THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) as RELIGIOUS PARABLE
“He’s a good gun, and we aren’t going to a church social.”
With recent news from United Artists that a 2017 reboot is in the works (Denzel Washington), it is time to return to the Hollywood original 55 years after its own 1960 release.
It has always been disparaged as a Hollywood version of Kurasawa’s Japanese classic, yet now that it has broached its 55th birthday, John Sturge’s The Magnificent Seven (1960) as religious parable rewards a revisit.
The story of how seven expert professional mercenaries volunteer to save a poor Mexican village from over 40 marauding bandits is more than familiar even to anyone who has never even seen a film before. The narrative pattern that begins with the leader Chris/Yul Brynner recruiting the seven became a recurring refrain in the decade that followed, ie The Professionals (Brooks, 1966), The Dirty Dozen (1968). Variations on the theme continued with Kaufman’s The Right Stuff (1983) and in a more subtle form in Ridley Scott’s more recent American Gangster (2007). Elmer Bernstein’s stirring and often plaintiff score is often regarded as one of the finest to grace any Western.
The Western sub-genre: Down Mexico Way.
In terms of its place within the genre, the film is centrally placed amongst those South of the Border Westerns that began with Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz (1954) and ended with Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969). All three films track the ramshackle adventures of quick-fire mercenaries for whom the promise of American West has become all too civilized. Mexico beckons as an extension of a questionable Manifest Destiny.
The Set Up: The Devil Speaks
“If God hadn’t meant for them to be sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep.”
What distinguishes The Magnificent Seven (1960) as religious parable is how precisely it is located in terms of its place in Hollywood history. The shift that it marks in terms of representing the nominal hero is noticeable in its opening gambit. Whereas it would be customary for the Western opening to feature the arrival of the lone hero into the town, we have instead the arrival of the threatening bandits led by Calvera/Eli Wallach into the village. Dressed in vicious silk red shirt, he signals his villainous status with ironic reference to,
“So much restlessness and change in the outside world. People no longer content with their station in life. Women´s fashions? Shameless…!Mire! Religion! You´d weep if you saw how true religion is now a thing of the past. Last month we were in San Juan – a rich town…Rich town, much blessed by God. Big church. Not like here – little church, priest comes twice a year. Big one! You think we find gold candlesticks, poor box filled to overflowing? You know what we found? Brass candlesticks, almost nothing in the poor box….l´m trying to show him how little religion some people now have…”
The working irony is that the evil Calvera speaks in terms that we would normally ascribe to the hero, to the priest. Just as his bandits raid the village of its goods and chatels so he raids their faith of its language: “l´m trying to show him how little religion some people now have…”. His murderous killing then of a protesting villager heralds a determination by the villagers to seek help – first from The Old Man (Russian actor Vladimir Sokoloff) and then, at his prompting, at the nearby border town of ‘Tombstone’.
Introducing the Damned
“Sorry, I’m not in the blessing business.” (Chris Adams)
This original set up that now serves answer one crucial scriptwriting dilemma – how to create empathy in the audience for characters who make their living as hired killers. Not the usual concern for a Hollywood Western. If meaning comes from difference, the presentation of the Seven can only succeed once the ruthlessness of the bandit enemy has been secured. The script mechanism that introduces the first of the seven – Chris and Vin/Steve McQueen – must therefore witness the duo as serving not themselves but, instead, a Greater Purpose – in this instance, facing off armed citizens who are determined to deny the burial of an old Indian in the town cemetery. The resulting dramatic face-off and galloping success (atop a hearse) is wildly celebrated by the (betting) town folk and – by extension – the film audience.
Mercenaries as Knights of Camelot
“I never rode shotgun on a hearse before.” Vin
Additonally, what makes the Boot Hill showdown sequence particularly intriguing is its acute self-knowingness – despite their wity and engaging repartee, Chris and Vin as characters in search of work have become showmen, providing entertainment for a bored town (“I wanna see this!”) and at the expense of their own professional skills that, with the advent of civilization, are no longer required beyond their entertainment value. Chris distinguishes himself as a leader with his relish of the combat, his superior gunplay but, more importantly, the steely stare that, with cool wavering of a cigar, establishes a moral command over the subdued opposing force that step aside. By the time Chris and Vin arrive trimphantly back down the hill the audience capture of their characters is complete.
The Rhetorical Strength of Good Scene Design
The sequence, then, is a carefully modulated scene within a scene which is finally applauded by travelling ladies’ corset salesmen (Val Avery and Bing Russell) who can’t wait to head back East with their heroic tale of Wild West heroes and villains of the kind Old Hollywood itself might have served up in its earlier days. Here, though, the whole three part sequence is knowingly framed and coolly delivered by the scriptwriters and by the subdued performances that bind Chris and Vin at its close. They have performed, and they know it. The theatricality of the sequence emerges from Sturge’s stately mise-en-scene and Brynner’s superior kingly poise. But unless they are careful, this will be their lives from now on, drifting as mere living shades of a frontier past that is fast receding in the face of a consuming ‘civilization’.
As well as contrasting with the overblown Calvera, the scene also achieves two other purposes: firstly, it evokes the spirit of 1960 in that what motivates Chris and Vin is the basic human right of a dead Indian, a political gesture that would chime with what was soon to become the Camelot Presidency; secondly, the scene echoes and sustains what will become a core theme throughout the film – the motif of religion and the idea of salvation (Chris is called ‘Chris’ after all!).
