Q&A (“Magnificent Seven”)

Classic Film for Movie Night: The Magnificent Seven

By Mark R. Gould

Calvera: What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, hum? Why, heh?
Chris: I wonder myself.
Calvera: No, come on, tell me why.
Vin: It’s like this fellow I knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”
Calvera: And?
Vin: He said, “It seemed like a good idea at the time.
In this third article devoted to classic films that you can screen at family movie night or for your film discussion group,  our recommendation is  John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960).
Glenn Lovell, author of Escape Artist, the Life and Films of John Sturges, published by University of Wisconsin Press,  was interviewed by the @ your library website about the film. The Magnificent Seven is remembered for its thundering score by Elmer Bernstein,  tension filled action scenes, offbeat casting, and a theme that asks just what a hero is.
Lovell’s book is based on extensive interviews with director John Sturges, his wife and children and many stars, including Clint Eastwood, Robert Duvall and Jane Russell.
Lovell describes Bernstein’s score as “arguably, after John Williams’ Jaws and Star Wars themes, the most recognizable overture in the history of the medium, one that would be appropriated by Madison Avenue for the Marlboro Country campaign…”
Sturges directed many other popular films including The Great EscapeBad Day at Black RockThe Old Man and the SeaHour of the GunMaroonedThe Eagle Has Landed, and the subject of an upcoming at your library.org article, Bad Day at Black Rock. His career started in the famed editing department at RKO Pictures (1929-59), a studio where such talents as Orson Welles, Val Lewton, Anthony Mann,  Robert Wise and George Stevens flourished. Noted director William Wyler would later serve as  Sturges’ mentor.
The Magnificent Seven was inspired by the 1954 black and white Akira Kurosawa classic, Seven Samurai. It is a tale about a group of mercenaries who are hired to protect villagers from bandits. The Japanese film has influenced many moviemakers.  Your movie group would benefit from a screening. It was voted onto Sight & Sound’s list of the ten greatest films of all time in 1982, 1992, and 2002.
Originall poster for Magnificent 7There was much intrigue in obtaining the American rights to the film. To make a very long story short,  Russian born Yul Brynner, who at that time was a popular movie figure, wound up owning them. The U.S. rights were first  obtained  by screenwriter Lou Morheim, who pitched the idea to Anthony Quinn. Quinn pitched Brynner, the star of The King and I and The Ten Commandments.  Brynner gained control of the project and worked with producer Walter Mirisch to bring it to the screen. Quinn later sued Brynner, unsuccessfully. Brynner decided to star in the film, as Chris, the head mercenary.
Lovell writes, “Starting virtually from scratch, Sturges and (producer Walter) Mirisch agreed that a less arty or cerebral approach (than Seven Samurai) was warranted, and the film, to be budged at $2 million, should be shot in widescreen color in Durango and Mexico.” He quoted Sturges, “It was a good story and the characters and ending rang true.  I liked the idea of the ex-gunfighters. Where do you go when you’re through and nobody trusts or likes you?”
Sturges romanticizes the hard working, family oriented Mexican villagers who, after years of being terrorized by bandits, decide they need to protect themselves. Few are good with a gun, and they decide to hire mercenaries to defend their village.
Critic Robert Horton describes the film this way, “Akira Kurosawa’s rousing Seven Samurai was a natural for an American remake–after all, the codes and conventions of ancient Japan and the Wild West (at least the mythical movie West) are not so very far apart. Thus The Magnificent Seven effortlessly turns samurai into cowboys (the same trick worked more than once: Kurosawa’s Yojimbo became Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars). The beleaguered denizens of a Mexican village, weary of attacks by banditos, hire seven gunslingers to repel the invaders once and for all. The gunmen are cool and capable. The storytelling is clear and strong, and the charisma of the young guns fairly flies off the screen. If that isn’t enough to awaken the 12-year-old kid inside anyone, the unforgettable Elmer Bernstein music will do it: bum-bum-ba-bum, bum-ba-bum-ba-bum.  Followed by three inferior sequels, Return of the Seven, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, and The Magnificent Seven Ride!
Newsweek described the film as a “hard-pounding adventure”  and Leonard Maltin said it is “enduringly popular.”
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.
Eli Wallach as Calvera
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.
Yul Brynner as Chris Adams“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.”
Mark Gould: Why did producer Walter Mirisch want John Sturges to direct ?
Glenn Lovell: Walter Mirisch was a huge fan of Jeopardy and Bad Day at Black Rock. So when he and his brothers put together their own production company, a company where the director would have virtual carte blanche, they gravitated first to Billy Wilder and John Ford and then to Sturges. It was Walter Mirisch who broached the subject of a Western remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. “I arranged for us to see the picture together at a projection room at the studio,” Mirisch told me. “It was a marvelous screening, one of the most stimulating experiences I’ve ever had in this business. I can still see us sitting there, shouting back and forth. As it played out, we translated it into Western terms. We re-imaged it.”
MG: There was controversy regarding the script.
GL: 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.
MG: German actor Horst Buchholtz was an unusual choice.
GL: The young German heartthrob ‒ a former Hitler Youth ‒ was a weird choice. His casting came about because he was under contract for Billy Wilder’s One Two Three. Wilder recommended him to Walter Mirisch and Sturges and Sturges liked him immediately. In fact, Sturges spent most of his time with Buchholtz. In his mind, the German had more potential for future stardom than McQueen.  That explains why Buchholtz is the romantic lead and has some of the best scenes. Hard to believe, I know.
