One of the most popular Westerns of all time, the heroic story of "The Magnificent Seven" has influenced countless other movies in nearly every genre-- from the sci-fi "Battle Beyond the Stars," to this summer's costumer, "The 13th Warrior," to the current war movie "Three Kings," and even the Disney kid flick, "A Bug's Life."
But though this is the most famous version, the story of a small group of fighting men who step in to save a village from marauding bandits is not original to John Sturges's classic Western. The script in "The Magnificent Seven" is directly adapted from the great Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's even better movie, "Seven Samurai." But even Kurosawa admitted he was influenced by John Ford's classic Westerns and the ancient play by Aeschylus, "The Seven Against Thebes."
"The Magnificent Seven" finds a trio of Mexican villagers heading to Texas to buy guns for defense against the raids of a group of bandits led by the garrulous Calvera (Eli Wallach). They meet Chris Adams (Yul Brynner) an honorable gunslinger whom they see stand up against some bullies to get an Indian a decent burial.
Chris convinces them to hire gunfighters, because at this time at the twilight of the Old West, "men are cheaper than guns." His first recruit is the laconic Vin (Steve McQueen) who helped him out at Boot Hill.
The remaining crew is rounded out by strong silent Bernardo Kelly (Charles Bronson), Britt, (James Coburn) who is even faster with a knife than a pistol, the tortured Southerner, Lee, (Robert Vaughn), and the avaricious Harry, (Brad Dexter). Chris also finally gives in and lets Chico (Horst Buckholz) join their band, when it becomes obvious that the admiring young man is going to follow them until given the chance to prove his bravery.
The seven fortify the village, and surprise Calvera when he comes to collect tribute. In the first of several memorable confrontations, Calvera complains that he has mouths to feed, too.
"That's not our problem..." Chris begins.
"We deal in lead, friend," Vin drawls.
As the story develops, the hardened gunfighters bond with the villagers, until the men-- who signed up out of boredom, for three square meals a day, or because they liked fighting bad guys-- become willing to sacrifice their lives for others.
"The Magnificent Seven" provided Yul Brynner one of his most famous roles as Chris Adams, the charismatic leader, and solidified McQueen's laid back hero persona (which he had established on TV's "Wanted: Dead or Alive). Eli Wallach is at his ferociously funny best as Calvera.
Horst Buckholz is very good in his debut as the son of farmers who has contempt for his heritage, but learns the hard way that working and raising a family is more heroic than selling his gun.
While the other roles are perhaps underwritten, they are ingeniously cast by director Sturges to make the most of their personalities. Bronson, Coburn, and Vaughn were not yet stars, but the success of "The Magnificent Seven" helped establish them. McQueen, Bronson and Coburn would work with Sturges again in another great epic, "The Great Escape."
Elmer Bernstein's great score was imitated in other Westerns almost as often as this movie's plot was; and remains one of Hollywood's most memorable. Sturges was the master of the wide screen and the big cast, so by all means get the widescreen version, or you may only be able to see a maginificent five at any one time, thanks to the TV format.
If your kids really take to this movie, and become familiar with the characters and the plot, it is worthwhile to use the opportunity to introduce them-- and yourself-- to "Seven Samurai." Though it is over three hours long, and is in Japanese with English subtitles, making a game of comparing the two films will draw most children with good reading skills in, and then the movie will captivate everyone. "Seven Samurai" is easily one of the 20 best movies ever made, and an overwhelming film experience.