One of the most popular Westerns of all time, John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven was based on Akira Kurosawa's 1954 epic The Seven Samurai (which was originally titled "The Magnificent Seven" and was itself a thematic descendant of the Westerns of John Ford). Director/producer Sturges packed a huge amount of plot and detail into what could have been a routine Western -- the opening threat to the Mexican village; the first meeting between Yul Brynner's Chris and Steve McQueen's Vin in a tense confrontation with a group of racist thugs trying to block a funeral procession; the decision to help the villagers and the gathering of the unlikely band of heroes; the heroes' journey to the village and their confrontation with who and what they, as gunmen, really represent to the people they're trying to help. Some of this kind of material had figured in other, earlier movies, including George Stevens' Shane, Anthony Mann's underrated The Tin Star, and Sturges' own Last Train From Gun Hill, but no one had ever put quite that much plot or character development into a single Western before. Apart from Yul Brynner, who was already an established star thanks to The King and I, the cast featured a half-dozen actors who were either on the edge of stardom, such as Eli Wallach and Steve McQueen, or who would become major stars in coming years, including James Coburn, Charles Bronson, and Robert Vaughn; indeed, Sturges would re-team with McQueen, Coburn, and Bronson for 1963's The Great Escape, a film that provided a huge boost to each man's career. The Magnificent Seven was a massive hit when it was first released and by 1966 had spawned the first of three sequels; but the cast, which grew in prominence as most of them became massive box-office attractions in their own right, only made the movie seem bigger and more important as time went on, so much so that, had it not gone to television in the early '60s, The Magnificent Seven would have been ripe for an even bigger theatrical run in, say, 1965 or 1966. As it was, a television series based on the film was finally spawned at the end of the 1990s. There were also enough parodies, as well as references to the movie in media touchstones like the 1980s sitcom Cheers -- The Magnificent Seven being the favorite movie of the bar's regular patrons -- to confirm its place in the cultural lexicon. None of the sequels or the television series, however, ever matched Sturges' original, either at the box office or in their impact on popular culture. The secret behind the original's vast success, apart from the once-in-a-lifetime cast and the dazzlingly memorable score by Elmer Bernstein, was its timing and underlying zeitgeist. The Magnificent Seven was one of the very last feel-good films about American adventurism abroad to come out of Hollywood. Appearing in the period immediately before Vietnam became a political worry and then a full-blown war, it was the last major movie to depict Americans (albeit gunmen and mercenaries) going to another country to help a people struggling for independence, without any of the complications that Vietnam added to that notion. The film was, thus, a two-tiered nostalgia experience -- initially, about the closing of the West and, in the next few years, in a much more powerful and potent way, as a fond look back at Americans' image of themselves as "good guys" in the modern world. The only flaw in the film that is apparent when looking at it today is the absence of a black member of the seven -- Sturges himself was an old-fashioned, two-fisted liberal, but it's debatable whether, even if the script had contained such a character, United Artists or any other studio, would have okayed that casting in 1959. Even three years later United tried to get Ralph Nelson to make Lillies of the Field with Steve McQueen in place of Sidney Poitier); not to mention the question of who would have played the part -- among the most visible black leading men of the period, Poitier was too young and James Edwards was the wrong type. In any case, the film is a perfect document of its time as it stands and has become identified as such an intensely American cultural document that many viewers are unaware of its origins as a samurai story.
by Bruce Eder review