Director John Sturges (1910-1992) said “Three things are essential to every western.” First, isolation, “isolate people from any help, they can’t go to the government and they can’t go to the next town.” Second, conflict must be resolved by violence. Third, the hero (with or without a group) must take the law into his own hands. Isolation can be underscored in a western by either the claustrophobic nature of the town (especially if the citizens have turned against the hero) or the wide vistas of the prairie (think Monument Valley). Violence means the use of the gun, the most romanticized yet ferocious portable machine—its beautifully cinematic blend of metal, wood, and sound is a wonder to behold—ever devised. And lawlessness in the cause of legitimatizing the law, the irony that drives virtually all westerns, gives the western its tension of the primacy of the individual versus the social and moral cohesion of the community. What is surprising is not that westerns were at one time one of cinema’s most popular forms, but that there was ever a time when they were not popular. Yul Brynner correctly called them “the poetry” of movies. Former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman once said that all sports aspire to be boxing. Could it be that all action films of any sort, certainly, and maybe all fictional films, period, aspire to be westerns?
For baby boomers, what is the most popular, the most well-regarded American western ever made?
Hint: it does not star Clint Eastwood, John Wayne, Randolph Scott, Alan Ladd, or Kevin Costner.
Hint: it was not directed by John Ford, Anthony Mann, Henry Hathaway, or Budd Boetticher.
Hint: it was not filmed in the United States.
Hint: it was nominated for one Academy Award (best film score) which it did not win.
Hint: the film was a remake of 1954 Japanese samurai film (New York opening 1956)
Answer: John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven, released in 1960. Of course, there are some who will say that The Magnificent Seven was not even Sturges’s best western, let alone the best western ever made for a particular generation. Gunfight at the OK Corral had A-list actors Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas as the legendary Wyatt Earp and Doc Holiday, respectively, and was one of the most commercially popular films of 1957 (No. 12). Last Train from Gun Hill (1959) was a gem-like revenge movie with Douglass again and Anthony Quinn, an A-list supporting actor. The Magnificent Seven had one A-list actor, the lead, Yul Brynner (1920-1985), who was not American and certainly did not look or sound like the typical western star (think Wayne, Gary Cooper, Charlton Heston, Gregory Peck, Clark Gable, or even Errol Flynn, all of whom starred in several successful westerns, not to mention B western stars like Gene Autry, Lash LaRue, Tom Mix, Roy Rogers, William Boyd, Johnny Mack Brown, Bob Steele, Tex Ritter, Audie Murphy, and Clayton Moore). If having Brynner was not bad enough, the film had the further audacity to promote German actor Horst Buchholz (1933-2003), who played the young Mexican Chico, as a new star, the new James Dean; it gave him the meatiest role in the film next to Brynner and Eli Wallach (1915-2014), cast as the villain, Calvera. Buchholz never caught on with American audiences as Sturges had so confidently expected. The remaining supporting cast members were wannabe A-listers who had not arrived: Steve McQueen (1930-1980), James Coburn (1928-2002), Robert Vaughn (b. 1932), and Charles Bronson (1921-2003) chief among them.
Moreover, the film went far afield for its source material, director Akiro Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, about samurai warriors in 14th century Japan. On the face of it, none of this—the casting, the source inspiration—seemed very promising, or in the case of Kurosawa’s film, appropriate or fitting, to make even a decent movie, let alone one that would endure for decades, inspire sequels, a television series, and an upcoming reboot. The Magnificent Seven’s film score is one of the most memorable ever written and is ranked eighth on the American film Institute’s 100 best film scores list. The main theme became a pop radio hit as well as the background for a cigarette commercial. So, the film had Elmer Bernstein going for it, who, by the way, was not the first choice to write the music. But hardly anyone connected with the film, except Brynner, was the first choice. Is this not the way it is with Hollywood films?
What is surprising is not that westerns were at one time one of cinema’s most popular forms, but that there was ever a time when they were not popular. Yul Brynner correctly called them “the poetry” of movies. Former heavyweight boxing champion George Foreman once said that all sports aspire to be boxing. Could it be that all action films of any sort, certainly, and maybe all fictional films, period, aspire to be westerns?