MG: Steve McQueen sounds like a prima donna.
GL: Sturges of course knew McQueen from  (the Sturges directed ) Never So Few. McQueen’s penchant for ad-libs helped that hopelessly muddled war melodrama. But this was a different McQueen, one who after his success in TV’s Wanted: Dead or Alive now saw himself as a very big deal. McQueen took an instant dislike to Yul Brynner and successfully upstaged Brynner at ever time, most memorably at the beginning of the film, as he rode shotgun on the hearse. You can understand McQueen taking on a heavyweight like Brynner, but his putdowns of Hollywood newcomer Buchholtz? They seem petty and sadistic. When interviewed about the movie just before his death, Buchholtz teared up as he recalled his shabby treatment by McQueen. The memories were still that raw … Still, there’s no denying McQueen’s ‒ and James Coburn’s ‒ importance. Their insouciance, their East Village vibe, turned the movie into something audiences hadn’t seen before ‒ a hip Western.
MG: Kids still love this film, don’t they?
GL: Yes. It’s the spirited camaraderie among the seven ‒ kids identify with that. They also love the choreographed gunplay. In many respects The Magnificent Seven is closer to a musical than a Western, which accounts for the spirited audience participation.
MG: Tell us about the creation of the magnificent score by Elmer Bernstein.
GL: Bernstein, who read about the project in the trades, actually lobbied for the job. He of course was already an established composer with credits on The Ten Commandments and The Man with the Golden Arm. Sturges, according to Bernstein, knew little about music but was “an inspired storyteller” whose enthusiasm for a project was contagious. “If you look at the movie without music,” Bernstein said, “you’d be surprised how slow-moving it is. I realized immediately that the function of the music would be to get on top of the film, drive it along. It had to have tremendous life and vigor.” Regarding the film’s theme, as memorable as John Williams’ themes for Jaws and Star Wars, he added, “Every once in a while ‒ it doesn’t happen often ‒ you hit on something really feel quite thrilling. I remember being very excited when I found that opening rhythm. It was like a surge of energy.”
MG: Was Sturges involved in any of the sequels or TV inspired versions of M7?
GL: Sturges met with (the iconoclastic) Sam Peckinpah regarding a Magnificent Seven series. Temperamentally the men were opposites. Peckinpah told Sturges, “This is our chance to rip out the soft underbelly of Hollywood.” Sturges had no interest in taking on the studio system. Ultimately, the series was done in by greed, he said. “UA wanted a piece of it, the Mirisches wanted a piece of it ‒ everyone wanted a piece of it. So everything fell apart.” In 1998, after his death, Walter Mirisch and Kathy Sturges, his widow, reached an agreement and a short-lived series aired on CBS.
MG: Tell  us about the meeting of Kurosawa and Sturges that was publicized.
GL: Can’t say this actually occurred ‒ may have been a fabrication of a studio flack.
MG: What did critics say about the film then and now?
GL: Then: New York critics mostly blasted it; the trades and L.A. Times raved. Some of the East Coast reviews were so vicious, United Artists decided to shorten the film by 20 minutes and relegate it to the bottom half of double bills. Sturges reminded the distributor that he and the Mirisch had invested $3 million in the picture and owned the negative. Now: Boomer critics, who remember seeing it as kids, have a soft spot in their hearts for the film. I certainly do.
MG: How did it do at the box office in 1960?
GL: It opened on the top half of double bills and slowly found an audience. In today’s parlance, it was  platformed out and became a modest hit. “Although it wasn’t a huge domestic grosser in its initial released, it kept playing and playing and playing,” recalled Mirisch. “Theaters kept booking it back … It wasn’t, as many assume, that it re-opened and something great happened; it just had its own audience that was very faithful to it.”
MG: How did Sturges get his start in the film business?
GL: It was a question of right place at the right time, according to Sturges. Of course it didn’t hurt that his older brother, Sturges Carne (who kept his father’s name after their mother’s divorce), was a production designer at RKO. Sturge, as he was known, got John a job in the blueprint department ‒ he traced and inked blueprints on the graveyard shift.
MG: What was it like for someone to work in the RKO editing group?
GL: RKO was the little engine that could ‒ an upstart studio and this meant lot of room for experimentation (see Citizen Kane, King Kong). It was in such an environment that someone who showed resourcefulness and drive could get ahead. Sturges moved quickly from blueprint department to Technicolor consultant to assistant editor to editor.
MG: What was his standing among directors?
GL: Sturges was a can-do guy with engineering skills, and this put him in good stead with people like David O. Selznick and George Stevens. Sturges traced his career trajectory to working as a jack-of-all-trades on the Lone Pine set of Gunga Din.
MG: What defines a great John Sturges film?
GL: Strong story sense; strong male ensembles; beautifully choreographed action set pieces (see Gunfight at the O.K. Corral); exquisite widescreen/Cinemascope compositions (see BDABR).
MG: What were his best films?
GL: Mystery Street and The People Against O’Hara, both quasi-noirs; Jeopardy, a beautifully handled disaster pica in miniature; Gunfight at the O.K. Corral, Bad Day at Black Rock, The Magnificent Seven, The Great Escape, and, late in his career, the much underrated Hour of the Gun. Sturges’ considered Black Rock his best-crafted film, but took the most pleasure and pride in The Great Escape, which he virtually willed into existence.
Related resources on atyourlibrary.org

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