Putting the Band Together
The gang, the band, the group, call it what you will is an established convention of the storyteller. They tend to come in magic numbers. Magic numbers mean different things to different people. Physicists, chemists, mathematicians and even lovers of English indie pop all have their magic numbers. To storytellers though, magic numbers mean 3, 7 and 12. These are the numbers in the group or band in the great stories. Jesus had twelve disciples, there are seven dwarves and three musketeers. We like our groups to come in these numbers. The holy trinity, seven days in a week, twelve months in a year and twelve signs in the zodiac. Seven stars in the great bear (big dipper) and Orion – the ones you notice that is. Seven wonders of the world and three little pigs and Billy Goats Gruff. Unfortunately there are so many exceptions to this rule as to make it folk wisdom rather than science. There are four seasons, Four Tops and four horsemen of the apocalypse. Tolkien gave us 9 members of the Fellowship of the Ring, there are four evangelists in the New Testament and fifty ways to leave your lover.
Despite exceptions the rule suits a sense of neatness. You never get a story where someone is granted two wishes. Despite many attempts to add a fourth wise man to the Christmas story we stick resolutely to three. I’m sure we could all think of an eighth grievous offence but it would never sound as good as the seven deadly sins. To be the sixth son of a sixth son might give you a story to tell down the pub but it doesn’t confer the mystical status of being the seventh son of a seventh. I myself have always felt a warmth and pride from being one of seven children and even though a sister died in 1983 I still consider myself one of seven. In ancient Greece we have Seven Against Thebes in modern British television we have seven lads all saying Auf Wiedersehen Pet.
The Magnificent Seven is based on The Seven Samurai. In each film they were chosen to fight a far greater number of adversaries. Eight gunmen would have died with their boots on, nine Ronin would have been sent to meet their makers but seven triumphed. In both films the audience accept that a special power or protective force is present because of their number.
In westerns and easterns, seven is indeed a magic number.
Both movies have villagers under threat from an armed band. Both sets of bandits are regular visitors; returning each time the village has gathered enough to be worth stealing. In both films they begin by recruiting, more by accident than design, the natural leader of the fighting men. In the Seven Samurai (which incidentally is the much superior film) the leader has the wisdom of age. The Americans contemplated following suit and casting a wise old head like Spencer Tracy in this role, but Yul Brynner held the film rights. It was his ball and there was a good chance of him taking it home if he didn’t get to play centre forward. In the event, he plays his part exceptionally well.
The main job of the leader is to choose the rest of the gang. And it is in this that both films appeal to our own pride in being able to tell the difference between a true hero and an imitation. More of us believe we have this ability than is probably the case, but this in itself is encouraging. This is the importance of story. Storytelling widens our horizons. It gives us more lives than our own. Unless we are particularly blessed, we will have few opportunities to meet exceptional people in real life. We don’t have much to go on and many a fraud is adored beyond their true value. The widely read have a huge advantage. They’ve spent half their life dwelling among the great and the good.
The Japanese films scores over the American re-make in terms of names. Where Yul Brynner plays a character with the less than western battle hero name of Chris, the Samurai leader is called Kambei Shimada. The rest of the band have true heroes’ names: Gorōbei Katayama, Kyūzō, Heihachi Hayashida, Shichirōji, Katsushiro Okamoto, and Kikuchiyo. These are names worthy of following in the footsteps of Odysseus, Theseus, Hercules, Arthur, Amadis, Childe Harold and Roland. Brynner’s bunch are Britt, Vin, Lee, Harry, Chico and Bernardo O’Reilly (half Mexican, half Irish with him in the middle). You can see why we tend to remember them by the names of the actors playing the roles!
I’ll leave the Kurosawa film behind. Comparisons don’t favour The Magnificent Seven which holds its own favourably against most other films. The Seven Samurai isn’t a western and won’t feature in this series. It is however, one of the great films of all time and one I would urge every film lover to watch at least once.
Putting the band together is in many ways the best part of The Magnificent Seven. We get lovely cameo portraits of each of the players shown in their true light. The rest of the post is my tribute to them and the actors who played them, all but one of whom is now dead.
We meet Brynner and McQueen at the same moment. A Native American has died on the street of the unnamed United States border town. An enlightened easterner has paid for a funeral but local bigotry prevents an ‘Indian’ being buried in the local cemetery. No-one is prepared to drive the hearse a few hundred yards to Boot Hill. It is a weak plot device but it allows passing drifters Chris (from Dodge City) and Vin (from Tombstone) to volunteer and show their cool courage, their decency and their unmatched skills with a gun. They also give us a masterclass in playing cool on the screen. The film world had only recently lost James Dean when the scene was shot. Both Brynner and McQueen seemed aware that there was an opening for the man who could command the greatest screen presence by doing the least.
McQueen settles for the smile, the look away and the playing with his hat. Brynner goes for the cigar route. Out comes the lancero, he bites off the end and spits it away before lighting it with a match struck of the sole of his boot. McQueen is the trail dusty cowboy, Brynner the man in black. Brynner’s most distinctive feature, his bald head, is kept covered throughout the film in favour of the cultivated cowboy image. On set he warned McQueen that if he kept up his scene stealing antics he would remove his hat and provide a true focal point on the screen.
In one ride up a climbing street (where incidentally they pass the same hotel twice) they share a conversation about their respective pasts, shoot a sniper, disarm the lynchmob at the cemetery gates and order six men to bury the cadaver. They then turn the hearse back to town and trigger the first burst of the film’s magnificent theme tune. No sooner had the horses broken into a gallop than a black funereal plume falls off the left hand horse. The music is so effective that it has fallen back onto the horse’s head by the time they get back into town.
They are followed up the street by an admiring young punk called Chico. He spends the first half of the film trying to get into the gang without success until persistence rather than skill gets him admitted.
Bernardo (Bronson) has fallen on hard times and is splitting logs to earn his breakfast. He’s been a notorious and highly paid mercenary in his time and we hear of the large amounts he has been able to command for his past services. Chris has $20 to offer for six week’s work. So far has Bernardo fallen that “Right now twenty dollars is a lot!” The theme of the gunfighter as anachronism is well explored throughout the western canon and features strongly in The Magnificent Seven.
Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) joins in the belief that the $20 is a ruse and that there is actually a hidden horde somewhere. He joins under this delusion, fights under it and, thanks to a moment of white-lied kindness on Chris’s part, dies under it.
James Coburn (Britt) has the most famous entrance as the knife thrower which I covered in a previous post. Lee (Robert Vaughn) is moving and scary. Here is another gunfighter out of his time. He seems to have lost everything except his outward appearance. He’s dapper to the extreme but haunted and hunted on the inside. He joins because he has nothing else. We learn very little about him from the dialogue but an immense amount from the superb performance of an under-rated actor.
The Magnificent Seven belongs to the family of single plot line westerns but woven into this we have each man’s story. No back story is told more graphically than Vaughn’s and no greater glory is attained by any of the seven.
Once the party is assembled they begin their journey down into Mexico. Once the theme music has run it’s third great coda, we can all make an educated guess at the outcome of the film. And we’d all be right. They do triumph, if chasing the bad guys from the village is victory. Very few of us would have correctly guessed the manner of that denouement. Unless, if like me, you had a father who’d seen the film on its release and was both too generous with his knowledge and too far gone in his Christmas cups to restrain for telling us what was about to happen:
“Don’t worry, he survives…he loses his nerve…he stays in the village…he gets shot.”
Thanks dad. Ironically, watching westerns with him in his declining years was one of the great pleasures of our shared life. He always loved The Magnificent Seven though, he too, preferred The Seven Samurai.