The Magnificent Seven: John Sturges set the template for the all-star cast, Men-on-a-Mission adventure with this exhilarating adaptation of ‘The Seven Samurai’

John Sturges’ iconic 1960 Western, The Magnificent Seven, is the remake of the 1954 Akira Kurosawa classic The Seven Samurai, and stars, among others, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen. The film set the template for the ensemble, ‘Men on a Mission’ Adventure that was replicated in many films thereafter.

Japanese movie maestro Akira Kurosawa is considered one of the greatest (if not the greatest) film directors ever. His 1954 Black & White epic adventure, The Seven Samurai, is one of the greatest, most revered, copied and influential movies in cinema history. It’s one of those rare films that works on every level. On the surface, it’s a rip-roaring action adventure film that broke new grounds in photography and editing. On another level, it’s a deeply philosophical meditation on themes like class, valor, life and death. Remaking a film of such supreme artistry, while keeping all it’s cinematic dimensions intact, is a mission impossible, simply because there is only one Kurosawa and no director in the world is talented enough to emulate him. So when time came for the American remake of the film, director John Sturges stuck to his strengths and extracted elements from the film with which he  identified the most. In 1960, when he embarked on a remake of The Seven Samurai, Sturges was already one of the top action directors of the industry: having directed films like Gunfight at the O.K. Corral and Bad Day at Black Rock. What Sturges did with this film was to distill Kurosawa’s classic to its very basic, elemental state; jettisoning the more philosophical and socio-political aspects of the film, and transforming it into an exhilarating action adventure story about comradeship among ‘warriors’ as they go forth in the noble mission of protecting the meek from a powerful evil force. To this end, the original story set in the 16th century feudal Japan is transported to 19th century American-Mexican border: A Mexican village is under attack from a group of ruthless bandits. The villagers seek help from across the border, in America, where they find a ragtag group of over-the-hill gunfighters willing to come to their rescue for a price. But once they reach the village, the gunfighters have a change of heart and chose to do the work for purely altruistic reasons. In the end, the gunfighters manages to destroy the bandits and save the village, but in the process, they loose many of their comrades. Of course, this was in no way an original story-line as far as the Westerns were concerned. Kurosawa was himself a great admirer of Director John Ford and one can find the influence of many Ford’s westerns in The Seven Samurai. Another major influence on Kurosawa’s film must have been John Huston’s 1950 crime\Noir classic Asphalt Jungle: which was the first film to show a crew of experts being recruited to carry out a dangerous mission. So what’s happening in The Magnificent Seven is quite unique for it’s time: Two uniquely American film genres that was distilled through a Japanese cinematic (and cultural) prism, and turned into something uniquely Japanese, is converted back into something purely American. In that context, The Magnificent Seven could be looked upon as a major instance of  cultural exchange between the film industries of the two countries, who were bitter enemies during WWII, but became close allies post that.

Kurosawa’s film was mainly about the schism that existed between different classes within the Japanese society; the samurais, the farmers, the bandits etc. In transporting the story to an ‘Old-West’ setting; the villagers into Mexicans; the gunfighters to Americans; the film becomes a cross-cultural story that veers dangerously into the ‘White Savior‘ territory; a trope that was propagated for a long time in American movies, and if made today, would be severely criticized for the same. But the tone of the film: lighthearted, Rip-roaring and purely generic, saves it; it works purely as ‘fantastic’ entertainment, where we don’t take it too seriously. The film could also be seen as an allegory of cold war: when America was sending it’s men into third world countries to do their fighting; There was the instance of Korea & Cuba, and Vietnam was just a few years away. There were some censorship issues even then regarding the portrayal of the Mexicans; an earlier western, Vera Cruz, starring Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster, had portrayed Mexicans in a bad light and the Mexican censors were hyper sensitive this time around. Sturges had to change things around to get their approval; such as the villagers crossing the border to buy guns (to do the fighting themselves) rather than hiring American gunfighters. (Another, more crazy, censor decree was that the peasants be dressed in pristine white)

