THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

(1960)
THE SEVEN: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Horst Buchholz, James Coburn, Brad Dexter
With: Eli Wallach, Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, Vladimir Sokoloff, Rosenda Monteros
Directed by J
ohn Sturges
Reviewed by JB

Would you believe The Magnificent 3 and 3 Mexican waiters?     One of the last great "Hollywood" westerns, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's SEVEN SAMURAI, with the action moved from feudal Japan to the old American West.  Although not the groundbreaking film SEVEN SAMURAI was (as a remake, it really couldn't be), but as a SEVEN SAMURAI-Lite, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is one of the most entertaining westerns of all time.

     The basic story - farmers under the threat of attack by bandits hire seven professional warriors to teach them how to fight - remains the same, as do many of the basic plot elements. Several of the seven hired guns are given their own little introductory vignettes unrelated to the story, there is a wise old man who lives on the outskirts of the farming town, one of the seven falls in love with a local girl - any fan of SEVEN SAMURAI will instantly recognize these from Kurosawa's film, and will notice that sometimes they don't work as well (unlike the old man in SEVEN SAMURAI, the old man in MAGNIFICENT SEVEN pays no price for refusing to move closer to town. So why even bother bringing it up in the new film?).  But unlike Sergio Leone's FOR A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN feels like a homage rather than a ripoff. (No offense to Leone fans - see the review of FISTFUL and you'll know that I really like that film.)  Many of the talents behind THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, including the various producers as well as Yul Brynner and James Coburn, were enthralled with SEVEN SAMURAI.  THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN does not have the inexorable steady logic of Kurosawa's film, in which every step of the way, we are allowed to be in on each and ever step of the Samurai's plans.  But in one or two ways the remake improves, or at least adds novelty, to the story.  In the original, the bandits were basic one-dimensional bad guys whom we were never allowed to get to know.  In the remake, Eli Wallach creates one of his classic characters out of the head bandit Calvera, a precursor to his unforgettable Tuco in Leone's THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY.  Wallach is so great in these kinds of roles, I would swear on a Bible he was in THE TREASURE OF THE SIERRA MADRE, grumbling about not needing no stinkin' badges.

     The second major change to the basic SEVEN SAMURAI setup is allowing the bandits to get the upper hand late in the film.  This leads to a triumphant "Irving Thalberg Football Game" moment 1 when the Seven come storming back into town with guns a-blazing.   This makes the final battle somewhat shorter than Kurosawa's three-day siege, but satisfying nonetheless, since an earlier battle in the middle of the film keeps the action quotient roughly equivalent to Kurosawa's film. 

     The film stars Yul Brynner as the head gunslinger, and he is supported by a cast of actors that would become stars themselves. Steve McQueen, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn would go on to do much fine work, with Coburn the one most associated with the western genre.  German star Horst Buchholz had to stretch his acting muscles in two ways.  First, he had to play the member of the seven original so chaotically overplayed by Toshiro Mifune 2, and second, he had to hid his German accent enough to play an Americanized Mexican-born gunslinger named Chico.  In both ways, he succeeded "magnificently." Although he could not top Mifune's antics (to try would have just been foolish), he nevertheless carves out a character that is many ways stronger and more memorable than any in the cast, including Yul Brynner's.

     In the way Kurosawa's films helped redefine the samurai in Japan popular culture, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN was instrumental in redefining the cowboy in America.  For one example, notice that Yul Brynner's character, the film's hero, wears the traditional black hat of a western heavy, something introduced originally in the novel Shane but not portrayed in that film. This redefinition would continue through the sixties in Sergio Leone's films, making THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN one of the bridges between the classic John Wayne/John Ford western and the new mysterious anti-hero westerns of the Italian imports. 

     As remakes of classics go, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is one of the best.  Even Kurosawa liked it. 4 - JB

NOTES: 1) "Irving Thalberg Football Game":  While producing A NIGHT AT THE OPERA, MGM boy wonder Irving Thalberg explain to the Marx Brothers that a movie plot should be like a football game, in which the favored team finds itself in an unwinnable situation late in the day, only to find the courage to come roaring back and win the game in the end.  Yes, on this site, everything can be related somehow to The Marx Brothers.

2) Buchholz actually plays a character combined from Mifune's crazy Kikuchiyo and Isao Kimura's youthful, worshipful  and sometimes icky-ful Katsushiro.   Not all of the Seven Samurai have their equivalents in the remake.  The most obvious ones are Yul Brynner in the Takashi Shimura role (though strangely Brynner never seems to display his bald head, while Shimura rubs his thoughtfully throughout the film) and James Coburn as the West's greatest knife thrower, equivalent to the "perfect" samurai played by Seiji Miyaguchi.  

Wayneless Westerns     The Stuff You Gotta Watch


SEQUELS

Return of the Seven (1966)
Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969)
The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972)

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