R0BTRAIN's Bad Ass Cinema: The Magnificent Seven

Its interesting sometimes how trends in film go in circles. Often one film will influence another and so on. One can look at Hong Kong and American cinema for such a comparison. In the 1980’s and 90’s no place on earth made more outrageous action films than in Hong Kong. Stars like Jet Li, Jackie Chan, and Chow Yun Fat, were shocking audiences with outrageous stunts and over the top action in films like Police Story, Once Upon a Time in China, and A Better Tomorrow. These types of movies put Hong Kong on the map and made many of their stars worldwide sensations, and also attracted the attention of Hollywood with their grandiosity despite miniscule budgets.

Then as the Hong Kong movies reached their zenith in the 90’s with films like Hard Boiled, the Killer, and Drunken Master II, Hollywood took notice again. Stars like Li and Chan as well as film makers such as John Woo and Tsui Hark were enticed to bring their talents to American shores. Film making changed as the “Hong Kong Style” and Hollywood merged in huge successes like Face/Off, The Matrix, and Rush Hour. What was not foreseen was that America then had an adverse effect on Hong Kong cinema.

Suddenly the little island that made outrageous action films had lost all its stars. Hong Kong had to try and regroup with pictures that seemed more a blend of their own style and Hollywood productions. More emphasis than ever was put on computer effects and bigger budgets in Hong Kong to combat the loss of star power. The jury is still out on whether Hong Kong cinema can fully recover from the talent raids of America.

A similar trend occurred in the 1930’s through 60’s though this time America and Japan were the countries exchanging styles and talent. The Western had been a staple of American films ever since Edwin S. Porter’s The Great Train Robbery excited audiences for 13 minutes of exciting close-ups and horseback action. The Western seemed to reach the status of a true art form in 1939 with John Ford’s Stagecoach. The film established roles and trends that would later become clichés and more importantly made an unknown actor called John Wayne a household name.

It was the films of Ford and Howard Hawks that were some of the biggest influences on Akira Kurosawa when he started to put together his story of Seven Samurai. While Samurai does prominently feature a class struggle and other elements traditional to Japanese cinema, the film is set up just like a western. The film is a morality play and is much more rousing than most of the pictures put out before it hit theaters in Japan. Kurosawa had also inadvertently discovered the team-up film.

So as the works of John Ford and Howard Hawks had inspired Kurosawa, Kurosawa would go on to inspire Western cinema in many forms. Kurosawa’s singular influence over the Western genre in the 1950’s and 1960’s would help to create some of the genre’s best examples. The first instance of Kurosawa being translated to Western audiences was a remake of Seven Samurai.

In the mid 1950’s Seven Samurai was being shown to audiences all over the world. The film had garnered world-wide acclaim and American studios wanted to capitalize on its success. Several accounts of who actually purchased the rights to the movie vary, from MGM to star Yul Brynner. What is not in contention is that the rights for the film were secured for a very low sum; around $100-$300 dollars. Plans to make an American version of perhaps the greatest movie ever made were well on their way.

The samurai would become gunfighters and a small village in medieval Japan would be transformed into a 19th century village on the border of Mexico and Texas. A stumbling block occurred when the decision was made to shoot the film in Mexico. Officials and censors in Mexico, unhappy with past portrayals of their countrymen on film, refused to allow any villagers on screen to be shown as particularly inferior. No Mexicans would be shown in the picture without anything but pristine attire. This was agreed to get the film made.

The Magnificent Seven starring Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Directed by John Sturges.

Seven Samurai remade as a Western begins with a very similar and yet very different scene from its illustrious counterpart. In the Japanese version the bandits merely look over the village and decide to invade later. The outlaws look savage and hungry, as if they were out for blood. The Magnificent Seven begins with the outlaws riding into town, but they have a very civilized meeting with the village elder where they state they will return in weeks to collect their yearly sum. Also unlike Seven Samurai, the marauders have a very definable leader, Calvera, played by Eli Wallach with both menace and charm.

The townsfolk decide to try and go over the border to purchase some guns to defend themselves. While there they witness a showdown between Yul Brynner’s Chris and Steve McQueen’s Vin as they face off against local racists while trying to give a man a proper Native American burial. The villagers are impressed and seek Chris for his advice on the situation. Chris advises them to buy gunfighters instead of guns. Taking Chris’ advice, the villagers acquire the services of Chris and Vin, along with a ragtag bunch of shooters including Chico (Horst Buchholz), Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), Lee (Robert Vaughn), Britt (James Coburn) and an associate of Chris’ named Harry Luck (Brad Dexter). Each of them looking to get away from their own demons, and each looking to do some good. Together the Seven ride for the Mexican village.

Upon getting to the village and surviving an icy reception, the gunfighters look to prepare the villagers for war. After doing so, the gun fighters are confident when the men of Calvera finally do return. The Seven do well in fending off the initial attacks from the bandits, but fearing the bandits will eventually win, the villagers turn on their heroes. Only a call for bravery among the villagers rallies them around the Seven once more, setting up the final confrontation with Calvera’s men and the Magnificent Seven.

