By Sven Mikulec
This is the sole reason we spent half of our preadolescence prancing around our houses with plastic guns, cowboy hats and an overwhelming desire to become heroes. Just like them. The Magnificent Seven, the iconic western by John Sturges, is a celebrated adaptation of the legendary Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, transferred to the wholly-American setting of the Wild West. Shot in Panavision on location in Mexico, upon building both the American border-town and the Mexican village where the climactic confrontation takes place, Sturges’ film takes us on a heart-pouncing ride, gripping us tightly with a story so naturally encompassing and uplifting it’s hardly possible to remain emotionally distanced from the heroes under the spotlight.The truly wonderful musical score composed by Elmer Bernstein entered film history books, the iconic main theme still lingering in our minds as we write these lines, and a whole gallery of talented actors, many of whom built their careers on this very project, make sure the screenplay holds its firm ground. The Magnificent Seven has only William Roberts credited as the screenwriter, but both Walter Bernstein and Walter Newman contributed significantly to the creation of one of the greatest westerns ever filmed.
Academy Award winning DoP Charles Lang, who’d previously done wonderful work on Sabrina and Some Like It Hot and would go on to work on How the West Was Won and One-Eyed Jacks, succeeded in creating a stunning, visually discernible identity, ultimately awarding the audience with some of the most impressive shots of gun-drawing, bullet-dodging, heart-stopping action sequences ever filmed in the genre. The Magnificent Seven is not only undeniable proof that not every remake should be frowned upon, at least if the underlying idea is originally shaped and the chief motivation artistically noble. This film is a vital part of our childhoods, and as such, it shall be revered indefinitely.
Screenwriter must-read: Walter Newman’s screenplay for The Magnificent Seven [PDF]. (NOTE: For educational and research purposes only). The DVD/Blu-ray of the film is available at Amazon and other online retailers. Absolutely our highest recommendation.
“Let’s set the record straight. The wrong person received screen credit. Walter Newman, a former newspaperman best known for Ace in the Hole and Man with the Golden Arm, wrote that script. But because a guild strike had been called, he refused to go on location to Mexico for rewrites. Sturges, desperate, called upon friend and neighbor William Roberts. The idea was that Roberts would act as glorified secretary to Sturges and not lobby for screen credit. It didn’t turn out that way; Roberts wanted credit. And Newman, outraged, asked for his name to be taken off the film. So the credits carry only Roberts’ name. Said Sturges, “Pretty much all the good stuff in it was in the original script. Had he sat on the arbitration panel,” Mirisch added, “he would have not awarded Roberts credit. The whole spin of the picture, the characterizations and all that were Newman’s. Unfortunately, his stubbornness robbed him of an important credit.” I have since contacted the Screen Writers Guild about redressing this problem. They tell me that since Newman voluntarily turned down the credit there’s nothing they can do.” —Glenn Lovell
But just to remind us that timing is everything, a possible Writers Guild of America and Screen Actors Guild strike, which would have meant the postponement of the shoot, caused Sturges to quickly assemble one of the most memorable casts of the era. It was a blend of a few veterans and many newcomers including future superstar Steve McQueen, who was the lead in the TV show, Wanted Dead or Alive. To get out of his contract for the TV show, McQueen staged a car accident and showed up to work in a neck brace. Sturges quickly added Robert Vaughn (Lee), James Coburn (Britt), Charles Bronson (Bernardo O’Reilly), Brad Dexter (Harry Luck) and, in a real oddity, German star Horst Buchholz in a featured part, Chico. Eli Wallach, the New York stage actor who was starting a memorable film career, was hired to play the villain, the charismatic Calvera, a Mexican bandit who terrorized the villagers.
What Brynner did not bargain for was one-upmanship and infighting among cast members. Brynner was the top dog, and lived the life of a Pasha on the Mexican set. He was resented by some of the others who shared trailers and did not have many amenities on location. McQueen complained about everything and all the cast tried to upstage each other, doing little movements during shots to draw the audience’s attention or trying to add new dialogue to the script. ‘Sturges encouraged the ad-libs, and before long, everyone was vying for the camera. Vaughn skulked in the shadows like Iago; Coburn employed his strange, loping gait; Wallach, a past master of at one-upmanship, sucked water from his fingers and played with his sombrero. McQueen’s ad libs were especially inspired and penciled into the script.‘ ‘Brynner was furious,’ writes Lovell. ‘He threatened to remove his hat.’ Brynner was bald, sure that such a move would upstage everyone.’ —Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges By Glenn Lovell
MY MAGNIFICENT SEVEN:
THE OUTRAGEOUS MEMOIRS OF
HOLLYWOOD LEGEND ROBERT VAUGHN
“In 1960 I was signed up just as quickly for The Magnificent Seven, along with James Coburn and Charles Bronson, after a strike threatened to shut production if casting wasn’t completed by a certain Friday. The director had seen me in my first big movie, The Young Philadelphians, and by then I’d done TV shows such as Dragnet and Gunsmoke. That, it appeared, was good enough for me to play alongside Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner. Steve was intensely competitive. It wasn’t enough just to be successful—he had to be more successful than anyone he saw as a rival. So it was inevitable there would be a showdown between him and Brynner. The pecking order for The Magnificent Seven was established early on during shooting in Cuernavaca, Mexico. Brynner, who’d won an Oscar for The King And I, was the biggest star—aloof and distant—and accordingly stayed in a private house. The rest of us made do with a motel.
The rivalry between McQueen and Brynner was clear from the start. Steve started knocking on my door around 6.30am, an hour before we were due on set. Our conversations were always along the same lines. ‘Man,’ he would say in that husky whisper, ‘did you see Brynner’s gun on the set yesterday?’ ‘I can’t say I noticed it, Steve.’ ‘You didn’t notice it? It has a f*****g pearl handle, for God’s sake. He shouldn’t have a gun like that. It’s too f*****g fancy. Nobody’s gonna look at anything else with that goddam gun in the picture.’ Of course, what Steve meant was that nobody would be looking at Steve McQueen. ‘Maybe you should talk to the director,’ I’d suggest. Steve just shook his head—obviously I was too naive to comprehend the depth and villainy of the conspiracy against him—and left. Two days later, there was another early-morning knock on the door. ‘Did you see the size of Brynner’s horse? It’s goddam gigantic.’ This time I had noticed. ‘Actually, Steve, I’ve got the biggest horse of the Seven.’ McQueen shook his head. ‘I don’t give a f*** about your horse,’ he replied. ‘It’s Brynner’s horse I’m worried about.’” —Robert Vaughn
Brynner and Steve McQueen aren’t adjacent at the table: the pair had a famously prickly relationship on set. In later years, though, they reconciled. McQueen, dying of cancer, called his Seven co-star to thank him. “What for?” queried Brynner. “You coulda had me kicked off the movie when I rattled you,” replied McQueen, “but you let me stay and that picture made me, so thanks.” —Pulling back the curtain on cinema’s greatest films
In an exploration of the myth and reality of Hollywood westerns, Elwy Yost interviews actor Joel McCrea and directors John Sturges, Robert Aldrich, and Mark Rydell.
Here are several photos taken behind-the-scenes during production of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven in Mexico. Photographed by Jack Harris © United Artists. All material for educational and noncommercial purposes only.
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