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Star of the Month: Steve McQueen
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,The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven

Director John Sturges once theorized that it was possible to adapt any story into a Western and proved that hunch by transposing Akira Kurosawa's 1954 art-house hit, The Seven Samurai to a Western setting, replacing the swordsmen with gunfighters, and titling it The Magnificent Seven (1960). Although the basic plot survived the transfer intact - a poor village hires seven armed men to protect them from a marauding band of bandits - Sturges filmed his version in Panavision and color with on-location shooting in Cuernavaca, Mexico. The other main difference was purely cultural. Whereas Kurosawa's film explored samurai honor and social responsibility, Sturges turned The Magnificent Seven into an elegy for a vanishing West once ruled by gunfighters. In a way, The Magnificent Seven could be seen as a forerunner of such influential Westerns by Sam Peckinpah as Ride the High Country (1962) and The Wild Bunch (1969).

The road to production on The Magnificent Seven was a rocky one with conflicting reports of who initiated the project. By most accounts, it was Yul Brynner who first envisioned the Kurosawa film as a Western remake and encouraged movie mogul Walter Mirisch to purchase the rights from Japan's Toho Studios. Mirisch struck up a distribution deal with United Artists but then ran into trouble with Anthony Quinn, who filed a breach of contract suit against Brynner. Quinn claimed he had acquired rights to The Seven Samurai with Brynner and had collaborated with him on several ideas for the remake before they had a parting of the ways. But there was no signed contract and Quinn lost the claim.

There were other obstacles to overcome. The Mexican government censors, who had some major concerns about the depiction of their country as inhospitable, demanded some script changes before granting the film crew permission to shoot in their country. The casting was touch and go for awhile too as Steve McQueen was denied permission to participate by Four Star, the production company for his TV series, Wanted Dead or Alive. He outfoxed them by crashing a rental car and claiming whiplash, which released him from his TV commitments.

Although Yul Brynner had final casting decision and had approved McQueen for the film, his relationship with the soon-to-be-famous star would become fiercely competitive on the set of The Magnificent Seven. Brynner, who studied the quick draw with world champion, Rodd Redwing, was no match for McQueen when it came to gunplay. The latter would practice firing for hours each day and learned to shoot two rounds into a one-square-foot target in just eleven hundredths of a second. McQueen also taught Brynner the scene-stealing trick of flicking the gun backward into the holster. However, McQueen remained unimpressed by Brynner's star status at the time and said to one interviewer, "When you work in a scene with Yul, you're supposed to stand perfectly still. I don't work that way."

Perhaps the tension on the set between the two actors improved the film because both Brynner and McQueen are the essence of cool in their roles as Chris and Vin. In fact, Brynner is so closely identified with his character in The Magnificent Seven that he wore the exact same black gunfighter outfit years later as the cyborg killer in the sci-fi thriller, Westworld (1973).

The rest of the cast members are equally impressive, particularly James Coburn, who barely has twenty words of dialogue and almost steals the film as the mysterious knife-thrower, Britt. Charles Bronson, who was just a few years away from superstardom in Europe, plays O'Reilly, the stoic woodcutter; Robert Vaughn, soon to be known as TV's The Man from U.N.C.L.E., is Lee, an outlaw wrestling with his fear of death; Brad Dexter co-stars as Harry Luck, the hardened cynic in the group; Horst Buchholz, in the role of the reckless Chino, maintains the same high level of manic energy that Toshiro Mifune brought to the same role in the original version.

Last but not least, a mention must be made of Elmer Bernstein's rousing score which was nominated for an Oscar but lost to Ernest Gold's soundtrack for Exodus. If Bernstein's central theme sounds overly familiar, it's because United Artists sold the music to Marlboro cigarettes for use in their television commercials.

Director: John Sturges
Producer: John Sturges, Walter Mirisch, Lou Morheim
Screenplay: William Roberts
Cinematography: Charles Lang Jr.
Editor: Ferris Webster
Art Direction: Edward Fitzgerald
Music: Elmer Bernstein
Cast: Yul Brynner (Chris Adams), Eli Wallach (Calvera), Steve McQueen (Vin), Charles Bronson (Bernardo O'Reilly), Robert Vaughn (Lee).
C-129m. Letterboxed. Closed captioning.

by Jeff Stafford



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