This weekend, one of the biggest releases of the fall hits theaters, the big budget all-star casted remake of John Sturges’s 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven. This puts The Magnificent Seven in a unique company of films that have been remade more than once. While this has happened plenty of times [more than you would expect], there are few instances where all films in the series were individually notable. Fewer others have no relation to another source [Shakespeare adaptations, for example]. First came Seven Samurai, one of the greatest films of all time; a swashbuckling samurai epic from Akira Kurosawa. This quintessential Japanese film was then transported the the quintessential American genre for The Magnificent Seven.
If you don’t know the film, the title refers to a group of gunslingers [well, one is technically a knifeslinger] who are hired to protect a Mexican village from a group of violent bandits led by the ruthless Calvera [Eli Wallach in one of his many race-bending roles]. John Sturges, a journeyman filmmaker known for tough guy films like The Great Escape and Bad Day at Black Rock, directs an all-star cast made of established and future stars with a superb action script by William Roberts. The Magnificent Seven came at the crossroads of the classic and revisionist western and is itself something in between—it isn’t as violent or morose as westerns to come, but its themes of freedom, independence, and masculinity align more to the classics.
The entire film is a process in the most entertaining way—it’s slick and always moving toward something. This starts with the classic “putting the team together” sequence. The trope was obviously not original [see: Seven Samurai] but may have been perfected here. The way each member of the eventual seven is recruited tells you just what you need to know about their character: their skills, their level of desperation, their drive for competition or violence or acceptance. As Adams and Tanner go from man to man, they know they don’t have a lot to offer in terms of money or amenities and there isn’t any particular reason to think they see any moral obligation to join the cause—these aren’t typical anti-heroes, but they're not saints, either. They do, however, have the thrill of mythmaking on their side, and that’s something a fictional character in the western genre can’t pass up.
The best character introduction comes to Britt [James Coburn], who is ultimately a minor character with a unique and impressive skill. In the scene, a napping Britt is challenged by an angry cowboy to a modified shoot out. Rumor has it that Britt is so quick throwing a knife that he can beat trained gunmen to the draw, but his confronter doesn’t buy it. The showdown we see is important to build up the group, taking a step beyond mythologizing them and preparing us for the impossible odds they will come to face. While we don’t see Bernardo or Lee make this kind of audition, we can take the characters at their word knowing that they are the best men available for the job.
Naturally, with this super team ensemble set-up, the cast is spectacular. Yul Brynner is the head of the outfit, the hero in the black hat. He’s selfless and loyal with a little edge to him. And his chiseled appearance is iconic. If you’ve ever seen the sci-fi western Westworld, there’s no way to see Brynner in this role and not be a little terrified. Steve McQueen plays his right-hand-man and the first he comes across. Vin Tanner is the perfect type of role for the action star, handsome, quiet and strong-willed. The rest of the cast includes future stars Charles Bronson [in an emotional resonant performance, at that], an ultra-young James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn as the fractured fugitive with his own set of quirks.
But it is the lesser known Horst Buchholz who feels like the biggest standout. This may be a bit revisionist because he’s one of the few in the title group who doesn’t stand out for any other particular role, but his performance as hothead Chico is a fantastically charismatic turn. He fits right in with the new school of young macho actors who came to prominence in the 1950s. Buchholz has the looks, the expressive passion, and the ability to change from action to comedy to romance effectively. All in all, Buchholz had a productive career with 89 credited roles, but he would never reach the star quality shown in The Magnificent Seven.
As is set up in the first act of the film, everything leads to the epic showdown between the seven and the villagers they’re protecting against the gang of cruel banditos. While The Magnificent Seven’s finale isn’t as intense as similar western The Wild Bunch [but, really, what is?], the closing scenes offer a fantastic amount of emotional resonance. As we’ve spent time with this group of ragtag roustabouts, the films somehow makes them lovable. Most surprising is Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly as the ultimate tough guy actor’s relationship with the village’s children becomes the emotional center of the film. The incredible stakes dictate that not everyone can survive and [spoiler alert] not everyone does. Blockbuster action films don’t often make every member of the ensemble count as much as The Magnificent Seven, which is a saving grace toward the end of the film.
The Magnificent Seven holds a strange place in cinema history. It will likely never be as highly regarded as its Japanese inspiration, but is just as beloved and has become an inspiration in its own right. While the narrative elements that continue to trickle down in action films can all be drawn back to Seven Samurai, the Hollywoodization provided by The Magnificent Seven is important. Films like Armageddon, Fast and the Furious, The Expendables, even Suicide Squad, and any of the dozens of films that put together a super team owe a lot to The Magnificent Seven. With Antoine Fuqua’s reimaging being released this week, a well-deserved spotlight is being put on the classic.
Here what you'll see this week:
- A review of the 2016 remake
- A deep dive into inspirations and modifications between Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven
- Streaming recommendations of great remakes
- And more!