Variations on a Theme

All month long TCM has been celebrating the 100th birthday of Akira Kurosawa and playing many of the director’s best films. On Sunday TCM will also be showing one of my favorite westerns, John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) which happens to be based on Kurosawa’s classic THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954). If you haven’t had the opportunity to see THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN it’s a great time to catch up with this entertaining movie.

One of my favorite things about John Sturges’ film is its incredible theme composed by the legendary Elmer Bernstein. Elmer Bernstein is responsible for some of Hollywood’s greatest film scores but his theme for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN is one of the most recognizable pieces of music he ever recorded.

When Sturges’ film was originally released in 1960 it quickly became a hit. Audiences loved it and it’s no wonder why. THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN has an impressive cast that includes Steve McQueen, Yul Brenner, Eli Wallach, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter and Horst Buchholz in some of their best roles and the movie’s inspiring tale of a group of restless outsiders coming together to save a defenseless village is timeless. Elmer Bernstein’s score for the film was nominated for an Oscar in 1961 but for some strange reason United Artists didn’t release the soundtrack. Elmer Bernstein’s original score for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN wouldn’t find its way onto vinyl until 1966 following the release of the film’s sequel, RETURN OF THE SEVEN.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Q0w66vGfUO4]

This didn’t stop other artists from releasing their own versions of Elmer Bernstein’s theme in the interim. In 1961 guitarist Al Caiola recorded a popular version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme that became his first hit single in the US. Across the pond, the celebrated composer John Barry was also recording his own version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN with his group The John Barry Seven. His modern rendition of the theme became a minor hit in the UK.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=4_iXbamW53E]

Later in the decade Marlboro cigarettes started using THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme to advertise their products. In a somewhat unfortunate turn of events, Elmer Bernstein indirectly helped create the image of the rough and tough smoking cowboy that became synonymous with the image of a “Marlboro Man.” I say unfortunate because three of the male models who appeared in Marlboro ads during the ’60s ended up dead due to complications from lung cancer presumably caused by smoking. It’s probably also worth noting that two of the stars of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (Steve McQueen and Yul Brenner) died much too early from different forms of lung cancer and director John Sturges along with actor Brad Dexter both suffered from emphysema.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=3vuZQDZlKvA]

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme was also used to great effect by soul artists Arthur Conley and Otis Redding. They borrowed some parts of Elmer Bernstein’s memorable score for the hit song they wrote together in 1966, “Sweet Soul Music.”

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HhCoDd21QpE]

In the ’80s members of the British band The Clash seemed to find a lot of inspiration in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN. They titled one of the songs from their 1980 record Sandinista! after the film and in 1988 Clash member Mick Jones recorded an original version of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme called “Keep Off the Grass” with his band Big Audio Dynamite.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=srNAFh86YNk]

Elmer Bernstein’s incredible score for THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN has undoubtedly inspired many other artists and it will continue to do so in the future. A quick search on Youtube turned up various interpretations of THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN theme. One of my favorites was performed by the children of the Cempaka School Orchestra in Malaysia proving that Elmer Bernstein’s music can still appeal to people of all ages in every corner of the globe.

[youtube=http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=VgbtLYXCTRs]

32 Responses Variations on a Theme
Posted By Joan : March 18, 2010 9:00 pm

I caught the intro for that (The Seven Samuri) last night between movies on TCM. I’m really looking forward to The Magnificent Seven when it comes on. I’ve never seen it, believe it or not. So many great movies out there, hmm?

Posted By Joan : March 18, 2010 9:00 pm

I caught the intro for that (The Seven Samuri) last night between movies on TCM. I’m really looking forward to The Magnificent Seven when it comes on. I’ve never seen it, believe it or not. So many great movies out there, hmm?

Posted By Medusa : March 18, 2010 10:17 pm

Great celebration of Bernstein’s wonderful score! What a fascinating post! I also loved the youth orchestra’s version — lots of talent there!

