Brian 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.
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.
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.