Yeah, not the recent still-desperately-trying-to-make-Chris-Pratt-a star remake. Nor the actual original, Japanese Seven Samurai, which is a classic, but which has never had any deep visceral effect on me. No, I’m talking about the classic Yul Brynner-Steve McQueen battle for screen supremacy, with what is, to me, still the greatest assemblage of simply damn cool men to occupy the screen together. Brynner, McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Charles Bronson… if ever there was a movie that typified the when men were men aesthetic, it’s this one. It’s a movie about honour, about obligation, about being smarter and cooler and simply more– when the chips are finally, irretrievably down– noble than the other guy.
But scratch deeper, and there’s something going on under the surface that isn’t immediately obvious. because this is a movie made in 1960, bubbling over with lakonikos and machismo. But, for all their wild west outsider antihero status, the characters in this movie don’t quite act the way that Hollywood lone wolf western outsider antiheroes are supposed to act. For a start, the poor Mexican dirt farmers that need the great white American heroes to rescue them are treated with genuine dignity. They’re smart, capable people, in their own field of endeavour. They learn quickly. They understand what they have brought into their world, both physically and philosophically. They know what they are losing by taking the actions they do. As much as they still suffer the Hollywood treatment, they are people: relatable, individual, and sympathetic.
And the mercenaries themselves: they know what they’ve given up, what they can never recover. When they lose one of their own to– gasp– a woman, and a domestic lifestyle away from the constant gunfighting and pursuit, they view with it envy, and not a little tenderness. The hardest, most laconic of them all, Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly, is brought low not by a superior warrior, or overwhelming odds, but because his armour is pierced by something he could never foresee– his love for the village children, who he desperately wants to steer away from his own life choices. Vaughn’s character Lee has lost everything that he counts on– his courage, his speed, the coldness of his heart– and he understands that that is not his tragedy: it is the awareness of his loss, and how his choices have left him in no position to grow from them that is. These are flawed men, on the wrong end of the culture around them, and they not only know it but they know why. And they not only protect those who need them, they cherish those things that are worth protecting.
It’s still a Western, and a Hollywood Western at that. It still has all the trappings. But, like all spectacles, once the novelty wears off there is a sublimely human story of loss and gain at work, here, performed by actors at the peak of their powers and directed with grace and intelligence. I’ve seen more complex movies. I’ve seen more philosophically ambiguoius Westerns (indeed, there’s another coming up later in this list), but The Magnificent Seven was the first movie I saw that combined all the things I wanted to be, with a message about the responsibilities and consequences of becoming that creature.
There’s a part of me that still wants to ride into certain death with this coolest collection of Real Men Ever ™, but this is the movie that taught my younger self that every freedom comes with a price, and that no character should exist in a single dimension. It is, on the days that Blade Runner is not, my favourite movie, and one I will watch countless times before I die.