One of the upsides of all this coronavirus, being in lockdown etc is that I have the time not only to catch up on all the new films, good, bad and indifferent, on Netflix and to order DVDs of trashy horror movies and minor British gems like I Start Counting (with Jenny Agutter) but also to revisit films like the original Magnificent Seven, which I wouldn’t normally do, there being more pressing issues, like work, and travel to work, and socialising with friends, not that I did much of that before but I’ve realised how completely unnecessary it is now, and intend to do even less in the New Normal.
Anyway, The Magnificent Seven (1960) surely needs no introduction. But can you name the seven actors? Of course you can, if you’re reading this, because you’re most likely a fan of westerns in general and The Magnificent Seven in particular, and you pride yourself on remembering to include petulant little Horst Bucholz and the one nobody ever remembers, Brad Dexter (not his real name, by the way – he was born Boris Michel Soso to Serbian-speaking parents, married Peggy Lee, and saved Frank Sinatra from drowning, before moving into production and co-producing Lady Sings The Blues with Diana Ross doing a pretty good turn as Billie Holiday… all proof that there’s life after The Magnificent Seven and if no-one remembers your name, well yah boo sucks!)
Of course we all love Yul Brynner and the lingering trace of a Russian accent, plus the way he tucks his shirt into his jeans, in spite of that belly thing he has going on, and we love James Coburn, “part hipster, part cool cat”, as Paul Schrader noted. We are at least fond of Charles Bronson, cuz he’s down with the Mexican kids, and I for one identify with the tortured nightmares of Robert Vaughan, his natural instinct to run away and avoid being killed, or what the rest of the gang call cowardice. Hell, we even sort of like Steve McQueen, even if he did engage in childish one-upmanship on set, cuz he is sort of cool, although nowhere near as cool as Coburn, try as he might. I have finally learned to like Horst Bucholz, though not as much as Toshiro Mifune, his counterpart in the earlier Seven Samurai. And this time around I finally “got” the Brad Dexter character, Harry Luck, the most mercenary of the band, who after riding off in a huff comes back to meet his death like the rest of them. I also realise that I had always underestimated the craft of the film, and the contribution of its director John Sturges. Every shot is thoughtfully, artfully composed, and the film moves at a brisk pace, establishing the characters in broad but telling strokes and giving space to the poor, put-upon villagers who have hired the seven to protect them against rapacious bandits.
The only thing I don’t like (heresy alert) is the fucking music. But I LOVE the way the script sows the seeds of 60s idealism, how young Horst hangs up his guns in the end and settles down to be a farmer, just like in Easy Rider, except here there’s every hope that the next harvest will be successful, whereas in Easy Rider the communards wander around in a drug fug, tossing their seeds here, there and everywhere while Peter Fonda says “they’re gonna make it” and Denis Hopper – always a better weather gauge than Fonda – snorts derisively.
Sure, Yul Brynner sighs as he surveys the graves of his dead friends and tells Steve McQueen that they lost – a line which will find an echo in Easy Rider’s wistful refrain “We blew it” – but The Magnificent Seven is a film full of hope rather than regret. It was all worth it, you see, to liberate the Mexican peasants and while it would be stretching a point to call it a counter-cultural film, or to see Horst Bucholz as in any way a hippy, it does prefigure the Aquarian dreams of the mid- to late 60s.
Contrast it with Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch, made at the other end of the decade, post Altamont, post Manson, post May 68 and all that. At the end of both films, most of the protagonists die in a hail of bullets, giving their lives selflessly for a higher cause. The Magnificent Seven refuse to turn their backs on the villagers, while The Wild Bunch refuse to abandon a comrade-in-arms. But the Seven’s sacrifice is noble and productive, rather than vainglorious and pyrrhic. It enables the villagers to go on, and for Horst Bucholz to change his ways and choose farming/pacifism over gunfighting/warfare. By 1969, when The Wild Bunch was made, the hippies’ hopes have been dashed and a harder, more cynical edge has entered the picture(s). Those films which explicitly reference the late 60s and the “alternative society” – Easy Rider, Medium Cool, Alice’s Restaurant, Shampoo – are among the bleakest Hollywood films of the period. Shampoo, made in 1975 but about Nixon’s electoral victory in 1968, turns its gaze on the laurel canyons inhabited by movie stars like Steve McQueen and maniacs like Manson, giving The Magnificent Seven’s Brad Dexter a small part as a Republican senator and having its immature, philandering hairstylist (Warren Beatty playing himself) insist that he is “not a hippy”. I’m sure that Brynner, McQueen, Bronson, Coburn and co would have said the same, but their actions contribute to the optimistic vision of the 60s I have, while the films I have always thought of as somehow more “alternative” now seem hopeless and riven with despair.
There would be three sequels, with ever-diminishing returns; a few more nods to Brynner and co (Battle Beyond The Stars, for example – see my earlier post) and a decent post-millennium remake, but nothing beats the original. It’s 1960. A young(ish) good-looking president is in office, albeit a philandering hairstylist-type of president. The Cuban Missile Crisis hasn’t happened yet. Vietnam is still under the radar. The US is the good guy. Vorsprung durch Technik…