The Greatest Conservative Films: The Magnificent Seven (1960)
“I’ve been offered a lot in my line of work. But never everything.”
In his masterwork Primetime Propaganda, Ben Shapiro (“Thug Life™!”) said, “You can’t beat Westerns for Conservatism.” And so, I give you my favorite Western of all time, the original The Magnificent Seven.
Rio Bravo’s close second, if you’re wondering.
Quick little note: People often complain about Hollywood’s alleged current obsession with remakes—including the recent remake of this one. (More on that film later.) Well…actually, this 1960s classic was itself a remake—of Akira Kurisawa’s The Seven Samurai. That’s a classic, too…and like any good remake, this film was different enough so that film lovers can frankly enjoy them both, without problem.
Now, with that out of the way…cue the Bernstein.
WHY IT’S A CONSERVATIVE FILM:
I admit, I didn’t really think I was going to include this film in the series—any more than any old random pick from my Western collection. But then, about a couple weeks ago, I watched The Magnificent Seven again with some friends…and lo and behold, I had my “political radar” switched on, if you will. After processing, I finally shrugged and went, “Ah, why not?”
And so, without further ado…
The Value Of Guns:
You’d think a “pro-gun” theme would be kinda necessary to the Western genre. After all, what’s a Western without guns?
Alas…not so fast. As I noted before, there’s an all-too-common trope of the sheriff/marshal banning guns in town. The truly Conservative films (like Rio Bravo) tend to avert that—or at least deconstruct it.
Here, there’s a force of banditos lording it over a Mexican village. They’re armed, and not above gunning people down. And as the trio of village leaders sent across the border tell Chris, the Mexican government has proven completely ineffective in protecting the town…for the simple reason that the bandits just wait until the authorities are gone, and then come back.
So…what do the villagers do?
After some argument over their options, the leaders go to the unnamed town elder—a wise shaman type, the most blatant indication that This Used To Be A Samurai Film. He even kinda looks Oriental, and seemingly lives up a mountain….
“Fight. You must fight. Fight!”
“With machetes and bare hands against guns?”
“…Even if we had the guns—we know how to plant and grow. We don’t know how to kill.”
“Then learn. Or die.”
The only way to stop a bad guy with a gun…is a good guy with a gun. A trained good guy with a gun, to be clear—but you can be sure that includes civilians. And that’s part of the purpose of the Seven—not just as defenders, but as trainers of the villagers in defending themselves, with the guns they pick up from dead bad guys.
As for the Seven…the first two—Chris and Vin—are introduced defeating a group of racists…via guns. Appropriate, considering exactly why the NRA was founded in the first place….
Calvera’s Sense Of Entitlement:
One of the key elements of characterization for the villain, Calvera, is how he constantly justifies the actions of himself and his men—robbing villages, only leaving them with the bare minimum needed to survive. He and his men have to eat, don’t you see—they’re on the run, there’s all this scarcity, and besides they’re desperate!
From each according to his ability…to each according to his need. And like all who proclaim that “ideal”, as far as Calvera’s concerned, it’s his crew that has the greatest “need” and everyone else who has the “ability”. And like all such con artists, he lectures the villagers on how he loves them, and how he thinks of them as “good friends”.
It takes the Seven to call him out on it—surrounding the gang as they do so:
“Ride on? I’m going in the hills for the winter. Where am I going to get the food for my men?”
“Buy it or grow it!” “Or maybe even work for it!”
“Seven…. Somehow, I don’t think you’ve solved my problem!”
“Solving your problems isn’t our line.”
Not that Calvera listens.
The Seven (Hired) Hawks:
Oftentimes, dear readers, certain political stances don’t “settle” into Left or Right until after a work comes out—making it political in hindsight. Sometimes, this results in films once considered “liberal” ending up looking quite Conservative.
In this case, it took the latter days of the Vietnam War—and the radicals of the New Left seizing part-control over the Democrat Party in 1972, increasing their influence to this very day—to settle the “hawk/dove” issue. Nowadays, since the Ron Paul “Revolution” got big, the ambiguity’s started to rise up again. Still…the rhetoric of the Left is still “dove-ish” compared to the Right—and the Right’s rhetoric “hawkish” compared to the Left.
