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The Magnificent Seven

In keeping with my goal of looking at a wide variety of movies, this week I’ll be looking at one of my favourite westerns ever, The Magnificent Seven.

First, a brief history lesson (apologies if this is redundant for some of you, feel free to skip the next two paragraphs if you’d like me to just get to the damn point already). The Magnificent Seven was released in 1960. It’s based on Japanese film called The Seven Samurai which came out in 1954. That movie was directed by Akira Kurosawa, who is often considered a visionary director because of his gift for cinematography, and his ability to put together great action sequences.

Hollywood liked Kurosawa so much that they developed quite a habit of adapting his films for North American audiences. The Magnificent Seven was the earliest (and most successful) such experiment but later on, Kurosawa’s film Yojimbo (1961) became A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), and Rashômon (1950) was remade as The Outrage (1964). I’ve seen all of those films, with the exception of The Outrage, and I think The Magnificent Seven is actually my favourite of the bunch. I definitely respect Kurosawa for paving the way though.

Last time I spent a little longer than I wanted to on explaining the plot of the movie. So this time, I’ll sum it up in one sentence, and we can all move on. Seven men are hired by a small village to defend it against a group of 30 bandits. There.

A big part of the reason I like The Magnificent Seven so much has to do with the cast. I mean, where else are you going to find Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Yul Brynner and Eli Wallach together in one place? They make up one of my favourite ensemble casts in any movie.

Steve McQueen is in typical form. I actually enjoy the scenes where he doesn’t have many lines, because even when he’s off in the background, he’s always doing something to try and be the center of attention, whether it’s fiddling with shotgun shells, shielding his eyes from the sun, or making some other distracting motion. McQueen and Bronson handle the smart-assery for the most part. Coburn is the tall, silent guy who doesn’t say anything unless its important. Meanwhile, Brynner, who plays the leader of the group, is smoking like a chimney in virtually every scene and dispensing a mixture of wisdom and witticisms between puffs. The rest of the seven is comprised of Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and Horst Buchholz, who aren’t spectacular, but don’t need to be what with all the great acting talent they’re surrounded with. Eli Wallach is also quite good; he plays the leader of the bandits.

Another thing I love about this movie is the dialogue, because even minor characters get great lines. For example, there’s an early scene where a hearse owner is explaining that he can’t get the body of an Indian to the cemetery to be buried because some racist, gun-toting townspeople are blocking the way. He grumbles, “My hearse driver’s quit.” To which a bystander says, “He’s prejudiced too, huh?” And the hearse owner fires back, “Well, when it comes to the chance of getting his head blown off, he’s downright bigoted.” I don’t know if that renders quite as well presented as words on the page (or computer screen in this case), but on film it’s a great scene.

The best thing about the dialogue is that it isn’t overdone. One of the problems that a lot of modern movies (action movies especially) suffer from (in my humble opinion) is an overuse of one-liners. The hero always has to either have a snappy, cliché answer for everything, or a long-winded speech that explains his history, or something like that. Compare that to a scene in The Magnificent Seven, when a townsperson asks Yul Brenner’s character “Where ya from?” At this point Brenner points a thumb behind himself. “Where ya goin’?” To which Brenner replies by pointing an index finger straight out in front of himself. Again, you kind of have to see it on film to appreciate it.

A prime example of the script not employing 10 words of dialogue when two will do presents itself the first time we are introduced to James Coburn’s character. In his first 5 minutes of screen time, he says exactly four words. Any character that talks only when something needs to be said has my approval.

I would be remiss if I didn’t mention the soundtrack. The soundtrack for The Magnificent Seven was composed by Elmer Bernstein. Its cornerstone is the main theme, which is an epic, sweeping tune that’s, well, it’s quintessentially western. It’s just one of those instantly recognizable themes, right up there with the music from The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

To sum up, if you like westerns and haven’t seen this one yet, do so ASAP.

Seeya next time.

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