Field trip! We skipped a year to 1960 and went to see The Magnificent Seven at the Florida Theater in downtown Jacksonville. Movie theater-effect may partially explain the high score, as The Magnificent Seven tied for highest-rated movie we’ve watched yet.
It’s quintessential John Sturges, which means that it’s an action movie with an ensemble cast of mostly men. It’s a formula that Sturges used with varying success, from the brilliant The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape to the very watchable Bad Day at Black Rock and Ice Station Zebra (the movie Howard Hughes purportedly had on continuous loop when he cloistered himself in a hotel room near the end of his life) to the downright campy Marooned and Sergeants 3. Sergeants 3, which Sturges directed a few years after The Magnificent Seven, is a misfire that bears more than a few similarities to the latter.
Besides the numbers in the titles, there’s the Sturges formula set up above: large, male-dominated cast in an action movie. More importantly, both movies rework previous film classics set in Asia—SVU-approved Gunga Din for Sergeants 3 and Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai for The Magnificent Seven—onto a western setting.
The fatal flaw of Sergeants 3 is that it casts the Rat Pack in the leading roles. My old nemesis, Frank Sinatra, ruins yet another potentially good movie. Sinatra starred in another mediocre Sturges potboiler, Never So Few, with The Magnificent Seven co-star Steve McQueen. Being known as they are for their cool, it’s still a bit of a puzzle why the Rat Pack’s style did not mesh with Sturges’, but it didn’t. Sturges shared with Howard Hawks the very specific interest in coolness as professional self-confidence and apathy—the idea of a person being so good at what he or she does that he or she does not have to prove it. The Asiatic connection also seems apropos, as it’s an idea connected to the notion that ancient Asian masters did not advertise their skills, that they had to be sought out—the Yoda effect.
This notion of cool is one that may have reached its apotheosis in The Magnificent Seven. If there’s one thing that Seven does well, it’s that it achieves that Robin Hood/Knights of the Round Table feeling that an elite team is being assembled. From the moment Brynner and McQueen ride up boot hill on the hearse, you know that these are some seriously bad dudes. They’re like white, nineteenth-century versions of Shaft. Recast The Seven Samurai today, and the main Samurai ought to be played by Morgan Freeman. Recast The Magnificent Seven today, and it’s a crime if Samuel L. Jackson’s doesn’t get the part of Brynner’s cool and confident, shiny-headed Chris. And the team is chock full of bad dudes, not least among them being James Coburn’s sleepy knife-slinger.
Sturges’ two best movies, The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape, were heist capers disguised in other genres. They both reveled in the assemblage of a talented team united in a single goal. Perhaps the talent of the characters is matched only by the charisma of the actors plating them. If there was one directorial skill that set John Sturges apart, it was casting. Even his not-so-good movies, like McQ or Marooned, have cast lists that make you curious to see more. He could spot an up-and-coming actor a mile away. Bad Day at Black Rock features Lee Marvin before he did practically anything, Ernest Borgnine before his Academy Award, and Anne Francis before Forbidden Planet. The Magnificent Seven has Charles Bronson and James Coburn before they reached semi-stardom in exploitation fodder of the 1960s and 1970s, Robert Vaughn before The Man from Uncle, Eli Wallach before he was the Ugly in Leone’s western saga, Yul Brynner in a western before the idea made sense, and Steve McQueen after he was a television star but before he was an icon.
Having watched The Blob the previous week for 1958, McQueen’s growth as an actor is obvious. Granted, the script for The Blob did not give McQueen a great deal to work with, but his acting style resembled nothing so much as Hayden Christiansen in Attack of the Clones. In The Magnificent Seven, he’s still not the stalwart rebel against any and all authority he would become by The Great Escape, but he’s nowhere near playing the likable young WASP who tries to make time with Andy Taylor’s girl in The Blob. Vin is detached from the action, and he and Calvera form opposing sides of a Greek chorus commenting on the action.
Calvera is a very vocal philosopher who thinks that his superior understanding of the Seven makes for a complete understanding of them and finds out to his ultimate chagrin that he is wrong. It might be argued that Calvera is doomed partly because he is not cool in a Hawksian sense. He aggressively cares about the reactions of those around him where the Seven put on an air of apathy until the time comes for action. He questions everything where Vin uses his folksy aphorisms to avoid answering questions. Vin usually recasts the situation in a new light, as if that act got at some profound truth behind it (which reminds me: when does it ever seem like a good time to take of all your clothes and jump in a mess of cactus? Who in his right mind would ever think this was a good idea, no matter what time it was?)… or, more often, silently comments on the action through McQueen’s scene-stealing gestures. Calvera tries to use his questions and self-provided answers to win over those around him, and to some extent he genuinely wants an outside answer to even his most rhetorical questions. Vin just doesn’t care. Even within the group, he stands apart as Chris’s confidante, if not his equal.
Sturges’ movies, being, as I’ve said, usually male-oriented with sprawling casts, were interested in group dynamics. How guys establish or don’t establish hierarchical structure within their communities, and how they collectively come to decisions. This doesn’t come out so much in The Magnificent Seven, but it can be seen in the collective mentoring of Horst Bucholz’s character Chico by the other six, by the way the villagers stand around and discuss how to tackle their bandito problem, and by the way the best gunfighters—Vin excepted—all know Chris without an introduction.
All this being said, there is really one element that sets The Magnificent Seven apart. Without Elmer Bernstein’s score, The Magnificent Seven is enjoyable, even re-watchable, but not particularly captivating. Where The Seven Samurai is stygian, The Magnificent Seven is merely Sturgian. As much lip service as the movie pays to the ideas of a passing way of life and the irony of having a way of life based upon death, this is first and foremost an action picture. A very good one, but nothing remarkable. Bernstein wrote what is perhaps the most memorable score for a western ever, Marlboro man or no Marlboro man. The only score more iconic than this one is Morricone’s The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly soundtrack.
Of course, the only natural reaction to a film like this is to recast the principle actors/characters as the seven dwarfs. So what follows is a list of SVU’s humbly-presented-yet-brilliant choices.
This, of course, makes Eli Wallach the evil queen.