Dressing Character in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven

Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven”. The Mirisch Company, Alpha Productions

 

The American western by way of Akira Kurosawa. For The Seven Samurai, Akira Kurosawa was inspired by the Westerns of John Ford, and made a bold departure from both the Japanese traditional sword fight pictures, the jidai-geki, and the most American of American movies. The Seven Samurai was a masterpiece, from a director whose filmography defies categorisation in the world cinema landscape. It would serve as inspiration for many American movies and westerns, the most successful of which was John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. This cultural crossover time and again only makes filmmaking more fascinating, given that each movie stands on its own.

The Magnificent Seven is a classic of another sort, a reimagining of a story rather than a remake, and a good film in its own right, every note of Elmer Bernstein’s score embedded in the story. “You try to make them entertaining and engaging within a certain frame, conforming with what happened in reality,” John Sturges remarked in an interview with Elwy Yost about westerns. “Because the way it was was very exciting. We never attempted to make a documentary, we never advertised in titles that this was the way it was, but the way it was was very colourful and effective.” Character, action and words, they are all treated with care for realism in The Magnificent Seven.

A poor village of Mexican farmers (the film was entirely shot in Mexico), at the mercy of bandits who return every year to steal their food and crops, take the radical decision to fight back by hiring gunmen to protect them from the jefe de los bandidos, villainous Calvera (Eli Wallach), and his marauding bandits. They send three of their men across the Rio Grande to find the gunfighters. Chris Larabee (Yul Bynner) is the first one they hire, offering him all the money they have, which is not much. “I have been offered a lot for my work,” he says, “but never ‘everything’”. He starts gathering his group of six more mercenaries. They all come for different reasons, united by an unwritten code of fraternity and a thread of anti-hero running underneath.

John Sturges was an innovative filmmaker, one that made great use of the vast landscape and his characters. His camera moves with ease and his characters seem to glide through the frame, most notably an Eli Wallach escaping being caught at full gallop wearing a red bright shirt, the director persisting in the overall feeling that Calvera’s presence is pervading – the narrative evolves around him, even though we see him much less than we hear about him. Or a James Coburn of very few words who is repeatedly provoked to fight and he repeatedly, patiently abides, not uttering a word, just taking position and proving his mastery at throwing a knife. John Sturges loved movement, but also had patience with the camera, even in action, something filmmakers today hardly do anymore, and that’s just beautiful, real-time feeling, to watch. James Coburn based his character, Britt, on the Seven Samurai character played by Seiji Miyaguchi, the best sword man of the ronins. “I had 11 lines,” he said in an interview for Entertainment Weekly. “That was it. But it was all action. It doesn’t matter how many lines you’ve got: It’s how you perform, what performance you put forward.”

 

“The Magnificent Seven”, 1960. The Mirisch Company, Alpha Productions

 

Yul Brynner is not the typical Western hero. More exotic looking than even his origins (Russian), bald and dressed in all black, he is quite a presence on screen. He moves quietly, but is quick with the gun. He has a stoic look, a carefully calculated pace and he means what he says, even if he himself doesn’t see himself as necessarily good or bad. “It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that,” he tells Chico (Horst Buchholz), the youngest and most impulsive of them. There have been other westerns where the antihero wore black. Henry Fonda gone bad in Once Upon a Time in the West, Robert Redford in Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, as one of the two of the greatest outlaws on screen (the other one was Paul Newman), fading into photographic memory in one of cinema’s most memorable endings, or Montgomery Clift bringing in a new type of manly ideal and rivaling the man who was no less than the epitome of American manhood (John Wayne) in Howard Hawks’ Red River (1948). All anti-heroes from three of the westerns that challenged the romantic notion of the West and brought in a new Western character archetype. They all were black. There is something of this revisionist Western idea in those words Chris says to Chico, as well as in Chico’s finishing lines, after the battle, when there were only three of them still alive: “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” There is no romanticised notion of the Western gunman in John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven. What we have here are characters who are closer to reality, often walking that grey area that the human being – and not the movie one-sided hero – is all too familiar with, where he knows fear, doubt, courage, wit, humility, regret, hope and resilience in equal measures.

Much like the main character in the film, John Sturges had to gather his troop of actors rather fast. “It was very easy to work with the actors, all potential stars at the time,” said Sturges. The film turned out to the breakthrough not just for Steve McQueen, but also Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn. Steve McQueen was at his second big role, and “everybody else was glad to have their parts,” continued Sturges. McQueen, as Vin Tanner, is often filmed right next to the main character Yul Brynner and he manages to hold his own, and then some. He is restless in The Magnificent Seven, always fidgeting, the perfect counterpart to Brynner’s quietude. And dressed in jeans, pink shirt, half unbuttoned, revealing his blue neckerchief and golden medallion, and faded brown hat and boots, he couldn’t be more different than all-clad-in-black Brynner. He’s more of the typical Western hero, but not quite so. There was something inherently modern about Steve McQueen even when he played a character in a classic western.

 

Steve McQueen and Yul Brynner in “The Magnificent Seven”, 1960. The Mirisch Company, Alpha Productions

 

“An American original” is how photographer William Claxton describes Steve McQueen in his book, Steve McQueen: William Claxton Photographs. A self-made man, McQueen would confess to Claxton in 1962, two years after The Magnificent Seven, when he had already made it in Hollywood, recalling his New York City years as a struggling young actor: “Man, I was starving – I did everything and anything to survive.” But I think he was also being himself. In Bullitt (1968), director Peter Yates understood the McQueen image and molded the character of anti-hero cop Frank Bullitt on Steve’s own style and personality. A hip personality, a special kind of existential cool, detached and rebellious, his own guy, a tough guy, who loved cars and speed – he convinced Yates to include an extensive chase scene in the film, which resulted in a eleven-minute sequence and one of the most famous movie car chases ever made. His movies, even from the very beginning, elevated his low-key, functional, visceral style to cult status.

 

“The Magnificent Seven”, 1960. The Mirisch Company, Alpha Productions

 

Just like Clint Eastwood’s Man with No Name in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, whose poncho was not like anything seen on an American horseman, not in a classic Western anyhow, Charles Bronson’s Harmonica’s checkered coat and off-white trousers in Once Upon a Time in the West were a unique choice of costume. And just like The Man with No Name was coming from nowhere, going nowhere, without a past, without a future, we can not be sure about anything about Harmonica, and can not place him in any particular archetype, except that, as Leone explained his choice of Charles Bronson for the role, “he is the face of Destiny, with a whole world behind it, a kind of granite block, impenetrable but scarred by life“.

In The Magnificent Seven, we meet him at home, and there is nothing unique about his clothes. Yet there is something else about them that stands out: they are timeless. Denim on denim. Not coincidently, his story will be the one the children will remember. Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly is the sensitive tough guy who becomes the kids’ hero: “Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that – that’s why I never will.”

 

Yul Brynner and Charles Bronson in “The Magnificent Seven”, 1960. The Mirisch Company, Alpha Productions

 
 

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