The Big Picture
- The Magnificent Seven borrows its premise from Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and became a sensation with its iconic shootout sequence.
- The film balances comedic elements and thrilling action, making it a fun and entertaining Western.
- Director John Sturges takes risks by saving the majority of the spectacle for the final sequence, allowing audiences to connect with the characters and their emotional journey.
The Western genre has existed since the earliest days of cinema, and even early Westerns like The Great Train Robbery emphasized that at their heart, these were action movies. That definition has certainly expanded thanks to subversive westerns that incorporate other genres, including the social drama of Robert Altman’s McCabe and Mrs. Miller, the romantic tragedy of Ang Lee’s Brokeback Mountain, or Mel Brooks’ parodical examination of genre archetypes in Blazing Saddles. However, a majority of the greatest Westerns of all time are known for their fearsome villains and heroic gunslingers, who end up crossing paths in some sort of violent brawl or battle. When looking at the history of the Western genre and its evolution, no shootout sequence is quite as iconic as the village battle that concludes the 1960 classic The Magnificent Seven.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ Borrows From Kurosawa
The Magnificent Seven tells the story of a group of very different gunslingers that are forced to become a team when a Mexican village hires them to serve as protectors when their community begins getting robbed by a gang of ruthless bandits intent on destroying their property, and sparing few lives while doing so. The Cajun gunslinger Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), the enigmatic traveler Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), desperate assassin Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), wartime veteran Lee (Robert Vaughn), spiritual fortune man Harry Lucky (Brad Dexter), knife-wielding warrior Britt (James Coburn), and hot-headed gunfighter Chico (Horst Buchholz) aren’t the type of men who would generally team up, but facing their own personal debts, they decide to form an alliance in order to protect the innocent community of farmers, families, and children.
If the narrative itself sounds fairly familiar, it’s because the premise is lifted from Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic Japanese masterpiece Seven Samurai, a film often cited as one of the greatest works of cinema of all time. It’s not the only time a Kurosawa film has inspired an English-language adaptation; Sergio Leone’s first entry in “The Man With No Name” trilogy, A Fistful of Dollars, was inspired by Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, and his spiritual masterpiece Ikiru inspired the British remake Living, which earned Billy Nighy his first Academy Award nomination for Best Actor. However, The Magnificent Seven is the rare example of a Kurosawa reinterpretation that became a sensation in its own right thanks to its pivotal shootout sequence and even inspired a remake of its own in 2016 starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt.
The Magnificent Seven feels like a respectful interpretation because there’s a clear difference between the two, and not just because Seven Samurai is set in medieval Asia and The Magnificent Seven is set in the post-Civil War era of the Old West. Seven Samurai wrestles with themes of honor, loss, economic turmoil, and redemption within its epic tale of shamed heroes working up the courage to fight their oppressors. In comparison, The Magnificent Seven is a rather goofy, fun Western action movie, but the premise of Kurosawa’s masterpiece was so unique that it is easily applied to another genre. The contrast can best be seen in the ways that the two films handle their climaxes; Seven Samurai’s final raid sequence is a gripping work of drama, whereas The Magnificent Seven stages a thrilling series of escalating circumstances that pits the seven heroes against the menacing gang leader Calvera, played in a scary chewing performance by the late great Eli Wallach.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ Builds Great Characters
Saving the majority of the spectacle for the final sequence was a risky narrative decision on the part of director John Sturges. By 1960, audiences had grown accustomed to Westerns like Stagecoach and Rio Bravo where danger was present in every corner, and the gunfights were smaller and more personal. However, the expanded cast necessitated a certain amount of time beforehand for the audience to identify with each of the characters and learn why they’ve fallen into their chosen lifestyle. Brenner becomes the de facto lead due to Chris’ resilience when it’s clear that they’re outnumbered and outmatched; he insists that with the villagers’ help, they can outsmart the bandits and prey upon their greed in order to win the battle.
Other relationships made prior to the battle also hold emotional value; Chico falls in love with the local woman Petra (Rosenda Monteros), and even McQueen’s steel-hearted character Tanner admits that he’s become emotionally attached to the villagers and that his desire to help them isn’t just because of the monetary rewards he will earn. The group comes to rely upon the knowledge of a village elder (Vladimir Sokoloff) and ultimately succeeds in convincing the civilians to take part in their own protection. This makes the climax even more exciting, as the viewer gets to see how the villagers train and evolve before the battle so that they can properly defend their homes.
Sturges is no stranger to crafting a great set piece, as he had previously helmed 1957’s Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, and would go on to direct the 1963 classic The Great Escape. There’s a delicacy to Sturges’ work that mirrors what today’s best superhero team-up movies have done; there’s no issue with having a prolonged battle if each of the characters gets their “cheer-worthy” moment and gets to do something heroic. Even Harry, who had previously ditched the group out of fear, returns to help free captive villagers and add his pistols to the battle. Of course, it’s Brenner who gets the most satisfying moment of them all when he guns down Calvera in a one-on-one standoff where he doesn’t say a word.
If all of this wasn’t exciting enough, Elmer Bernstein’s iconic musical track wraps up the villager’s victory with an exciting rendition of the heroic theme; it’s evident that not only are the villagers “heroes” like the men they hired, but that each of the gunslingers can walk away from the shootout having become a better man. There’s a simplistic, charming beauty to The Magnificent Seven that makes it a classic, but the all-time great climax is what elevates it among the Western genre’s greatest achievements.