Mirror, Mirror on the Wall; or, The Magnificent Seven’s Professionals ‘R’ Us

“We deal in lead, friend,” says Steve McQueen. And the 1960s western was born.

Exit stage left the single-minded lone gunfighter shooting it out with a single-minded lone villain, the only real conflict between the two being who is the fairest of them all. It had been an epic time–a time when one man’s word had more moral weight than a loaded sixgun. When right could be decided in a simple, manly, and honorable duel–may the best (most rightest) one win. Life was good. Back then you didn’t need to be the fastest or the strongest, pilgrim, just good and true to your word.

Enter 1960 and packs of thieving, boozing, raping villains, little caring for those stinking badges and outmoded showdown ballets. And Eli Wallach, in fine form as the rapacious Calvera. (“If God didn’t want them shorn, he wouldn’t have made them sheep.”)

Enter the phalanx of professional gunfighters, each one cooler than the next, turning from rivals to comrades, at first for the promise of gold then with a shared nostalgia for a time when it was possible to remain true to one’s word and achieve the beauty of the showdown pas de deux. But for these men, they can never return to this more innocent time. They have seen too much: the blood behind the ballet, the pants-wetting fear behind the moral stand, and the reality behind stirring fight scenes–that the faster and stronger will win, every time. While at first it seems as if these kinds of westerns extol the kind of red-blooded machismo that gets people in trouble in the real world, there is a poignancy to them, a bitterness or regret that acknowledges the sun setting on this kind of West.

The Magnificent Seven (1960), the western remake of Seven Samurai (1954), has both macho explosions and quiet retrospection. In this flick, directed by John Sturges, gunslinging professionals fight a fierce group of bandits for the future of a simple Mexican village, and the future of the common person to live a life free from terror.

The Magnificent Seven echoes Kurosawa’s pitched battle between professionals and bandits, shifting the setting to rural Mexico (and popularizing the region for future westerns). The actors, chosen for their ability to “be” a type, become a parade of seasoned veterans, desperate gamblers, anxious cowards, practiced killers, reluctant heroes, each with their backstories that explain why they might wish to put their lives on the line for common folk who secretly envy, and even disdain, them.

On the set of The Magnificent Seven. copyright Retna UK

But fuhgeddabout narrative for a sec. This movie has style, not just substance. After all, we’re talking Hollywood here. These beautiful actors (Brynner, McQueen, Bronson, Garner, Vaughn, Coburn) make grizzled mercenaries look pretty as pictures. Steve McQueen is lethal grace personified. Yul Brynner, the leader of the gunslingers, brings gravitas to the leadership role (although he can’t embody the warm humor that Shimura can in Seven Samurai). The young punk, a Mexican, is played by teenybopper-friendly Horst Buchholtz.

Back to story. Like Seven Samurai, the professionals fight. Some die. The farmers live on to plant their fields. And the gunfighters that are left realize anew that the time of the black/white, good/evil bifurcation of the universe is over.

“Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose,” says Yul Brynner’s world-weary gunfighter.*

But also like Kurosawa’s film, the real conflict behind the battle is not whether the bandits will destroy the village. It is the inherent disparity between the sheep and the professionals–the common everyman toiling 24/7 in the fields and the glamorous, highly skilled elite–played out within each viewer, an ambivalence that arises as the end credits roll. Who is more worthy of winning? Who, indeed?

Or just watch it for the men in holsters. In my heart, they win every time.



*Although, to be straight-up frank, they should feel way fortunate they didn’t get the Sam Peckinpah Wild Bunch treatment. That is one bitter brew of a flick for the professional gunfighter.

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