Another relatively short new feature to round out the month, this one about so-called “entertainment” films for the masses in the 1960s. Even when they weren’t doing much of anything else, films from this decade, the golden-age of gee-shucks entertainment, sure knew how to pop!
I like to think title puns are beneath me, but with a name like The Magnificent Seven, what can I say? The fact is, John Sturges’ film is a quintessential Sturges film, which is to say, although it is not a magnificent artistic statement, it is magnificently entertaining, and beneath its rough-hewn, leathery, functional exterior it hides a secretive, slick-as-can-be cool that hurtles the film forward toward and into conflict like a steadily mounting hurricane. Sturges isn’t a filmmaker of tricks and theme, but of steely, note-perfect technique, a man who didn’t have the eye of a great stylist but very much benefited from the hand of a great storyteller. And, although it doesn’t have anything under its sleeve, the tailor on the sleeves is so fine and perfectly measured in The Magnificent Seven that it is almost impossible to mind.
Obviously, as with any remake, the elephant in the room, and in this case it just so happens to be one of the greatest elephants of all time, is the original: Akira Kurosawa’s masterpiece of action-as-character parable of community, collectivization, and human distance, The Seven Samurai. Sure, The Magnificent Seven isn’t even within spitting distance, but, paling in comparison to one of the all-time works of transcendent composition and human framing, not to mention one of the great works of national-critique, is not exactly a fair criticism. The Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven, despite nominally similar outlines, are of different breeds and know only different aims. Kurosawa’s vision was a commentary on the Western and its application in the East; Sturges’ film is only looking to be a Western, but a damn good one, when all is said and done.
John Sturges was not a literate director, and his films lacked the finishing-school diction of the old masters or the youthful quaver and neurotic anger of the brash European up-and-comers rising into power around this film’s release. His films had a certain functional quality about them, but then you’ve never seen functionalism like this before. It’s no surprise the film was, at one point, the most watched movie on US television. Sturges’ great gift was that he was genuinely excited by his films, and he filmed every last inch of them with taciturn clarity and focus. In his eye, every little detail, every last set-piece, however small in the grand order of things, was like the nectar of the gods. It is for this reason that, everything all told, the should-be-drowsy opening two-thirds of the movie are consummately constructed and exposed to only enough air to let in sufficient room to breath. When things do go off-the-rails in the lengthy final shoot-out, the interlocking characters run like clockwork and their bodies like brutal machines keeping the film in order.
Which doesn’t say anything about the privilege he gave to his husky stars, the only things to elevate the material with the necessary fleshy and human qualities to enliven the functional air. Sturges always preferred to leave the heavy-lifting to the others around him; he was, most of all, a humble director, and it shows. Naturally, in a story about a group of seven cowboys who gather together to save a village from outlaws, the actors take a precedence. Character actor Yul Brynner in the lead role is a particular success, establishing the burly, cold, icy determination of a person who lives a life of murder and the gun, essaying the figure as not much more than the weaponry he wields with laser precision. Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and the ever-staring eyes of Charles Bronson, all featured before their true fame in future years, utilize as few words as possible to sell the broad strokes of their characters and fill in the little details. The key to their success is that they know they are types rather than full people, they know that they are cogs in Sturges’ machine, and they know that no one of them can outshine the other, or else the whole ethos of the teamwork would falter. Horst Buchholz in particular impresses with a vigorous, unrestrained hot-head energy to contrast the well-worn weariness of the others, aligning a certain balance in the process.
The Magnificent Seven is not a film of depth, but hints reveal themselves. The film doesn’t hold all that much interest in Kurosawa’s profoundly subtle critique of the titular samurai (that film consistently divulges its uneasy lack of sympathy with the characters, and the fact that, although it understands the need for their violence, it doesn’t desire it in society). But in the tightened detachment between the characters in this film, captured in the glances the performers throw one another and the way Sturges only seldom depicts them all in the same shot (especially at the beginning), this film alludes partway to Kurosawa’s vision of samurai who, for all their good, were little more than hired killers who ended lives for money and had to bear the emotional burden of their ways with them at all times. It was not for no reason Kurosawa never depicted these characters lightly, or that he never glamorized the violence of their lives. He leaned toward seeing them as coldly calculating and even slightly inhuman killers who simply served an immediate purpose to the village.
Sturges doesn’t go this far into sober realms; his film is much more rootin’, tootin’, and rah-rah, but there are subtle hints of the way the characters only bond superficially and mechanically, and of the way their violent actions are allowed only by their inability to feel true sympathy for other humans. There is at least one scene that openly addresses this implicit theme, in fact, going so far as to elegantly lay out in so few words that the magnificent seven no longer have the privilege of genuine human fear. Not because they’ve been beaten-down too often, but because they’ve triumphed too frequently, and lived to deal with the consequences of their actions.
In the end, of course, this film is much more a redemption story for these seven men than Samurai ever was, but the complication is welcome and even surprising for the genre. It isn’t that radical – it conforms heavily to masculine standards of strength and redemption and it is, in the end, a redemption story for mostly white men who protect non-white men from the evils of other non-white men. But the degree to which it does critique the white would-be saviors for their run-and-gun life-style is shocking for the time, as is the degree to which it finds superiority and respect in the Mexican farmers themselves. Of course, this doesn’t all exactly even out as “progressive”; it is still a fairly regressive narrative, albeit with complication, in the end, and it does not have the courage to tackle our supposed American heroes – the cowboys – with sighing criticism like Kurosawa did with Japanese samurai.
To get a sense of The Magnificent Seven, all one needs to do is gander at the opening theme song. Spirited, jaunty, elemental, and peppery, it is unlike any other Great Western soundtrack of the ’60s (which definition-ally means any Ennio Morricone soundtrack). Morricone took the Western soundtrack to new heights of pulsing danger and insurrectionist beauty, playing with narrative, instrumentation, and form in his songs and evoking the sweaty tactility and otherworldly quality found in the films they adorned. His soundtracks were transgressive. Elmer Bernstein’s score for Seven is not, nor does it want to be. It evokes something more primitive, but no less appealing: the joy of an adventure, the joy of children playing around in the sand. Which was, at some level, what all Westerns before the sixties were. There is a temptation to use this as a criticism or a put-on, but as anyone who has ever been a child may know, there is little more fun than playing around in the sand, especially when you have all the imagination in the world to get you where you need to go.