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Book Review: The Making of The Magnificent Seven

The Making of the Magnificent Seven coverBrian Hannan‘s recent book The Making of The Magnificent Seven is an in-depth look at the production of one of Hollywood’s most iconic westerns, The Magnificent Seven. Based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the film went through an eventful production history and proved an initial domestic box office failure, only to end up one of the internationally most successful Hollywood films of its era. Hannan’s came out last year and I am here to review it.

This review will follow my typical convention of first describing the contents of the book, followed by an evaluation and a purchase recommendation.

Contents

The Making of The Magnificent Seven begins with a foreword and an introduction which describes the state of Hollywood’s film industry and the western genre in particular at the time of the production of The Magnificent Seven. Chapters 1-3 discuss the parts that Anthony Quinn, Yul Brynner and John Sturges played in kickstarting the film’s production around the mid-1950s. Hannan is especially enamoured with Brynner’s central part in the story, with the chapters almost working as a mini-biography for the actor.

In chapters 4 and 5 Hannan turns his attention to the screenplay, which went through three or possibly four different writers before ultimately being attributed solely to William Roberts. According to the book, Roberts was in fact responsible only for the last rewrite, with screenwriter Walter Newman’s work most prevalent in the final shooting script. Hannan compares the Roberts and Newman drafts closely, as well as pointing out how the adaptation uses the original source material, and concludes by saying that despite there even having been a legal case between the producers and the uncredited Newman, “the question that is left unanswered … is whether Roberts or Newman deserved as much credit as the [uncredited] screenwriters of Seven Samurai, who basically … wrote the bulk of the film”. For someone reading the book for its connection with Akira Kurosawa, these two chapters are the most interesting parts of the work.

Chapter 6 looks at the film’s early production difficulties, which included a Hollywood-wide actors’ strike, lawsuits, and dealings with the censorship of the Mexican government as the film was shot in the country. Chapter 7 describes the casting process, with the following two chapters talking about its fallout, or how the various egos clashed, often in rather petty manner. Hannan is especially critical of Steve McQueen, whom he accuses of constant scene stealing antics. Chapter 9 also discusses the origins of the film’s memorable score.

Chapter 10 begins a critical analysis of the film by first discussing the ways in which The Magnificent Seven diverts many of the clichés that were associated with westerns at the time. After a brief interlude with chapter 11 where Hannan discusses the film’s marketing and posters, he continues his analysis by fixing his focus on the work of director John Sturges in chapters 12 and 13. Hannan argues that Sturges is generally underrated and needlessly categorised as a craftsman director, and points to numerous examples in The Magnificent Seven which in his view call for a more flattering evaluation of the director’s capabilities.

Hannan briefly returns to the production’s marketing efforts in chapter 14, followed by a discussion of the film’s core themes — transition, identity, professionalism and militarism — in chapter 15. This is followed by a chapter that points out numerous problems with the film’s story, internal logical and structure. It is by far the chapter most critical of the film and in many ways for this reason one of the most interesting, showing the level of close reading that the author has done for the film when preparing the book.

Chapter 17 leaves analysis behind and moves onto the film’s US release by looking at the somewhat nervous atmosphere in which the film was prepared, marketed and released to initially mixed reviews. Chapter 18 looks at the film’s box office battle against some pretty major competition, including Ben Hur, Psycho, The Alamo and Spartacus, and why it ended up losing that battle. The chapter includes an almost exhausting amount of local US box office data from late 1960, showing how exactly The Magnificent Seven ended up a box office flop and a commercial disappointment in the US.

Chapter 19 describes the film’s international release in 1961, which was far more successful than its domestic record had been and made The Magnificent Seven one of the first films to begin changing the Hollywood attitude about the worth of the foreign market. The chapter also looks at the film’s surprising refusal to completely fade away from US cinemas, as it continued to attract a small but steady stream of moviegoers when the film was reissued in the coming years. This led to it also becoming one of the first major television successes when the film was first aired in 1963 and paved the way for the film’s numerous sequels.

Chapter 20 looks at these sequels as well as the directions that the careers of the The Magnificent Seven‘s primary players took after the film’s release. The book concludes with a final chapter on the film’s impact, legacy and the various critical approaches that it has accrued. This is followed by a short but thorough appendix which lists the US reissues of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, as well as sections of Notes, Bibliography and a very thorough Index.

Evaluation

Brian Hannan’s 288-page The Making of The Magnificent Seven undoubtedly succeeds as the definitive account of The Magnificent Seven‘s production and reception. The extensively researched book is at its best in detailing the film’s production history and release, with the intervening chapters that concentrate on film analysis arguably coming across as somewhat weaker and less convincing. The book includes dozens of interesting black-and-white photos, which are largely production photos and promotional materials.

Hannan has jam packed the book with information, which unfortunately at times works badly against the flow of the narration, making some parts of the book a challenge to go through without losing focus. The author’s writing lacks a strong central narrative thread that would carry the reader’s interest through these parts, and the many detours blur the book’s core story and argument. The book also repeatedly swamps the reader with long lists of names, titles and Hollywood trivia which without any additional context don’t really add to the discussion unless the reader is already fairly familiar with the era and therefore able to provide that context themselves.

With these shortcomings, it is difficult to recommend The Making of The Magnificent Seven unconditionally, especially as the book’s current retail price is relatively high. If you are passionate about the film that it discusses, the book is certainly a must buy. It can also be a valuable source of information to anyone interested in the Hollywood era in which The Magnificent Seven was made, especially when it comes to the way films were produced, marketed and released at the time. Those interested in the film solely for its Kurosawa connection may however want to be more cautious with their purchase decision, even if the chapters devoted on the screenplay are certainly interesting, as is the appendix detailing the release history of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in the US.

