Whenever I hear the rousing score of “The Magnificent Seven” I get goosebumps. Even on its own, it’s got to be one of the greatest compositions ever – but combined with the movie that goes along with it, the result is pure adventure and fun. I’ve mentioned before how much I love westerns, and this one is one of the most iconic. There’s an aspect of it that I’ve always admired – how the Mexican farmers are portrayed in the film. I remember thinking when I originally saw that it was one of the first times I’d seen Latinos on screen treated with such integrity. There’s quite a touching moment when young kids from the village tell O’Reilly (played by Charles Bronson) how they think their parents are cowards and how ashamed they are to live there. He gives them this great speech about farmers. “You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers,” he tells them. This is a big crowd-pleaser that is able to sneak in a few lessons and touches of depth.
The film is based on Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece “Seven Samurai” which remains one of the greatest films about battle and its influence on cinema is immeasurable. For example, this was one of the first instances where you had the now often used plot device of gathering a group of heroes for a determined goal. American director John Sturges loved the original so much – and having helmed a few westerns himself – understood he could transfer this Japanese tale of honor and duty into the American genre. With a pending strike hovering before the production, like the main character in “The Magnificent Seven” – Sturges had to gather his troop of actors rather rapidly. He cast up and comers who went on to become superstars on their own, including Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn and James Coburn. Sturges, who stuck pretty close to Kurosawa’s original plot – was able to create a stirring narrative about weary gunslingers who will rally – not for money but for a good cause. At the same time, it’s also a thoughtful reflection on men, violence and their guns. “It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun,” says the leader Chris (played by Yul Brynner). “Nothing big about that.”
Mexican villagers are being harassed by the ruthless bandit Calvera (an uber villainous Eli Wallach). “If God did not want them sheared,” he seethes, “he would not have made them sheep.” The villagers witness two mercenaries stand up for a Native American’s right to a proper burial and ask them to protect their people. They offer them all the money they have which is not much. “I have been offered a lot for my work,” Chris comments. “But never ‘everything.’ “Chris goes about gathering the help of seven mercenaries who will train the townspeople in gunplay as well as barricades and nets to trap Calvera.
Sturges makes inventive use of the widescreen CinemaScope format, placing the main characters against a big western landscape. It’s men in an unforgiving world. There are some fantastic set pieces. The first gunfight outside a cemetery is quite memorable. The camera follows the point of view of the wagon as it gets close to danger. James Coburn will have a suspenseful contest between his knife and another man’s gun. Vaughn will do some fly catching with his hand. Calvera will flee entrapment at full gallop wearing a bright red shirt.
The most memorable aspect of it all is the acting. Yul Brynner is quite a presence – wearing all black. He will be asked later on to play a version of this in “Westworld.” Bronson is brawny – and sensitive. Robert Vaughn is Shakespearean as a traumatized veteran and I love watching his hands in gloves. Coburn is rough-hewn. The standout is one of my all-time favorite actors – Steve McQueen. He’s wise-cracking and you cannot take your eyes off him. Wallach wrote in his autobiography that Brynner and McQueen did not get along during shooting and that Brynner was concerned about being upstaged. Rightly so. McQueen is constantly doing things next to the stoic, still presence of his co-star. He fidgets with his gun – moving while Brynner is speaking. He plays with the brim of his hat – dipping it over his eyes. It’s quite delightful – and McQueen is so cool. This led to international fame and his being paired again with Sturges in “The Great Escape.”
There have been many remakes and films that follow this formula. I encourage you to see the 1960 classic.
Calvera: “So much restlessness and change in the outside world. People no longer content with their station in life. Women’s fashions? Shameless. You’d weep if you saw how true religion is a now a thing of the past.”
Available to stream on Amazon Prime and to rent on YouTube, iTunes, Google Play, Vudu, Microsoft, Apple TV, Redbox, FandangoNOW and AMC Theatres on Demand.
