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Film Club: The Magnificent Seven (Sturges, 1960)

The Magnificent Seven“The American copy is a disappointment, although entertaining. It is not a version of Seven Samurai. I do not know why they call it that.” This is how Kurosawa described The Magnificent Seven, our AK film club‘s film for August, in an interview with R.B. Gadi in 1966 (quoted from Cardullo). The American film is, of course, a remake of our last month’s film, Seven Samurai.

Released in October 1960, The Magnificent Seven was something of a commercial success, but not quite a critical one. The New York Times reviewer Howard Thompson called it “a pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original”, while Variety approved of the first two thirds of the film describing it as “a rip-roaring rootin’ tootin’ western with lots of bite and tang and old-fashioned abandon”, but found the finish disappointing. The film has since gained a more positive image, possibly through its repeated showings on television, as well as thanks to its star studded cast.

According to Martinez, who dedicates a number of pages on The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai, the film was originally to be set in the American Civil War, with Martin Ritt to direct from a script that would have been closer to Kurosawa’s original than what was ultimately filmed. In the end, however, it was John Sturges who helmed the production, while Ritt would go on to do his own Kurosawa remake four years later with The Outrage.

While The Magnificent Seven retains many of the characters and plot points from the original, by moving the story to the American old west it necessarily has to change much of what is at the very core of the original film. Many of the central themes suggested by Seven Samurai (see for instance my introduction to Seven Samurai from last month) have either been changed or removed completely, and it is therefore interesting to look at The Magnificent Seven in terms of how it translates, or doesn’t translate, the original for western audiences. It is also worth paying special attention to Elmer Bernstein’s music for the film, which was nominated for an Academy Award, and at times appears to echo the more oriental soundscapes of Fumio Hayasaka’s score for Seven Samurai.

While reflecting its source, the translation also has to wrestle with the demands and traditions of its target language, that of the American western. In many ways, The Magnificent Seven is a very typical western, but in others it goes against certain genre conventions. One of these is the film’s group of heroes, as opposed to the more standard setup of a lone hero and his sidekick.

Thanks to its commercial success, The Magnificent Seven spawned three sequels and was later resurrected in the 1998 television series of the same name. As we heard in May, a remake of the film is currently in production, with Tom Cruise reportedly attached to the project.

In September, we will be discussing Kurosawa’s Record of a Living Being. Information about the film’s home video availability can be found here. For the full Film Club schedule, see here.


Discussion

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Ugetsu

I watched it last weekend – for the first time in a very long time. I think I saw it a couple of times as a teenager (and maybe even younger) and loved it – of course Britt was my favourite as he was with most young boys I think.

My main feeling was one of disappointment – it is much worse than I remembered! I was very surprised though about how many scenes are almost direct copies of Seven Samurai, I hadn’t realised the films were so close in structure. But of course the direction is far more crude – a good example being the ‘ambush’ scene where Britt picks a cactus flower while waiting for the bandits to come – it has nothing of the mystery and beauty of the equivalent scene in Seven Samurai. You’d wonder really why they bothered.

The ‘making of’ film with my dvd copy was very interesting. It seems that pre-production and filming was a bit of a mess, with egos and politics constantly getting in the way of filming. I think it shows in the slightly awkward flow of the film, not to mention the occasionally bizarre casting. I don’t think Sturges really had much control over the film and it was only the strength of the storyline, the charisma of the stars, and of course the great music that allowed everyone to overlook the films flaws, making it the huge success it was. But I can’t help feeling that it could have been so much better.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: My main feeling was one of disappointment – it is much worse than I remembered!

This was my exact reaction, as well.

I had actually planned to also watch the sequels and maybe even the later television series this month, but after finishing The Magnificent Seven, I decided to move that project somewhere into the distant future. I already think that Seven Samurai is a bit of a mess with everything that it crams into the story, but Kurosawa does an admirable job at keeping all the threads relatively together, which cannot be said of Sturges’s version, which just feels messy and unfocused. It goes through the motions, but lacks soul.

I must say that I also wasn’t a big fan of the exceptionally wooden acting from practically all the leads.

It will be interesting to see what the forthcoming remake with Tom Cruise will be like, if it materialises. I’m actually cautiously optimistic. But then again, I always am, and then I tend to be disappointed.

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Ugetsu

Vili

It will be interesting to see what the forthcoming remake with Tom Cruise will be like, if it materialises. I’m actually cautiously optimistic. But then again, I always am, and then I tend to be disappointed.