I first saw this Panavision, Deluxe color movie on a 19-inch, black-and-white television when I was 11 years old, perhaps a year or two after its initial theatrical release. (It did not make much money during its first run in the United States, but was a huge success abroad which encouraged Mirisch to re-release the following year in the States to much better box office.) Despite the loss of scale and color, and despite the commercial interruptions which forced some edits, the film entranced me in a way no other western had or would during my childhood. Critic Pauline Kael was right: a good film can withstand a great deal of abuse and still affect its audience. I thought it was the perfect film, perfectly acted, with absolutely perfect music, and had not seen it in a theater. In fact, had the film only been its scenes and its music, with no dialogue, I think I would have been just as fascinated by it. Even today, despite the fact that I think there are better westerns (Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, released in 1962, is, to my mind, the best western ever made), if I am channel-surfing and come across The Magnificent Seven, I will watch it to its conclusion no matter what. And I will watch my own DVD of it at least twice a year.
Brian Hannan’s The Making of The Magnificent Seven tells the reader, probably at greater length than is necessary, everything about how this film came together, from when Anthony Quinn saw Kurasawa’s The Seven Samurai and thought it would make a good western through script writing, casting, filming (including a long and somewhat repetitive account of Steve McQueen’s scene stealing), until the film’s sneak preview in Encino, California in September 1960, and its subsequent openings. The book is thorough. (By the way, a fair amount of the direct, but not the contextual, information Hannan provides about the film can be found in the 2001 documentary, celebrating the 40th anniversary of the film, entitled “Guns for Hire: The Making of the Magnificent Seven” included in the DVD version. In the documentary, for instance, an elderly Horst Buchholz is so upset in recalling the highly competitive Steve McQueen’s scene stealing that he can barely speak the actor’s name.)
Quinn mentioned the idea of the Japanese film possibly making a good western to Brynner. At one point the men seemed to be partners in trying to secure an independent production with Quinn in one of the main roles and serving as the director, although Brynner himself spoke of directing the film and in the early days of his career saw himself more as a director and producer, where he had considerable success with television, than an actor. But Brynner got his big break as an actor with the stage version of Rodgers and Hammerstein’s The King and I. He went on to win an Oscar for his portrayal of the Siamese king in the film version, becoming one of the big names in Hollywood in the late 1950s. He wanted very much to direct a film. He thought he would direct The Buccaneer (1958), a Cecil B. DeMille project, but DeMille’s son-in-law, Quinn, wound up in the director’s chair. It is unclear how much this affected Brynner’s relationship with Quinn, although Brynner was unsure if he could direct a film in which he starred. At some point, he fell out with Quinn (Quinn in fact wound up suing Brynner), and Brynner also dropped the idea of directing the western version of The Seven Samurai, which, at first, he seemed very determined to do once Quinn departed. As Hannan explains, the studio system had broken up after World War II, so more A-list actors were seeking independent production companies to make their own projects. Westerns in the 1950s were still viable commercially and artistically with such highly impressive ventures as High Noon, Shane, Rio Bravo, The Big Country, and The Searchers. For Brynner, The Magnificent Seven was his big personal independent project.
United Artists called in Mirisch to get the project going. Mirisch hired John Sturges to direct, largely on the reputation of his two aforementioned westerns and Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), for which Sturges was nominated for an Oscar, and which many consider to be western, although it is set after World War II. Brynner insisted that, for tax reasons, the film be shot outside the United States. Mexico was close and convenient. But the Mexican government decided not to make it easy for Sturges by insisting that the Mexicans in the film (the film’s basic story is about a group of seven gunslingers who come to the aid of some Mexican farmers who are being terrorized by a bandit gang) must not be portrayed in a racist way. As Hannan writes, “Relationships with Hollywood had deteriorated over the last decade, the [Mexican] government incensed by constant depiction of Mexicans as heavies. … The idea of always playing the bad guys to the American good guys was proving too hard to swallow and [Jorge] Ferretis [head of the film bureau in Mexico] was determined to crack down. … But what made the Mexicans so sore was that, at one point in its recent past, Hollywood could not get enough of Mexico.
