By KJ Hamilton
The Magnificent Seven – John Sturges – 1960
The first time I saw this film; I didn’t really pay attention to it. I was a kid, there was one TV in the house, and I wasn’t allowed to change the channel when the Westerns were on. I didn’t inherit my father’s love of classic, Hollywood Westerns, so I barely remembered the plot.
It’s a classic tale: a poor village in Mexico is terrorized by Calvera (Eli Wallach); who justifies his actions by explaining that he has to have a way to feed himself and his men. The villagers wish to reclaim their crops and their village, but the only thing they know how to do is farm land. So, they seek the advice of an elder, who sends them north to the United States to buy guns. Instead, the men decide to hire gunslingers to help them. Enter Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), a man who is not afraid to go against an entire town to bury a dead Native American who, even in death, was shunned. The villagers are fascinated with his confidence, and seek him out. They plead with Adams to help them win back their village. Adams accepts their offer and immediately hires more men to join him: Vin (Steve McQueen), Bernardo (Charles Bronson), Lee (Robert Vaughn), Harry (Brad Dexter) and Britt (James Coburn). Chico (Horst Buchholz) is a young wannabe gunslinger who rides along behind the group, and is eventually accepted. The Seven rides into town, but the villagers are so afraid of outsiders that they only come out to greet their heroes after provocation.
Adams realizes from the start that they’re not going to be able to take on Calvera’s men alone. The Seven teach the men of the village how to fight, fire guns, and booby-trap the town to help sway the advantage their way. Calvera returns and the villagers claim victory as he is driven out of town. However, not everyone in the village is willing to keep on fighting, and they strike make a deal with Calvera. Betrayed but not broken, the Seven are stripped of their weapons and escorted out of town. Their guns are thrown down on the ground in front of them as Calvera’s men ride back into the village. Though they have been forced out, they’re not willing to give up. This is most evident when Britt states: “No one hands me my gun and tells me to run.” They return to the village and a gunfight ensues.
Immediately, the viewer identifies with the villagers’ plight to reclaim what was theirs. They had the desire to fight, but they just didn’t know how. Not all of us are born with the ability to fight or stand up for what is yours and with the know how to succeed. It takes a bit of humility to accept help from someone who knows how to win, as well.
The mindset of a gunslinger, specifically Chris Adams, is fascinating. Here is a man who has no home, no family, nothing really to keep him going in life other than the desire to roam. He knows what is right, just, and fair—though he might not always subscribe to those ideals. It’s not easy to trust a man who lives like he has nothing to lose, but Chris Adams was no fool. He knew exactly how to pick his battles—and win them, whether or not he drew his gun. He trusted few people, and even when those people broke his trust, he realized he had one thing left to believe in: justice. That is the fundamental truth for the Seven. They all came from different backgrounds, and all but Chico were renown for the way they could handle a gun. But no matter what they said or did, the underlying truth is that they didn’t fight for themselves, the villagers or even money. In spite of adversity and against all odds, they fought for justice and what was right; which was something far greater.
The film ends in a classic Hollywood gunfight: bad guys lose, good guys win. As poignant as the last line of the film is, it’s also problematic: “…the old man was right,” Adams said. “Only the farmers won…” True, the farmers had something tangible worth fighting for, but justice was the true winner. Justice prevailed because it was right and everyone fought hard for it—on both sides of the division line.
I wanted to see this film again because I had read a bit about it, and thought that it might be something more than just classic Hollywood gunslingers that look for fights but never really seem to get shot. I was not disappointed. I found the film it to be truly profound and inspiring that I would gladly see again.
Just don’t tell my father I said that.