Expertly panel beating the plot of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai into a shape that could comfortably sustain cowpokes instead of sword swingers, The Magnificent Seven stands as possibly one of the greatest “holiday” movies that ever existed, enjoying as much screentime on television channels as a early period Bond movie or The Great Escape. In fact, you could even argue that The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape would make a perfect double bill due to both being directed by John Sturges, featuring large, charismatic casts who won’t all make it to the end credits, an impossibly jaunty theme tune, the presence of Steve McQueen being ludicrously cool and the fact that both have turned up on tv listings at Christmas without fail for what seems an eternity. But the main thing they have in common is that, to be this memorable and iconic, you have to earn it – and by god does The Magnificent Seven earn it.
A poor Mexican village made up entirely of simple farmers is periodically raided by the dangerously pragmatic Calvera and his gang of bandits in order to gave enough food for the approaching winter when they lay low in the hills, however, after their last visit leaves an outraged townsperson shot dead, the villages finally gather up their courage (not to mention their meager valuables) and head to a town just inside the US border in order to seek help of any description. Luckily, they run into big hearted, decent, gunslinging Cajun, Chris Adams, agrees to try and whip up a small force to ride back with them to try and scare Calvera’s goons off and after a bit of shrewd head hunting – not to mention the hardly enticing promise of $20 – he manages to wrangle together six skilled, yet deeply flawed men who agree to fight for this underfunded mission.
First up is Vin Tanner, a capable gunslinger rendered freshly broke after a bad run of cards and he’s soon joined by Chris’ buddy, Harry Luck, who only signs up because he mistakenly believes that there’s some sort of profitable scam being pulled an he wants in. Next is the even tempered Irish Mexican Bernardo O’Reilly who’s had to resort to doing odd jobs for money despite being a capable killer and laconic, thrill seeker Britt who agrees purely for the challenge the job presents his impressive skills. Rounding the numbers up to six is dapper professional killer, Lee, a man with more kills on his resume than COVID, but whose years living life constantly in someone’s gunsights has left him shaken to his core with PTSD. However, making seven, is the young and prideful Chico, a brash kid desperate to prove himself a man and who insists on following them despite being humiliated by Chris the night before and as the group gets to the village, they see they have their work cut out for them when the time comes for them to match skills with Calvera’s gang of 40. Being paid a pittance and noticably outnumbered, will these seven men stay and do the decent thing and if so, will they survive or bite the bullet – magnificently?
Maybe the greatest, populist, American Western ever made, The Magnificent Seven instantly dashes any accusations about “ripping off” Seven Samurai by being itself one of the most imitated movies of all time. Not only did it notch up a few (admittedly forgettable) sequels and a violently respectable remake, but it also directly inspired Pixar with A Bug’s Life and even had it’s own spoof in the form of John Landis’ ¡Three Amigos! (itself unofficially and ironically remade as Tropic Thunder). Simply put, mediocre movies just don’t have that effect on popular culture for that length of time which easily proves the lasting appeal of the rootin’ tootin’ classic.
The secret is simple – take a unfeasibly solid director (when glancing at his filmography you’ll wonder why the hell John Sturges is hardly mentioned in conversations about influential directors), a starry cast full of tough guys, give them all great character work to sink their teeth into and give them a bad guy to fight and voila! Instant classic.
Of course, I’m being a tad flippant, but Sturges is wise enough to know that if you give your ridiculously talented cast enough room to breathe when setting up their individual characters, it’s tough to miss and it’s in it’s set up that The Magnificent Seven gets its juiciest stuff. It helps that almost everyone gets a memorably badass introduction that instantly tells you exactly who they are within mere minutes of meeting them starting with Yul Brynner’s unfeasibly honorable Chris volunteering to transport the body of a dead Native American through a street of gun toting bigots in order to allow him to be buried in Boot Hill. Anything you need to know about the guy is presented to you in one, handy scene which also serves as his meeting with Steve McQueen’s in humanly cool Vin – too cool for Brynner, it seems as the two engaged in a war of oneupmanship throughout filming. However, it’s obvious that he had good reason to be alarmed as McQueen effortlessly ends up being the coolest motherfucker on screen, even when he isn’t doing anthing and when he’s given moments like when he looks Eli Wallach in the eye and coldly states, “We deal in lead, friend.”, you can forget about it.
Elsewhere James Coburn and Charles Bronson see who can scowl their minimal lines the most stoically, but while the former gets a world class intro when he brings a knife to a quick draw contest – and wins – Bronson gets a poignant subplot as he tries to convince the village children to respect their fathers and not a random group of gunmen. Arguably, Robert Vaughan’s bursts of trauma-caused panic attacks and Brad Dexter’s unshakable greed are somewhat undercooked, yet still are resolved with either a valiant final stand or some choice final words, but possibly the most moving arc may be that of Horst Buchholz initially irritating Chico, who goes from punk, to fuck up, to man as the movie progresses, finally wise enough to relinquish his guns as both Chris and Vin get him to realise the world is moving on.
Obviously, the finale is a rip-roaring climax where bullets fly and heroes die, but as impressive as it is, it wouldn’t mean half as much if the work hadn’t been put in making each of the titular seven impressively unique with each of their own arcs and troubled personalities. And if that wasn’t enough, they also get to ride out to one of the greatest Western themes this side of Ennio Morricone, as Elmer Bernstein belts out a ditty that people instantly recognize as that of a classic western even if they haven’t even seen the movie it comes from.
Virtually perfect, cool as hell and rosingly tough while being genuinely touching there’s unsurprisingly only one word to describe this seven – and it truly is magnificent.