“Nobody throws me my own guns and says ride on. Nobody” ~ James Coburn as Britt
People always resonate with stories of valor, honor, and bravery. It doesn’t matter if it’s a war film, a tale of samurai, or a western. Thus, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai rather seamlessly became The Magnificent Seven, one of the most reputed westerns of the 1960s.
In theory & practice, it has everything you want in a western from a stellar cast to thrilling gunfights matched by one of the most epic soundtracks ever coming out of the annals of cinema.
But although it’s script is not exactly taut, you can hardly accuse The Magnificent Seven of being superficial. Its characters and its narrative are too satisfying for such a claim. After all, who wouldn’t want to see such a company as Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Bucholtz, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, and Brad Dexter? You have “The King and I,” “The King of Cool,” and about every other figure you would want in a good shoot’em up. They were seven who fought like 700.
In not completely splitting with its samurai roots, this western deals in moral codes and issues of honor perhaps more closely than even many of the best known western. The main issue here is that this laconic and sleek gang is brought together to defend a small Mexican border town made up of farmers against a bandit and his band of marauders. What causes men such as these to take on such a dangerous and in many ways such a one-sided job? For some it’s money (because they have none), some want the excitement, and for others, it’s something different. But all that matters is they all go into this together – some of the deadliest guns prepared to duke it out.
Into the valley road the seven rather like the light brigade, at first simply preparing to train up and prepare their little village of farmers to fight back against the brutal outlaw Calvera (Eli Wallach). But there’s something that happens over time. When you spend time in close proximity with people, eating their food and sharing their shelter, it’s hard not to build a bond — a connection that holds you there. At first, it seems of little consequence when the enemy gets beaten back, but everyone knows they will return with a vengeance.
Ultimately, the seven are betrayed and are given a clear choice. They can keep moving on or turn back the way they came. It’s just a small inconsequential town, but they cannot turn their back on it, even when they were betrayed. They grapple with what’s good, what’s right, and what’s rational, and then make their decision. It goes against all reason and yet into the valley road the seven together (eventually).
And we get the final skirmish with guns blazing, bullets flying, and lives being put on the line. Here is a film where the final body count deeply matters. Not so much of the enemy, but of our heroes, because each one chisels out a little niche for themselves. Everyone has worth and importance even as they jockey for screen time and it pays off in the end. They fight with honor just as they die with honor. Perhaps it might seem futile, but not without significance. The little village is left in peace to live out their days in tranquility. Calvera’s final words echo in their ears: “You came back – for a place like this. Why? A man like you. Why?”
Elmer Bernstein’s score is masterclass. Majestic, grand, playfully prancing about, and at the same time eliciting a grin from any boy who has ever dreamed of the Wild West. Furthermore, there are so many characters to idolize, because this film made ensemble action films the style along with the likes of The Great Escape, The Professionals, and The Dirty Dozen to name a few. This has always been one of my father’s favorite film’s and I can completely understand why. It has gunfights, bad guys, and good guys, quips, and tricks. But at the most basic level, it’s a striking parable about moral codes, personal pride, and the sacrifice that goes along with such things.