Out of the myriad of possible genres used in film one stands out as one of the most ubiquitous is the western. The American old west has served well as the foundation for every possible kind of story from light comedy to science fiction. At first thought you might think it would be difficult to translate a story set in feudal Japan to the Mexican border of the west but one film secured a place in cinematic history by achieving that very same goal; ‘The Magnificent Seven’. This film transcends your preconceptions of the western creating one of the great classics in the history of cinema. The brilliance of this film is how it is able to satisfy the requirements of the primary genre, the western, yet able to soar above that to true trans-cultural greatness. This film has journeyed beyond its notable influence on a generation of film makers infusing itself into many aspects of popular culture. The theme music composed by Elmer Bernstein remains one of the most recognizable in movies thanks not only to the pulse pounding percussive score but also the basis of one of the most successful ad campaigns for cigarettes prior to their ban from television. Not a single aspect of the production of this film can be found lacking in any way. It hits every requirement for success from the tightly written screenplay to the perfectly paced direction and a cast whose combined talent would be impossible to duplicate today. This is as close to the idealized perfect film as you are every likely to see. Albeit it is light on the feminine touch but for sheer testosterone drive action there are not many films worthy of standing next to this one. This is the ultimate western with a surprising philosophical core. If you do not have this on your shelves then you cannot claim to have a serious film collection.
The script for this movie was created during a dark period in American history when many creative screen writers were prohibited from plying their craft due to the anti-communist blacklist. In a fall out from the dreaded McCarthy era many actors, producers and actors were not able to work. The true authors of this screenplay, Walter Newman and Walter Newman went uncredited while William Roberts lent his name to the credits as a front. Although the blacklist was eventually listed it still prevented some great works like this film from being properly credited on screen. The story was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, Seven Samurai. I am usually not a big fan of remakes; they typically result from at least some degree of lack of imagination. This movie is the proverbial exception that proves the rule. The Japanese film explored a rough world were the powerful; could openly exploit the lower caste. The Old West fits this paradigm extraordinarily well. There was the same misuse of power counterbalanced by men of honor willing to place their lives on the line to do what is right. These men are outwardly drifters, men as violent and deadly as those preying on the weak. What elevates them above those men is s strong, unbreakable commitment to their personal code of conduct.
A small Mexican village is constantly terrorized by a bandit gang lead by the notorious bandito Calvera (Eli Wallach). On a fairly regular basis they swoop in like a horde of locust taking everything in sight. The situation was just barely acceptable when the thieves left the village enough for a meager existence but the last raid left nothing for the townsfolk to subsist on. Pushed into the corner with their very existence on the line the men of the town select one of their numbers to go out and hire some gunmen to defend the village. Their representative locates one gunman willing to help, Chris (Yul Brynner). For the remainder of the movie’s first act Chris recruits six more men with reputation of gun play. One of the best and most memorable scenes in the film is when Chris comes to Britt (James Coburn). This is a man not only deadly with a blade as he is with a gun. One man challenges Britt pressing this claim him drawing his gun against Britt pulling out and throwing his knife. Moments later that man is dead; gun in hand and knife sticking out of his heart as Britt picks up to follow Chris. Each man has a similar introduction provide a brief but very informative back story. All of the seven has a different reason for entering his profession and taking on this job but the one thing that binds these modern day ‘Ronin’ together was their dedication to honor. The film has a lot more than just action. One gunman, Bernardo (Charles Bronson) breaks from his gruff exterior forming a bond with three young boys in the village who come to idolize him. Adding to the mélange of flavors are stories about a young wannabe gunslinger, Chico (Horst Buchholz) who trails along until he his allowed to join and on the run Lee (Robert Vaughn) who is also running from his own fears. Of course you can’t have a film like this without an icon of ‘man’ films, Steve McQueen as Chris’ friend Vin.
It takes a lot of profession courage for a director to reinterpret a movie made by one of the true cinematic luminaries as Akira Kurosawa but John Sturges was more than up to the challenge. While this was a highlight in his amazing career it was not his only masterpiece. He also directed another favorite testosterone movie with McQueen; ‘The Great Escape’ and one of the classic cold war thrillers, ‘Ice Station Zebra’. This film proves that a great story demands to be reinterpreted by different generations, or in case, different cultures, the success of this film is ultimately based on the foundation of core human values, of the eternal battle; between good and evil. It also presents a view into another classic theme, the dual nature of man. Each of the seven is capable of deadly acts of violence but also are men of honor.