Posted By Medusa : March 18, 2010 10:17 pm

Great celebration of Bernstein’s wonderful score! What a fascinating post! I also loved the youth orchestra’s version — lots of talent there!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 18, 2010 10:50 pm

I hope you’ll enjoy The Magnificent Seven when you get a chance to see it, Joan! I love it but I have a general fondness for westerns made in the ’60s. There never seems to be enough time to see all the movies I want to see so I completely understand if you haven’t had a chance to see this yet. Luckily The Magnificent Seven was one of my dad’s favorite movies so he introduced it to me when I was just a kid.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 18, 2010 10:50 pm

I hope you’ll enjoy The Magnificent Seven when you get a chance to see it, Joan! I love it but I have a general fondness for westerns made in the ’60s. There never seems to be enough time to see all the movies I want to see so I completely understand if you haven’t had a chance to see this yet. Luckily The Magnificent Seven was one of my dad’s favorite movies so he introduced it to me when I was just a kid.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 19, 2010 12:37 am

The theme to The Magnificent Seven makes me want to run somewhere.

Posted By Richard Harland Smith : March 19, 2010 12:37 am

The theme to The Magnificent Seven makes me want to run somewhere.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 19, 2010 1:31 am

Hopefully over the finish line!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 19, 2010 1:31 am

Hopefully over the finish line!

Posted By rhsmith : March 19, 2010 11:41 am

That music is part of my DNA. I grew up at a time when a boy’s go-to heroes were still cowboys and I had all the gunslinger paraphernalia (albeit non-functional). I probably saw Return of the Seven before I saw the original but the men-on-a-mission template was definitely part of my personal mythology. Monsters came later but cowboys still hold a place in my heart. As a middle aged man now, I rewatch The Magnificent Seven with an ache in my heart, seeing now how the story is a parable about redemption, about trying at last to be the person you always told the world you were but never took the trouble to prove.

Posted By rhsmith : March 19, 2010 11:41 am

That music is part of my DNA. I grew up at a time when a boy’s go-to heroes were still cowboys and I had all the gunslinger paraphernalia (albeit non-functional). I probably saw Return of the Seven before I saw the original but the men-on-a-mission template was definitely part of my personal mythology. Monsters came later but cowboys still hold a place in my heart. As a middle aged man now, I rewatch The Magnificent Seven with an ache in my heart, seeing now how the story is a parable about redemption, about trying at last to be the person you always told the world you were but never took the trouble to prove.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 19, 2010 1:30 pm

Glad you liked it Medusa!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 19, 2010 1:30 pm

Glad you liked it Medusa!

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 19, 2010 1:38 pm

The music is part of my DNA as well. When you grow up with it – and your father was an actual horseback riding ranch hand – it’s hard not to feel some kind of personal connection to the film and westerns in general. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Magnificent Seven but it’s a movie I never get tired of revisiting. The story shaped who I am. From a very early age onward I’ve been on the side of the underdog and for better or worse, always ready to help someone in need.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 19, 2010 1:38 pm

The music is part of my DNA as well. When you grow up with it – and your father was an actual horseback riding ranch hand – it’s hard not to feel some kind of personal connection to the film and westerns in general. I’ve lost count of how many times I’ve seen The Magnificent Seven but it’s a movie I never get tired of revisiting. The story shaped who I am. From a very early age onward I’ve been on the side of the underdog and for better or worse, always ready to help someone in need.

Posted By Jenni : March 19, 2010 5:40 pm

How cool is that that a youth orchestra,in a far away place and culture can appreciate and play so well, a classic piece of music from a 1960s U.S. Western! I really enjoyed hearing their rendition of Bernstein’s masterpiece. Thanks for finding it.

Posted By Jenni : March 19, 2010 5:40 pm

How cool is that that a youth orchestra,in a far away place and culture can appreciate and play so well, a classic piece of music from a 1960s U.S. Western! I really enjoyed hearing their rendition of Bernstein’s masterpiece. Thanks for finding it.

Posted By Al Lowe : March 22, 2010 12:37 am

I love MAGNIFICENT SEVEN too. It is one of the few movies I have both on DVD and VHS.

