Human beings are obliged to make difficult decisions in hostile places. My elder daughter when asked for a date used to filter out the potentially unworthy male by asking him to identify the characters in ‘The Magnificent Seven’. Those not familiar with the film can be forgiven for thinking this test merely arbitrary and capricious. But what she understood is that any man not familiar with ‘The Magnificent Seven’ will invariably be limited in their understanding of masculinity and responsibility.
In the last fifty years, the reputation of the film has suffered. Cinema snobs like to claim that the Kurosawa original ‘Seven Samurai’ is superior and later generations have compared it to modern day realism and excess and dismissed it as sanitised distortion. The Japanese movie is a masterpiece but a superior Western with subtle messages, careful characterization and a landscape that evokes the glory of freedom and space can compare to anything. True, ‘The Magnificent Seven’ belongs to the glamorous Sixties. The actors are charismatic rather than authentic but this reflects the liberal humanist values that prevailed in those enlightened times. This is not a bad thing. We only think it so because we have been so long groomed on fascist fantasies.
The movie begins with a farmed field and symbolizes how work is essential for most lives. The corn stacks are obvious. The human beings are barely discernible, insignificant in a land that is, to remember characters from the classic Boetticher Westerns, ‘a lot of empty’. The humans we notice first are the bandits and we only notice them because we can see their horses. The message is clear, sacrifice means invisibility. Eli Wallach, the leader of the bandits, arrives amidst self-important ceremony. This is not the social bandit admired by left-wing historians. Wallach explains to the leaders of the village that because times are tough the farmers will have to forfeit their produce for his gang. Meanwhile, he complains about the moral laxity in others – the lack of religion and the shamelessness of women. Like David Cameron, he preaches austerity and morality for the poor while insisting that life for the rich should remain unchanged. The scene has always had impact. In the economic climate of today, it resonates.
The liberal criticisms are endorsed in the fabulous showdown at the funeral of Old Sam. There are people in
Tombstone who do not want Native Americans buried in Boot Hill. Before he became a director, John Sturges worked in various technical roles including, crucially, that of editor. If there is a wrong shot or a mistimed moment in this scene, I have not noticed. The sequence is perfect. One character that is interesting is the man who sells ladies’ corsets. He is not a warrior but exists as a reminder that man does not need war or conflict to have integrity and worth. The warriors have charisma but this message is reiterated throughout the movie. Indeed, it is the hero worship by the children of the violent that is the cause of the needless death of Charles Bronson who, like Ernest Borgnine in ‘The Wild Bunch’, exists to remind the audience of the difference between self-serving glory and real heroism and responsibility. Bronson understands the burden of work and not surprisingly we first see him chopping wood.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ makes its machismo heroes as appealing as any but this heroism is constantly undermined by what they reveal in conversation. The men have no sense of medieval honour like the Samurai. They go back to defend the village because they are unwilling to settle for premature retirement and a normality that is beyond them. In this sense, the heroes are inferior to the villagers tied to their land and women. But if the importance of the villagers to normal existence and domesticity is acknowledged, the farmers are not romanticised. Their human frailty is revealed and the village has the usual cowards and braggarts. Despite the admissions from the seven, we are seduced by their male charisma. It is a beguiling dream, heroism that leads to self-sufficiency, independence and omnipotence. This promise is most potent in the James Coburn character, which is why it is so shocking but important when he dies at the end of the film. Violence and destiny are always independent of fate.
Supposedly, the actors resented the screen time given to the German actor, Horst Buchholz. They felt that the
director indulged an actor who lacked their presence. Sturges, though, understood that the immature narcissist needed to dominate the film otherwise the heroics would ensure the film was simply a fantasy about masculinity. The scene when Buchholz pompously performs for the village has to be endured. The audience, like the people in the village, is embarrassed but the leader of the seven chooses that moment to say, ‘Now we are seven’. Brynner understands that the group needs flawed humanity to be complete.
It is the weak human within the group that the beautiful female villager selects as the potential husband. She realizes that she will need a human being, including flaws, to make her life meaningful. She rejects the warrior, powerful but emotionally stunted by battle, because she yearns for feeling and emotion. Like the random deaths, the sexual rejection of the warrior challenges the smug romance that can feature in some Westerns. The film ends cleverly with the two loves that dominate the film concluded in very different ways. Buchholz and his future wife do not embrace. She responds to his return by washing the clothes with extra effort. The two lovers accept their fate and burden but each recognizes that they have found someone who will give their lives consequence. The other love, of course, is between Brynner and McQueen. Side by side, they ride away into the distance, the ‘empty’. McQueen will continue to pursue pleasure with women but the two men are now intimate, their horses are so close that they
almost touch. Earlier in the film, the love between the two men is suggested when McQueen says to Brynner, ‘I just want you to know that I think like you.’ These ‘lovers’ will escape drudgery and work. Unlike the four of their gang who have perished in the final battle, they have survived. They will be blessed with integrity and romance, for the moment anyway.
The film makes clear what is missing from ‘Seven Samurai’. The warrior has an eternal choice. He can either take money and comfort from the powerful or support the powerless in their struggle against their oppressors. He may sacrifice wealth but the fight against those with money will give him spiritual sustenance. The film does not have a happy ending. Not only have some of the most admirable characters in a Western been killed, the survivors know that they will be blessed only temporarily. Eventually, the normality that they flee will have to be experienced, and because of what they have forfeited, commitment and reward, they will regret the triumph of romance over consequence. The music by Elmer Bernstein is great but it disguises the truth about the film. This is a Western that subverts and challenges the genre.
Finally, there is a question for the reader. Why is there no mention above of the names of the characters and why are identifications limited to the surnames of the actors? Well, the dangerous places still exist and women will always have to make difficult decisions about men. Knowing if the man in sudden pursuit has seen and understood ‘The Magnificent Seven’ offers no guarantees but it will help.
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