Magnificent Seven Movies—The Legacy, the Stories, the Stars—Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Lee Van Cleef…

We’ve got just what you need to fill your weekend with pulse-pounding thrills: a Magnificent 7 Movie Weekend! Starting Saturday at 2PM ET with The Magnificent Seven Ride! The magnificence continues Sunday with The Magnificent Seven at 2PM ET and Return of the Seven at 9PM ET.

Maintaining the Magnificence! – 70 Years with The Magnificent 7
By Henry C. Parke

Long before Marvel and DC Comics were cramming our screens with teams of superheroes, Hollywood did it, and did it better, with a bunch of mere mortals, who just happened to be terrific actors. Then again, before Hollywood, Japan’s Toho Studios, the folks who brought you Godzilla, did it first, and certainly as well. 1954’s Seven Samurai—the story of some down-on-their-sandals warriors who unite to protect farmers from a band of brigands, directed by Japan’s John Ford, Akira Kurosawa—was an unexpectedly grand success in the United States. Lou Morheim, later producer of The Big Valley, snapped up the remake rights for $2500.

Anthony Quinn wanted to star, with Yul Brynner directing. They went into business with Morheim, then Quinn was squeezed out, and with Brynner set to play the lead, the project was brought to the Mirisch brothers. John Sturges of Gunfight at the O.K. Corral was signed to direct.

Although most of the seven went on to have enviable careers, at the start, only Brynner (who would play Chris) was a box office star. The rest of the cast was assembled against a ticking clock, before an impending Screen Actors Guild strike. Steve McQueen, who would play Vin, was starring in the Western TV series Wanted: Dead or Alive. When its producers wouldn’t let him do the movie, McQueen purposely caused a car accident, injuring himself enough to end the series.

Rounding out the cast, Charles Bronson as Bernardo O’Reilly, and James Coburn as Britt, would both become top leading men—Bronson would be Hollywood’s highest-paid actor for years and Coburn would win an Oscar for 1999’s Affliction, but then, they were busy TV actors. Robert Vaughn, who played Lee, had been nominated for an Oscar for The Young Philadelphians and would achieve TV immortality as The Man from U.N.C.L.E. Playing Chico, Horst Bucholtz, a German heartthrob the filmmakers mistakenly thought American girls would flip for, got the “and introducing” credit, even though he’d been in 18 movies by that point. Playing Harry, Brad Dexter’s greatest claim to fame was saving Frank Sinatra from drowning in Hawaii. He’d go on to have a long career playing cheerful loudmouths and bullies, then find success as a producer.

Over his long career, Eli Wallach would win a Tony, an Emmy, and an honorary Oscar. But between portraying the hateful Calvera in The Magnificent Seven, and beloved Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the self-described Jewish kid from Brooklyn would become the screen bandito by which all others are measured.

Six years later, Brynner returned in Return of the Seven, but McQueen, by that time one of our biggest movie stars, did not. The new Vin was Robert Fuller, fresh from Laramie and Wagon Train. Seven had been shot in Cuernavaca, Mexico, and many Mexicans resented that the oppressed farmers needed to hire Americanos to defend them. Of the seven, Chico, the only Mexican, was played by a German. Perhaps that’s why, in Return, three of the seven were Mexican characters, played by Julián Mateos, Virgilio Teixeira, and Jordan Christopher. Actually, they were from Spain, Portugal and Ohio, respectively, but at least they could pass for Mexican. The remaining two were Claude Akins and Warren Oates.

Shot in Spain, while not as good as the first film, it’s very entertaining, with a balance of humor and tension you frankly would not expect from screenwriter Larry Cohen, author of exploitation films like Maniac Cop and its sequels 2 and III. “They had a script that they didn’t like of Larry’s,” director Burt Kennedy told writer C. Courtney Joyner. “I rewrote just about everything in it,” without credit. Kennedy had written Randolph Scott’s best later Westerns before becoming a director.

A surprise carryover from Seven, Emilio Fernandez, who in Return plays the villain bandit Lorca, was assistant director on Seven, and is an icon of Mexican film, as both an actor and director. A revolutionary before he was a filmmaker, he directed John Steinbeck’s The Pearl, in 1947, and played the villain Mapache in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch.

Three years later, Guns of the Magnificent Seven, the best of the sequels, was shot in Spain. As George Kennedy told co-star Monte Markham, “What a stroke of luck. Yul Brynner decided he doesn’t want to do it, and I just won an Oscar (for Cool Hand Luke), so here I am.” No one would mistake Kennedy for Brynner, but he was a surprisingly effective Chris, in one of his most sympathetic roles, and Markham’s character of Keno was much like Vin. The remaining five, all of whom had interesting backstories, were James Whitmore, Reni Santoni, Bernie Casey, Scott Thomas, and Joe Don Baker.

The third and final sequel, The Magnificent Seven Ride, was made in 1972. It looked less like the previous films than it did a TV movie. The others had been shot in Mexico and Spain, but as Walter Mirisch explained, “the budget was set at $750,000. The Mexican town shown in the film was a leased standing set on the Universal backlot.”

Chris is now Lee Van Cleef, who was 47, and playing it that way—an old man by gunfighter standards, now a lawman, and a cautious one, with a young wife (Mariette Hartley). It isn’t her favorite film. “You mean The Magnificent Seven Ride for 24 pages? Until I got raped and killed. That was a juicy role.”

The old friend asking Chris for help is played by a pre-Waltons Ralph Waite. All of the men of his town have been killed, leaving it full of defenseless women, including Stefanie Powers. The remaining six, most of them recruited from jail á la The Dirty Dozen(although Return did it first), include the very scary Luke Askew, two-time John Wayne co-star Pedro Armendáriz Jr., Willam Lucking, and Ed Lauter. James Sikking plays a military strategist who is excellent, but pompous and pretentious, remarkably close to the role that would make him a Hill Street Blues star. And the final member of the seven is Michael Callan, playing a reporter who wants to write Chris’ biography. At the start, he plays it much like his shallow sharpie character in Cat Ballou, but develops into a man along the way.

What unites the films? Mirisch wrote, “Elmer [Bernstein] contributed one of the most memorable and famous scores in film history.” Nominated for a Best Original Score Oscar, it lost to Exodus. The score was repeated note-for-note in Return, was nominated for Best Adapted Score, and lost to A Funny Thing Happened on the Way to the Forum. As Chris said at the end of the first film, “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”

About Henry C. Parke

Henry’s new book, The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, will be published by TwoDot in February 2024. The Brooklyn-born, L.A.-based writer has contributed articles to the INSP blog since 2016, been Film Editor for True West since 2015, and has written Henry’s “Western Round-Up,” the online report on Western film production, since 2010. His screenwriting credits include Speedtrap (1977) and Double Cross (1994). He’s the first writer welcomed into the Western Writers of America for his work in electronic media. He’s done audio commentary on nearly thirty Spaghetti and domestic Westerns.

The Greatest Westerns Ever Made, and the People Who Made Them, by Henry C. Parke will be released on February 6, 2024. Be among the first to get it! Pre-order now on Amazon.