THE MAKING OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

     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.

     Andrew Sarris wrote in The American Cinema: "Long before The Magnificent Seven, John Sturges seemed to be striving, albeit unconsciously, to become the American Kurosawa..."--the Japanese director whose movie, The Seven Samurai, inspired The Magnificent Seven. Sarris added: "Unfortunately, it is hard to remember why Sturges's career was ever considered meaningful."


 

     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.                             

     For the rest of the cast, Sturges assembled a group of then unknowns, some of whom had knocked about Hollywood for years playing off-beat parts: James Coburn,  Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson. The director also recruited a young actor named Steve McQueen, whom he had spotted on television, and chose to play Vin, the boyish Tombstone gunman.

     The film's musical score was composed by Elmer Bernstein whose Coplandesque theme captured the bravery and idealism of the seven American samurai who set aside their own self-interest in a noble cause.

     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.


Q: How did you get involved in the movie?
 
A:

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 The 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.
 
A:

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.
 
A:

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?
 
A:

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 The Great Escape. What was it like to work with him?
 
A:

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.
 

Q:

Was there improvisation in shooting the film?
 

A:

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?
 
A:

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?

 

A:

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 horseman.
 

Q: Brad Dexter later acted with Sinatra and co-produced his movies. Both he and Horst Buchholz died in 2004.

 

A:

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.
 

Q: Was there any sense that The Magnificent Seven was going to be a great movie?
 
A:

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)
 

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