“During the Second World War, when most foreign markets (from 1939) were closed to American product, the movie industry assiduously wooed the whole of Central and South America. …” The fact that John Wayne’s epic The Alamo (1960), which definitely showed Mexicans as the bad guys, was nearly contemporaneous with The Magnificent Seven did not help. Among the changes that the Mexican government required was that the peasant farmers had to be shown willing to fight for themselves. To that end, when they first encounter Brynner’s character, Chris, the leading gunslinger, they ask him to help them buy guns, but Brynner, nonsensically, tells them it is cheaper to hire gunslingers than to buy guns in order to have the story proceed. Another stipulation was that the farmers, who wear white, must never appear dirty. Any depiction of rape, or even hint of it, was out of the question. A censor was on the set at all times to make sure nothing objectionable was being shot. Sturges acceded to virtually all the demands of the Mexican government in this regard.
There were two particular aspects that made the film important, even essential, for my generation: first, the supporting cast of McQueen, Vaughn, Coburn, and Bronson was known to us as children for their roles on television: McQueen was the star of the western, Wanted: Dead or Alive (1958-1961); Vaughn and Coburn guest-starred in a number of television programs of the day, including many popular westerns like Wagon Train and Maverick; Bronson had starred in a television show called Man with a Camera (1958-1960). All of them had been in movies—McQueen most memorably in the horror cult classic, The Blob (1958), and Vaughn as a sniveling, one-armed wretch accused of murder in The Young Philadelphians (1959) and a cowardly killer and thief in the western, A Good Day for a Hanging (1959)—but none of them had been especially memorable in a film. For some reason, each of them is memorable in The Magnificent Seven: Vaughn as the coward in search of honor; McQueen as the fidgety sidekick to Brynner; Coburn as the knife-throwing, laconic tramp; and Bronson as the tough, yet paternal killer who is down on his luck. This group of actors would become the major stars of the later 1960s and beyond: McQueen in such films as The Cincinnati Kid (1965), The Sand Pebbles (1966), Baby, The Rain Must Fall (1965), The Thomas Crown Affair (1968), and Bullitt (1968). Coburn would make it big in films with the James Bond spoofs Our Man Flint (1966) and In Like Flint (1967), and The President’s Analyst (1967). Vaughn would star in the most successful of all James Bond television knock-offs, The Man From UNCLE (1964-1968), while Bronson emerged as a star in the 1970s in Hard Times (1975), The Mechanic (1972), The Stone Killer (1973), and the infamous urban vigilante drama Death Wish (1974).
The film bristles with the heroics of white liberal masculinity, which was something my generation, for a time, fervently believed. “Love Me,” as leftist folksinger Phil Ochs once humorously sang in the 1960s, “I’m a liberal.”
In this way, The Magnificent Seven became a defining masculinist film in a way that few other films of its era were. No character emerged more stylized from the film that Brynner’s Chris—black hat, black clothes, cigar, cool demeanor; no other western hero was known for wearing black other Lash LaRue and Zorro—a character so iconic that when Brynner played the killer robot in the sci-fi classic Westworld (1973) dressed as Chris, the audience instantly knew the reference. The other major aspect of this film is that it symbolized a liberal, consensus, interventionist politics of the Cold War era. American gunslingers invade another country to save some dispossessed people being bullied by a tyrant. One of the film’s early sequences show heroes McQueen (Vin) and Brynner (Chris) integrating a segregated cemetery by facing down the white opposition to an Indian being buried there. The film bristles with the heroics of white liberal masculinity, which was something my generation, for a time, fervently believed. “Love Me,” as leftist folksinger Phil Ochs once sang in the 1960s, “I’m a liberal.”
It will be interesting to see what the reboot will be like.