Regardless, since the Tea Party, there’s a “more-or-less” consensus on the Right, for limited interventionism—that is: Go in, kill the bad guys, get out. Staying to rebuild probably isn’t worth it.
Well…what do we have here, but American gunmen crossing the border into Mexico to intervene in an “internal affair”?—albeit, intervention the villagers specifically requested them for. Frankly, we see some Kennedy/Reagan Doctrine methodology, here—much of the Seven’s work, between the two big gunfights, involves training the villagers in how to defend themselves. However, there’s a realistic “cost”, here—as Chris makes clear:
“Do you understand what it means when you start something like this? …Once you begin, you’ve got to be prepared for killing—and more killing. And then still more killing, until the reason for it is gone.”
Chris and company didn’t put their lives on the line for the village to change its mind in the middle of things. And so, when some of the leaders consider exactly that…Chris makes clear he’ll shoot the first man who talks about giving up.
Not Exactly Altruism:
One of the main critiques from the Libertarian and Nationalist wings of the Right is—understandably—that if we’re going to get involved somewhere, it has to involve our interests…that we shouldn’t sacrifice our boys’ lives because “We’re a nice, selfless country.”
Here, there is a vested interest for the Seven—most prominently, their pay (minimal as it is), but also their sense of purpose amid America “outgrowing” them. Regardless, when the three villagers hire Chris to find men, we get the following:
“Will you go? It will be a blessing, if you came.”
“…Sorry, I’m not in the blessing business.”
Of course, they do have money—and it’ll be enough for seven drifting gunfighters. And as Chris brings up to Vin and the others, when they have a serious talk about whether they should call it quits:
“You forget one thing. We took a contract.”
“It’s not the kind any court would enforce.”
“That’s just the kind you got to keep.”
Not “We gave our word.” “We took a contract.” For free-market capitalism motivates virtue—the Invisible Hand creates a financial incentive for honor, and keeping your word.
Even if the product is armed security. In fact, especially that.
Interestingly enough, the Mexican government demanded some revisions to the storyline—effectively causing the writers to “PC” it up a bit! Ironically, those revisions actually help the Conservatism of the film. Originally, the trio from the village was sent specifically to hire men—”Leave it to the authorities!” if you will. In the final product, they’re sent to buy guns. It’s Chris who points out that, nowadays, hiring gunfighters is actually cheaper….
As a whole, the Mexican government’s concern was that their people would come across as weak and helpless without the Americans’ help. In the end, the villagers are all people—some giving in to cowardice at times, others sticking it out to the end…but ultimately, all proving their bravery—albeit, with some nudges and training from the Seven.
One and a half of whom turns out to be Mexican.
For Bonus Points:
It’s worth noting that, in the aforementioned sequence where the movie takes a “shot” (hah-hah-hah) at racism, the defenders of decency are…the two businessmen and the gunfighters, verbally supported by rugged cowboys who gladly offer to pay for damages. And as the undertaker notes, the racism entered the town—corrupting it—when it “got civilized”.
In other words…rugged individualism and racism are frankly incompatible. Effectively, it’s the “civilizing” influence of government—lumping people into interest groups—that allows it to really take hold, if we’re not careful. And if racism does take root, it’s business (the profit motive, which knows no color) and the right of self-defense that can fight it and beat it.
Finally, Chico’s speech to the village, after the Seven first ride in, is a nice jolt to the village—the kind of tough love we’d dream of having our leaders tell the UN, and anyone else who presumes to lecture us on “imperialism”—only to turn to us whenever there’s an international problem:
“Thank you, amigos, for coming out to greet us. And thank you for letting us see your beautiful faces. Thank you, thank you, you—CHICKENS! You come running out like chickens. We ride for days to get to this nothing in the middle of nowhere. We’re ready to risk our lives to help you—and you? You hide from us. Hide! From us! Well…. But it’s a different story when you’re in danger, huh? You might lose your precious crops. Then you flock to us. Huh? Well, we’re here—my compadres and I. And here we stay. And you…? You prove to us that you’re worth fighting for.”
As Shapiro said, “You can’t beat Westerns for Conservatism.”
WHY IT’S A GREAT FILM:
All right, first things first. What’s the first thing that comes to mind, when you think about this movie?
Elmer Bernstein’s Second Symphony:
It’s the quintessential “Classical Western” (as opposed to “Spaghetti Western”) score. Breathtakingly beautiful, Romantic, sweeping, and epic—that legendary theme alone is something you can’t help humming (at least in your head) as you leave the theater.
There’s the menacing, rolling, and somewhat regal villain theme—which Eli Wallach noted he wished he’d have been able to hear before filming, so he would’ve known to ride his horse more…magnificently.
There’s my favorite piece, “After The Brawl”, celebrating the solidification of Chris and Vin as heroic, and just plain cool, after scaring off a band of racists.
There’s “Journey”, playing amid the Six—soon to be Seven, as Chico proves his worth amid the trek—traveling to, across, and beyond the Rio Grande. One can’t help wondering if Howard Shore was inspired by this sequence when writing up “The Ring Goes South” for the first Lord Of The Rings….
Everything channeled from the spirit of that grand master of musical Americana, Aaron Copeland—the effective Father of the Western “sound”, with his Appalachian Spring, Billy The Kid, El Salon Mexico, and of course, Rodeo. You know the last one as the source of the “Beef: It’s What’s For Dinner” music, aka “Hoedown”.
Not surprisingly…Copland was Bernstein’s mentor.
(If you’re wondering, Bernstein’s “First Symphony” was the score for The Ten Commandments. Before that, he was known for his more “Jazzy” scores for noirs and other “urban” films, like Sweet Smell of Success and Walk On The Wild Side.)
Nowadays, a bunch of screenwriters working on a single film tends to be a red flag. But that’s not always so. Case in point—the classic exchange between two businessmen and an undertaker, over whether a dead fellow’s going to be buried:
Could it get any wittier than that?
Well, how about Vin’s little parables, that kinda, sorta make a bit of sense:
“Reminds me of that fella back home, jumped off a ten-story building. …As he was falling, people on each floor kept hearing him say, ‘So far so good!’ So far, so good.”
And when asked what the Seven were thinking, taking this job at all:
“Like a fella I once knew, in El Paso. One day he just took off all his clothes, and jumped into a mess of cactus; I asked him the same question: ‘Why? …He said ‘It seemed to be a good idea at the time.’”
The strong and silent Britt, when he does speak, sure makes it worth it—such as when Chico expresses admiration for how Britt shot a man on horseback:
“That was the greatest shot I’ve ever seen!”
“The worst. I was aiming at the horse!”
Even the hombres from the village have some gems, such as when one thinks a guy looks tough because of the scars on his face…to which another counters, “The man for us is the one who gave him that face.” And a moment later, they tease a reluctant Vin with his “good steady work” alternative…as a grocery clerk.
Still, the script also knows the value of non-verbal moments—classic touches including Chris and Vin finger-counting, or Brit lowering his brim, pointedly giving a loudmouth the brush-off…and so on.
I’d stack this screenplay up against the best work of Aaron Sorkin and Joss Whedon. Hands down.
Aside from the music, perhaps the best thing about this film is how each and every member of the Seven is a distinct, believable character—each with his own reason to join up…and each with his own arc.
Yul Brynner as Chris:
Brynner—aka Rameses of The Ten Commandments and the King in The King And I—brings his noble charisma as the leader of the gang. He’s the moral force of the group, the one who admits from the beginning that he’s doing it because…it’s the right thing to do. And yet he fears that it’s all for nothing—and wonders if he can really trust the villagers to follow through to the end. He has to keep all the internal and external tensions under control, as the Seven have to come to terms with the fact that the villagers don’t entirely trust them.
Steve McQueen as Vin:
The star of Bullitt, The Great Escape, and so forth—is Vin, gunfighter and gambler…playful yet pointed in his observations as Chris’s effective second-in-command. He’s taking the job out of pride—he’ll be darned if he’ll settle for a “humiliating” job as a grocery clerk. He’s the funnyman of the group, but it masks a sense of loneliness, a coldness over his life. As he admits to one of the village leaders, “I, uh…I envy you.”