Into Act Two: Across the Borderline
“I’ve been offered a lot for my work, but never everything.” Chris
With their heroic status secured, the film proceeds to follow Chris and Vin on their noble recruitment drive, once, of course they have been recruited themselves by the three ambassadors from the village. (Jorge Martinez de Hoyos, who plays Hilario, would reappear in The Professionals in 1966).
Old friends/disciples are called upon – (Britt/James Coburn, Bernardo O’Reilly/Charles Bronson); some invite themselves into the adventure (Harry/Brad Dexter, Lee/Robert Vaughn) while some, the youngest, most eager, are initially turned away and finally accepted after taking charge of the village church bell (Chico/Horst Buchholz).
The Western hero by this time was quickly succumbing to Method Freudian invasions (The Left Handed Gun, Penn, 1958). Here, two years later, the tragic internal contradictions in the lone Western figure becomes extenalised across the Seven. What is amazing is that the crucial casting decisions were completed just hours before the Hollywood actor’s union shutdown.
Act Two Complications
With the assembly in place, all seven characters and their disparate motivations are then brilliantly etched and challenged as they set the village defenses, train its villagers, fight the oncoming bandit attacks and manage the local gender politics – aspects of questionable representation that no doubt prompted the Mexican government to forbid the film’s exhibition in that country.
Holding the spine of the film together is of course German actor Horst Bucholtz whose Chico is geared up in a hip gunslinger mode that disguises a deep uncertainty about becoming a hired killer in his own country. In this respect the casting can not be faulted – Buchholtz looks out of place because, as the denouement will reveal, his character is out of place amongst the hardened and often bitter comrades.
Act Three: Securing the Plot, the Characters and the Symbolism
What impresses on a *screenwriting level is how deepening character and rising action become inseparable towards the film’s conclusion. In face of mounting odds the Seven leave the village to attack the bandit camp. They return to find that in their absence the Mayor of the Village Sotero/Rico Alaniz has turned against them and invited the bandits in. With roles reversed, they opt for a resurgence and attack the village the next morning; in quick succession Chris and Vin become ambushed in a store house – and it is Harry, the cynical gold adventurer, who, finally inspired by friendship, returns from nowhere and dies trying to save them.
Surrounded and outnumbered by the bandits Chris and a now wounded Vin are then saved instead by the villagers who themselves have been freed by the valiant actions of Lee – the first time we have seen him in action. At this moment of personal triumph over his demons, though, Lee is cruelly shot down by a stray bullet. His tragic status is assured since it’s his one single moment of active commitment that becomes the key intervention that decisively secures the successful denoement of the battle.
The Theme Answered
Hence the saviors have become the saved. When asked by a dying Calvera “You came back… to a place like this. Why? A man like you…why? Chris only looks stoically at his dying foe whose question goes unanswered.
The closing sequence serves as the perfect bookmark ending, the move that brings the once lost souls out of their living purgatory. The three surviving members – Chris, Vin and Chico – witness the laying of flowers on the four graves of their erstwhile colleagues, a somber and poignant reminder of an earlier graveyard scene back in the aptly named Tombstone.
Noteworthy is the central location of the village cemetary throughtout the film, including even the battle sequences where O’Reilley is killed. The rights of mercenary killers are not, after all, so far removed from those of the old Indian who we began with. In saving the village they too have in a sense properly redemmed themselves from a life of killing and have found their lasting peace. It was, indeed, at his end that Harry claimed “I’ll be dammed”. But it was Chris, holding his dead friend in the heat of battle, who quietly replied “Maybe you won’t be”.
The Final Blessing
The village has no actual priestn but with victory over Calvera that role is taken by the crusty but knowing Old Man who voices the communual thanks to Chris, Vin and Chico as they saddle up for the final adios. For the villagers, “The fighting is over. Your work is done…Only the farmers have won. They remain forever. They are like the land itself. You helped rid them of Calvera, the way a strong wind helps rid them of locusts. You’re like the wind – blowing over the land and… passing on. Vaya con dios.”
But his are not the last words. When a central hero with a black hat somberly reflects at the end of the tale that, “The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”, you know you have seen and heard something special.
Film Text and Social Context: Foreshadowing the 1960s
The Magnificent Seven was first released in 1960 in the United States to what was disappointing box office. Its subsequent successful release in Europe the next year, however, helped establish its classic cult status as a Kennedy Western – one that uncannily provokes parallels with the Peace Corps disaster in Vietnam that soon followed. As such the film looks both back to a Hollywood that by 1960 was already fading fast and ahead into what would become the tortured tragic uncertainties of the sixties. Its generic blood brothers would be Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns (also featuring Wallach, Coburn and Bronson) and Peckinpah’s grim and unrelenting The Wild Bunch of 1969. It has gone onto be amongst the most successful Westerns ever made.
Vaya Con Dios
So back in 1960, as heroes were buried and Chico returned to the village to hang up his gun and became the working peasant he always was, as Elmer Bernstein’s music swelled, and the widescreen frame opened to show Chris and Vin ride off in Classic Hollywood fashion into the distant horizon, contemporary audiences may have already felt, despite these suggestions of a familiar happy ending, that a certain aspect of that Hollywood history was itself being somberly passed over and that saddling up would never be the same again.
*Screenplay: William Roberts, Walter Newman (unaccredited) & Walter Bernstein (unaccredited)
Alan Taylor, UK, EU, Africa
Book author, speaker, lecturer and 2009-2014 Professor, Film Studies, Tshwane, South Africa. Latest book in progress at http://about.me/dr.alan.taylor