The Magnificent Seven (1960) – An Essay on Another Movie That Became Important Later

I briefly considered going Full Shame on this movie, watching the three sequels and the Chris Pratt remake, but who has that kind of time. Also, I realized that if I wanted to really go Full Shame, I’d also have to watch Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, which the film is roughly based on. Again, I really don’t have that kind of time. Especially, if I want to complete my CinemaShame list and prepare for an upcoming CinemaShame podcast.

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The Magnificent Seven was an interesting pick, because I assumed it was a massive hit. A Western with Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen, that earned a remake last year with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, and approximately five other guys of varying fame and payscale. Turns out, it wasn’t. It was a box office flop in 1960, and only became popular after it was a big hit in Europe and many of the actors went on to become big stars – Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson all appeared in John Sturges’ next film The Great Escape, which was a much bigger success.

In my last essay on Bulworth, I referenced a book by Chuck Klosterman where he contemplates how things will be viewed differently in the future and how we perceive things now, may be very different. The Magnificent Seven is actually a perfect example of this. It flopped in the box office, only to gain status as a classic much later after success of it’s participants. I find two things about this interesting. First, it’s referred to as a classic and not a cult classic. Second, it received this title, despite it’s problems. That’s right, I went there.

At some point — I could look it up, but I still don’t have the time — the term “cult classic” was coined for movies that weren’t successful, but grew a fandom later. (Okay. I looked it up, the term “cult film” started in the 1970s, no date on “cult classic.”) I would argue The Magnificent Seven was the first, or one of the first “cult classics.” But eventually, it just became a classic, based largely on the merits of the cast and crew at a later date. I then after to wonder, at what point will our cult classics then become classics. I feel like I still hear Pulp Fiction referred to as a cult classic and not just a classic film. Perhaps not enough time has pasted, or perhaps classics will only ever refer to a specific time period. This all has less to do with the film, and more to do with film consumption culture.

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Now, the point where I say it may not deserve the praise. The introduction to the first two members of the seven is amazing and great story telling. The hearse scene shows the kind of men that Yul Brener’s and Steve McQueen’s characters are. They are men of honor and they do the right thing. They don’t know each other, but team together to drive a hearse – a comedically short distance – to a cemetery to bury a Native American where the locals don’t want him buried. They do it because it’s the right thing. After that, the rest of the Seven getting slightly less strong, but still well written introductions, minus Robert Vaughn’s character. This covers the first third of the film and it’s followed by a strong second act where they go to the village in Mexico that hired them for protection. After the initial confrontation, the last third of the film goes downhill.

I found a review from Variety that kind of nailed it for me: “The last third is downhill, a long and cluttered anti-climax in which The Magnificent Seven grow slightly too magnificent for comfort.”

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The last third of the film feels anti-climatic and it’s hard to really feel triumphant as the Seven, now kicked out of the village, go back to win again. A gunfight breaks out and within the fight, each character gets their moment to complete their story arc. It’s a mess though, partially because of the fact that the script never really clarified in which order the final deaths happened. The moments of each character are lost in the hustle on the first view and don’t give a resonance when Yul Brenner says his final line: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”

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The Magnificent Seven is a great film, and probably does deserve the title of classic, but at the same time, I understand why it wasn’t a big success initially. It gives me hope though that Terminator Genisys will one day become a classic after its stars have gained more mainstream recognition.

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