The Magnificent Seven

US (1960) Dir. John Sturges

The people of a small Mexican village are the victims of a group of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach), who constantly steal their food and supplies, forcing the villagers to work harder to grow double crops. Deciding they need to fight back three villagers head to the nearest town to buy some guns where they meet stoic gunslinger Chris (Yul Brynner) from whom they ask for help. Chris agrees and rounds up six other men – Chico (Horst Buchholz), Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), Vin (Steve McQueen), Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), Britt (James Coburn) and Lee (Robert Vaughn) – to help defend the village and teach the men how to shoot guns.

This is another one of those legendary films that has escaped my viewing list for a number of years, largely as I’m not a huge fan of westerns. But I knew one day I would have to make a rare exception based solely on the film’s origins of being a Hollywood remake of Kurosawa’s seminal Seven Samurai – itself influenced by the westerns of John Ford from the 20’s and 30’s. With Tinsel Town’s track record of remaking Asian or World Cinema films is somewhat akin to the current Tory Government’s track record on telling the truth, it is with some trepidation that I approached this film but surely it couldn’t be that bad since it has been held in such high esteem for the past fifty plus years?

Thankfully it isn’t and in fairness it is probably wise to not make immediate comparisons between the two films since the settings and central conceits carry with them subtle differences, both philosophically and geographically. Kurosawa’s film explores Japan’s sense of community, which is something ingrained in the Japanese from an early age, and this is expanded upon through the camaraderie of the samurai once they all come together. Then again Kurosawa had 3 ½ hours to tell his story, John Sturges had just over two which explains why this is only touched upon along with so many other key facets which were glossed over in his version, alongside the many scenes that were pretty much ported over almost literally.

To demonstrate Chris’s sense of social equality and humanity, the Mexicans witness him and Vin driving a hearse to the local graveyard to bury an Indian who was being refused a final resting place because of his race. This noble gesture is enough to convince them he is the man to help them buy guns but instead he ends up buying them gunmen. The seven arrive at the village and soon make a difference with their protection plans until Calvera and his men show up. The bandit is unable to hide his over confidence at seven men being scant opposition for his posse of forty but one gun battle later, with the aid of the trained villagers, and Calvera and what is left of his group are eating a large slice of humble pie. All that awaits the village now is Calvera’s revenge plan.

Unfortunately while Kurosawa’s film ended with a devastating and epic climatic battle, Sturges opted for a comparative quickie that doesn’t feel as rewarding as it should for the two hour build leading up to it. But the general essence of Kurosawa’s story is in place here and neatly adapted for the cultural changes, and the translation is unsurprisingly smooth since the original appeal of the move makers was that Seven Samurai was essentially as western film with swords. Since the bullied village were Mexicans and the Mexican censors objected to their people being portrayed as cowards, one significant script change insisted on was that the villagers were reliant on the seven to fight for them but they were a bonus as they went to find guns and not bodyguards. Since everyone was Japanese in the original no such concerns were ever brought to light but this is a minor concession that doesn’t harm this remake in any way.

With 90 minutes less on the run time, this film moves a lot more quickly but never too fast as so we don’t get a decent take on the main cast. Brynner is the senior one with the ideas and the gravitas to earn everyone’s trust; Vin was the slightly lawless one; Harry the greedy one; Chico the young eager fool; O’Reilly the surprisingly sensitive one who bonds with the kids of the village; Britt the quiet one and Lee the hesitant one going through a crisis of confidence. Despite the off screen rivalries between the cast members they create a fairly credible sense of bonding and chemistry between them. The only noticeable change from Kurosawa’s film is that Toshiro Mifune’s loose cannon jester character and Isao Kimura’s reckless youth are both combined in Chico’s character.

Amazingly this film wasn’t a hit in the US but scored big across Europe, spawning three ersatz sequels and a short lived TV series. It is only over time that its influence and place in film history has grown, earning it classic status on a global scale. Yul Brynner was the only real major star heading into the film but afterwards, most of the lesser known cast – McQueen, Bronson, Coburn and Vaughn – went onto to become legends in their own right. And of course we have to mention Elmer Bernstein’s stirring score, the theme tune alone being one of the most recognisable in modern cinema.

The Magnificent Seven is no Seven Samurai but what is? Instead it is an astutely realised and superbly executed fun adaptation of the Japanese masterpiece that carries enough weight to be recognised on its own merits, showing that sometimes Hollywood can get it right when it comes to remakes.