“We deal in lead, friend.”
In the fall of 1956, Anthony Quinn watched a special screening of Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai and had an epiphany: this Japanese masterpiece, inspired by the great American westerns of John Ford, would, itself, make a great American western. Quinn acquired the rights and contacted his then close friend Yul Brynner and pitched the idea of him playing the bad guy and Brynner the good guy. Brynner screened Kurosawa’s film and called in producer Walter Mirisch, who in turn contacted director John Sturges (Bad Day at Black Rock, Gunfight at the OK Corral, The Great Escape). Sturges loved the concept and immediately set about acquiring the rights, ultimately forcing Quinn out of the picture. Quinn sued, but lost.
Sturges took control and, in 1960, assembled (under a last-minute deadline to avoid an upcoming actors’ strike) the most testosterone-laden, badass cast possible, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn. Bronson, Coburn and McQueen were relative unknowns at the time, but John Sturges knew men when he saw them … except with an unknown German actor Horst Buchholz.
For some reason Sturges thought Buchholz would be a huge star and cast him as Chico, the (German-accented) Mexican hothead and shot the most film on him. It wasn’t until he saw the audience’s positive reaction to the real stars (like Coburn, who had only eleven lines in the film, but stole every scene) and their ambivalence to the German actor, that Sturges realized Horst wasn’t anywhere near being in the other actors’ league.
Steve McQueen’s contract with the television show, Have Gun Will Travel wouldn’t allow him the time to do the movie, but he wanted to do it so badly he got his wife into their car, asked her if she was ready, and staged a high-speed car crash (before seat belts) to get out of shooting the TV show due to medical leave. He then stole away to Mexico to join the cast of the movie.
The film was given a limited release in America and flopped. No wonder. Watch the original trailers and you will begin to understand that the studios had no clue how to market this western. However, overseas it became a box office hit. So much so that by the time they re-released it back in the states it took off, becoming one of the last great westerns. Television and Spaghetti Westerns would destroy the western as we knew it; in spite of that The Magnificent Seven would spawn three sequels and a hit television series.
The story is simple, Mexican peasant farmers hire seven gunslingers from north of the border to protect them from a small army of bandits. The movie Vera Cruz came out six years previously and caused Mexicans to riot in the theaters at their people’s depiction. Hollywood was hated by the nation, so in order to shoot there, Mexican censors were on set. The peasants weren’t even allowed to have dirty clothes, and even though they were working in dirt, their clothes were spotless, but still the movie was so deeply offensive to Mexicans it was banned there. The idea of Mexicans needing Americans to come and save them didn’t sit well with Mexican officials, but every other country on Earth ate it up, and it forever changed the face of the Western genre.
This is old-school Western mythos at its best. All the actors had a blast on set, and a healthy spirit of competition kept them one-upping each other before the cameras. Yul Brynner is all swagger and attitude, selling that he really was Creole in spite of his Mongolian accent. Steve McQueen really shines and finds little bits of business to do in each shot that keep your eyes riveted on him, upstaging any other actor unfortunate enough to share the scene with him (Brynner was supposedly so worried about McQueen stealing his limelight in scenes that he hired an assistant to count the number of times McQueen touched his own hat when Brynner was speaking). Charlie Bronson smolders and glares brilliantly. James Coburn is effortlessly cool, his body language speaking louder than any of his lines. Napoleon Solo … er … Robert Vaughn shows off his acting chops as the gunslinger who’s lost his nerve. Brad Dexter is charming bundle of muscle and comedic timing. And then there is Eli Wallach …
When Eli Wallach came on set to play the notorious Mexican bandit, Calvera, he was paired up with 35 real-life Mexican cowboys/banditos hired for five bucks a day. These men were really armed and dangerous. The “bandit gang” adopted Wallach as one of their own. In the mornings before shooting started, but after Wallach was in costume, he and the group would go riding together for an hour so they would look appropriately sweaty and dirty. Additionally, members of the gang insisted on doing the final checks for Wallach’s horse tack and prop gun before he was allowed to use either. Included in this gang was a disgraced Mexican director who once shot a critic in the balls with his pistol for giving a bad review.
The Magnificent Seven is presented in its original aspect ratio of 2.35:1. The ultra-high-definition image presentation is arrived at with an HEVC codec at an average of 70 mbps. The film was shot on 35mm so is native 4K. There has also been extensive restoration here, and it shows. The Dolby Vision/HDR bump becomes easy to spot right from the bright red credits. The grain hasn’t been removed by excessive DNR, and the organic nature of the film remains perfectly intact. The print has been restored, so it’s quite clean. There aren’t any scratches or other artifacts of age to distract from the experience, and this is pretty much how you might have experienced it in a theatre in 1960. Textures are a massive improvement both in clothes and the dusty environments. The vistas are also a huge step up. The deep blue skies and distant horizons are part of what made this such an iconic film. The cinematography is epic, which wasn’t often used to Westerns before Sturgis came along. That grand presentation is certainly restored to this release. The restoration is respectful to the source material and brings us the movie you were always expected to see. Huge improvement over even the relatively recent Blu-ray.
The DTS-HD 2 channel mono remains for purists along with a DTS-HD MA 5.1 track, which is how I watched the film. There’s isn’t a lot of aggressive messing with the original audio here. The surrounds merely provide depth, and there’s certainly a little more punch to the subs here. The dialog is well preserved as well as the iconic score.
The extras are found one on each the Blu-ray disc.
Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven (SD, 47 min) – This is a great making-of doc. The anecdotes are engaging with interviews from most of the cast and main crew. It is a wonder this film ever got made and a credit to Sturges’ drive and vision. This is a must-watch for any fan of the film.
The Linen Book: Lost Images from The Magnificent Seven (SD, 15 min) – A treasure trove of publicity pictures were discovered in a Kansas salt mine by MGM’s head photo archiver, Maggie Adams. Cast members reminisce over the photos. More great stories,
Elmer Bernstein and The Magnificent Seven (SD, 15 min) – This score is as iconic as the movie. Film historian Jon Burlingame reviews each musical segment, peeling back the layers to examine the themes in relation to each specific scene.
The disc also contains two separate Theatrical Trailers. Wow, do these suck. No wonder the film bombed on first release. I love the kitsch Magnificent Seven jingle.
Sir Christopher Frayling On The Magnificent Seven: (20:22) Frayling is a film historian who first offers us his perspective on the film’s place in western cinema history and then goes down the line of the seven major characters and actors and offers some insights.
“Generosity … that was my first mistake. I leave these people a little bit extra, and then they hire these men to make trouble. It shows you, sooner or later, you must answer for every good deed.”
You can’t help but get swept up in the magnificence of The Magnificent Seven. This movie is so manly it will put hair on your chest. I saw this film many times as child, and to this day I want to be a Wild West gunslinger because of it. This is a classic that truly stands the test of time. Each of the leads creates a distinct archetype and their interaction is flawless. The Oscar-nominated score is still pulse-pounding.
Parts of this review were written by Gino Sassani