep for fine-looking pictures. As far as Westerns go, he went right back to his work as assistant cameraman on the 1923 silent The Virginian, and would do the same on the 1929 Gary Cooper talkie one (the best ever). There were many visually splendid Westerns afterwards, including The Man from Laramie for Anthony Mann and Gunfight at the OK Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill, both for Sturges.
The directing of The Mag 7
Brian Garfield wrote that The Magnificent Seven was “faultlessly directed” and for me, notwithstanding Westerns of the quality of Gunfight at the OK Corral and Last Train from Gun Hill (both very good indeed) and especially – if you count it a Western – the superb Bad Day at Black Rock, The Mag 7 was Sturges’s very best action Western. It’s brilliantly paced, the action is gripping, and the characters are developed. Bravo, John.
Sturges was capable of bad Westerns: let’s not forget that he directed The Hallelujah Trail and Sergeants 3, which were both dire. But when he was on song he was top class. I am especially fond of Escape from Fort Bravo and The Law and Jake Wade but you’ve also got solid-to-good Westerns like Hour of the Gun, Joe Kidd, The Capture and The Walking Hills (I’m not so keen on Backlash). He was especially talented at choreographing action sequences.
And let’s not forget legendary El Indio, Emilio Fernández, who was an assistant director.
The Mexico Western aspect of The Mag 7
There was something already by 1960 well established in this American-gunfighters-in-Mexico plot. I was waffling on recently about the tradition of the American Western south of the border, and in The Mag 7 too highly-skilled professionals cross the Rio Grande to defend hapless Mexicans from depredations (whether from bandidos or generals or a mixture). The rather patronizing presumption was that the backward peons were totally incapable of winning without being trained, assisted and told what to do by gringo gunmen.
These pictures had reached a peak (or I would say nadir) in Aldrich’s Vera Cruz six years before, which had gone down so badly in Mexico (audiences at the première threw seat cushions at the screen) that The Magnificent Seven had the permanent supervision of Mexican censors. Curiously, however, though they insisted that the villagers be improbably clean and have brilliantly white clothes, they seemed to let the basic rather demeaning premise go by. And Mexicans (only the bandidos, of course) would again be slaughtered in great numbers, as they had been in Vera Cruz and would be again in countless other pictures, reaching a paroxysm of blood in The Wild Bunch at the end of the decade which The Mag 7 began. Mexicans were, as the DVD Savant review of Vera Cruz put it, “Semi-childlike but treacherous peasants whose main function is to die by the hundreds at the hands of über-mensch gringoes”.
The trouble is, you can’t help cheering as the bandidos are blasted off their horses.
By the way, Calvera is said in the script to have forty men but if you count the ones who are shot (not that I would be nerdy enough to do that, of course) there are way more than forty, and still quite a few ride away at the end.
Riding shotgun on a hearse: The Mag 2
I love the early scenes, a sort of preface, when Chris and Vin step in to bury a man whose corpse has been left in the street. It is explained to them that the man was an Indian. “I didn’t know you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill.” The scene as the two gunmen ride the hearse tensely up to the graveyard, force the townsfolk to carry the casket in and then turn round and race back down the hill to the swirling crescendo of Elmer Bernstein’s music is one of the best early scenes of any Western. It establishes the chivalric courage of the gunmen and is really a “yeehar” moment.
The music of The Mag 7
I have Bernstein’s Oscar-nominated score on my iPod (and phone, now) and I still thrill to it. The shouted “Yeehar!” is a bit embarrassing when I’m on the train, but hey. That music is one of the greatest features of the movie; the two are inextricably linked – for example the Stravinsky and Bartok rip-offs as Calvera and his crew trot in for the pillaging rite of spring. It did unfortunately later get associated with Marlboro cigarettes too, but never mind.
Bernstein also wrote some truly great music for Sturges’s The Hallelujah Trail but that was a quite dreadful Western and somehow the music is tainted. Not so with The Mag 7. The story has it, according to an interview Sturges gave in 1990 for the book John Sturges, Stories of a Filmmaker by Emmanuel Laborie, that the music for the movie was to be have been composed by Dimitri Tiomkin. However, the director had a quarrel with his favorite composer because Sturges did not agree with a ballad during the opening credits (quite right too). Tiomkin was dismissed and replaced by Bernstein. Phew.
The end-of-the-West in The Mag 7
On the one hand The Mag 7 is an old-school un-self-questioning action Western of the 1950s. Paul Simpson in The Rough Guide to Westerns wrote, “The film’s optimistic mood recalls simpler days.” But it is also redolent with the “end of the West” theme that we were to become so used to in the 60s, most notably rendered at the end of the decade by Sam Peckinpah with aging gunmen out of time with nowhere to go and doomed to extinction – The Wild Bunch, of course. Kurosawa’s samurai were more like that and though some of Sturges’s gunmen were young Turks (the average age of the actors at the time was 34), they too are still on the road to nowhere. Four will never leave the village alive, one will choose to stay and the two who finally return to the US go back to, we assume, probable dusty death.
The horses and guns in The Mag 7
Now, here’s a must-know fact, or at least a factoid given us by the IMDb trivia page. Brynner’s horse was in fact Pie, that noble steed of James Stewart. Can this be true, do you think? I do hope so. And another horsey factoid: Eli Wallach used the fancy silver-trimmed saddle that Marlon Brando would in One-Eyed Jacks. Don’t ever say this blog doesn’t give you the essential need-to-know info.
