The Magnificent Seven: The American Version

By: Son Hoang Mai


John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven produced in 1960 is a "liberal" western movie based upon Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's remarkable film, The Seven Samurai. Sturges' version was filmed at a time when United States foreign policy refined its role in defending the Third World against Communism. In a sense, the movies sets the stage for later debates concerning the Vietnam War. In fact, rather surprisingly, The Magnificent Seven became a compelling analogy of American involvement in Vietnam, when some eight year later Americans were faced with similar problems to those faced by characters in the movie. As a result, the movie has maintained a strong audience over the years.

The Magnificent Seven begins in a small village in Mexico. In fact, the community is so small that a priest only holds mass twice a year at the village church. The village is constantly harassed and exploited, and must pay tribute to a bandit named Calvera, portrayed with sinister forms by Eli Wallach. The residents finally have had enough of Calvera so they decide to send envoys north-to the United States -to buy guns for protection.

Three Mexicans from the village arrive in a western American town just in time to see some action: Old Sam, the town drunk, has died. A traveling salesman, hawking ladies' corsets, quixotically decides to pay for the old sot's funeral, but the mortician refuses to bury Sam in Boot Hill, the town's cemetery, on grounds that the drunk was an Indian, and only whites were allowed to be buried there. At this point, two unemployed gunfighters, Chris and Vin (Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen) step forward, drive the hearse to the cemetery, face the bigots down, and bury Old Sam.

The Mexican peasants are impressed with the way Chris deals with the bigots at the cemetery, so that they decide to meet him in order to get advice on purchasing guns. They are told by Chris that guns are very expensive, and that it would be a better idea to hire gunmen instead. The envoys agree and Chris proceeds to hire the men he needs for the job.

Harry (Val Avery) is Chris's oldest friend. He joins Chris under the misconception that there is hidden treasure in the village that Chris may be after. Harry wants a piece of the action too. Rejoining Vin at the saloon he shocks them. Vin is about to take a job at a grocery store. -"good, steady work." Reluctantly, embarrassed by the prosaic disparity of becoming a grocery clerk, Vin decides to help out Chris instead. Britt, played by James Coburn, a master gunfighter, excellent with a knife, also joins, solely to prove himself as a gunfighter. Lee (Robert Vaughn) signs on to escape something mysterious but terrible in his past. Riley, played by Charles Bronson, is the offspring of an Anglo father and a Mexican mother. He is not only culturally torn , but also is torn between careers as an American gunfighter and his desire for a more settled life. Finally, Chico (Horst Buchholz), a gunfighter of Mexican descent becomes the seventh warrior. He believes that America culture is superior and wants to go to Mexico and show the people that the "correct" way is the American way.

Arriving in Mexico, the gunfighters fortify the town, build walls and train the farmers to defend themselves from Calvera, a microcosm in the eyes of some critics to the "Nation-building" process that took place in Vietnam. Yet, the villagers have little trust in the gunfighters, recognize the condescension in their attitudes , hide their women, for fear that they may be raped, and come to despise the very men hired to protect the village.

At the same time, Calvera is revealed as a cynical profiteer and tyrant who is surprised that the town even dared to hire gunmen from north of the border for protection. He views the villagers as sheep who have to be "sheared" periodically. Wallach dramatizes Calvera as a superficial Mexican social revolutionary, or a Pancho Villa type but without any real compassion or concern for his "sheep."

After the people in the village are able to chase Calvera away the first time, the Magnificent Seven are compelled to stay behind, for fear that Calvera will strike back. Yet, like Calvera, the hired guns threaten the life of the village. Meanwhile, as dissidence in the village grows, Soltero (Rico Alaniz), the brightly dressed cantina owner, begins to question whether lives should be risked for crops.

When the Magnificent Seven finally decide to hunt down Calvera, the village and their protectors are betrayed by Soltero, who informs Calvera of the plans of the Americans. When the gunfighters return to the village, they find their allies in captivity, and themselves surrounded by Calvera's armed retainers. They are forced to surrender through a negotiated "Geneva Accord" type of settlement" The gunfighters must give up their weapons, they will be allowed to leave Mexico, and Calvera's men will escort them out of the country. At the border, their weapons are returned. Interestingly enough, the Mexican bandit has lived up to a diplomatic and military code, albeit one that ignores the needs of the victims. At the border, Chris and his men are faced with difficult question: should they turn back and help the villagers or should they continue north, abandoning their duty as paladins. They decide that they must return and continue the struggle, and fulfill a moral duty as warriors. They return and stage a commando-style ambush. The people in the village help the Magnificent Seven fight Calvera's men, but instead of using the weapons or the skills they are taught by the Seven, peasant weapons-sickles and shovels-are used. At the conclusion, Chris, Vin, and Chico, who survive the shootout, realize that even though Calvera and his men have been defeated, the gunfighters also lost: The only winners are the farmers who are now free to take back their crops. Yet Chico learns that the American way of life is not always best for everyone, and he decides to stay in the village and with the woman he loves to help rebuild it.

In conclusion, The Magnificent Seven is a provocative analogy of American foreign policies and any failures it faced in the fifties. More interestingly, these policies were to be put into practice in Vietnam a few years later after the film was made, and they met with similar results to those portrayed in the movie: The Vietnamese, like the Mexican villagers, came to resist, even despise the very help and protection they had sought. Three interesting books which examine the relationships between film and American foreign policy, including some discussion of Vietnam, are Richard Slotkin's Gunfighter Nation (1992), Michael Parenti's Make-Believe Media (1992), and Hollywood's America (1993), by Steven Mintz and Randy Roberts.