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"The Magnificent Seven"
Welcome to my page of notes on themes and characters in the famous 1960 remake of "Seven Samurai", directed by John Sturges and starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz.
While fully recognising the debt owed to "Seven Samurai", this is not intended as a discussion of that film, but a discussion of "The Magnificent Seven", a remake which deserves to be regarded as a great achievement in its own right.
Why was "M7" so successful, and why does it occupy a special place in the hearts of many?
The premise is very simple - good versus bad. On the one hand we have bullying, violent and selfish bandidos, and on the other we have honest, hardworking farmers who decide to make a stand for principle and against tyranny. They set out to buy guns to defend themselves, but hire men instead.
And so we have the makings of a good action adventure film. However, "M7" is so much more than that, and great fun though they may be, it is not the action sequences that remain memorable long after the end of the film, but the quieter and more thoughtful scenes in which the seven discuss or discover their feelings and motivations. This is, in my opinion, the key to the success of this film - the evolution of the characters. In fact I would go so far as to say that this is a drama in the guise of an action film.
The script (by Walter Newman with additions by William Roberts) is very clever in that the seven are clearly drawn, with each showing a different motive for involvement in the defence of the village, while also advancing the narrative at a fairly brisk pace. However, along the way time is made to deal with other matters such as the way in which "civilisation" was developing, leaving little or no place for hired guns whose previous assistance helped create the situation where "civilisation" became possible. Indeed their very existence is becoming an embarrassment to the very forces of law they helped establish.
It is essential to note that these men are not immoral killers, but hired guns or mercenaries who sell their skills, skills which were required at a time when law and order were not the norm.
There are a considerable number of reflections on the lives these men lead, mostly regretful, revealing a sad and often lonely existence, and evoking sympathy and admiration in the audience as they pursue their objective in spite of their social rejection, and as they discover the reward of fighting for a cause rather than financial gain.
Clearly we have come across our heroes (with the possible exception of Chico) at a time in their careers when they need something more than the mere excitement of action and the lure of money, or have reached a stage where reflection is catching up on previous actions. As in life, timing is as important as skill and ability, and the farmers happen to be in the right place at the right time when they meet Chris, Vin and the others - just as they (the seven) are open to admire the courage and determination of the farmers, who patiently cultivate the land and watch things grow while they get involved in squabbles and fights which will ultimately lead to their own demise.
That the script deals well with all of these aspects of life is admirable, but that it does so with great humour and a sense of camaraderie and fun is quite magical. For me the essential ingredient in making this at times existential drama so entertaining is the injection of humour.
This is perhaps not the first western to look at the profession of the gunfighter, but I think it was probably the first to make such existential thoughts and considerations fashionable and fun. The humour makes the characters all the more human, and that in turn makes their positions all the more touching and thought provoking. Of course it also serves to make the whole very entertaining and thus more acceptable.
It would be possible to analyse every scene of the film to try to illustrate points I have tried to make above, but I think that looking at one sequence would be sufficient. The superbly written funeral sequence near the beginning of the film not only provides us with an excellent exposition, but also encapsulates the "feel" of the entire film and lets us know exactly what to expect.
A man has dropped dead in the street and is to be buried in Boot Hill. However, an opinionated minority are refusing to allow the burial to take place because the dead man was an Indian. Chris (aided by Vin) offers to drive the cart up the hill in order to get things moving. On the way there, and at the top of the hill they deal with a few trouble makers before returning triumphant to the delight of onlookers.
And so we have gunfighters working without pay for a cause (in an apparently simple act of driving a cart, but they are actually making a stand against racism), helping out the silent but frightened majority. The "baddies" outnumber our heroes (who have paired up and formed an instant and professional camaraderie), but they win the day through skill and courage. On their return we are told this is a time of change and while the salesmen who paid for the burial head off to pursue their mundane lives, swearing they will never forget the stuff of legends they have just witnessed, our heroes are left wondering what the future holds for them.
The excitement of the buggy ride and their triumphant return are punctuated by humour and fun, yet it is tinged with sadness and foreboding as our heroes discuss the options now open to them - working as a clerk in a grocery store, or drifting aimlessly looking for action as people settle down.
To me, this scene introduces and also sums up the themes of the film. Perhaps our heroes are looking for redemption, perhaps they are just tired, or perhaps they themselves feel the need to settle down. The feelings of this dying breed are famously summed up at the end of the film when Chris says that only the farmers have won.
Finally, no discussion would be complete without mention of the marvellous music by Elmer Bernstein - music which not only captures and enhances the excitement, but also the more poignant and touching moments.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page - I hope you found it of some value. I would, of course, be delighted to hear from anyone wishing to discuss either the film or the contents of this page further. I can be contacted firstname.lastname@example.org .
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Due to technical problems (and my inability to cope with them), new material will be posted on My Blog. Please check for regular updates. These include various articles, discussions of "Dunkirk", "Dances With Wolves", “The Prisoner” (1967 TV series), “Inherit the Wind” (1960 film), a little Flash Fiction and some of my memoirs as a teacher in a small Highland school for some 35 years.