EMPIRE ESSAY: The Magnificent Seven Review

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A bandit terrorizes a small Mexican farming village each year. Several of the village elders send three of the farmers into the United States to search for gunmen to defend them. They end up with 7, each of whom comes for a different reason. They must prepare the town to repulse an army of over 100 bandits who will arrive wanting food.


Few films are shown on TV more often than the big, all-star he-man action-adventures John Sturges made in the 1960s, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape (1963). It's a standing joke that a rainy Bank Holiday can't slink by without a screening of one of them, although why programmers should so often reach for these particular cinematic six-shooters is easily understood. Both movies, although spectacular and expansive, play well on the small screen. Their fairly ordinary stories are told soap-style in overlapping sub-plots, each archetypal character arriving complete with a set of demons to overcome or character traits to show off. With Elmer Bernstein's memorable musical scores, inciting much whistling along from the sofa, the films rattle through lengthy running times and both deliver endings more satisfying than simple victory — the righteous are vindicated and too many good men are sent to their graves.

Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai (1954) was an attempt to combine the American western and Japanese swordplay movies, so it was a comparatively simple trick to retranslate the screenplay into a cowboy setting. However, it took a few years for this "obvious" idea to take root. In the past, Hollywood had remade foreign films as star vehicles (Intermezzo, Ingrid Bergman's American debut, was a script she'd already played in Swedish) or exotic items (Algiers, based on Pepe le Moko). There had been westerns with plots loosely appropriated from non-western sources (Howard Hawks's Red River is Mutiny On The Bounty in Stetsons), but The Magnificent Seven was the beginning of a trend to which we owe Sergio Leone's A Fistful Of Dollars (1964) (from Kurosawa's Yojimbo (1961) and, once science-fiction and thriller-action had replaced the oater as the primary Hollywood genre, the multi-remake-of-everything approach taken by Star Wars or the recycling of foreign hits like Nikita (1990) and The Vanishing (1993).

The marauding bandits who prey on the isolated village are now sombrero-sporting Pancho Villa types, led by Eli Wallach (who gets a more substantial role than his barely-seen equivalent in the Japanese film) with a first draft of his accent from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. Instead of swift-sword samurai, the downtrodden villagers appeal to quick-gunmen. When the naive villager suggests they approach a tough-looking scarred fellow, his wiser partner says they should instead look, "for the man who gave him those scars." As in the Kurosawa movie, the heroes are an unusual bunch of near-psychopaths, comic oddballs and mythic archetypes. The film was such a big hit that you now accept its eccentricities, but at the time bald Russian Yul Brynner (who seems to have been up for the job because he looks a bit like Takeshi Shimura in the original) was not an obvious choice for all-in-black gunslinger-with-integrity Chris. It was a role he would reprise in the first of a run of sequels (Return Of The Seven (1966) and reference as a killer robot in Westworld (1973), but you have to ask how someone with his accent and face got out West in the first place, let alone became such a western feature that he would be cast as an Indian (Kings Of The Sun (1963) and a Mexican (Pancho Villa (1968).

The rest of the seven were young, unfamiliar types with more TV experience than Hollywood clout: competing cool cats McQueen (Vin) and James Coburn (Britt), solid presence (and another Russian) Charles Bronson (Bernardo O'Reilly), well-dressed but nerves-shot Robert Vaughn (Lee), combustible German Mexican Horst Buchholz (Chico) and avaricious Brad Dexter (Harry Luck). Dexter was best-known as Frank Sinatra's bodyguard, but the rest of the cast scored some sort of stardom.

Because he became arguably the biggest star in the posse, it's strange to look again at the film and find that McQueen takes the sidekick role, standing back to admire Brynner, while Coburn gets the part to kill for, as the ice-perfect knife-thrower who conies closest to being a samurai out west. They are a brawling, bothersome assortment and the mismatch of their personalities makes for weird entertainment: no-one ever did more acting in a single film than Buchholz does here, in a vain effort to match Toshiro Mifune, but Bronson seems carved from rock (he gets stuck with the palling-about-with kids subplot).

Vaughn is a Method mannerist, quivering with neurosis as the others are gritting their teeth, and Dexter looks as if he was just happy they let him into the cast party. Rosenda Monteros wafts through in a peasant blouse but this is a boys' film.

Deep down, you know it's not as good as Seven Samurai — but few films are. You also know that next time it's on television, you'll find yourself watching it, caught early by Brynner's lazy ride up to Boot Hill and staying until the bodies are buried and the survivors walk away.