There have not been many Westerns reviewed on The Legionnaire. The only reason I can think of for this being the case is that they do not make as many of them as they used to in previous years. Decades ago, tales of cowboys, native peoples (forgive me for not using “Indians,” a word for native peoples that never made sense to me anyway despite knowing the history), shoot outs, and settlements, to name a few of the tropes, regularly adorned movie and television screens. There were reasons for the plethora of Westerns at this time, which I once wrote about in graduate school. Mainly, it can all be traced to the Cold War. During the ideological struggle between the Soviet Union and the United States, Americans wanted stories that appealed to rugged American individualism. Westerns seemed to fit that description nicely. While writing about this phenomenon, one of the films I chose was the original The Magnificent Seven (1960). I will spare you, and myself, the deconstruction of Cold War politics, and instead tell you about a good piece of classic cinema that still works today. It is also significantly better than the 2016 remake.
Before there is The Magnificent Seven, there is a Mexican village that is periodically raided by a bandit going by the name Calvera (Eli Wallach). Believing they must do something to end the cycle of violence, village leaders head to the United States for help. They are looking for weapons. Instead, they find veteran gunslinger Chris Adams (Yul Brynner). In listening to their story, Chris suggests that instead of arming themselves, they hire others like him to defend their property. Since they do not have a lot of money, they can only bring in the title number. Aside from Chris, these include the young, hot-headed Chico (Horst Bucholz); Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), who becomes Chris’ right-hand man; Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), a less-stranger-than-you-would-believe mix of Irish and Mexican; Britt (James Coburn), who despite having firearms, literally brings a knife to a gun fight; Lee (Robert Vaughn), who could once do something I wish I could: catch flies with his bare hands; and Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), who is simply in it for the money. Aside from Harry Luck, whose motivations are made pretty clear, they each have their own reasons for pitching in to a battle where the odds are so greatly against them, aside from the pay. When the seven get to the village, they settle into the job of training the residents to fight. This creates a bond with them, particularly as they share meals. The villagers even relent on their fear of the seven, particularly as Chico develops a relationship with one of them, Petra (Rosenda Monteros). Bernardo also becomes close with some of the children, and he notes that they are starving as a result of these repeated attacks. The preparations pay off, for the next time Calvera and his men ride into town, they are met with armed resistance and are forced to flee. In the scramble, Chico infiltrates the bandits and goes back with them to learn more about their enemies. While there, he learns that they, too, are lacking food and plan to attack again. Meanwhile, celebrations break out in the village when they believe their problems are solved. It is Bernardo that rains on their parade. This time, instead of waiting for the bandits to return, the seven ride out to their encampment to attack. Unfortunately, they find it empty. Calvera’s men chose that moment to carry out their reprisal. When Chris and the rest get back, they find the village taken over by the bandits, thanks also to some still in league with Calvera. In exchange for their lives, Calvera’s men escort the seven far from town before giving handing over their weapons. The seven then debate what to do next. There is some consternation among them, particularly from Harry Luck. Chris wants to get even, citing the relationships they had developed. Chico argues against it, saying they are just dumb farmers. Chris reminds the young man that he had grown up just like them. Ultimately, they all agree to ride into the village once more to free it, except for Harry Luck who sees it as suicide. In fairness, he turns out to be mostly correct. Their attack does catch the bandits by surprise, but four of them die in the process. Still, Chris emerges triumphant, shooting Calvera last, who cannot understand why anyone would stick their neck out for the villagers. Chris seems inclined to agree. As he rides away with Vin (the other survivor, Chico, ends up staying with Petra), they pass by the graves of their comrades and muses about how people like him always lose.
I suppose it should be noted that The Magnificent Seven is an Americanized version of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). It is arguably the only thing people seem to know about the former, though I doubt any of them have seen the latter. Even though I know a bit about The Magnificent Seven from repeated viewings, count me firmly in the camp of those who have not viewed the source material. In any case, it is the characters that drive the movie. Yes, there are a lot of familiar themes in it that place it firmly in the genre of classic Westerns. Those films, though, tend to be less about character development and more on the side of the action. It is about them that the term “shoot-‘em ups” is often applied, and this one contains many of those elements. At the same time, I would suggest to you that there is a little more going on in this film. You could say this by discussing any of the characters. They all have a tendency to altruism, which I appreciate, even Harry Luck, who returns to save Chris. The one I will focus on is Lee. He is aptly named, being a Confederate veteran haunted by the past. His angst leads him to believe that he has lost his nerve, and there is a telling scene where he tries, and fails, to do his catching flies trick. His character is interesting from a Catholic perspective as well. Despite his misgivings, he opts to return to the village, and dies saving a building full of children. To some degree, he is able to fight once more, though I still wonder whether or not it is to the same degree as his reputation would suggest. That is not what is important in this moment. It is the fact that he went ahead even though he is terrified that he would wilt under pressure. Our relationship with God can be seen in this same respect. Often times in prayer, we do not hear anything from God. It has to be a scary moment for some to have that happen, and think it an indication that His attention is elsewhere, or worse yet, does not exist. Persistence is key, and transformative. Lee could have run away and saved his life, but then think of how much worse he would have been haunted by his actions? Instead, he dies a hero, and there is a reward for those who go through with difficult tasks.
Ultimately, I hope you chose the original The Magnificent Seven over the remake. I remember seeing the new one, and thinking that it pales in comparison to the first. This happens so often, does it not? It keeps occurring, though, because anything that has any familiarity with audiences will be remade at some point. Even the 1960 film is not an entirely fresh concept. Either way, it is still a good one.