Friday, July 30, 2010

The "Seven"

"The Magnificent Seven" of course is based on the classic Japanese film "The Seven Samurai." But its basic plot goes all the way back to Homer. The Iliad was about the forming of a team of heroes to go forth to accomplish a mission. It's been done many times since. "The Magnificent Seven" does it as well as any version, because it takes the time to develop the individual characters-- as well as showing great respect for its setting, the village where the main action takes place. One of the great scenes is when the plot lingers to show a village festival, filled with authentic pre-Columbian dancing and costumes. The kind of thing you'd never see in an action flick of today.

Neither would you see Lee's nightmare, or the interactions of Chico, Harry, and Bernard with the villagers. These moments slow down the pace a tad, but deepen the characters and story.

The idea with this kind of situation is to give each hero a distinctive personality. In The Iliad, Achilles is too dominating a figure, while the leader of the expedition, Agaememnon, is flawed and egoistic, though their conflict still carries weight. Homer has the time to develop other characters, so that we hear the craftiness of Odysseus, or the simple-minded strength of Ajax.

In "The Magnificent Seven," Chris, the leader, played by Yul Brynner, is the center of gravity. The film works because the moviemakers surrounded him with some of the most dynamic young actors from Hollywood and even Europe at the time. Britt, like Achilles, is "the best." This fact alone, and the presence of James Coburn, has to develop the character, because he's given very few lines. When he does speak, however, it's crucial, as when near the end he's the first hero to strap back on his guns to return to the village for the final fight.

Here are the seven and the actors who play them:
Chris: Yul Brynner
Vin: Steve McQueen
Chico: Horst Bucholz
Britt: James Coburn
Bernard: Charles Bronson
Lee: Robert Vaughn
Harry: Brad Dexter

Though they're similar on the surface, each gunfighter is in fact very different, with different problems hinted at through moments and gestures. Most play things very "cool," but the coolness is a facade covering inner turmoil. The only exception to this is Steve McQueen's character, who is what-you-see-is-what-you-get transparent and engaging. The most stoic of them might be the one with the most to hide, the leader, Chris. Except I guess for Lee, who's ethereal coolness is at every moment on the verge of crumbling. Each character adds to the overall balance of the team. Harry, for instance, is the most cynical of the seven, in it strictly for the money, and his cynicism is a counterweight to the enthusiasm of Chico and the conscience of Chris. Yet even this is pretense, as it can be seen that Harry's also the one having the best time. His worldliness hides his simplicity, his unworldliness, which at some point in his life he abandoned but didn't eliminate. He's there for the adventure, or as an escape from himself, as much as any of them is.

Ever seen this film? If not, it's well worth viewing. The famously rousing Elmer Bernstein score alone is worth the price of renting the dvd. Watch how each action in the movie is well underlined by different musical themes. Or maybe the music is underlined by the action of the movie!

My question, if anyone's seen the flick, is, with which of the seven hired gunfighters do you most identify?


Tim W. Brown said...

I'm Britt, the James Coburn character...

King said...

Interesting to me is the "less is more" phenomenon. Britt and Lee are the two smallest roles among the seven, yet at the same time are the flashiest. They're more memorable than the Chico character, who has more lines and screen time than anybody. Mystery about a persona is an undervalued aspect.
(My own favorite charcetr is Chris-- though I worry that I understand Harry, always the least favorite of the seven gunfighters.)