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A Brief History of ‘The Magnificent Seven’

From the samurai to Denzel Washington, a look at this archetypal action story

Getty Images
Getty Images

Director Antoine Fuqua got his start in the 1990s with the production company Propaganda Films, helming music videos for the likes of Stevie Wonder, Prince, and Usher. Like other Propaganda directors including Michael Bay and David Fincher, Fuqua made the transition to features, and his filmography reads like a modern version of Hollywood journeymen such as Robert Aldrich. Fuqua makes muscular action movies with showy performances. Remember, it wasn’t Jonathan Demme, Spike Lee, or Ridley Scott who delivered Denzel Washington his Best Actor Oscar, but the guy who made Olympus Has Fallen.

Fuqua’s latest film is a reboot of The Magnificent Seven. He reteams with his Training Day stars Washington and Ethan Hawke, and is aided by a healthy dose of Chris Pratt. Fuqua’s been through the preexisting IP machine before, with the 2004 Clive Owen vehicle King Arthur and an adaptation of the TV series The Equalizer starring Denzel in 2014. He’s the perfect director for The Magnificent Seven: His films have a street-level naturalism (Replacement Killers, Brooklyn’s Finest, Southpaw), and they are usually set in violent moral universes that could easily be Westerns (Training Day, Tears of the Sun, Shooter). The Magnificent Seven gives Washington the definitive cowboy role (and now franchise) he richly deserves, and Fuqua is the closest thing to an Old Hollywood genre hand we have left.

The “original” Magnificent Seven, released in 1960, was itself a remake. John Sturges’s film was a Westernization of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, in both senses of the word. The Magnificent Seven is one of the few successful relocations of a foreign classic (along with The Man Who Knew Too Much, 12 Monkeys, and The Departed), and a rare example of Hollywood taking something great and not making it worse.

‘Seven Samurai,’ 1954 (Toho)
‘Seven Samurai,’ 1954 (Toho)

Seven Samurai is one of the true classics of action cinema. It created the grammar of how to shoot fight scenes. If you want to know why seemingly every movie fight scene happens in the rain, watch the final 20 minutes of Seven Samurai. The film is paced like a Western, and its story is universal, one as old as Robin Hood: A band of outcasts come together with the community that’s rejected them in order to save it. (This is one of the recurring themes in Washington’s films as well, particularly his work with Tony Scott.)

Released six years after Kurosawa’s film, Sturges’s Western follows the same throughline as the samurai epic: A town hires disgraced fighters to protect it from bandits. This was the remake as a perfect cultural exchange; as Kurosawa borrowed from American Westerns, this American Western borrowed from Kurosawa.

Sturges boiled down the adventure aspect of Kurosawa’s three-hour epic, leaving out much of the original’s class commentary (though the American film retains Kurosawa’s bittersweet ending). The Magnificent Seven’s acting bench is deep, full of masculine midcentury American standard-bearers; Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, and James Coburn give iconic performances. Eli Wallach reveals his Mexican bandit character here for the first time (he would reprise the characterization in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), which would define his onscreen persona for the rest of his life. Wallach gives the film’s antagonist a face, as opposed to Kurosawa’s anonymous gang. This is a true villain, someone who can look Brynner in the eye and recognize another ruthless killer.

‘The Magnificent Seven,’ 1960 (United Artists)
‘The Magnificent Seven,’ 1960 (United Artists)

Originally developed by blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein (who remains uncredited), the film has a real sense of a life spent freelancing. The very thing that these characters excel at alienates them from other people. There’s a scene where the “seven” surround their youngest, most impetuous member and tell him stories of how their livelihood has left them lonely, destitute, and paranoid.

It’s a schematic film, like Kurosawa’s original. You watch the development of both the team and the plan of attack for well over two-thirds of the movie. The climactic gunfight is only strengthened by the viewer’s knowing exactly what’s going to happen. Sturges’s style is so clean that you feel any minor character nuance with maximum impact: Robert Vaughn shivering in fear every night because he’s killed so many people; James Coburn being angry because he killed a man when he was trying to just shoot his horse. These performances elevate the film above its Hollywood cash-in origins. The Magnificent Seven goes out of its way to present the Mexican characters with respect, and there was a consultant from the Mexican government on set during filming, but there’s still the stink of caricature. No matter how great Wallach is, he’s always going to be a polished Broadway stage actor playing at being a Mexican.

Promo shot from ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (Getty Images)
Promo shot from ‘The Magnificent Seven’ (Getty Images)

Director John Carpenter referred to The Magnificent Seven as “the beginning of the end of the great American Westerns.” It was the last great studio Western before TV and Vietnam-era revisionism took the genre in a different direction. The Westerns of the ’40s and ’50s are the pinnacle of the genre’s impulses; simple, archetypal characters had real psychological depth. When you watch a Howard Hawks Western and spend so much time with the characters, you forget how little action there is in many of them.