There are several theories as to how The Magnificent Seven project originated. The film was produced by the Mirisch Brothers Company: it was an upstart production outfit started by brothers Harold, Walter and Marvin in the 1950’s. They believed in the concept of ‘director as King’ and worked in a manner that gave the directors full autonomy in creative decisions, including final cut of the film. This helped them in attracting all the top directors in the industry. They bought the rights of The Seven Samurai from Japan’s Toho Company and set about developing the remake. But by all accounts, it was star Yul Brynner who brought the film to their attention. Brynner was the first person who started developing a remake in collaboration with his “The Buccaneer”  director (and very famous actor) Anthony Quinn. But when the film finally went into production at the Mirisch company, Quinn was left out in the cold; prompting Quinn to file a lawsuit against Brynner and the Mirisch brothers; a suit that Quinn lost, because there never was a written agreement between him and Brynner; unsurprisingly, Quinn had some uncharitable words for Brynner in his autobiography. Originally, John Sturges wanted to adapt The Great Escape as his first project for the Mirisch company, but when complications arose in acquiring rights to the book, Walter Mirisch enticed Sturges into directing the remake of The Seven Samurai. Yul Brynner was already cast as the leader of the gunfighters, and he was a really big star at the time: Oscar winner for King & I and having starred in a string of blockbusters like The Ten Commandments and Anastasia. For the supporting parts that make up the rest of the Seven, Sturges looked for relatively new and up-and-coming actors. So Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Brad Dexter and Robert Vaughn  –  all of them working sporadically in T.V. and film –  were cast. Sturges looked for diversity in the behavior patterns of the actors, to bring out the ragtag nature of the seven. So McQueen played Chris: a man who does everything in the moment; Coburn is Britt: A doer rather than a talker; Bronson as the Irish Mexican tough guy O’Reilly, who has a tender side and has him bonding with the village kids; Dexter as the boisterous fortune seeker Harry; and Vaughn as the cowardly, tormented war veteran Lee; with Brynner as the man’s man Chris: a Cajun gunfighter who recruits and leads the seven on the mission. The two surprising casting choices were German actor Horst Buchholz as the young gunfighter Chico – the surrogate for Toshiro Mifune’s  character in Kurosawa’s film – and Broadway actor Eli Wallach as the dreaded bandit Calvera. There was intense rivalry between the up-and-coming actors, who were hell bent on upstaging each other, and Sturges used it to the advantage of the film. Of all the cast members, Sturges was most confident about Buchholz, whom he expected to become a big superstar. So he gave the actor some of the plum scenes and lines in the film, but the irony of all ironies happened on that movie; everyone except Buchholz went on to become a huge star.

The film opens with Calvera and his gang riding into the Mexican village; accompanied by the fantastic Elmer Bernstein score on the soundtrack, that has gone on to become a pop cultural sensation; it is considered the most popular American Western film score of all times, referenced in countless films, series and commercials. The music is on par with any of the stars in the film, and it plays a big role in maintaining a steady tempo, without which the film would have been rather tedious and slow moving. Wallach attributed much of his character’s forcefulness to the thundering score, as he later said: “I only wish I had heard that music when I was riding that goddamn horse,I would have ridden better.”. Sturges had a tough time convincing the diminutive Wallach to take up the role of the leader of the bandits. Worse, Wallach has never seen a saddle before in his life, leave alone a gun or a horse, and if you look carefully throughout the film you can notice Wallach literally searching for his holster to pull and put the gun back in. Sturges eventually prevailed by asking Wallach to play the character in the mold of Hollywood studio heads like Louis B. Mayer and Harry Cohn: Who were, physically rather small, but tough as nails negotiators; who were paternal towards their men, but capable of twisting around all reason and logic to suit their selfish ends. We get a glimpse of this in the opening scene itself, when Calvera raids the village; he does it in a very gentle manner; hugging and joking all around, but we see his angry self righteousness; as a father figure to his men , He’s duty bound to find food and supplies for them. His anger blows up into violence when he kills a peasant who refuse to comply. His philosophy, in reference to the villagers is : “If God didn’t want them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep”.  But Calvera has gone too far this time. The villagers decide that enough is enough, and on the advice of the village elder (Vladimir Sokoloff), they decide to fight back. Taking their few objects of value, three villagers ride to a town just inside the United States border hoping to barter for weapons. They arrive in town just as a crisis is developing: Old Indian Sam- a converted Christian – has just dropped dead and, as his burial is in progress, some ‘elements’ in town objects to him being buried in the Boot hill cemetery. As these elements are armed and dangerous, the undertaker lack the courage to proceed with the burial. Out of the blue, two gunfighters steps in, and volunteers to ride the hearse to the cemetery. It appears to the onlookers that the two – Chris Adams and Vin Tanner –  are comrades, but soon, we find out that they are total strangers to each other; this casual bonding between two gunfighters in a moment of crisis encapsulates the basic theme of the film; They are like two artists among the commoners; two gods among humans who instantly make a spiritual connection between them. Chris climbs up and take the reins of the horses in his hands; Vin borrows a shotgun and takes his position behind Chris. They make small talk, as they shoot their way through the street and, finally, disarms the opposition in the graveyard, thus managing a proper Christian burial for Old Sam. Once the job is done, they bid farewell to each other and go on their separate ways. By the way, this scene proved to be a major bone of contention between McQueen and Brynner, as McQueen intentionally tried to upstage Brynner by prominently shaking the shotgun shells and then taking off his hat to shade his eyes as he looks around just before they drive the hearse. McQueen’s attempts at upstaging him so concerned Brynner that he hired an assistant to keep tabs on McQueen in their scenes together.