Screenplay by William Roberts
Directed by John Sturges
Starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Horst Buchholz and James Coburn
Eli Wallach on Preparing for “The Magnificent Seven”
In the first Western I made, The Magnificent Seven, I said to the wonderful director John Sturges, “When I was a little boy watching Westerns, I never saw what the bandits did with the money. I would like to show you what I do with the money.” So I wore red silk shirts, I went to the dentist and had two gold caps put on my own teeth. The Mexican dentist said never mind the gold teeth, I will drill a hole in your own tooth and put a diamond in there, I said no thanks I’ll just do the gold! So that’s how things happen, out of thinking about your character. (moviemaker.com)
About Composer Elmer Bernstein
Born in New York of Ukrainian immigrant parents on April 4, 1922, he was originally destined for a career in classical music. As a young pianist, he gave his first concert at the age of 15 in New York’s Steinway Hall. Encouraged by Aaron Copland, he undertook composition studies with several important teachers including Roger Sessions and Stefan Wolpe. World War II intervened, and the young composer got his first taste of writing music for drama by working on radio shows in the Army Air Force. When the war ended, he returned to the highbrow world of classical piano, but continued to dabble in radio scoring for the United Nations and such legendary radio dramatists as Norman Corwin. His break came in 1950 when writer Millard Lampell, an old service buddy, convinced producer Sidney Buchman to hire the novice composer on a football movie he had written. “Saturday’s Hero” was made for Columbia, which released the film in 1951. The next year, his music for the Joan Crawford thriller, “Sudden Fear,” attracted critical attention. However, by 1953, he found himself virtually unemployable, reduced to doing B-movies like “Robot Monster” and “Cat Women of the Moon.” He soon learned that for his involvement with left-wing causes, he had been “graylisted”; and although he was never a member of the Communist Party, his having written music reviews for the “red” paper Daily Worker in the late ’40s, and having been associated with known party members, was enough to make the list. Bernstein wound up working as a rehearsal pianist for the ballet sequences in the film version of Oklahoma! and working with Danny Kaye’s wife, Sylvia Fine, jotting down her tunes for The Court Jester at Paramount. A studio music executive, taking pity on Bernstein, introduced him to Cecil B. De Mille, who was then shooting “The Ten Commandments” and who needed ancient-sounding music for dances in the film. Eventually, Victor Young—who had originally been signed to write the dramatic music—dropped out due to health reasons, and DeMille replaced the ailing composer with Bernstein.
During the year and a half that he was working on “The Ten Commandments,” he also composed the groundbreaking jazz score for “The Man with the Golden Arm” for director Otto Preminger. The soundtrack album for “Man with the Golden Arm” shot to No. 2 on the Billboard album charts in 1956, becoming one of the first hit movie soundtracks. These scores catapulted Bernstein onto the “A” list of Hollywood composers and wiped out any more talk of “graylisting.” “Golden Arm” won him his first Oscar nomination and launched a series of jazz-oriented Bernstein scores, including “Sweet Smell of Success,” “The Rat Race,” TV’s “Staccato” and “Walk on the Wild Side.” The jazz scores, plus the spate of Westerns and dramas that would dominate the composer’s work throughout the ’60s, helped to solidify his reputation as a master of musical Americana. The robust, exciting music of “The Magnificent Seven” brought another Oscar nomination and offers to do Westerns of all kinds, including seven John Wayne films, among them “The Comancheros” (1961), “True Grit” (1969) and “The Shootist” (1976). Meanwhile, Bernstein’s close relationship with producer Alan J. Pakula and director Robert Mulligan led to one of his most memorable scores, and for one of the finest American movies ever made: “To Kill a Mockingbird.” The familiar classic about racial prejudice, set in a small town in the depression-ridden South, won Oscars for Gregory Peck and screenwriter Horton Foote in 1962, and a nomination for Bernstein. His understated music, composed for a chamber-sized ensemble rather than the more traditional full orchestra, quickly became a new model for film composers. Bernstein’s versatility as a composer was again demonstrated when, the very next year, he created another classic with the theme for “The Great Escape”… It was also in the ‘60s that Bernstein produced what may have been the best of his five scores for director George Roy Hill: United Artists’ production of James Michener’s epic historical novel, “Hawaii” (1966). A labor of love and a personal favorite, Bernstein’s soaring, symphonic tapestry of grand proportions earned him an Oscar nomination and the Golden Globe Award.