I’m oddly optimistic too, although I’d be much more so if the Coen brothers had a hand in it. I think that if the remake were to follow the original idea of having the Seven as older, battered civil war veterans (Spencer Tracey was mentioned as a potential lead) could result in a better film – a sort of Magnificent Seven/Wild Bunch hybrid. Although knowing Hollywood I think they’d find it hard to resist using it as a vehicle for promoting grown up Twilight stars. RPatz as Britt/Kyuzo? Please, no!

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Vili Maunula

I hope that whatever they do with the remake, they make it more realistic. Seven Samurai feels fairly real. The Magnificent Seven feels like a Hollywood film. They need more grit.

Indeed, maybe they would need the Coen brothers. But then again they just made their western, and I didn’t really like it. For me, True Grit was neither true or gritty enough. So, maybe no Coen brothers then for me, thank you very much.

As for Robert Pattinson, I quite liked his performance in David Cronenberg’s recent Cosmopolis. It fit the role. But I think it’s also the only film I’ve seen with Pattinson, so I don’t know if he’s like that in all of his roles.

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cocoskyavitch

I am delighted that you gentlemen see The Magnificent Seven for the middling work that it is. I have some affection for some of the cast, but any reviews I read that seriously compare the qualities The Magnificent Seven with Seven Samurai leave me dumbstruck.

As for Robert Pattinson, Vili, are you joking? In Water for Elephants the elephant was a better actor. I’m with you, Ugetsu…contemplating him in the film’s a horrorshow.

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lawless

I have yet to rewatch The Magnificent Seven because I’ve been holding onto Mizoguchi’s Street of Shame intending to watch it for a second time, but I have to add my voice to everyone else’s. The Magnificent Seven is a real letdown. It’s entertaining, but nothing special. As an adaptation, it stinks. In fact, I think The Outrage is a better adaptation. At least what it varies from the original adds something to the story rather than detracting from it. I especially miss the social and philosophical commentary of Seven Samurai. which, along with the film’s realism and performances, is why it transcends its genre origins.

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Vili Maunula

Coco: As for Robert Pattinson, Vili, are you joking? In Water for Elephants the elephant was a better actor.

I can’t really comment on him as an actor. As I said, I’ve only seen Cosmopolis from his filmography, but I think his performance there was pretty good. Cronenberg seems to have liked him as well, as he’s planning to have Pattinson in his next project as well.

And he’s apparently not the only one. Pattinson has also recently been attached to Werner Herzog’s next film Queen of the Desert, where he will be playing T. E. Lawrence.

lawless: I especially miss the social and philosophical commentary of Seven Samurai.

The social and philosophical commentary in The Magnificent Seven is indeed quite lacking, and where it seems present, I’m not sure what to make of it. The whole Mexicans asking for help from American gun slingers is a little disturbing, as is the way the Mexican peasants and bandits are portrayed. This is actually something that one can say about The Outrage as well.

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lawless

I just finished rewatching The Magnificent Seven. It’s a sad commentary that I remembered absolutely nothing of the plot. For me, if a movie is memorable, I’ll remember that, at least.

This will probably be considered heresy by the rest of you, but I think the anime Samurai 7 is a better adaptation than this one. I still find The Magnificent Seven problematic, but while it’s not a particularly good movie, it does have its moments, some of which are due to variations from the original, like the boys who follow O’Reilly around.

Vili said:

I already think that Seven Samurai is a bit of a mess with everything that it crams into the story, but Kurosawa does an admirable job at keeping all the threads relatively together, which cannot be said of Sturges’s version, which just feels messy and unfocused. It goes through the motions, but lacks soul.

I gueess I didn’t think it was messy and unfocused, more unconvincing. It does amuse me that you think Seven Samurai is a bit of a mess with everything that it crams into the story but succeeds in keeping the plot threads relatively together when The Magnificent Seven makes a clear attempt to simplify the plot by eliminating major parts of it but doesn’t benefit from that in the opinion of anyone who’s commented here. I would argue that some of what you may think is cramming in information is what lends the original its realism. I also thought of your complaints about Seven Samurai relegating too much information to subtext; here, some of the inartfulness is due to making the subtext explicit.

Part of what makes this such a mediocre movie is that we don’t learn as much about the heroes, thus enabling the movie to get away with using actors with limited acting chops. But in additon, we don’t learn as much about the farmers, who remained a faceless, somewhat interchangeable bunch. (I guess that plays into the whole racism thing mentioned below.) The farmers’ parts are almost uniformly badly acted, including the Old Man’s. And while we get to know the bandits, or at least one bandit, better, that does little to add to the movie. In the end, because he’s such a caricature, it detracts from it.