The villagers realize that Chris is the guy who can help them buy guns. Chris, in turn, suggests that they hire Gunfighters instead, as they are cheaper than guns. He volunteers to round up six guys to go along with them to protect the village. Obviously, his first choice is Vin, who has just blown a lot of money on a bad gambling bet and is in desperate need of money. They next recruit War veteran O’Reilly , who is now reduced to chopping wood for breakfast. Soon enough, knife-expert and sharpshooter Britt, outlaw-on-the-run Lee, and Chris’ old friend Harry Luck are also recruited. One young man, Chico, whom Adams had rejected for being an amateur, decides to tag along, eventually earning acceptance from the group. The scene where the seven makes their way to the village, again. posed problems for Sturges. Only Brynner, leading the group, performed as it was perfected in the rehearsals; the rest of actors started acting out, doing crazy things to grab attention. Sturges realized that he has lost control over his actors and this problem will continue throughout the film. Once the Seven reaches the village they go about fortifying it; as it needs to be protected against 40 marauding bandits. They also start training the villagers in handling firearms. Only one thing seem amiss: the village looks totally devoid of women. They soon find out that the villagers have hidden their womenfolk, fearful that the gunfighters might molest them. This lack of trust between the two races (or classes) is at the heart of The Seven Samurai, and which is just lightly touched upon here. As already mentioned, this film is very much a generic Shoot’em up Western, devoid of the scope and depth of the Kurosawa classic.

But even if it loses out to the original in those aspects, it compensates by upping the fun quotient; by injecting some humor into the proceedings as well as in the kinetic staging and editing of action sequences in which Steve McQueen scores above everyone else. His movements are balletic and he shows his agility, whether on his feet or astride a horse in full gallop. The first battle between the seven and Calvera and his men is superbly shot. The mercenaries and the peasants unite to defeat the bandits. Calvera loses several of his men and he is forced to take refuge in the nearby hills. But after this point, the pace of the film slackens a bit. There are overtly sentimental stretches involving O’Reilly and a bunch of  village kids as well as a contrived romance between Chico and  a peasant girl. We soon find out that Calvera has no other option, but to attack and raid the village again, as he and his men are woefully short of food and supplies. Fearful of Calvera’s violence, some of the villagers collide with the bandits and betray the seven mercenaries. The seven are imprisoned and disarmed by Calvera, but he makes a fatal mistake: thinking that the mercenaries are just like him: who are basically doing this for the money, he lets them go free. He is convinced that since the villagers are on his side and there is no more profit to be made, the mercenaries are not going to return. But the gunfighters have other ideas. They may not be sure about what they’re fighting for , but they certainly wants to go back and finish the job they were hired for. They ride back to the village and launch a full blown attack on Calvera’s gang . In the ensuing battle, only Chris, Vin and Chico from the Seven survive; the rest are all killed. Finally, Chris kills Calvera, who still cant believe that the mercenaries came back to save the village. On his dying breath he asks the question: “You came back – for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?”