The Magnificent Seven has an old-fashioned, hangout feel, like classic Hawks works, but it adds a social message — something American Westerns would amp up in the decades that followed. It tells the story of a small village learning to defend itself with the help of outcast gunfighters, which is a narrative that is always relevant and can be reframed for different cultural contexts.

‘The Magnificent Seven,’ 1960 (United Artists)
‘The Magnificent Seven,’ 1960 (United Artists)

Yul Brynner reprised the character of Chris Adams in Return of the Seven six years after the original. There were three direct sequels to The Magnificent Seven, but none reached the original films’ level. Each sequel consists of a Brynner-type character building a new “seven” to take on some impossible task in Mexico. The first sequel was written by future horror director Larry Cohen and directed by Burt Kennedy (who helmed the exploitation masterpiece Hannie Caulder and wrote films for Randolph Scott and John Wayne), but it’s rickety and turgid. It’s also very poorly filmed. Warren Oates is fantastic as the ladies’ man of the Seven, but the end product is barely watchable.

‘Westworld,’ 1973 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)
‘Westworld,’ 1973 (Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer)

Brynner understood how iconic his role as Chris was, appearing in Italian Westerns as a thinly veiled version of the character, and starring in Westworld only a year after the final Magnificent film was released. Westworld transformed Brynner into a technological golem, casting him as a robot built in the Chris Adams image. The silent humiliation of a machine designed to lose sat well with Brynner, who finally gets loose and enacts the last third of The Terminator a decade early.

‘Guns of the Magnificent Seven,’ 1969 (United Artists)
‘Guns of the Magnificent Seven,’ 1969 (United Artists)

Guns of the Magnificent Seven, the third film in the series, stars George Kennedy in the Chris Adams role. It’s not a good movie, though it is far better than Return of the Seven. Guns gets the importance of the team-building in a way the second film doesn’t. Made in 1969, it is influenced by second-wave spaghetti Western filmmakers like Sergio Corbucci. Director Paul Wendkos shot the film with an eye toward graphic framing instead of flat American Western compositions. The film was released around the same time as The Wild Bunch, which would be like if Logan’s Run had been released the same time as Star Wars.

The final film in the series, the 1972 entry The Magnificent Seven Ride!, doesn’t just appropriate the style of the Italian Western, it openly courts the genre’s exhausted audience. Chris Adams is played by Lee Van Cleef, in his post-Leone heyday. The film is closer to The Dirty Dozen than The Magnificent Seven, with a reluctant Adams recruiting six criminals from a prison transport to help him defend yet another small Mexican village. This movie focuses more on the tactics than the team-building. It’s barely a movie, more a series of events happening in sequence. There are no standout performances and it looks exactly like what it was — an attempt to catch up to and cash in on the style of the day. It could be a TV show, and the stakes are low enough that it might as well be.

In 1998, The Magnificent Seven was adapted as a television series for CBS. The series pilot was directed by the New Zealander Geoff Murphy (who helmed Young Guns II), and was about a small Seminole village that hires a new Seven to defend it from a regiment of Confederate soldiers. Because it was on television in 1998, they call themselves “The Ghosts of the Confederacy.” Subtlety died in 1997, it turns out.

The cast in the TV version includes the usually Teflon Michael Biehn in the Chris role, but everything here is so diluted, with bland, faceless, sub–Walker, Texas Ranger aesthetics. There’s nothing there. Somehow it ran for two seasons.

‘The Magnificent Seven,’ 1960 (United Artists)
‘The Magnificent Seven,’ 1960 (United Artists)

The transitions between the films in the Magnificent series reflect the social and commercial forces surrounding the Western at the times of their respective releases. Kurosawa was most interested in skillful people trying to save a society that has left them behind, thus ensuring their obsolescence. The American version of that story is similar, but has its own fixations on betrayal, especially in the context of labor — a very Hollywood concern in the years following Senator Joseph McCarthy’s House Un-American Activities Committee hearings.

The first film created many of the spaghetti Western aesthetics, and then tried to ape those hallmarks to deleterious effect. The Seven kept returning to Mexico, barely eking out victories. Mexico goes from a real place to a series of one-dimensional towns full of stereotypical characters.

In the upcoming Fuqua version of The Magnificent Seven, the outlaws and bounty hunters come to defend a town against a corporate interest operating without any oversight. Fuqua’s take seems legitimately pan-ethnic, instead of having a token Mexican or black character along for the ride. The idea of commercial forces having a positive impact on the social aspect of films is always going to be ridiculous, but it is nice to see a diverse cast, with an African American director, taking on a rich white villain instead of another group of Mexican stereotypes.

The Magnificent Seven is as it was in 1960, and this new variation has more chance to speak to the iconic elements of the original and even Seven Samurai. This is a story of people who are responsible for protecting a society that has lost use for them. It’s ultimately a veteran story. Each of the sequels strayed from that idea in order to explore the Mexican setting, to diminishing returns, for action setups. As a franchise, the series is built to showcase movie stars and character actors in an adventure format without any slavishness to a preexisting property, even as a remake. The Magnificent narrative shows these trained warriors doing impossible things through sheer charm and characterization, and this new one has Denzel in it.