Though there are many Westerns that could be considered more important, few pictures in the genre are more fun than The Magnificent Seven. There’s just something wonderful about watching a “team-up film”. Whether it be The Dirty Dozen, The Guns of Navarone, or Ocean’s Eleven the entertainment factor for these movies goes through the roof when seeing the camaraderie of men working together for a single purpose.

Upon its release The Magnificent Seven was a huge success with audiences. Critics acknowledged the film was not as good as Seven Samurai, but did say it was a relatively exciting and fun filled adventure. The picture did enough business that it warranted three more sequels with a varying amount of success. None disputed that the sequels were not anywhere near as good as the Japanese original or the first film of the American series.

Director John Sturgess was a perfect choice to direct this picture. Sturgess was already a veteran of Western pictures when he directed this film, including Bad Day at Black Rock and Gunfight at the O.K. Corral. His pictures were also known for their aura of just being pure entertainment as he would later put together his masterpiece The Great Escape. Many times directors remaking a classic will fall under the weight of living up to the original film they are redoing. This film falls in the category of not living up to the original, but making a fun piece in its own right, much like Sergio Leone would do later with A Fistful of Dollars, when he remade Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.

Yul Brynner is quite effective as Chris. He has all the stoic qualities that Takashi Shimura showed when he played Kambei in Samurai. Director John Sturgess sets up Chris’ entrance with a lot of flair as he drives a wagon with the dead body of the Native American into certain death while Steve McQueen’s Vin literally rides “shotgun”. Chris is a charismatic leader with an obvious amount of experience on his side. The men follow him into battle without question and he puts himself on the line to prove he’s worth it.

Steve McQueen’s Vin is oozing with cool indifference. Vin puts himself on the line but always acts as if its nothing. Vin is essentially the forerunner for McQueen’s two other marquee roles, the Cooler King from The Great Escape and Bullitt from Bullitt. Originally he was not going to be able to play Vin due to a scheduling conflict with a TV show he was on, Wanted: Dead or Alive. To solve this conflict McQueen delayed the production of the series by crashing his car, then acting as if he had a broken leg for two months. Studio bosses were outraged to learn McQueen had actually been acting in the picture while he was supposed to be “incapacitated”. McQueen had already been acting for a while, including a starring role in the horror cult classic The Blob, but this picture really helped set his career to superstardom.

There was apparently quite a rivalry between McQueen and much of the rest of the cast, as McQueen did everything he could to keep attention to himself while he was on screen. Eventually this was quelled by Yul Brynner, who had had enough of McQueen’s antics. Brynner threatened to take his hat off in any scene with the two actors together, revealing the actor’s trademark bald head and completely diverting any attention to himself. This stopped McQueen’s attempts at scene stealing.

The other standouts in the movie include James Coburn as Britt, Charles Bronson as Bernardo and Eli Wallach as Calvera. Coburn actually got the job playing Brit through his friend Robert Vaughn, who plays Lee in the film. Coburn had attested to actually being a tremendous fan of Seven Samurai before he was offered any roles and especially loved the part of Kyuzo, the expert swordsman of the original group who was constantly trying to better himself. This was the part he eventually played in The Magnificent Seven. Charles Bronson seems to almost be channeling Minoru Chiaki’s Heihachi as his performance is so similar in mannerisms and screen presence. Lastly Eli Wallach’s Calvera is a very memorable villain. Initially, Wallach did not want to play Calvera, citing that the character had very little screen time. Film makers were able to sway the actor by showing him the script in which almost everyone on screen keeps mentioning his name in preparation for his arrival. The result is a role that does not eclipse his Tuco from The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, but is a worthy villain for a Western as quality as this one.

Other performers in the film do not stand out as well, but make admirable supporting performances. Robert Vaughn’s role as Lee was tailor made for him. Vaughn has a wonderful aura of mystery about him on screen and also has a great look dressed in all black and white, but really doesn’t have enough character development. Horst Buchholz plays the film’s resident inexperienced character that Toshiro Mifune embodied in the original. His performance is solid enough but doesn’t have the depth of Mifune’s Kikuchiyo. Lastly, one of the funniest roles is Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck, who is convinced the entire picture that Chris is merely there as some kind of scheme. He spends the entire time looking for a gold mine, but does help to defeat the villains in the end. All involved tried not to damage the reputation of it predecessor, and for the most part, they accomplished that.

The differences in the original and this remake are many, and not just in terms of setting but culturally as well. For instance a love affair in Seven Samurai is doomed to fail right from the beginning because of the strict caste system in place in medieval Japan. In The Magnificent Seven things between the two lovers work out because there is really no reason for them not to in Western culture.

As remakes go, The Magnificent Seven is a fine example of at least trying to do justice to its original source. What the movie lacks in scope and character development, it tries to compensate for by just being a whole lot of fun. A similar comparison can be made with Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars and with the two versions of Dawn of the Dead.

Few films are as purely entertaining as The Magnificent Seven. It has a great sense of humor, one of the greatest and most recognizable music scores ever recorded and a wonderfully brisk pace. The action is fast but not violent. The men are hard, but very funny. In an era where the Spaghetti Western was about to turn the genre upside down, The Magnificent Seven stands as a testament to what a great Western could still be in the U.S.