Can you name them?
(All descriptions refer to the first photograph)
Five out of seven is very good; seven will put you in the quiz team. It doesn’t help that so few of them have any other significant association with westerns. Steve McQueen (Vin Tanner) had found the unusual (in the 50s) television route to Hollywood stardom. He’d made a name for himself in the TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. In order to free himself from his contract with the television company, to be in The Magnificent Seven, he staged a car accident. By staged, I mean, he deliberately crashed his sports car at high speed. There were no safety belts and his wife was in the passenger seat.
Miraculously neither was seriously injured though injured enough to call a halt to the TV cameras. (If you choose to believe this story. (I do.) It is told by his wife of the time Neile Adams on an excellent documentary that comes as one of the extras on the DVD of the film). He became known as the king of cool. He appeared in a number of very good films and a number of blockbusters. He wasn’t the easiest man to work with but his glittering eyes and smile helped make him the highest paid actor of his time. He lived his life according to the rules of 1960s and 70s celebrity, often burning three ends of the candle at once. He died of cancer aged 50. A great loss.
Yul Brynner (Chris Larabee Adams) took the even more unusual first step to American stardom by being born in Vladivostok. He didn’t reach America until he was 20 and maintained a pronounced Russian accent throughout his career. His rise to fame was dramatic. He shaved his head to take the lead role in The King and I in 1950 and never again allowed his hair to grow back. He was so impressed with Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai that he bought the production rights which put him in a very good position to play the star role. In fact it was originally intended that Brynner direct the film and Anthony Quinn was to play the leader of the gang. There are a lot of gravelly, low pitched speaking voices in the film’s cast. Brynner’s is by some distance the most musical. He is an unusual actor and he is very, very good in The Magnificent Seven.
Next in line is another who isn’t quite disguising his non cowboy accent. Horst Buchholz (Chico) was known as the German James Dean. He’d only appeared in one English speaking film before the Magnificent Seven. He was popular with director John Sturges and the cinema audience. Less so with the other six stars who ridiculed the way he played the role of Chico, long after the film had found its comfortable place, as Christmas family viewing, alongside The Wizard of Oz and The Great Escape. He seemed on the verge of great things but didn’t choose his parts very well. He was offered the role of Tony in West Side Story and of Sherif Ali (The Omar Sharif part) in Lawrence of Arabia. Just when he thought he couldn’t kick himself any harder he turned down the part of the mysterious stranger in a sequence of Italian films. The role went to one Clint Eastwood and the rest is history.
In the centre is Charles Bronson (Bernardo O’Reilly). He built on his Magnificent Seven fame as a cowboy in the role of the harmonica playing gunman in Sergio Leone’s One Upon a Time in The West. He also dug the tunnel in Sturges Great Escape before delivering a death blow to serious film stardom by playing the vigilante in not one but four Death Wish films (even Michael Winner gave up after 3!) He gained a minor real life baddy role in taking Huddersfield Town football club to court for use of the Great Escape name and theme tune on their 1998 video. After ridding New York of an entire generation of muggers as Paul Kersey, this was a battle too far for the legendary hardman. (And a rare victory for Huddersfield Town.)
Robert Vaughn (Yes that is how you spell it)(Lee) is the one you remember fifth. Two things come to mind. The first is what a strange piece of casting this was. “What on earth was the smooth, slightly creepy actor from The Man from Uncle doing in a cowboy film?” The second thought is: Oh yes, he was the one who lost his nerve. A third thing is that he is the only one left alive. (And this has itself become a pub quiz question). His part is often subject to criticism. It seems some critics struggle to distinguish between bad acting and playing a bad person. There is redemption for the character and the actor deserves great credit. It is a fine performance.
Number six in line is the one nobody gets. Brad Dexter (Harry Luck) was in over forty films but nobody can remember any of these performances either. If Frank Sinatra owed his career to his connections with certain Italian American families then it is possible that Dexter owed his career to Sinatra; who he saved from drowning on the set of None But the Brave. There is an argument that Dexter’s name is forgotten because of the celebrity of the other actors. Another (wrong) argument, that he simply isn’t very good. I believe it is because he is the only one of the seven whose character has nothing you’d like to emulate. He was an out and out mercenary with a very high opinion of himself. Even if there were seven of us playing (and The Magnificent Seven was a popular choice of game for my friends and I in 1960s Lancashire) no-one wanted to be Brad Dexter and the seventh (certainly if it was me) would choose to play Eli Wallach’s villainous gang leader instead.
Finally, at number seven is the only actor who went on to make a considerable name for himself in westerns. As Pat Garrett in Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid and Samuel Potts in Major Dundee, James Coburn (Britt) gave two of the great western performances. In The Magnificent Seven he is most remembered for the knife scene at the railhead. It is a long and involved scene where the tension is disguised beautifully through underplaying everything from the movements to the theme music. Coburn shows himself to be deadly with a throwing knife (using a model of knife that cannot be thrown with any degree of certainty (or accuracy) and which hadn’t been developed until 80 years after the film is set). It is a memorable scene and throughout Coburn speaks just five monosyllabic words in three lines of dialogue. For the record: you, lost, call, it, Chris.
This is a landmark western. It wasn’t expected to be anything other than a quick Hollywood remake of a successful Japanese film. Today we think of it as an all-star production. Few of the actors were particularly well-known when it was made. Some of them were only cast because of an impending actors’ strike meant that casting had to be completed in a matter of days. Robert Vaughn got the role because of an Oscar nomination for The Young Philadelphians. James Coburn got the role because he was a friend of Robert Vaughn’s.
It is a very simple story. On the surface it isn’t an attractive story but in the hands of John Sturges it becomes a tale of bravery and gallantry, of the little man striking back against the odds. It is about liberty and fraternity with a little bit of equality thrown in (though the Americans are always portrayed as superior to the Mexicans).
The casting was fortunate. The seven work brilliantly together on screen. In reality there were some tensions between them and these contribute to a mass bout of trying to out-act the others. When they fail to do this they resort to every trick into scene stealer’s book. Steve McQueen is the genius at this. In the foreground you may have Brynner, or Eli Wallach turning on the Broadway stuff. In the background McQueen is carefully twiddling with his hat, smiling at some unseen event or shaking a bullet or two.
Beyond the casting, the Mexican landscapes are beautiful and the musical score is perhaps the greatest in any western. Again a relative unknown was chosen in Elmer Bernstein. It is one of those tunes that captures the spirit of the movie, contributed greatly to its success and which is instantly recognisable.