Elmer Bernstein was more than a composer—he was an explorer—always intrigued by the potential of creative collaborations and applying his musical dexterity to different media. Trips to Broadway earned him Tony nominations for best musical score in 1967 for “How Now Dow Jones” and in 1983 for “Merlin.” One of his songs for “How Now Dow Jones,” “Step to the Rear,” even became a hit…Throughout his career, Bernstein took on a number of leadership roles, including stints as vice president of the Academy of Motion Picture Arts & Sciences, president of the Young Musicians Foundation, president of The Film Music Society and, most significantly, a decade-long tenure as president of the now-defunct Composers and Lyricists Guild of America during the 1970s—where he fought a lengthy, expensive and ultimately futile battle against the studios in an effort to restore composers’ rights to their music for movies and TV. He was also avidly interested in educating young people: giving back to his childhood school, Walden, in New York City; helping to establish the Young Musicians Foundation; and regularly conducting the Valley Symphony Orchestra. Determined to help promote the great legacy of Hollywood film music, Bernstein invested his own money in the “Film Music Collection,” conducting a series of recordings of classic scores and issuing a quarterly journal on the subject. Bernstein’s career took a surprising turn in 1978, thanks to a call from his son Peter’s old school chum, John Landis. Landis, then 27 and a film director, asked Bernstein to score his raucous college comedy “Animal House” starring John Belushi. Almost overnight, Bernstein became Hollywood’s go-to composer for funny movies, and for the next decade he was largely typecast in that role. Airplane! came in 1980, followed over the next four years by the “Saturday Night Live” alumni movies, “The Blues Brothers” (John Belushi and Dan Aykroyd), “Stripes” (Bill Murray), and “Ghostbusters” (Dan Aykroyd and Bill Murray). For his 1983 comedy, “Trading Places,” starring Eddie Murphy and Dan Aykroyd, Landis talked Bernstein into crafting a classical score from Mozart’s “The Marriage of Figaro,” for which he would receive an Oscar nomination for Best Adaptation Score. He eventually tired of comedies, however, and shifted back to smaller, more finely crafted dramas, such as Noel Pearson’s critically acclaimed “My Left Foot” (1989), starring Daniel Day Lewis. The Grifters marked Bernstein’s first work with celebrated filmmaker Martin Scorsese…For Scorsese as director, Bernstein adapted Bernard Herrmann’s original “Cape Fear” score for the 1991 remake; provided the musical atmosphere for “Bringing Out the Dead;” and wrote a stunning score, although ultimately unused, for “Gangs of New York.” He received a 1993 Oscar nomination for the elegant music of Scorsese’s The Age of Innocence. Bernstein’s last major film score was for the critically praised, Todd Haynes-directed drama, “Far From Heaven,” starring Julianne Moore and Dennis Haysbert. It earned him his final Academy Award nomination in 2002. (elmerbernstein.com)
About Director John Sturges
Mr. Sturges was born in Oak Park, Ill., and attended Marin Junior College near San Rafael, Calif. He joined RKO-Radio Pictures in 1932 in the blueprint and editing departments. After the war, he returned to Hollywood and made his debut as a director in 1946. His first two pictures were “Shadowed” and “The Man Who Dared.” He gave starring roles to Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn in “The Magnificent Seven” in 1960 and “The Great Escape”in 1963. Lee Marvin and Ernest Borgnine earned wide recognition in “Bad Day at Black Rock,” for which Mr. Sturges was nominated for an Academy Award for direction in 1955.