Brad Dexter as Harry Luck:
He’s the least recognizable “name” of the Seven—more known for his face in many a Western than anything else. Regardless, Harry Luck’s a hustler who’s only in it for the money—“knowing” that there’s gotta be more to the pay than what Chris says (even though Chris keeps insisting that’s all there is). And he keeps looking for proof of that. He’s trying his hardest to deny he has a heart…and as such, he’s the one who keeps bringing up the option of giving up, when the tensions in the village reach their boiling points. Still, perhaps he doth protest too much….
“I’ll be damned….”
“Maybe you won’t be.”
Charles Bronson as Bernardo O’Reilly:
The legendary action star is Bernardo O’Reilly, veteran master of winning county wars with his master skill. He costs a lot…or at least he used to. Half-Irish, half-Mexican, what he’s looking for is somewhere to belong—and it’s certainly not chopping wood for food. Meanwhile, he turns out to have a soft spot in his heart for children—and famously lectures three boys who idolize him:
“You think I am brave because I carry a gun? Well, your fathers are much braver, because they carry responsibility! For you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers! And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends, and it twists them, until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this—they do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm—working like a mule every day, with no guarantee will ever come of it—this is bravery! That’s why I never even started anything like that. That’s why I never will.”
Words to remember—Left or Right. Like it or not.
James Coburn as Britt:
The silent, laconic, cool-headed master of all handheld weapons, knife or gun. He doesn’t care about money—his life’s motivation is to test himself and his abilities. Britt’s the ultimate consummate professional-plus-artist. His art is his aim and his speed. Because of his silence and cool head, we don’t know much about what he’s going through, in this film…just that he considers his devotion to his skill a matter of honor. And he doesn’t give up.
“Nobody throws me my own guns and says “run”. Nobody.
Robert Vaughn as Lee:
He’d go on to play The Man From UNCLE. Here, he’s Lee, the fancily-dressed “name brand” gunfighter…and his name’s come back to haunt him. He’s gunned down the last of his enemies, but he needs to hide until the authorities stop looking for him. Meanwhile, he’s riddled with PTSD…which only gets worse when he fears he’s lost the will to fight.
It’s ambiguous whether he actually was spooked out of joining in the first gunfight, or whether he just didn’t have any enemies coming his way. Regardless, he thinks he chickened out…and it switches on his shell-shock. He’s desperate to prove that he’s not a coward—that he still has courage, after all:
“Go ahead, Lee. You don’t owe anything to anybody.”
“…Except to myself.”
Horst Buchholz as Chico:
Horst went on to be a star in his native Germany. Here, he plays a youngster of Mexican descent who desires more than anything else to be a tough guy hero—a legend, like the gunfighters. He’s “very young and very proud”—which initially causes Chris to turn him down.
Well…technically, he doesn’t turn him down—but his test of the kid’s speed hurts Chico’s pride. At any rate, Chico does impress him eventually—and goes a long way to help cure some of the initial tensions with the village, and even conducts some good reconnaissance. In doing so, he wins the heart of a certain senorita named Petra—and is torn with the knowledge that a wandering gunfighter’s life has no place for falling in love with a girl like her. Meanwhile, his bravado and desperation to be a gunfighter masks a past of his own.
The Villain—Eli Wallach’s Calvera:
Before he was Tuco in The Good, The Bad, & The Ugly, he was the swaggering, boisterous, deadly, oddly charming archvillain Calvera (from the Spanish calavera, “skull”). This is one of the undisputed improvements over the original Kurisawa film—the fact that this version makes sure to give the villain characterization, and not just make him an ominous force that’s coming back.
And what a character. He throws his weight around, laughing it up, putting on a “chummy” act that the village leaders have no intention of playing along with…not that he seems to care. And this leads to a priceless moment where one of his goons inadvertently undercuts Calvera’s “we’re-all-friends-here” act:
“Here—religion! You’d weep if you saw how true religion is now a thing of the past. Last month we were in San Juan. Rich town—sit down! Rich town, much blessed by God, big church. Not like here, little church, the priest comes twice a year. Big one! You’d think we’d find gold candlesticks—poor box filled to overflowing. You know what we found? Brass candlesticks. Almost nothing in the poor box.”
