There's a small village in Mexico where the locals toil in the fields to grow food to eat, but lately these past few years there has been a problem with that, and so it is as harvest nears so appears the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) with his band of forty thieves who announce that once again they will be taking the lion's share of the peasants' food, leaving them with a paltry amount, barely enough to live on. When one protests, Calvera guns him down for his trouble, and warns he will be back in a few days, but what can the villagers do? Who would possibly be willing to help them?
Well, there are seven gentlemen who might be persuaded. Grumble all you want about Hollywood remaking foreign movies, but you can perhaps put a lot of the blame for the trend as far back as this, the successful remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's classic Seven Samurai. Where that took three and a half hours to detail its epic fight between right and wrong, American director John Sturges took just over two, paring down the plot to its essentials yet crucially not dumbing it down or diluting it. Quite often when Hollywood does try to make a profit on a foreign language property the results are negligable: not this time.
If anything, Sturges and his cohorts set the bar very high for every similar remake to come, because it was cast so perfectly, the action was impeccably staged, Elmer Bernstein's music was possibly the greatest of all Western soundtracks, and there was still room for a touch of philosophy on the morality of it all. Kurosawa, who had created the original as a tribute to and imitation of the American Westerns, appropriated for Japanese stylings and audiences, was delighted with The Magnificent Seven, so much so that he gave Sturges a gift of a ceremonial sword, and you can see why as not only was this remarkably respectful - all concerned were big fans of Kurosawa - but it inhabited a landscape different enough to be valid in its own right.
But look at the casting, there were few Westerns so ideally acted by such a clutch of the coolest actors around, and the fact that many of them went on to do so well was often credited to their work here. Aside from the leader Yul Brynner, they were all largely unknown, or if they were known it would be from the odd feature film supporting role or television, but after this each of the Seven would never look back, with their careers going better than they could ever have dreamed. Er, almost all: Brad Dexter never capitalised on his brief fame and was relegated to a quiz question to be answered by show-off trivia hounds. But mention Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn or Steve McQueen, and you will see respect.
Horst Buchholz was supposed to be the next big thing, the German James Dean, here as the only Mexican with a German accent after the censors in Mexico demanded a heroic character from their nation to be prominently featured so their countrymen didn't look like a bunch of losers or bandits. He worked steadily for the rest of his life, but whether he never took off internationally or whether he was uncomfortable with fame he was happier to return to Europe, leaving an impression here with his emotional hair trigger performance. You can see the others underplaying in contrast, though Brynner complained McQueen was forever trying to upstage him, so it's also fun to see the latter acting out business whenever they share the same frame.
Almost a third of the movie is involved with gathering the mercenaries from North of the Border, and it's time well spent, with each getting a sketch-like scene to delineate their personality, Coburn being a demon with a knife, Dexter having a disproportionate love of gold, Vaughn lurking in the shadows because he has seen things you people wouldn't believe and is suffering psychologically, and so forth. Once they reach the village, they get the better of the villains, but rather than being a pushover Calvera proves more wily and dangerous than they counted on, with Wallach an excellent foil to Brynner's seasoned heroism (this is likely what got him cast in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly). Acknowledging the deeper themes of Kurosawa, there are stretches where the gunfighters discuss the downside of their profession which some viewers can take or leave, but for others allow the film to take on a mythic quality. Whichever, it's never too far away from suspense or action; The Magnificent Seven well deserved its cult following if only thanks to how darn easy it is to rewatch.