Plot Details: This opinion reveals minor details about the movie's plot.
Although the average film-goer may not be aware of this, some of Hollywood’s best films are often inspired by movies made in other countries, such as those directed by Japan’s Akira Kurosawa, whose Rashomon, The Hidden Fortress and Yojimbo inspired American films such as The Outrage, Star Wars and Last Man Standing. (Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, in particular, was also the somewhat controversial template for Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, but Last Man Standing is an officially sanctioned remake.)
Perhaps one of the most popular Americanized remakes of a Kurosawa “Easterner” is 1960’s The Magnificent Seven, a Western written by William Roberts and officially acknowledged (in the main title sequence) as being inspired by Toho Films’ Seven Samurai (1954) .
That Seven Samurai could be adapted fairly easily from a film set in a medieval Japanese setting to a Western set in a late 19th Century Mexican village just south of the Texas border is easily explained: Kurosawa borrowed elements of American Westerns and transposed them into his story of seven sword-wielding samurai hired to protect a poor farming village in feudal-era Japan from a band of marauding bandits.
Screenwriter Roberts (The Bridge at Remagen, Posse) and producer-director John Sturges (The Great Escape), who were doubtlessly aware of how stale the Western genre had gotten by the late 1950s, simply take the template of Seven Samurai and cast a group of up-and-coming action stars which include Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn and Steve McQueen to share billing with veteran actors Yul Brinner and Eli Wallach.
The plot, which has been borrowed by such movies and TV shows as Battle Beyond the Stars, The Three Amigos and the Cartoon Network’s Star Wars: The Clone Wars (in Season Two’s Bounty Hunters), is simple (but not, natch, simple-minded).
It is the late 19thCentury, perhaps in the 1870s or early 1880s. A small Mexican farming village, which survives on the small profits from selling corn and chiles, is periodically raided by bandit chief Calvera (Wallach) and his 40-strong gang for a “share” of the farmers’ money and whatever else the bandidos want (women, water and whatever is not tied down).
Hilario: Even if we had the guns, we know how to plant and grow, we don't know how to kill.
Old Man: Then learn, or die!
Although the villagers have stoically endured Calvera’s raids without offering resistance, there’s only so much abuse they can take, and in the wake of the bandits’ latest “visit” the village elder (Vladimir Sokoloff) and a handful of brave men led by Hilario (Jorge Martinez de Hoyos) decide to do the unthinkable: sell what little crops they have and use the money to either buy guns or hire gunfighters to protect the village.
The villagers then trek to a small town in nearby Texas, where they witness a gutsy move by black-clad Chris (Brinner) and the restless Vin (McQueen): several well-meaning businessmen want to bury “Old Sam” in the town cemetery, but because the deceased was an Indian, the racists in town have threatened to kill anyone who performs a funeral ceremony. Though the men who want to pay for Old Sam’s burial insist on a decent burial ceremony, the town’s funeral parlor owner, Chamlee (Whit Bissell), is too scared to send his own driver to Boot Hill and doesn’t want the hearse to be damaged.
Chamlee: I'm sorry, friend, but there'll be no funeral.
Chamlee: Oh, the grave is dug and the defunct there is as ready as the embalmers ought to make him. But there'll be no funeral.
Henry: What's the matter? Didn't I pay enough?
Chamlee: It's not a question of money. For twenty dollars, I'd plant anybody with a hoop and a holler. But the funeral is off.
Henry: Now how do you like that. I want him buried, you want him buried and if he could sit up and talk, he'd second the motion. Now that's as unanimous as you can get.
As the Mexican farmers watch, Chris and Vin get on the hearse and, with guns at the ready, drive the wagon to the cemetery.
Vin: [Chris is driving the hearse up to Boot Hill; Vin is riding shotgun] Never rode shotgun on a hearse before.
This act of defiance under pressure impresses Hilario and his companions, and soon enough they approach Chris with a proposition: the villagers will give Chris and Vin everything they have in exchange for guns and the services of professional gunfighters.
[Villagers tell Chris they collected everything of value in their village to hire gunmen]
Chris: I have been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.
Though Vin is reluctant to join Chris at first, he eventually agrees to this unusual contract. But Vin knows that even if they arm the villagers with guns and give them some training, two gunslingers are not enough to challenge Calvera’s gang. They need a few more good men to join the team, and Chris happens to know where to start looking for them……
My Take: Like many movie buffs of my generation, I have seen this 1960 film exclusively on TV or home video; for many years after its theatrical release it aired (with commercial breaks) on independent television stations such as Miami’s WCIX and without ads on cable’s Turner Classic Movies. It’s also been available on videocassettes and DVD; I own the 2007 Western Legends Special Edition one-disc version which includes such extras as an audio commentary track by surviving cast and crew members, including actors Eli Wallach and James Coburn and producer Walter Mirisch, a making-of documentary, original theatrical trailers and a collectible booklet. (My set didn’t include the booklet, but I’m cool with that.)
The Magnificent Seven is a classic film, not only because it helped launch the acting careers of Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn and Charles Bronson, but because it took a tired, clichéd and predictable genre – the Western – and gave audiences a darker, more violent vision of the Old Southwest.
Director John Sturges does a – pardon the pun – magnificent job of not only getting great performances from his cast of American, German and Mexican actors, but also blending elements of action, straightforward drama, comic relief and even a little romance in the Americanized version of Seven Samurai.
The film also works thanks to the cinematography of Charles Lang (Some Like It Hot, Charade), who shot the film primarily on location in Mexico. The rugged and arid landscapes of northern Mexico come alive through the camera, and the action sequences are fluid and full of excitement and vibrant kinetic energy.
Of course, no review of The Magnificent Seven could be complete without mentioning composer Elmer Bernstein’s rousing Academy Award-nominated score, with its brassy Main Theme and its Mexican-inspired guitar riffs. Though clearly rooted in conventional Aaron Copland-style scores a la The Red Pony and Rodeo, Bernstein also quotes 20th Century classical music compositions for the film’s quieter, more introspective interludes. The Main Theme for The Magnificent Seven was so popular that the Marlboro cigarette commercials of the mid- to late Sixties used it to underscore shots of “the Marlboro Man.” (Interestingly, Elmer Bernstein would later compose the score to The Three Amigos, which is essentially a comedic version of The Magnificent Seven.)
The Magnificent Seven – as well as its Japanese source – has been tapped by many other filmmakers in different genres. Sergio Leone copied some of the thematic content from both Sturges and Kurosawa when he made his Dollars Trilogy with Clint Eastwood; Eli Wallach, who plays Calvera with gusto in The Magnificent Seven, would later co-star with Eastwood in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.
And if you examine George Lucas’s Star Wars – Episode IV: A New Hope (1977) closely enough, you’ll notice that the band of heroes which is formed during the rescue of Princess Leia from the Death Star totals seven: Luke Skywalker, Han Solo, Chewbacca, Obi-Wan Kenobi, R2-D2, C-3PO, and the Princess herself.
Read all 15 Reviews
Write a Review
Viewing Format: DVD
Video Occasion: Good for Groups
Suitability For Children: Suitable for Children Age 9 - 12