Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)

“They were seven – And they fought like seven hundred!”

2 Stars
The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven (1960)


Director: John Sturges

Cast: Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson

Synopsis: Seven gunmen unite to protect the peasants of a Mexican village from a rampaging gang of bandits.

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Back in 1960, 30-year-old Steve McQueen (The Blob, The Thomas Crown Affair) might have been a novice compared to Yul Brynner (Anastasia, Escape from Zahrain) when it came to high-profile movie roles, but he was something of an expert in capturing the audience’s attention.   Just watch the way he briefly shades his face from the sun with his hat while sat atop the hearse in which he and Brynner transport a coffin to a Boot Hill cemetery.   Although Brynner sits nearest the camera, it’s McQueen that we watch.   The Russian actor, who had recommended McQueen for the part of gambler Vin Tanner, was understandably aggrieved by his young co-star’s antics: ‘If you don’t stop that, I’m going to take off my hat,’ he warned McQueen, ‘and then no one will look at you for the rest of the film.’   Future Man from UNCLE, Robert Vaughn (Bullitt), who played Lee, the sharply dressed gunman undergoing a crisis of confidence, also grew wise to McQueen’s tricks and began ad-libbing to throw him off his lines.   Where was director John Sturges while all this was going on?   You may well ask.   Sadly, incidents like this demonstrate the lack of discipline and control on set which has resulted in The Magnificent Seven’s failure to be regarded as the genre Classic it could so easily have been.

It’s a Hollywood remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai, with the action transferred from 16th Century feudal Japan to the American West sometime in the 1880s.   Independent producer Walter Mirisch’s commercial priorities make any attempt at comparison redundant, however.   The Magnificent Seven is a big, bold event movie, although the cast list looks more impressive today that it would have upon its release.   Brynner plays Chris Larabee Adams, a gun for hire who takes pity on a trio of impoverished Mexican peasants in need of gunmen to protect their village from the rapacious bandit Calvera and his gang, who repeatedly relieve their village of the crops it needs to survive the winter.   Watching Eli Wallach (The Sentinel) sink his teeth into the part of Calvera, one can’t help believing it must have played a part in Sergio Leone’s decision to cast him as Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.

Chris assembles an assortment of men to aid him in his mission.   In addition to McQueen’s gambler, and Vaughn’s gun for hire, there’s husky Brad Dexter (Fourteen Hours) as Harry Luck, a soldier of fortune who’s convinced Chris has some ulterior motive for gathering them together that will ultimately lead to great wealth for them all; a pre-stardom James Coburn (Waterhole #3, The Last of Sheila) plays Britt,  a laconic cowboy who’s just as deadly with a knife as he is with a gun, while Charles Bronson (Apache, A Thunder of Drums) is a high-priced gun for hire whose unexpected affinity with the village children proves to be unforeseeably costly.   Finally, there’s a youthful Horst Buchholz, given arguably undeserved prominence as the hot-headed, but good-hearted youngster out to make a name for himself.   Once assembled, this band of outcast and drifters travel to the beleaguered village south of the border, accompanied on their journey by the unforgettable strains of Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score.

Those with memories of watching The Magnificent Seven as a child will only have to hear the first strains of Bernstein’s iconic music to feel the hairs rise on the back of their neck, but things become a little flat once the action shifts to the village, and the film treads water when it should be piling on the tension one would expect from a movie that’s building towards a climactic gunfight.  This dull period is interrupted by a well-staged skirmish when the Seven first encounter Calvera, but most of the fireworks are saved for the final mass gunfight which, it has to be said, is something of a disaster.   Shapeless and confusing, we watch with mounting dismay as lives are lost through schoolboy errors to assailants who are largely never seen, and the highly anticipated showdown between Chris and Calvera has to qualify as one of the most anti-climactic in movie history.

The Magnificent Seven could hardly be described as a bad movie, but it is one that fails to live up to its inflated reputation, and will probably disappoint those for whom it holds fond childhood memories.   There’s something undeniably cool about the cast, though, and their brazen attempts to upstage one another lends an added dimension to their interplay and the wry and often witty dialogue from William Roberts.

(Reviewed 28th September 2016)

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