Skip to main content Skip to footer site map

Viewer Guide: “The Magnificent Seven” and “The Vessel”

July 16, 2021 | Richard Peña


The Magnificent Seven (1960)

This week’s classic is The Magnificent Seven, the 1960 action-adventure Western directed by John Sturges.

An adaptation of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 art house hit Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven transplants the story’s setting from Japan to a Mexican village not far from the U.S. border, where a farming community is being terrorized by a ruthless bandit named Calvera, played by Eli Wallach. After watching Calvera shoot one of the villagers in cold blood, the farmers have finally had enough, but are totally ill-equipped, without the weapons—or more importantly, the training—to fight back. On a quest to buy guns, a trio of farmers journeys into U.S. territory, and after observing the steely cool of Chris Adams, a Cajun gunslinger played by Yul Brynner, they approach him for advice. Chris has a better idea: instead of buying guns, why not hire gunslingers? Initially reluctant to help them, Chris recruits a team of mercenaries for the job—despite the low pay. And with the taming of the wild west already underway, it’s not long before Chris has assembled a seasoned crew of out of work gunmen played by Steve

McQueen, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, and Robert Vaughn. Gradually becoming the de facto leader of the group, Chris and his team head south, but find themselves trailed by Chico, a hot-headed young gunfighter played by Horst Buchholz, who’s determined to join their ranks. And as Elmer Bernstein’s famous theme swells on the soundtrack, these “magnificent seven” set off for an assignment that ultimately becomes much more than just six weeks “gunning for some farmers.”

By most reports, it was Yul Brynner’s idea to adapt Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Sumurai as a western. For the key role of Vin, director John Sturges wanted to cast rising star Steve McQueen, but McQueen couldn’t get out of his contract for the TV series Wanted Dead Or Alive. A skilled racetrack driver, McQueen faked a car accident and whiplash injury requiring a neck brace—which allowed him to shoot the film during his “recuperation period.” As production got underway on location in Cuernavaca, Mexico, a rivalry between Brynner and McQueen emerged, with McQueen often attempting to upstage Brynner during their scenes together. Although critical reaction and the initial U.S. box office was muted, The Magnificent Seven proved to be a blockbuster hit in Europe, with the most important rave review coming from Akira Kurosawa himself, who sent John Sturges a Samurai sword as a congratulatory gift. With the original film eventually spawning three sequels, in 1973 Brynner created a chilling reprise of his iconic performance as the robot gunslinger gone rogue in Michael Crichton’s Westworld.


The Vessel (2016)

This week’s indie is the 2016 drama The Vessel, written and directed by Julio Quintana.

Set in an unnamed Latin American village, The Vessel explores the devastation—both physical and psychological—created by a tsunami that hit the area some ten years before, sweeping all the community’s school children out to sea. With most of the younger residents abandoning the town for the city, an unspoken baby prohibition has descended over the population. Despite the spiritual efforts of Father Douglas, played by Martin Sheen, the residents’ faith has been profoundly shaken, leaving most convinced that a permanent state of mourning—or denial of God—is the only way to commemorate such an especially cruel decimation. Yet when a young villager named Leo, played by Lucas Quintana, miraculously returns to life after a drowning accident, a stir of wonderment ripples through the village—might Leo be God’s messenger, and a sign that they have not been abandoned after all? And when Leo begins to build a strange makeshift structure, is he making real a divine grand plan?

The Vessel’s husband and wife producing team of Julio and Marla Quintana met visionary director Terrence Malick while working on Malick’s 2011 film The Tree of Life. When Julio Quintana shared his idea for a film about a near-death experience, Malick suggested Quintana send his script to Martin Sheen, who had famously suffered a heart attack while filming Apocalypse Now. Sheen quickly agreed to participate in the production with Malick coming on board as executive producer, which proved helpful during the film’s two-year fundraising period. With Julio Quintana’s musician-actor brother Lucas taking on the role of Leo, the bilingual cast allowed for the simultaneous production of Spanish and English language versions of the film. The La Perla neighborhood of San Juan, Puerto Rico, served as the film’s principal location, an area that has weathered many a devastating storm, including the back-to-back Category 5 hurricanes of Irma and Maria in 2017.

Richard Peña is a Professor of Film Studies at Columbia University, where he specializes in film theory and international cinema.

©2023 WNET. All Rights Reserved. 825 Eighth Avenue, New York, NY 10019

WNET is a 501(c)(3) nonprofit organization. Tax ID: 26-2810489