The actors loved all the Western paraphernalia. They were like small boys playing cowboys. Yul Brynner, who adored his costume (which he also wore in Westworld), studied shooting and the quick-draw method with Rodd Redwing, the Native American actor and firearms expert who had taught many other Hollywood actors, including McQueen. They all practiced like mad on the set. Buchholz didn’t do quite so well: he shot himself in the leg. The gun only held blanks but it left a nasty welt.
There was, famously, a lot of testosterone around as the actors tried to upstage each other. McQueen was irked at having too few lines and indulged in all sorts of actor’s ‘business’ to distract viewers’ attention from Brynner when Yul was talking. Yul replied that all he would have to do if McQueen didn’t stop was take his hat off. Then Buchholz couldn’t stand McQueen. At one point Sturges thought he was losing control as each actor tried to outdo the other.
According to Robert Vaughn, Steve McQueen complained about the gun Yul Brynner was using in the film, a Colt Peacemaker with an ivory grip. “You didn’t notice it?” McQueen asked. “It has a fuckin’ pearl handle. He shouldn’t have a gun like that. It’s too fuckin’ fancy. Nobody’s gonna look at anything else with that goddamn gun in the picture”. McQueen also complained about the size of Brynner’s horse, that it was the biggest. Vaughn replied that he – Vaughn – actually had the biggest horse. “I don’t care about yours,” McQueen told him. “It’s Brynner’s horse I’m worried about.”
As I said, they were like small boys.
The Mag 7 as Green Berets
Now, Richard Slotkin’s Chapter 14 bears the title Gunfighters and Green Berets, with the section on The Mag 7 headed The Magnificent Seven (1960) and the Counterinsurgency Paradox. That already sounded way too hi-falutin’ to me but I battled on. The basic thesis is that the seven were to all intents and purposes American special forces in a Vietnam village.
But there is a basic problem here. The Magnificent Seven was released in October 1960, and it was based on Kurosawa’s film released in Japan in April 1954. Now I know the Vietnam War started in the mid-50s – before that if you count the fighting with the French – but the NLF (commonly known as the Viet Cong) wasn’t formed till December 1960 and historian Arthur Schlesinger Jr has said that “it was not until September 1960 that the Communist Party of North Vietnam bestowed its formal blessing and called for the liberation of the south from American imperialism”. So it’s stretching a point more than a little to suggest that audiences would have seen Yul and his men in the Mexican village as somehow symbolic of elite American troops in Vietnam. It is true that Captain Harry Cramer led the first team of Special Forces (“Green Beret”) advisers to Vietnam as early as 1957 but that was highly classified at the time.
Of course there were ‘Vietnam Westerns’, or anyway people were ready to read Vietnam into them. Soldier Blue was actually a nasty little film but it had a big impact as it showed US military swooping down on a village and massacring women and children. But that was in 1970, when all the talk was of My Lai (the 1968 massacre caused outrage when it became public knowledge in November 1969).
Still, Slotkin does make some good points about Sturges’s movie. A key moment in the film (and a radical departure from Kurosawa’s) is when some villagers weaken and consider inviting Calvera back in. Up till then Chris has been training the villagers to fight and helping them stand on their own feet. Now he imposes his authority and says he will even shoot any man who deserts. Really, he has replaced Calvera’s dominance with his own, and the Americans have taken over the combat directly. But the dilemma is, as Brando’s Zapata says in Vive Zapata, “a strong leader makes a weak people”.
When the mercenaries decide, much to Calvera’s incomprehension, to go back to the village, which is once more in the hands of the bandits, they carry out a violent assault. By now the villagers and bandits are intermingled but the gunmen charge in, kicking in doors and blazing away in darkened interiors. Yet miraculously no peons are hit, only bandits. Of course a final gunfight, in which the bad guys get shot (and only the bad guys) was a requirement: it’s a Western after all. Still, it is, to say the least, improbable. Slotkin says “The mythical ‘surgical strike’, so central to the fantasies of military scenario-makers, and the counterinsurgency fantasy of blasting the guerrillas with bomb and shell without harming the peasants, are here visualized.”
When the fight is over, victory assured, Calvera dead and the village liberated (as if “all problems can be solved by a burst of action and a spectacular display of massive yet miraculously selective firepower”), two survivors (Chris and Vin) depart, perhaps to other such fights; one, the Mexican, stays with a girl he loves, taking off his gun and rolling up his sleeves to shuck corn (i.e. becoming one of the peasants); and all the rest lie in graves. It’s a neater ending than Vietnam had.
Well, Vietnam or not, it’s a fabulous action Western. In fact it might be the best action Western ever.
The Austin Chronicle review said, “It’s a total guy film. If you bring a date along expect to spend a night paying for it by having to sit through a Tori Amos concert.” I suppose they had a point.
The movie spawned three sequels, of ever-descending merit, the parody Three Amigos! (and by the way, there is an amusing parody of the screenplay to be read at The Editing Room website), a 1998 TV series and a 2016 feature remake (see index for all). The basic idea was taken up and reworked in other movies. But nothing has ever matched the sheer zip of the original. That’s not nostalgia either, just a fact. Though I do speak as a guy.
Oh dear, I seem to have gone on at almost as great a length as Richard Slotkin. Still, the movie is worth it.