Western Approaches Chapter 14
The plot line of the Magnificent Seven is simple in outline. A Mexican village grows tired of being raided every year by the same gang of bandits. They consult the village elder who sends villagers across the border into the United States to buy guns so they can fight back. Once there, they are persuaded that hiring gunmen would be cheaper, so that is what they do. They ride back to their village with seven Americans who help them drive off the bandits. Four of the seven are killed and one stays behind in Mexico while the other two ride home.
It’s based on Akira Kurosawa’s film The Seven Samurai and the plot line is almost identical. Except that in the original the elder doesn’t bother with the bit about guns and goes straight for the sixteenth century Japanese equivalent of gunslingers – samurai warriors. This is changed in this version, as it was seen to be patronising to the point of insult to suggest that Mexicans needed Americans in order to defend themselves.
The film divides neatly in two with a prologue and epilogue.
Credits and Prologue
The film opens to a long landscape shot of a Mexican plain with rugged mountains in the mid-distance and harvested crops drying in the foreground. A few ramshackle barns suggest both poverty and diligent hard work. The sky is azure blue without a cloud and the colours fade through charcoal and smokey greens of the cliffs through to dusty greys and browns of the farmland. The theme music starts in with five slashing syncopated chords and a melodic run. Vermillion letters of the credits begin to roll. At first “The Mirisch Company Presents” in small letters and then, one after the other in huge letters the star names in a strict pecking order: Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen all come before the title. The contrast in colour between the credits and the background landscape could not be more graphic. As the words “The Magnificent Seven” fill the screen Elmer Bernstein’s theme music hits its familiar refrain with its galloping counter rhythm. And we’re off.
This piece of music continues to announce action throughout the movie. Each part of the film has its period of exposition to get through before the scene is ready to roll. As the action begins so the theme music returns. Like all brilliant ideas it is both simple and wonderfully effective.
Charles Bronson and Robert Vaughn have to share screen space as the credits continue, as do James Coburn and Brad Dexter. Next come a mass of names of those taking the minor roles before we return to huge lettering for “and Introducing Horst Buchholz”. Charles Land Jr gets a credit of his own as director of photography, as does Elmer Bernstein for the music. Very well deserved in both cases.
Another crop of credits roll over people who did the technical jobs (often shared between an American and a Mexican). The music slows to a strummed background and we begin to see movement in the picture. White figures in the village and, riding towards us, a group of about thirty horsemen. Walter Mirisch gets his own huge credit as executive producer and Lou Morheim has to share the screen with an acknowledgment that the film is indeed based on The Seven Samurai. The order and size of the credits are hugely important to the people involved even though few members of the audience ever read them past the first few well known names. Morheim had owned the rights and expected to be credited as producer. He went to court and settled for a reduced font size in exchange for a bag full of cash
The next credit is a puzzler. The biggest font size for William Roberts as screenwriter when in fact Roberts had only been brought in towards the end of the process as a script doctor (someone who re-wrote scenes that weren’t quite right…it is common practice on films). The actual screenwriter, Walter Newman, was so hacked off, first at the way his words were put into the mouths of the wrong characters, then at having his words re-written, and finally by being asked to share a credit with someone who had done so little of the writing, that he asked to be removed from the credits altogether. He didn’t learn. He teamed up with director John Sturges again for The Great Escape, wrote most of the script before asking to be removed from those credits as well. John Sturges gets a lingering full screen as producer and director and as his name fades the music changes from the carnival gallop of the main theme to a more ominous forbidding tune. The horsemen are now on the outskirts of the village and the camera cuts to a mid shot of three villagers preparing corn cobs for storage as the riders arrive in the village centre.
Time for the entrance of one of the great screen villains. In fact the entrance of one of the great screen actors. Before being cast in The Magnificent Seven, Eli Wallach had become a familiar face on television and a revered name on Broadway. Nobody had predicted a serious career in the movies and certainly not in westerns. This was a serious stage actor. A co-founder of The Actor’s Studio no less. This man should be playing Willy Loman or Stanley Kowalski. To cast him as a Mexican outlaw was as crazy as casting an unknown German as the seventh hero of the film. He is, quite simply, magnificent.
Seldom have villains been both psychopath and truly charming. Not the stylish, outward charm of a Christopher Lee or Alan Rickman. Here is true charm. He comes into town as though visiting friends, washes his face, steals anything of value without a word, shoots one of the villagers dead. You want to boo and cheer at the same time. He’s cold blooded and ruthless but lures us in. He’s got the best costume, the best lines and the best smile in the film. This isn’t a villain we love to hate. This is someone we genuinely like. We take to him and so did the band of extras employed to play his gang. It was fitting for an actor famous for his method that the entire bunch of them should become totally devoted to Wallach during the shooting. They helped him ride more convincingly, mount and dismount a horse, shoot a gun and develop a cool way of both drawing his weapon and returning it to its holster. Unfortunately he never quite mastered the latter and has to look down to see if the gun is returning to the proper place. It lacks the cool poise of Brynner and McQueen but its more fun to watch.
He’s a thoughtful baddy. He leaves the villages with just enough to survive. He’s an outlaw taxman or a collector of illegal tithes. There is enough evil in him to wish him a bad end and enough good to make it understandable when some villagers argue that it is better to accede to his demands than to risk all in opposing him. He is the perfect villain for an epic story. Believable in a dozen different ways at the same time.
Once he has ridden off, the villagers have a choreographed, theatre stage style sharing of grievance and consult the wise man. He looks like Alec Guinness as Obi-Wan Kenobi and is so well known to them that they refer to him as “the old man”. He’s wise enough not to live in the village. He says they must fight back. How can they fight back when all they have are hoes and rakes? You must get guns says the wise man. (Who again is wise enough not to ask for a gun for himself. He’s staying out of this). But we don’t know how to shoot them, they say. To which he says simply, “Well learn, or die!” We never see him again.
The music changes, the scene changes. We’re transported to a border town of the wild west which seems to be in the same valley as the peasants’ village. The background mountains are identical but the architecture is different. In reality the two sets for The Magnificent Seven were actually only a few hundred yards apart. I don’t think you are supposed to notice. It’s an oversight. Those mountains really are very distinctive.
To be continued…
For an excellent portrait of Calvera (Wallach) have a look at this blog: