Some person who wrote a book once said there are only 12 basic plots that keep getting reused over and over again in every storytelling medium throughout the history of the world. I didn’t read that book, because I was watching movies, so I don’t know what those plots are, but one of them is probably the plot of The Magnificent Seven. That movie’s plot has been reused and rehashed and re-jiggered to any kind of genre in both film and television for over 60 years. Why? Because it’s a damn good story. So let’s take a look at some of the best—and weirdest—uses of The Magnificent Seven plot.
Now, I’ve been attributing the plot in question to The Magnificent Seven for a whole paragraph now, but the 1960 Western is itself actually a reinvention of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai (Shichinin no Samurai). You don’t need me to tell you what a brilliant piece of cinema this is, because hundreds of authors have already done it, but I am going to sing the praises of the plot to the moon and stars.
The story concerns a small town in rural Japan that is ransacked on a regular basis by a gang of bandits. They take all of the little farm community’s food and threaten to slaughter everyone upon their next visit if the town cannot provide more. Unable to get the food in time, the town sends a young representative to find ronin, or masterless samurai, to fight on their behalf. He does indeed meet several, including the noble Kambei (Takashi Shimura) and the untrained wannabe wildcard Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune). The samurai eventually number seven and set about fortifying the town for what is destined to be a bloody (and rain-soaked, turns out) battle.
Topping the list of the movie’s contributions to pop culture is its motley crew of samurai. Each member of the group has his own personality and skill set—we have the wizened leader, the hothead, the buffoon, the one skilled in archery, the other the greatest swordsman in Japan, and a vagrant who dreams of greatness. These are compelling, interesting people we grow to care about.
So compelling, in fact, that six years later, Hollywood decided to turn the film into a Western, proving the very Japanese story was in fact fairly universal. Directed by John Sturges, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven changed the tale only slightly. Instead of a Japanese village needing Japanese heroes to defend them from Japanese bandits, it was a Mexican village crossing the border into American to get mercenaries to defend them from Mexican bandits. One of the stipulations for the filmmakers to shoot in Mexico was that the villagers not appear filthy and stupid (they wear pristine white clothes the entire movie) and that the Seven teach them to defend themselves, which they do.
Taking the place of stoic samurai Kambei is Chris Adams, played by Yul Brynner in his first Western role. Alongside him were such soon-to-be tough guy heavyweights Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson, and relative unknowns Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, and Horst Buchholz. Just as before, the Seven each had their own unique skills, personalities, and backstories. Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly is a half-Mexican/half-Irish farmhand who runs from his roots but ultimately becomes a hero; Coburn’s Britt is the best shot in the West, but even deadlier with a throwing knife; Vaughn’s Lee is a shell-shocked gambler on the run from bounty hunters. There’s less time for a sense of camaraderie between the Seven in this movie, but the characters start to become like superheroes.
This idea of teaming up people with specific skills from disparate backgrounds and personalities became all the rage throughout the rest of the ’60s. Movies like The Dirty Dozen and The Professionals became action movie staples, as did several sequels to The Magnificent Seven. The first appearance of DC Comics’ Justice League, which initially had seven members, came in March of 1960 (surely somehow influenced by Seven Samurai), and Marvel debuted the Fantastic Four in 1961, with X-Men and the Avengers both debuting in 1963.
The concept became less prevalent in the 1970s, but made a delightful, space-set return in 1980, as one of a dozen films trying to copy the success of Star Wars. Producer Roger Corman aimed to make his own space Western with his most expensive feature to date. He gave writer John Sayles the remit that he wanted Seven Samurai in space. The result was a favorite of mine, Battle Beyond the Stars. In it, the peaceful planet of Akir (the people who live there are called “Akira” as a nod to Kurosawa) is attacked by the evil Malmori empire, led by Sador (John Saxon), who ransacks planets to take resources and body parts to elongate his own life.
The Akira are peaceful and naïve, and so a young farmboy named Shad (Richard Thomas) sets out with his living spaceship Nell to recruit heroes to their cause. He picks up the beautiful Nanelia (Darlanne Fluegel) who is a whiz with robotics but has never met another organic life form; Space Cowboy (George Peppard), a freight pilot obsessed with old Earth westerns; lonely assassin Gelt (Robert Vaughn, essentially playing his Magnificent Seven character); Saint-Exmin (Sybil Danning), a hotshot Valkyrie looking to prove herself; and several other strange aliens with their own vendetta against Sador.
Battle Beyond the Stars isn’t quite in the same league as Star Wars (despite effects by James Cameron and a score by James Horner), and infamously when the movie was behind schedule and overbudget, Corman tore random pages out of the script, which makes it a little disjointed, but it’s an exceedingly fun movie and a great example of the Magnificent Seven format. While mostly forgotten, the movie has found an audience over the years, and the Doctor Who episode “The Girl Who Died” pays a sly homage to it in its Magnificent Seven-esque plot, mainly through the villain, who like Sador first appears via a giant projection in the sky and uses the best of various civilizations to better himself.
The format shows up in the most unlikely of places, and in all genres. Pixar’s second feature film, 1998’s A Bug’s Life, is pretty much a beat-for-beat retelling of The Magnificent Seven. A peaceful ant colony has to gather food for marauding grasshoppers. After a botched offering, the ants have a short and impossible time to re-gather, so a young and naïve dreamer from the colony ventures out into the big insect city to recruit heroes to fight for them, instead bringing a ragtag circus troupe who nevertheless helps the ants defend themselves from the grasshoppers.
For most kids of the Pixar generation, A Bug’s Life was likely their first interaction with the Magnificent Seven plot, but it wasn’t the last time the story was approached via animation. In one of the series’ best episodes, Star Wars: The Clone Wars did a shortened version of this in the episode “Bounty Hunters.” In it, Anakin, Ahsoka and Obi-Wan crash on a lush rainforest planet and decide to help four bounty hunters protect local farmers from pirates intent on stealing their valuable crops. Executive producer Dave Filoni acknowledged that, much like a lot of Star Wars, the episode was a direct homage to Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
The Magnificent Seven format remains fresh and vibrant today, thanks to its malleability. It can be applied to any popular epic fiction. Antoine Fuqua directed a remake of The Magnificent Seven in 2016, but by no means is the format relegated to the Western. Any time the idea to team several outstanding and heroic characters is used, it owes something to Kurosawa. And there’s something magical, and even biblical, about the number seven. Let’s not forget, one of the first taglines for Zack Snyder’s version of Justice League was “Unite the Seven.” It’s a plot that’ll always be magnificent.
Images: Pixar/MGM/Toho/New World Pictures/BBC/Lucasfilm