The Magnificent Seven was produced by Walter Mirish and directed by John
Sturges. An independent production, the film was released in 1961. Neither
Sturges (1911-1992), nor his movie was the favorite of film school scholars or
tribute directors who worship at the camera of Howard Hawks or Preston Sturges.
Sturges's movie, however, was an immediate hit with filmgoers who were stirred by the tale of the seven gunslingers and misfits who come to the aid of a poor Mexican village threatened by local bandits.
Sturges chose two Broadway actors to play opposite leads: Yul Brynner
was cast as Chris, the philosophical leader of the seven who at one
point in the movie says, "Once you begin killing, you can't stop," and
at another comments: "The graveyards are full of young boys who were
very young and very proud." Eli Wallach, an Actors Studio veteran,
played the brutal bandit Calvera.
Here, in an exclusive interview with American Legends, conducted by telephone from his home in New York, the noted actor Eli Wallach recalls the making of The Magnificent Seven.
How did you get involved in the movie?
I wish I knew. One day I was called in by John Sturges.
He said, "We thought about you, and we want to cast you." I had seen
Seven Samurai and would have loved to play the crazy samurai, the role Mifume played in the Kurosawa film. It was brilliant.
|Q:||Sturges chose Yul Brynner who
was known for his Broadway roles as the lead.
I knew Yul from New York
when he was working in television as a director. Sturges told me, "We're
thinking of you as the head bandit." I told Sturges that I had seen the
Japanese film--and all I recalled was that the bandit wore an eyepatch and
that all you saw was his horse's hoofs: he rides in, he rides out.
|Q:||But you were cast as Calvera.
I almost turned it down. Then I read the script carefully
and I thought, Well, I'll play the part cause it's a terrific role. I went
to Sturges and said, "In movie Westerns, you never see what the bandits do
with the money. They hold up the trains, they steal the cattle, but you
never see what they do with the money. I want to show how they spend it. I
want to have silk shirts. I'm going to put in two gold teeth. I want a good
horse, a wonderful saddle." Sturges said, "Okay. You got it." So I went to
Mexico. We shot it on location there. I had no idea what the movie would
turn out to be, but I got to see some wonderful young actors who were going
to blossom into stars: Coburn, Bronson, McQueen.
|Q:||Did the Mexican government cooperate?
The Mexicans were furious with the Americans. There had
been a movie called Vera Cruz with Burt Lancaster and Gary Cooper that had
angered the Mexicans with the way they were depicted. They tore the seats
out of the theater and threw them at the screen. So the government had a
censor on the set. When he read the script, the censor asked Sturges, "Why
do you have to send to America to bring back gunmen We have plenty of our
own." Sturges said, "Fortunately, or unfortunately, the money is coming from
Hollywood studios, so we have to use Americans." There was also a man on the
set named Emilio Fernandez. He was a Mexican movie director who had done a
number of movies in the 1940s with Delores Del Rio, including Maria Candelaria which celebrated Mexican
folklore. He acted as a kind of adviser to Sturges to see that nothing
"non-Mexican" happened. I got along very well with him.
|Q:||John Sturges is dismissed by auteur critics as an
action-adventure director, someone who did Escape from Fort Bravo and
Great Escape. What was it like to work with him?
There was a lot of respect for Sturges on the set. He had
a wonderful eye. I had about thirty or so bandits in my outfit. Sturges told
me, "I want you and your gang to go riding in the morning before you come on
the set." So we'd mount up early in the morning, at sunup, and ride for an
hour and then come in all wet and dirty and ready to shoot.
Was there improvisation in shooting the film?
No, except Steve McQueen, who was a very skillful movie actor, said, "Listen, I want to cut some of my dialogue. I don't want to talk too much. Acting in movies is really reacting, so I want to react to things." Sturges let him do it.
|Q:||Did the actors compete with each other on camera?
I once stood alongside the camera and watched the seven ride across the river. Each one did another little piece of business which they thought would cause you to remember them more. McQueen reached out and scooped up some water in his hat and put it on. Another turned and looked around at the next man--at the one behind him. All of them had odd little pieces of business. I thought it very interesting--wait till they meet me.
|Q:||Did you have much interaction with the rest of the cast?
Bronson was a loner. He kept
to himself. I liked Robert Vaughn and James Coburn very much. Vaughn is a
very intelligent guy. He wrote a book on blacklisting. Coburn was one of
those quiet types which fit his character very well: silent but a knife
thrower of great skill. The one I became quite friendly with was Brad
Dexter. Of the seven no one can remember his name. I was also adopted by my
Mexican gang, one of whom, Guillermo Kramer, was an architect and wonderful
|Q:||Brad Dexter later acted with
Sinatra and co-produced his movies. Both he and Horst Buchholz died in 2004.
Buchholz played the romantic
lead. That was a part I was interested in when I read the script. But
Sturges told me, "We're bringing over a young German actor. He's going to
play that." Buchholz was good. He rode beautifully. He brought to the role
his German training and background.
Was there any sense that The Magnificent Seven was going to be a great
You can never predict the outcome of a movie. I did The
Misfits with a great cast: Marilyn Monroe, Monty Clift, and Clark Gable.
You'd think it was going to be a great show. The critics were not that happy
because Monroe, Clift, and Gable were trying to destroy the mold the studio
had put them in over the years. As for The Magnificent Seven, it has become
a cult classic. I think it is one of the ten best Westerns ever made.
(Background information for the interview was found in the following: Andrew
Sarris, The American Cinema, New York, Da Capo Press ed., 1996; Neile
McQueen Toffel, My Husband, My Friend, New York, Signet ed., 1986)