Screengrab : "We deal in lead, friend."
First off, its the way the theme kicks in, with those six pounding, insistent notes, then that euphoric, romantic theme. Its one of the only pre-Morricone Western themes I can stomach, really. So many of them are insufferably dated with their big brassy arrangements, drum tattoos and lack of any nuance, but Elmer Bernstein was no slumming soundtrack hack, and his main theme is a beautiful rolling beast, complete with the quiet interlude halfway (his action theme is also great, and Michael Kamen ripped it off completely for his Lethal Weapon work). It suits the film perfectly.
Then, of course, theres the cast. Of the titular seven, only Horst Bucholz and Brad Dexter failed to go on to greater stardom, and they're both fantastic in their different ways. Dexter's sweaty greed and Bucholz's eager machismo are vivid expressions of character in a film stuffed with oversized characters and actors scrabbling to make impressions alongside one another. Chief amongst them are Yul Brynner as Chris and Steve McQueen as Vin. Brynner relies on that stillness and his exotic, quiet charisma and beauty, while McQueen takes many of the film's best lines and more or less steals every scene hes in, an apparent source of tension between the two men on set. McQueen already seemed aware that the camera loved him, and understood how best to deal with this love. Even in such a caual role, he is magnetic. Its like a lesson in pure star quality. Then there is Charles Bronson, brooding and erupting to great effect, and James Coburn with perhaps the coolest role of them all as the expert with gun and knife, Britt (a villager asks Chris "If hes the best with gun and knife, who does he compete with?" to which the reply is "Himself."). Eli Wallach gives his Dollars trilogy persona an early try, hooting, cackling and generally having a fine time as Calvera, the villainous bandit. And Robert Vaughn brilliantly personifies shifty-eyed fear and paranoia as Lee, the gunfighter who has lost his nerve.
Its based on "Seven Samurai" (1954), of course. In making that film, Kurosawa had intended to pay tribute to the Western genre which he so loved, and most specifically, the films of John Ford. In doing so, he created a story that feels as if it taps into ancient myth (there is a precedent from Greek drama in Aeschylus' "Seven Against Thebes", part of the Oedipus series). Seven Warriors recruited to fight off barbarous outlaws now seems an almost elemental set-up and indeed was used in "Battle Beyond the Stars" (1980) and "A Bugs Life" (1998), both times with decent results. What "The Magnificent Seven" borrows most obviously and profitably from Kurosawa's film is its first act, in which the leader of the Seven recruits the others. Each recruitment scene deftly and economically establishes the character and history of the new warrior. The near-wordless introduction of Coburn as Britt is particularly devastating - his knife vs pistol duel unforgettable. This was Sturges' great strength as a director - he was an effortless storyteller. He used the Widescreen frame well, shot some memorable action scenes, and drew good perfromances from his male ensembles, but mainly, his films cruise along under their own momentum. This one had a great screenplay, written mostly by an uncredited Walter Newman (the credited William Roberts was brought in to do script revisions in Mexico which Newman refused to travel for). Newman wrote a handful of classic films, each notable for an undercurrent of cynicism and a facility with a brilliant one-liner : "Ace In the Hole" (1951), "The Man With the Golden Arm" (1955) and "Cat Ballou" (1965). "The Magnificent Seven" is full of great lines and exchanges, for example :
Chico(after Britt has shot a distant and fleeing Mexican off his horse): Ah, that was the greatest shot I've ever seen.
Britt: The worst! I was aiming at the horse.
Britt: Nobody throws me my gun and says run... Nobody.
Chris : I thought you were looking for the Johnson brothers, Lee.
Lee: [smirking] I found them. Now, how much does the job pay?
Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn't that true? Hmm? Well, isn't that true?
Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name - maybe two hundred of 'em! Rented rooms you live in - five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses - a thousand! Home - none! Wife - none! Kids... none! Prospects - zero. Suppose I left anything out?
Chris Adams: Yeah. Places you're tied down to - none. People with a hold on you - none. Men you step aside for - none.
Lee: Insults swallowed - none. Enemies - none.
Chris Adams: No enemies?
Those last two exchanges both feature Vaughn's Lee, the character who most troubled me as a little kid. His struggle with his own cowardice is fascinating and dealt with in just a few short scenes, but Vaughn invests it with real intensity. Its the way his eyes flit nervously around him, the way his dapper dress and leather gloves seem to reveal some essential secret truth about his gunfighter archetype - he dresses in such a way not so other people will fear him, but so he can believe in himself. the scene where a nightmare drives him scuttling and whimpering into a corner is hammy but works despite this, and is topped off by his speech to the Mexicans about his loss of nerve and declining skill, the final line of which is : "Yes. The final supreme idiocy. Coming here to hide. The deserter hiding out in the middle of a battlefield."
Perhaps my favourite scene in a film full of great scenes is Vaughn's death scene. He creeps around the edges of the massive climactic gun battle, before finding himself hiding beside a window. He catches a glimpse of the men inside, steels himself - we see him holster his pistol, as all good gunfighters should - then kicks the door in, shoots three Bandits in a second and frees the prisoners. As they join the melee, battering Bandits with shovels and hoes, he looks on approvingly, gun still in hand. Then a shot rings out, the gunman unseen, and Vaughn is knocked around by the force of the bullet, his pistol spinning away. He falls onto the nearby house, his face dragging slowly down the wall , nose wrinkling upward, eyes creased in pain, as he sinks to his death, ending up almost on all fours, bent over himself without any of the dignity or style he determinedly - outwardly, at least - maintained in life. Its one little moment which encapsulates what makes the film so entertaining and such a great piece of storytelling - Lee's story gets a fitting ending, both cynical and heroic, full of a sort of black irony. Each of the seven gets a series of vignettes through the film, and the ones who don't survive the final shootout all go out fighting, but each death is shadowed with that same irony. Its that dryness, I think, together with the film's narrative exuberance, that makes it still feel fresh and exciting today.