In addition to the colonialist racism of white folks rescuring Mexican peasants, there is enough sexism to go around, too. In fact, I think that there’s no nuance to the relationship between the sexes here — I found the whole Shino subplot cringeworthy — whereas there is some nuance to the relationship between the gunslingers and peasants. For one thing, I think making the good deed that brings Chris to the attention of the villagers be driving a hearse with an Indian’s body in it to the graveyard was deliberately intended to tone down or address the racism, or at least signal that he’s a broad-minded person. And the statements contrasting the tumbleweed gunslingers from the farmers who have roots, children, and a community were fairly insightful, too.

I have to confess to spending a fair amount of time trying to figure out who was supposed to be who. Clearly, the kid had elements of Katsushiro and Kikyuchiyo in him. I never really settled on who Vin was supposed to be. And Harry, while Chris’ old friend, has none of the noble qualities of Shichiroji, nor does he survive, unlike Shichiroji. I guess he and Vin between them are an amalgam of Gorobei and Shichiroji. That leaves Robert Vaughn as someone who isn’t derived from any of the characters in the original.

As for the comparison the The Outrage, at least its bandit was, if I remember, working on his own rather than at the head of a gang, and he brought up the racism issue himself and addressed it. So that ameliorated it some for me. It didn’t have the “white men rescue brown men” aspect that this does.

Finally, while this has an iconic soundtrack that I wouldn’t mind listening to as a piece of music, I found it overly intrusive as part of the movie. And I spent most of the movie being distracted by the color photography.

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Vili Maunula

lawless: This will probably be considered heresy by the rest of you, but I think the anime Samurai 7 is a better adaptation than this one.

I still haven’t finished Samurai 7 but from what I have seen, I might actually agree with you. Even if I don’t particularly like (what I have seen of) Samurai 7.

lawless: Part of what makes this such a mediocre movie is that we don’t learn as much about the heroes, thus enabling the movie to get away with using actors with limited acting chops. But in additon, we don’t learn as much about the farmers, who remained a faceless, somewhat interchangeable bunch. (I guess that plays into the whole racism thing mentioned below.) The farmers’ parts are almost uniformly badly acted, including the Old Man’s. And while we get to know the bandits, or at least one bandit, better, that does little to add to the movie. In the end, because he’s such a caricature, it detracts from it.

This observation is spot on, and I think possibly the main reason why The Magnificent Seven for me is so much poorer than Seven Samurai. It is curious that the Hollywood version tries to humanise the bandits in some sense, rather than depicting them as just “the evil outsider/other”, as Kurosawa does. There would obviously be potential there to explore the bandits and their reasons for doing what they are doing, but as you said, what we end up with is a caricature that just makes things worse.

lawless: That leaves Robert Vaughn as someone who isn’t derived from any of the characters in the original.

Indeed, he seems to have the least connection with any character in Seven Samurai. Maybe this is because Chico, as you said, is sort of a merger between two characters.

It’s also very true, as you say, that the heroes are far less complex characters than in Seven Samurai. I would find it difficult to label the samurai in Kurosawa’s film with simple and straightforward labels, but in The Magnificent Seven we clearly have “the leader”, “the leader’s friend”, “the youngster”, “the deluded treasure hunter”, “the master gunslinger”, and so on. There’s far less dimension to any of them when compared to the originals.

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lawless

Thinking about it and looking at the list I just made of my favorite movies, I think Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven, while not an adaptation or a remake, shares some common themes with Seven Samurai and is a much better movie than The Magnificent Seven. While there’s a clear hero, he works with a (smaller) group of people to achieve his ends, which is the protection of or achieving vengeance on behalf of the denizens of a whorehouse.

The movie also has the existentialist sensibility of Seven Samurai, several laugh-out-loud moments despite the overall seriousness of the story, and a “warrior” coming out of retirement for one last job, kind of like Kambei and Shichiroji. And, to top it off, it’s also a Western (of sorts), the Hollywood genre that both influenced Seven Samurai and seemed to Sturges like the most natural way to translate it to a Western adaptation.

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Greasy Rat

I agree with most of these points. It will never match up to Seven Samurai‘s brilliance. That doesn’t mean I don’t like it. There’s plenty of this movie to enjoy. The dialogue is actually pretty snappy, Eli Wallach, who is one of my heroes/classic Hollywood celebrity crushes, gnaws on the scenery with infectious relish as bandit leader Calvera (and he would do the same again in Lord Jim, so much that the movie might as well revolve around him). And I admit Horst Bucholz as Chico is pretty fun to watch. He’s not quite as entertaining as Kikuchiyo (remember, he’s part Katsushiro as well), and his speech scorning his own class doesn’t have quite the same dramatic punch as in the original, but he’s likable enough and I was at least invested in his character, and I wanted to know, “Who is this crazy kid?”. I watched this one first and I recommend that others do the same, because I know you’ll find Seven Samurai so much better, although this one’s enjoyable for what it is.
I think O’Reilly should have been played by someone other than Charles Bronson. I never really liked the actor. Not a bad character, I just think that someone could have played him better.