The DVD has commentary from Eli Wallach, James Coburn and producer Walter Mirisch.

Here are some of the things I learned:

-Anthony Quinn owned the rights to the film and told Yul Brynner about it when Quinn directed Brynner in THE BUCCANEER. Somehow Brynner got it away from him and others produced it.

-Director John Sturges thought Horst Buchholz would become a star from the movie. He was amazed when stardom happened instead for Coburn. And so was Coburn who thought he didn’t have many lines.

-Mcqueen and Brynner watched the footage shot on Buchholz pretending to be a bullfighter and McQueen bitterly complained that he would steal the picture. “No, he won’t,” Brynner shot back. “How do you know?” “I read the script,” Brynner replied.

-Brynner had a plush trailer and behaved like the King of Siam.

-Wallach rode with his band of outlaws prior to each day’s filming.

-I too thought the movie was a hit when it was released. I first saw it when I was a preteen and a Pittsburgh theater had an incredible triple bill -MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, SHANE and HONDO. But the participants in the DVD discussion said it came and went quickly. And that could be the reason why Bernstein didn’t get an Oscar for scoring that year.
However, I think it became a well loved picture due to repeated TV viewings. And it was shown so much because everyone in it except Buchholz and Brad Dexter became stars. Incidentally, Dexter, who can be seen in villain roles when he was under contract to RKO in the 50s, worked for Frank Sinatra as a producer in the late 60s after he saved Sinatra from drowning during the making of a movie.

Posted By Al Lowe : March 22, 2010 12:37 am

I love MAGNIFICENT SEVEN too. It is one of the few movies I have both on DVD and VHS.

The DVD has commentary from Eli Wallach, James Coburn and producer Walter Mirisch.

Here are some of the things I learned:

-Anthony Quinn owned the rights to the film and told Yul Brynner about it when Quinn directed Brynner in THE BUCCANEER. Somehow Brynner got it away from him and others produced it.

-Director John Sturges thought Horst Buchholz would become a star from the movie. He was amazed when stardom happened instead for Coburn. And so was Coburn who thought he didn’t have many lines.

-Mcqueen and Brynner watched the footage shot on Buchholz pretending to be a bullfighter and McQueen bitterly complained that he would steal the picture. “No, he won’t,” Brynner shot back. “How do you know?” “I read the script,” Brynner replied.

-Brynner had a plush trailer and behaved like the King of Siam.

-Wallach rode with his band of outlaws prior to each day’s filming.

-I too thought the movie was a hit when it was released. I first saw it when I was a preteen and a Pittsburgh theater had an incredible triple bill -MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, SHANE and HONDO. But the participants in the DVD discussion said it came and went quickly. And that could be the reason why Bernstein didn’t get an Oscar for scoring that year.
However, I think it became a well loved picture due to repeated TV viewings. And it was shown so much because everyone in it except Buchholz and Brad Dexter became stars. Incidentally, Dexter, who can be seen in villain roles when he was under contract to RKO in the 50s, worked for Frank Sinatra as a producer in the late 60s after he saved Sinatra from drowning during the making of a movie.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 22, 2010 1:55 pm

Thanks for sharing all those fascinating tidbits of info with us, Al! Some of it I was aware of, but I really liked the story about Brad Dexter saving Sinatra’s life. I didn’t know any of that before. I don’t know a lot about Dexter but you’ve made me more curious about him.

Last but not least, I think Horst Buchholz is good in the film and I’m kind of surprised he didn’t become a bigger star too. I haven’t seen him in a lot of other movies but I also liked him in Tiger Bay and Fanny.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 22, 2010 1:55 pm

Thanks for sharing all those fascinating tidbits of info with us, Al! Some of it I was aware of, but I really liked the story about Brad Dexter saving Sinatra’s life. I didn’t know any of that before. I don’t know a lot about Dexter but you’ve made me more curious about him.

