Saturday October 15, 2016
Movie Review: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
My main takeaway after watching “The Magnificent Seven” for only the second time in my life is that for all its faults Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen—as the leader, Chris, and his right-hand man, Vin—have fantastic chemistry, and what a shame they didn’t make another movie together. Then I read up on it and discovered why: They hated each other. Their chemistry onscreen may be cooler than cool, but it hid heat.
IMDb’s trivia on the movie is extensive but doesn’t bother to sort through the contradictions. Did Brynner own the rights to “Seven Samurai”? If so, why was Spencer Tracy considered for the lead? Why was Anthony Quinn?
Most answers are in the doc “Guns for Hire: The Making of ‘The Magnificent Seven’” (2000), which is also a good primer into the litigiousness, oneupsmanship and happy accidents of Hollywood moviemaking.
Starring Anthony Quinn
Apparently, by the mid-1950s, everyone in Hollywood had seen and loved Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” and everyone envisioned remaking it as a western. Brynner claimed to have bought the rights, but that distinction actually went to B-movie screenwriter Lou Morheim, who wanted to produce, and who got the rights for the princely sum of $250. Later, Brynner bought the rights from Morheim, and was looking to direct rather than star.
Here was the initial team:
Director: Yul Brynner
Star: Anthony Quinn
That package fell apart, and it became:
Director: Martin Ritt
Writer: Walter Bernstein
Star: Spencer Tracy
Independent producer Walter Mirisch then entered the picture, and he brought along John Sturgis, who had recently won acclaim for directing “Gunfight at the OK Coral” with Burt Lancaster and Kirk Douglas. Sturgis tapped Walter Newman to write, then assembled the group of future stars—McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn—that made up the rest of the cast.
Newman, meanwhile, was the one who deviated from Kurosawa’s version, but Mexican censors didn’t help. A few years earlier, the Hollywood feature “Vera Cruz” had so upset Mexican audiences that they tore apart theaters; it led to the creation of a censor board, which watched over any production filmed in Mexico. They wanted to make sure Mexicans didn’t look bad in any Mexican-made movies. A good idea in theory. In practice? One censor objected to how dirty the peasants looked, so they were filmed in spotless whites even as the cool gringo gunslingers looked grimy. (Cf., McQueen’s stained hat.) Worse, the board objected to the very premise of the film: that these farmers needed outsiders to protect them. This wasn’t a big deal in Kurosawa’s version, since everyone was Japanese; but here it’s weak Mexicans and gringo heroes. Their solution? The three Mexican farmers seek guns rather than gunslingers. Even after encountering noble versions of the latter (Brynner, McQueen), the farmers don’t connect the dots. It’s up to Chris, the gringo, to do it for them.
In other words, because Mexican censors didn’t want Mexicans to look weak, they made them look stupid.
On to Brynner/McQueen.
Is there an unwritten rule on movie sets that you don’t upstage the star? If so, McQueen ignored it. From the beginning, he was doing things in the background—jiggling bullets, adjusting his hat, dipping his hat into streams they crossed on horseback—that upstaged, and upset, Brynner. More, he actually badmouthed his lead. He told the other actors how Chris’ horse, and even his gun, were bigger than theirs, and made them look silly. He fomented discord.
“The set was fraught with testosterone,” McQueen’s ex says in the doc. “Here were these young Turks, all on the brink, you know, and they were all trying to get attention on the screen. Especially Steve.”
I’ll say one thing: It worked. You notice him straight away. I’ll say another thing: It improves the movie. It’s like Brando picking up Edie’s glove and trying it on in the playground scene in “On the Waterfront.”
The best scene in the movie for me is the one where McQueen/Brynner take a horse-and-carriage hearse up to Boot Hill despite the local racists in town who don’t want an Indian buried there—and that’s the jiggling the bullets/adjusting the cap scene. The dialogue is terse as they keep an eye out for snipers:
Vin: New in town?
Vin: Where you from?
Chris: Dodge. You?
Vin: Tombstone. See any action up there?
Chris: Uh-uh. Tombstone?
Vin: Same. People all settled down like.
Chris: Same all over.
But the best dialogue may be no dialogue. Afterwards, the salesman who paid for the burial is impressed with Chris and asks him where he’s from. Brynner points a thumb back. He asks him where he’s going. Yep: a finger forward.
Samurai > Cowboys
So why doesn’t the movie work? Or why isn’t it close to “Samurai”’s stratosphere? A few thoughts:
- Chico, Horst Buchholz’s role, collapses two characters from “Samurai”: Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune), the comic-relief, would-be samurai, and Katsuhiro (Isao Kimura), the young, handsome romantic, and the two characters don’t work together. They particularly don’t work when the Mexican farmer is played by the German James Dean.
- Oh, about that: still too much Stella Adler-style emoting going on, from both Buchholz and Robert Vaughn, recently nominated for an Academy Award for “Young Philadelphians.” You guys are tearing me apart.
- The story is truncated. It doesn’t take the time, or have the silences, that Kurosawa’s version does. The villagers, in particular, are given short shrift. No equivalent of Rikichi, for example, so we have less of an idea what the heroes are fighting for.
- Guns ain’t swords. Guns are the great levelers. You can kill a superior gunman from behind, or from a distance, in a way you can’t with swords.
But this is the most important reason: Sturgis ain’t Kurosawa. There’s a tinny quality to the movie. It feels cheap, like something out of television. Kurosawa has depth in every frame; Sturgis’ stuff is two-dimensional in comparison. You can push over his sets and his characters.
Shimada (Takashi Shimura) is the leader of the samurai because he’s both psychologist and strategist. He actually plans how to survive the bandit assault. The bandits attack three times, the last in the rain, and four of the samurai die; but the bandits are slaughtered. The farmers win.
Chris? He’s cool, and a good draw, and he has the same moral center Shimada has, but that’s about it. The Hollywood version relies on less planning and fewer attacks: just two, and in the second one the Seven are betrayed, and have their guns taken from them, and are then slaughtered in the village square.
Kidding. The bandit leader (a delightful Eli Wallach) just lets them go. So they get stupidly caught and he stupidly lets them go. But then they stupidly return to stupidly save the day.
Even so, you’ve got the great Elmer Bernstein score, and you’ve Brynner and McQueen. They may have hated each other but they had personality. And as Jules said, personality goes a long way.
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