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Greasy Rat

Oh, and I watched it in Japanese on Nicovideo recently. Interesting if confusing experience.

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Vili Maunula

Welcome to the website, Greasy Rat. And thanks for all your contributions so far!

It’ll be interesting to see how the upcoming Magnificent Seven remake will compare to Kurosawa and Sturges. We know that there is a lot of potential in the story and that Hollywood can make a good gun slinger film when all stars align.

Greasy Rat: Oh, and I watched it in Japanese on Nicovideo recently. Interesting if confusing experience.

That sounds both interesting and confusing indeed! 🙂 I wonder if they looked at Seven Samurai for inspiration for the Japanese translation and dub, to complete the circle.

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Ugetsu

The Magnificent Seven in Japanese? That sounds confusing too, but then again, the Japanese remake of Unforgiven was surprisingly good.

Its interesting that the imdb page for the new Magnificent Seven lists Kurosawa, Oguni and Hashimoto as the writers, not William Roberts, the writer of Magnificent Seven. I wonder if this is just for copyright reasons, or do they really see it as a remake of Seven Samurai?

I’m quite excited about it, although I must admit I haven’t been too impressed with the films I’ve seen by Antoine Fuqua, he seems to be to be very much a boilerplate glossy action director – hope I’m proved wrong.

And welcome to Greasy Rat too!

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Greasy Rat

Aw, thanks.

I think the version I watched was the 2013 Star Channel dub which included Koichi Yamadera as Vin, Daisuke Namikawa as Chico, and Shinpachi Tsuji as Calvera.

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Greasy Rat

My mistake, it was the 1974 TV Asahi version, which included Chikao Otsuka as O’Reilly and Kiyoshi Kobayashi as Britt.

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Vili Maunula

Ugetsu: Its interesting that the imdb page for the new Magnificent Seven lists Kurosawa, Oguni and Hashimoto as the writers, not William Roberts, the writer of Magnificent Seven. I wonder if this is just for copyright reasons, or do they really see it as a remake of Seven Samurai?

That’s an interesting observation! IMDb data isn’t always very reliable of course, but it could be interesting if they decided to follow Seven Samurai, rather than the film that they are in theory remaking.

If I had to guess, I doubt it’s copyright or trademark reasons, but it could have something to do with the legal rabbit hole that using the original film’s screenplay as the basis could lead into. You see, although credited as the sole screenwriter, William Roberts was in fact only responsible for the last rewrite, and The Magnificent Seven was actually the work of three (or possibly four) authors, Walter Newman arguably doing the biggest part of the writing. The whole thing got quite ugly in the end, and it could well be that the new remake wants nothing to do with that part of the film’s history.

I know the background story because I have been very slowly reading Brian Hannan’s book The Making of the Magnificent Seven in the past few months. I’ll try to have a review up soon, but the most interesting part of the book has certainly been the section on the film’s screenwriting, which compares various drafts and their relationship with Kurosawa’s original film and concludes by stating that although there was even a legal case between the producers and the uncredited screenwriter Walter Newman, the bulk of the film was really written by the screenwriters of Seven Samurai.

Ugetsu: I’m quite excited about it, although I must admit I haven’t been too impressed with the films I’ve seen by Antoine Fuqua, he seems to be to be very much a boilerplate glossy action director – hope I’m proved wrong.

I haven’t seen his more recent work, notably still waiting to see Southpaw, but based on his earlier films I must say that while I agree with you to a point, if memory serves well, I think all of the Fuqua films have been fairly competent and therefore enjoyable, even if they haven’t really been classics.

Greasy Rat: My mistake, it was the 1974 TV Asahi version, which included Chikao Otsuka as O’Reilly and Kiyoshi Kobayashi as Britt.

It’s interesting that they would do a new dub of the film!

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ssj

well, for a descendent of the seven samurai, this was pretty flat and disappointing. expected this to be far more entertaining than it was.

agree with pretty much all of the criticisms above, including the mismatch between the stirring music and the tone of the events, e.g., slowly riding horses from point A to B.

some additional nitpicks:

not sure how the greenhorn embedded himself in the bandit camp. how could they not notice he wasn’t one of them?

and after trapping the seven, the bandits didn’t seem particularly vengeful over the death of their comrades; i don’t even recall their mentioning the deaths, as if their slaughter were a non-issue and a bygone. and returning their guns? what kind of logic operates in this world?

i enjoyed watching mcqueen, coburn, and whoever played the old man, who had a few decent lines. it’s a pity the film wasn’t more interesting, stylish, or thoughtful.

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