The Making of The Magnificent Seven is available from bookstores, including Amazon.com, Amazon.co.uk and Amazon.de.


Discussion

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lawless

Thanks for this. Could you summarize the analysis/critique of the movie? I am interested in seeing how closely it resembles (or doesn’t resemble) what’s been mentioned in our discussions of the movie.

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Vili Maunula

To be honest, Hannan’s analysis is not very cohesive and I find it difficult to summarise it in any more detail than how I describe it above. As far as I was able to identify, there are three core arguments in his discussion, namely that the film goes against many of the clichés of the genre, that John Sturges should be more highly regarded as an auteur, and that there are certain core themes present in the film.

However, rather than really arguing for any of these points, Hannan presents them as assumed truths and spends the chapters recounting suitable examples found in the film, sometimes more convincingly than at others. These sections end up reading like long lists of ideas where paragraphs are isolated entries, individual nuggets that stand on their own, rather than really contributing to build a wider argument.

I do think that the chapters analysing the film are the weakest part of the book and that they would have benefited from a more rigorously academic approach. They are descriptive rather than argumentative. Hannan is clearly intimately familiar with all aspects of the film, but he is somehow unable to communicate, at least to this reader, any larger insights, so the discussion remains very much on a “look at this, then look at that” type of a level. Which really is a pity.

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lawless

That’s too bad. For example, I remember we were bothered by the racial divide inherent in the bandits being Mexican while the heroes are white and the more traditional (to put it mildly) depiction of gender relationships.

One of the great things about Seven Samurai was that its depiction of Shino was not what I expected. She didn’t wind up with the samurai, and in fact for her it appears to have been a fling. But she’s also depicted as caring and thoughtful as well as the instigator in that relationship. None of that was typical of Western media at the time or when I first saw the movie!

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Vili Maunula

While the depiction of the film’s gender relationships don’t really get Hannan’s attention, he does discuss the cultural divide a few times. According to him, the original screenplay by Walter Bernstein was set in Texas, with Mexican bandits crossing the border to the US. The story was later moved to Mexico when Walter Newman took over the writing, mainly because Yul Brynner could at the time not shoot a film in the US for tax reasons.

As a result, the seven gunslingers would not be defending a town in their own country, but became what many have identified as an invading defensive force, an echo of US overseas militarism at the time (and arguably since).

Hannan also suggests that the film’s portrayal of the bandits and the heroes is not quite as black-and-white as audiences tend to view it and argues that there is more depth to the villains than in Kurosawa, something that we have also considered but ultimately refuted.

This paragraph sums up some of Hannan’s thoughts on the matter:

Similarities between the bandits and mercenaries begin long before the movie opens. Calvera operates in the most northerly part of Mexico and the gunfighters in the most southerly pat of the United States for the same reason. Distant from government, law and order, and civilization, these “areas remote from centers of power experienced a lack of government administration.” [This quote appears to be missing the right reference in the Notes section so I don’t know where it is from.] Both seek a kind of freedom, a land without constraint or disapproval. Calvera represents an alternative future — a mercenary unable to earn a living in the normal manner might be tempted to turn outlaw. Both “armies” are shown as disciplined, riding in tight formation, the Mexicans in double file rather than charging as a horde, silent as they ride, not screaming and whooping, the Americans in single file. Audience preference, and Bernstein’s rousing score, may tip the viewer in the right direction, but the way these scenes are shot is more clinical. Equally, audience reaction determines response to the two avoidable deaths at the beginning. When Calvera shoots the peasant, he bemoans the man’s stupidity, recognizing the senseless waste of life. Nobody ever blames Britt for killing the idiotic challenger in the stockyard, yet we take against Calvera. Calvera expresses regret, Britt none. (169)

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Greasy Rat

“When Calvera shoots the peasant, he bemoans the man’s stupidity, recognizing the senseless waste of life. Nobody ever blames Britt for killing the idiotic challenger in the stockyard, yet we take against Calvera. Calvera expresses regret, Britt none. (169)”

That is a very interesting point. And one that also seems to somewhat differentiate Britt from his counterpart, Kyuzo. In the original, Kyuzo directly warned is opponent that if they fought with real swords, his opponent would die.

Yul Brynner also complained that Eli Wallach was too benevolent as Calvera, while Wallach saw Calvera as just a guy trying to make a living.

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Ugetsu

I suspect the difference is less on a desire of the makers of the Magnificent Seven to be fairer to the bandits, but the difficulties in translating across the cultural differences between the Ronin/bandits and gunslingers/bandits. In Seven Samurai, it was straightforward – the ‘Seven’ were penniless Samurai who still clung to the higher ideals of Bushido. The Bandits, on the other hand, had abandoned Bushido, and had simply kept up the worst habits of Samurai in seeing the farmers as milk cows to be used when they wanted.

In Magnificent Seven, apart from the ethnic differences, the focus seemed to be more about individuals on the wrong side of the law taking a moral stand as to how low they will go. The ‘Seven’ were gunslingers who decided to do one decent thing in their lives. The bandits were not necessarily that much worse, they just didn’t have that line they wouldn’t cross.

But I do think that perhaps the casting of someone as likeable as Eli Wallach (even when he played terrible men, he was always somehow likeable) tilted the balance a little, although its hard to say if that was deliberate or not.

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lawless

Thanks, Vili, for the discussion of the cultural divide.

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