An iconic film for the post-war generation raised on the psychologically driven, as opposed to simply heroic, Western, “The Magnificent Seven” is an ideal study in how the movies Hollywood exported to the rest of the world came back in a refreshed form. Although a straightforward viewing of pic on DVD sans the generous commentary track would suggest a standard, classical genre piece, this is actually an adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s 1956 masterpiece of the jidaigeki genre, “The Seven Samurai” — itself deeply indebted to the Hollywood Western tradition.
This feedback loop is perhaps the production’s most fascinating aspect, which is why it’s a shame that rights couldn’t be obtained so that the DVD could provide a visual comparison-contrast between pics.
But there is plenty of discussion amongst executive producer Walter Mirisch, assistant director Robert Relyea, and cast members Eli Wallach and James Coburn regarding the Kurosawa connection, while the accompanying 50-minute docu, “Guns for Hire: The Making of ‘The Magnificent Seven,’ ” delves into the battle over U.S. rights to “The Seven Samurai” and the struggle to fashion an adaptation transferring action from Japan to Mexico.
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Finished film left some blood on the floor. Mirisch relates how star Yul Brynner managed to grab rights to “Samurai” away from Anthony Quinn.
But docu fills in crucial missing pieces of the story by interviewing producer Lou Morheim, who was the first to see “Samurai’s” potential as a Western, obtained the rights and interested Quinn.
Mirisch, a producer with a deal at resurgent UA, became involved after Brynner got the rights away from Quinn, and hired Sturges (largely on basis of his helming of the visually similar “Gunfight at O.K. Corral”).
Sturges, however, insisted on sole producer credit. Morheim went to court but settled for an associate producer credit. Quinn, meanwhile, sued Brynner and UA for $630,000 in damages, and lost.
Ugliest of all — and given much too little comment on audio track or docu — was the tussle over final script credit.
Morheim hired blacklisted scribe Walter Bernstein, who says he wrote a faithful adaptation of the “Samurai” script by Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni and Kurosawa. Once Mirisch and Brynner took over the reins, they brought on Walter Newman, author of the brilliant script for “Ace in the Hole” (and who went on to write more modernized oaters like “Cat Ballou”).
From all evidence, Newman’s script is largely what’s on screen, but because he couldn’t go to the pic’s Mexican locations, writer William Roberts was hired as a script doctor, partly out of need to accommodate the demands of Mexican censors.
Sadly, Roberts’ claim to the WGA for a co-credit so enraged Newman that he requested his name be removed — thus leaving the false impression that Roberts, not Newman, was the central author. The feud also partly explains, though doesn’t excuse, the amazing lack of discussion of the writers and script by Mirisch et al., who instead lavish huge praise on Sturges.
Helmer comes off here as a kind of grand auteur, when in fact he was a consummate gun-for-hire craftsman who learned filmmaking as a cutter for MGM and specialized in directing such total-guy adventures as “Bad Day at Black Rock,” “Gunfight” and “The Great Escape.”
Long into pic’s running time, Wallach offers a more balancing comment: “A picture is a group effort, not just one man.”
And in that light, lenser Charles Lang receives a modicum of praise from Coburn, who sounds like he had the time of his life making the film. In this edition’s crisp widescreen print (cleaner than a bigscreen print viewed by this critic four years ago), it’s obvious that Lang should share credit with Sturges for pic’s timelessly pictorial look and its fine balances of light, shade and dark.
Coburn explains in docu that pic’s premiere domestic release was brief and disappointing, but its eventual hit status abroad forced UA to re-release it — an interesting precursor to later resurrected Westerns like “McCabe and Mrs. Miller.”
Indeed, the feedback loop involving “The Magnificent Seven” extended abroad, specifically to Sergio Leone, who is discussed here at some length. Oddly, Leone’s superb and unjustly overlooked “Duck, You Sucker” isn’t mentioned, even though it co-starred Coburn and Wallach, who played the exact opposite kind of Mexican character to his wily bandido in “Seven.”