Last but not least, I think Horst Buchholz is good in the film and I’m kind of surprised he didn’t become a bigger star too. I haven’t seen him in a lot of other movies but I also liked him in Tiger Bay and Fanny.

Posted By Suzi : March 23, 2010 5:32 pm

This was so interesting, and it inspired so many terrific comments. By the way, TIGER BAY is a childhood favorite of mine, and I also thought Buchholz was good in it.

Posted By Suzi : March 23, 2010 5:32 pm

This was so interesting, and it inspired so many terrific comments. By the way, TIGER BAY is a childhood favorite of mine, and I also thought Buchholz was good in it.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 24, 2010 2:15 am

Thanks, Suzi! Nice to find someone else who also likes TIGER BAY. I can remember watching it as a kid because Haley Mills was in it and I’ve always liked her a lot but when I saw it again about 6 or 7 years ago I was surprised by how good Buchholz was too.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : March 24, 2010 2:15 am

Thanks, Suzi! Nice to find someone else who also likes TIGER BAY. I can remember watching it as a kid because Haley Mills was in it and I’ve always liked her a lot but when I saw it again about 6 or 7 years ago I was surprised by how good Buchholz was too.

Posted By Mike Watt : April 1, 2010 11:18 pm

This is hands-down my favorite movie of all time. If I catch part of it, I can’t leave until it’s over. There’s one particular anecdote that Wallach tells on the commentary that I love:

The first day of shooting, all of the seven are assembled. There’s Brynner, the King of Siam, riding tall in his saddle, as the group crosses a stream. Just as McQueen’s character enters the frame, he dips his hat into the water, upstaging Brynner. The others, taking note of McQueen, begin to ad lib their own business to steal the scene. This so irritated Brynner that he had assistants watching McQueen’s every move from then on to alert him if any other upstaging were going on.

Posted By Mike Watt : April 1, 2010 11:18 pm

This is hands-down my favorite movie of all time. If I catch part of it, I can’t leave until it’s over. There’s one particular anecdote that Wallach tells on the commentary that I love:

The first day of shooting, all of the seven are assembled. There’s Brynner, the King of Siam, riding tall in his saddle, as the group crosses a stream. Just as McQueen’s character enters the frame, he dips his hat into the water, upstaging Brynner. The others, taking note of McQueen, begin to ad lib their own business to steal the scene. This so irritated Brynner that he had assistants watching McQueen’s every move from then on to alert him if any other upstaging were going on.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 5, 2010 5:06 pm

Thanks for sharing that bit of info with us, Mike! I knew there was some tension between Brynner & McQueen on set but it’s always fun to discuss the details. McQueen was somewhat notorious for stealing scenes in a subtle way that’s easy to overlook. He was also incredibly relaxed in front of a camera which is a rare quality that’s often taken for granted.

Posted By Kimberly Lindbergs : April 5, 2010 5:06 pm

Thanks for sharing that bit of info with us, Mike! I knew there was some tension between Brynner & McQueen on set but it’s always fun to discuss the details. McQueen was somewhat notorious for stealing scenes in a subtle way that’s easy to overlook. He was also incredibly relaxed in front of a camera which is a rare quality that’s often taken for granted.

Posted By Tony Castro : April 27, 2010 5:01 pm

One of Bernstein’s best scores. That theme song is so beautiful and lyrical, expressing the longing for a way of life that is long gone but it’s still muscular and epic in a way that most modern composers just can’t approach. Now I’ve got to pop in that DVD, not for Brynner or McQueen or even for Vaughn…no, for Coburn, the true icon of cool and the only guy who can show up at a gunfight with a knife and win!

Posted By Tony Castro : April 27, 2010 5:01 pm

One of Bernstein’s best scores. That theme song is so beautiful and lyrical, expressing the longing for a way of life that is long gone but it’s still muscular and epic in a way that most modern composers just can’t approach. Now I’ve got to pop in that DVD, not for Brynner or McQueen or even for Vaughn…no, for Coburn, the true icon of cool and the only guy who can show up at a gunfight with a knife and win!

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