SoundReels: The Surprising Main Character in 'The Magnificent Seven'

Aug 1, 2018

John Sturges' 1960 Western remake of Akira Kurosawa's classic film Seven Samurai features an intense musical score by one of the great composers of film music, Elmer Bernstein. 

So, in a cast that includes film legends Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and Eli Wallach, who's the main character in The Magnificent Seven?

The answer might surprise you.

In the inaugural episode of SoundReels, Classical 101's film music podcast, Classical 101 midday host Jennifer Hambrick teams up with Jon Sherman, associate professor of film at Kenyon College, to talk about how film music works in the 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven.

Soundtrack

The film tells the story of Mexican villagers who hire seven sharpshooters to protect themselves from the bullying attacks of the villain Calvera (Eli Wallach). Over the course of the film, the band of seven comes together under the leadership of Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen). 

Extolling gunslingers in the Wild West, The Magnificent Seven nevertheless behaves quite differently from the films that have come to define the classic Western genre.

In the first episode of SoundReels, Sherman has the skinny on what makes The Magnificent Seven a Western like no other. We also talk about the heavy lifting Elmer Bernstein's musical score does in three iconic scenes to give the film an epic sweep and to help define the personalities of the characters:

Standoff at the Cemetery

In this scene early in the film, we meet Chris (Brynner) and Vin (McQueen). A Native American man has died, and no one wants to bury him in the whites-only cemetery. Chris and Vin are taking the body to the cemetery to insist that they're going to bury this man.

"This film really does have more music than you would expect in a Western. It's almost wall-to-wall in this scene," Sherman says. 

The Fastest Knife in Town

This scene introduces one of the sharpshooters, Britt (James Coburn), who is being provoked into a standoff by one of the film's other characters.

"This scene is notable for its distinct lack of music," Sherman says. "There’s very little motion in this scene, and to use music would have created a dissonance, I think, between sound and image."

Killing Calvera

And what would a Western be without a scene that smacks of utter lawlessness? This scene from The Magnificent Seven is general chaos in both the action on-screen and the musical score. 

"I kind of chose this scene because the score has to do a lot of work that you might expect the screenplay to do in terms of character development," Sherman says.

"And what that does is," he continues, "I think it highlights maybe one of the dramatic problems of the film because, at the end, you don't really get the cathartic stand-off between the good guy and the bad guy that you expect in a Western. So it's more just like, sort of, general chaos."

Join us for the next episode of SoundReels, Classical 101's film music podcast series. And enjoy more great film music during the Summer Festival of American Film Music on The American Sound, Saturday evenings at 6 and Tuesdays at 7 p.m. on Classical 101.