“But we took it anyway.”
“I know ‘we took it anyway’! I’m trying to show him how little religion some people now have.”
And of course, he later gives one of the all-time classic villain lines of cinema:
“If God didn’t want them sheared, he would not have made them sheep.”
And like so many villains…in his desire to justify himself, he honestly seems to believe that Chris and the Seven are just like him—and to his dying breath, he never understands why “a man like you” would help those “sheep”…let alone come back for them.
The Cost Of A Gunfighter’s Life:
It’s perhaps the greatest scene in the film, as everyone rests in the calm before the storm. Chico gushes about the glories of being a legendary gunfighter. Chris mutters, “You think it’s worth it?” Chico is shocked at his elders’ lack of enthusiasm about their lives…and Vin, Chris and Lee famously lay out just how complicated the life of hired gun can actually be—the good, the bad, and the ugly—as if reciting stats from a ledger:
Of course, “No enemies, alive” assumes none of them are better than you with a gun. And even if you survive them all…still, at the point in American history the movie’s set in, even the good’s only temporary….
The Death Of The West—In General:
We saw the roots of this in Shane, just before the final shootout, Shane admitting that the days of the gunfighter are coming to an end. But it wasn’t until the 1960s—with this film—that the theme suddenly surged in the genre. And for good reason.
Little by little, in the Sixties, it became more apparent that the Western was just getting…old. John Wayne found himself playing effective father figures. Jimmy Stewart, Henry Fonda, Gary Cooper, and Randolph Scott were all getting older. New blood was coming in, of course—but a feeling of anxiety filled those working in the genre: Are the glory days over?
Mid-decade, Sergio Leone reinvented the Western, creating a new spin that came to define the “Spaghetti Western” movement—and this provided a grittier, yet somewhat more “fun”, new playground of experimentation. And some American Westerns did follow that trend—and not all of them starred Clint Eastwood.
But what about the “old” style—the sweeping, Romantic, “Classical Westerns”? Well…like I said, a new central theme arose—powered by self-awareness, a conscious nostalgia for the old days. To wit: The End Of The West.
Suddenly, we tended to see our heroes reflecting on the old days—and how the world’s starting to pass them by, for “modern” things. We see it in The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, with John Wayne’s gunfighter Tom giving way to Jimmy Stewart’s lawyer Ransom—ending with poor Tom a broken man. We see in Big Jake a visual contrast with John Wayne riding a horse and the rest of the rescue team riding a car…initially. And ultimately…in The Shootist—SPOILER ALERT…John Wayne dies as the symbolic blaze of glory of the Old West itself, in a town filled with trolley cars and horseless carriages.
The Death Of The West—The Magnificent Seven:
Each of the Seven join the cause for their own reasons. But except for maybe Chico, those reasons all tie into the fact that the world just…moving on. It’s heavily implied to be the 1890s—the beginning of the end for the Old West. Towns are getting “civilized”, and as Chris and Vin note as they ride up to Boot Hill, even the notorious “wild” towns of Tombstone and Dodge City are…quiet. No action, “People all settled-down-like.”
A sad time for the gunfighters—men who’d found purpose honing their skills in a wild frontier that, frankly, desperately needed such men. All the “bad guys” are gunned down or rounded up. And the “good guys”…well, now they’ve got nothing to do.
Chris’s “drifting south, more-or-less”—looking for anyone who needs help. Vin might have to settle for a job as “a crackerjack clerk. Crackerjack.” O’Reilly’s out chopping wood. Brit’s basically doing anything he deems a good challenge. Harry’s just looking for a buck—or so he tells himself. And Lee finds himself humiliated by hotels who don’t want a known gunfighter drawing attention…where in the old days, they would’ve been honored to have him around.
Basically…they all just want to feel useful again. Rather like the samurai of Kurisawa’s film—all ronin, drifting around, facing the end of Feudal Japan.
Well, they all do regain their sense of purpose—even if most of them pay for it with their lives. And of the three that survive, Chico settles down. And as for Chris and Vin, well…they’ll just have to go on, looking once again for somewhere that needs them.
