Following the village wise man's (Vladimir Sokoloff) advice, three set off for the border with every last valuable. Here they stumble across Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), an apparently honourable and decent fellow. Luckily he takes pity on them and their plight, electing to help for private reasons. Over the next few days Chris scours the town, picking comrades. Vin (Steve McQueen) signs up first, as sidekick, followed by avaricious Harry Luck (Brad Dexter). Then, in quick succession, Chris manages to appeal to Lee (Robert Vaughn), Bernado O'Reilly (Charles Bronson) and Britt (James Coburn). Chris doesn't care about their motivation, all he wants are reliable men. If only he could have this confidence in Chico (Horst Buchholz), a groupie.
In taking on the legacy of The Seven Samurai, director John Sturges is setting himself up to be attacked and rebuked. After all, no one likes to see his or her favourite cinema experience diminished by an ill-considered copy. To his credit, Sturges avoids such an inglorious end despite matching Kurosawa almost scene for scene. The basis for this escape is two-fold; Sturges shifts location sufficiently to avoid direct echoes and his cast of now-stars has the requisite charisma and easy-going stance. In retrospect the Western genre and The Magnificent Seven were made for one another. Both depend on male bonding, outsider alienation and settler vs. drifter conflict to provide drama. In this sense Kurosawa's script, modified by William Roberts, is perfect.
Yet without his near-perfect group of actors, a major stroke of luck, Sturges wouldn't have achieved nearly so much. The point is that the characters are designed to cover nearly every personality base, from raw recruit to hardened and tormented killer. Thus each audience member is virtually guaranteed a favourite within the assembled talent. As the chief motivator, Brynner is arresting in an all-black costume. His aura of command complements the more light-hearted McQueen, making them a fine, competitive double-act. These are the two characters most developed by Sturges, though callow Buchholz gets a fair amount of screen presence in his pursuit of romance. The rest of the mismatched bunch is, however, burdened with flat, unexplored roles. That's why very little personality, beyond each actor's intrinsic charm, shines through.
In the case of Wallach, it's a shame and a pity that Calvera gets a minimal amount of action. An excellent and intuitive actor, even Wallach is stumped when he's given nothing to work with. In fact this lack of attention is one of the film's major flaws. The Magnificent Seven can't decide how to handle the bad guys, so it takes the middle (and worst route); instead of leaving them as ciphers, an almost elemental force, it gives them faces but no substance. In consequence less time is given to the Seven, yet what do we gain by knowing about their opposition? Nothing. The Magnificent Seven lacks the brooding, oppressive atmosphere of the original, so much so that we barely mourn for those slain in the climatic battle. Without this critical bulk, the film fails to engage on a more than superficial level.
Still, even a diluted remake of a masterpiece is bound to be watchable, which Sturges' creation certainly is. It looks pretty, thanks to the photography of Charles Lang, and sounds great. Elmer Bernstein's score is both memorable and instantly recognisable, a musical theme that has attained a lasting stature. If only this aural breadth was matched by a similar use of widescreen; the setting is perfect for landscape and shot framing, yet Lang allows the space to just sit there, serving no purpose. Oh well, at least it's fun to catch the stars of The Magnificent Seven before they began their ascent into the Hollywood firmament.