This is a question left unanswered in the film. It’s a question that’s repeated throughout the film, in one form or the other. Earlier when Calvera had captured the Seven, a similar conversation ensued:

Calvera: What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, hmm? Why, huh?

Chris: I wonder myself.

Calvera: No, come on, come on, tell me why.

Vin: It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”

Calvera: And?

Vin: He said, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.”

It’s the existential crisis of a gunfighter, who still has his skills, but has no purpose. His world is fast disappearing and he is becoming obsolete; detached from the moral codes that tied him down to that world and now searching for and finding new meanings and codes to live by as he goes along. As it’s evident from Chris’ reaction to the villager’s offer to give him everything they have- “I have been offered a lot for my work, but never everything” –  or in a later exchange between Chris and Vin:

Chris: You forget one thing. We took a contract.

Vin: It’s sure not the kind any court would enforce.

Chris: That’s just the kind you’ve got to keep.

McQueen’s line reading as Vin is pure gold. While Brynner conveys his crisis through his stoic body language and stone-faced, laconic demeanor, McQueen relies on a carefree sense of physical abandon and  quick-fire dialogue delivery. My favorite line from the film is “We deal in lead, friend.”, that McQueen says to Wallach. Wallach’s bandit believes  that he and his men are in the same business too, and may be this time he and the Seven are competitors , but in future, they could be partners, which is why he let’s them go. This blurring of moral lines between the good guys and bad guys is a unique feature of this film; it is very much a traditional western, but possesses the more revisionist elements that was representative of its times, and was already being explored in the Anthony Mann Westerns, or  in much bigger films like William Wyler’s The Big Country. Though the film is not necessarily about the passing of an old world (it is very much a celebration of a swaggering old-world bravado and courage), it still has a tinge of melancholy about it; much evident in the wistful final lines that Chris says, as he and Vin rides out off the village: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose”

Now six decades later, as the Western genre is all but dead, the film seems, if anything, more modern than ever. This can be attributed to Sturges’ near-seamless fusion of casting, location shooting and incredible use of music. The Magnificent Seven was not an instant box-office success in the U.S., but it played very well in overseas markets — so much so that it eventually earned renewed screenings in America and gained a following that has continued to this day. The film was a big influence in the development of Spaghetti westerns. It’s the release of this film that emboldened Sergio Leone to remake Kurosawa’s Yojimbo as The Fistful of Dollars. Interestingly, the original title that Leone intended for that film was The Magnificent Stranger and Leone wanted Charles Bronson or James Coburn for the role of The man with no name, that was later immortalized by Clint Eastwood. Later, Eli Wallach would play a lighthearted version of his Calvera in Leone’s third Dollars film The Good The Bad and the Ugly. The Magnificent Seven spawned three (inferior) sequels and a remake. Sturges would reunite with a lot of the cast members from the film , when he would finally adapt The Great Escape to the screen in 1963, which turned out to be even more popular than this film. Also, Yul Brynner would reincarnate his ‘Chris’ character as a killer robot in Michael Crichton’s Westworld(1973). The Magnificent Seven could be credited for starting the trend of the All star-cast ‘Men on a Mission‘  action\adventure movies; the film would be followed by the likes of The Professionals, The Dirty Dozen and The Devil’s Brigade. The film also turned out to be a major turning point for all the stars concerned. Post this film, Brynner’s stardom would diminish, while that of the others -especially McQueen, Bronson and Coburn – would skyrocket.

The reviews for The Magnificent Seven at the time of its release was pretty unkind; and it did hurt Sturges; and it did hurt the film’s business. The general opinion was that it’s too long. The studio wanted to cut the film down by half an hour, but Sturges’ had final cut and refused to do so. But he got the best review from the man who really  mattered: the great Akira Kurosawa, who, after seeing the film for the first time liked it so much that he sent Sturges a ceremonial samurai sword as a token of appreciation.