“The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
And they ride off…curiously not into the sunset, this time. Maybe, symbolically, there’s hope, after all.
By The Way…
There were three sequels to this film—Return Of The Magnificent Seven, The Magnificent Seven Ride, and Guns Of The Magnificent Seven. Return has Yul Brynner back as Chris—with different actors playing Vin and Chico. The other two don’t even have Brynner, with a different actor each time—neither of whom even look like him.
Speaking as a critic, Return is actually pretty good—keeping the appeal of each member of the Seven having his own story. But Ride didn’t exactly hold my attention, though I had it playing the whole way—I only remember a nice line in the beginning when the employer notes to pseudo-Chris that “I hear seven is a lucky number for you.” I haven’t seen Guns, yet.
Steve McQueen not reprising the role of Vin for Return probably had to do with a famous on-set rivalry between him and Brynner, due mainly to McQueen’s constant acting flourishes with the clear intent of drawing audience attention towards him. Finally, Brynner famously replied to the effect of “Steve, if you don’t stop that, I’ll take off my hat…and no one will look at you for the rest of the movie.”
Brynner actually does have a scene with his hat off—the scene where Chico rides over, having discovered Petra. It’s easy to miss, as he puts the hat on after a moment or two.
The “bullfight” scene (where, again, Bernstein joins in on the joke musically) was actually improvised. They put a bull in the scene, and had Horst Buchholz just run with it.
There was also a TV series…with completely original characters, who tended to survive their assignments.
WHAT’S NOT ON THE LIST:
The Magnificent Seven (2016)—I actually really like this remake. It’s well-cast, especially Denzel Washington as the leader…and Chris Pratt showing darkness, underneath the fun. Most of the characters are re-named “spins” on the originals—although Vaquez the Mexican is a composite (O’Reilly plus Harry), and the “kid” is a stone-faced Comanche archer, not a desperate-to-prove-himself wannabe. The “new” character, played by Vincent D’Onofrio (VERY against type), is actually modeled after the Western roles of the famously high-pitched and heavyset Andy Devine.
It’s a good, enjoyable film, worthy to the franchise (even dropping some nice quotes from the original)…although I admit to being a little miffed at the browned-out color palate. For some reason it’s a seeming unspoken “rule” nowadays that non-Tarantino Westerns look ugly. (And they wonder why the genre hasn’t really exploded back yet….) Further, the late James Horner’s score—famously the last he ever wrote—is kind of…unmemorable—which is sadly underlined when Bernstein’s classic theme kick-starts the ending credits.
No, the diverse casting’s NOT what disqualifies it from our list. As director Antoine Fuqua’s noted, the real West was pretty diverse before “civilization” brought Jim Crow (as the original, remember, hints at). Besides, anyone claiming Conservatism and racial diversity are somehow at odds don’t have a clue what they’re talking about.
So what does disqualify it? Well…Calvera’s replaced with a stereotypical Evil Greedy Businessman—aka “robber baron”. Yes, he’s technically a Crony Capitalist, working with corrupt government officials (and the Pinkertons’ evil counterparts)…but that’s pretty hard to emphasize, if you don’t actually present to the audience a good Big Businessman—aka “captain of industry”—to cancel it out.
Buy the original Magnificent Seven here. And stay film-friendly, my friends.
Any recommendations for films to make this series? Read the rules, here, and let us know!
Buy the movie here.
Eric was raised by Conservative Christian parents, but first became especially passionate about politics in high school, through reading up on economic theory. He also first read The Fountainhead and Atlas Shrugged around this time, for the ARI's essay contests. He now owns a great deal of Ayn Rand's work. Also included in his library are the collected works of Rush Limbaugh, Mark Levin, Ann Coulter, etc.
Eric is no stranger to writing commentary, as the writer of the Conservative Considerations column on CampCampaign.com, and as a film critic and commentator on FlickRev.com. He has also carried on the Conservative tradition of talk radio commentary, as the host of "Avengers of America" for the USF student radio station, Bulls Radio. In the meantime, he is practicing what he preaches: Striving to enter the professional realm of Hollywood, he has already written and directed short films for the Campus MovieFest, which can be found on his YouTube channel, Hard Boiled Entertainment.