Dysfunction, Drama, and Diarrhea: The Making of ‘The Magnificent Seven’
The set of the 1960s Western was awash in toxic masculinity, fragile egos, and gastrointestinal distress
The Magnificent Seven was made the way so many things in our world are: (Predominantly white) men liked something that someone else had done, went somewhere that wasn’t theirs, fucked around a lot, and eventually made their own version of it, earning praise and a legendary status that was probably only partially deserved.
In this particular case, actor Yul Brynner fell in love with Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai and wanted to remake it as a Hollywood Western. He may or may not have acquired the rights and drafted some basic ideas for the new film with fellow actor Anthony Quinn. Whatever did happen there, it didn’t involve the signing of any contracts. Brynner then took the idea to Hollywood producer Walter Mirisch. They definitely got the rights. Quinn lost his subsequent lawsuit. Then the real dysfunction and drama began.
Everything from casting to getting an actual script out of a revolving door of screenwriters to getting an actual script out of a revolving door of screenwriters that didn’t portray the country that was graciously letting them film there as a complete hellhole was a struggle. “There were other obstacles to overcome,” Jeff Stafford understates in Turner Classic Movies’ official write-up of the film:
The Mexican government censors, who had some major concerns about the depiction of their country as inhospitable, demanded some script changes before granting the film crew permission to shoot in their country. The casting was touch and go for awhile too as Steve McQueen was denied permission to participate by Four Star, the production company for his TV series Wanted Dead or Alive. He outfoxed them by crashing a rental car and claiming whiplash, which released him from his TV commitments.
Fake injury out of the way, McQueen signed on, showed up in Mexico, and immediately began a heated pissing contest with Brynner that would last the entirety of the production.
You could argue that there wasn’t much else to do at first, given that the cast were shipped off to Mexico before a script was in place and essentially left to their own devices while they waited for pages to start appearing. Still, the magnificent other five managed to find ways to kill time that didn’t involve expressing the true depths of one’s paranoid professional jealousy through arguments about horse size and the comparative flashiness of gun handle designs. Robert Vaughn, for example, spent a lot of time driving around with James Coburn, thinking about how cool James Coburn was, finding “the only place in town where you wouldn’t get the runs” and hanging out and discussing his gastrointestinal issues with his fellow castmates when they drank water from any other establishment.
“There were long periods where we didn’t work because the script was still being written. We’d be told one evening, ‘Tomorrow we’ll be doing scene so-and-so,’ and that night carbon copies of the script on onion-skin paper would be slid under our doors to learn for the next day. During our idle hours, we drank, played poker, commiserated with one another over our stomach ailments, and complained about working on this rotten picture,” Vaughn wrote in his 2014 autobiography, A Fortunate Life.
This pair of fleeting references to widespread gastrointestinal distress on set are quite tame and delicate by Vaughn standards. The late star spends the rest of his freewheeling stream-of-consciousness masterpiece of a memoir gleefully spilling details on everything from the bestial leanings of his Korean War brothers, to Leo G. Carroll’s use of a catheter on The Man From U.N.C.L.E. He dedicates pages to a bad trip he had as a result of smoking what must have been a laced joint… and how much Hamlet he recited while riding it out. There’s a chapter on Hare Krishna and a rather long detour into conspiracy theories about RFK’s assassination. The whole thing reads like something that a Nabokov character would have dished to a Dictaphone in a fit of pique. These two tidbits about errant number twos aren’t even the most amusing, odd, or unexpectedly guileless revelations about the making of The Magnificent Seven in the book. (Those honors would, respectively, go to Steve McQueen horse-shaming Vaughn, McQueen dumping water on his head in an ingenious attempt to upstage Brynner, and what really seems like McQueen and Vaughn’s attempt to have an orgy at a bordello being thwarted by tequila dick.)
It’s this fact that has somehow captured my strange and overly fixated imagination in a way that no other aside or detail from this brilliantly bonkers tome though. It’s this fact that I find myself repeating and trying to impress upon people like it’s a new band I’ve just discovered that you absolutely must listen to, or the word of God.
It first spilled out of my mouth largely unintentionally in the middle of a radio appearance I made during the 2016 edition of the Toronto International Film Festival. The show’s guest host was not a big fan of TIFF’s decision to make Antoine Fuqua’s take on The Magnificent Seven the opening night gala that year. While I didn’t disagree with him—it was a particularly uninspired choice for a festival that at least tries to care about art, weird shit, and homegrown cinema—I was not a big fan of his bloated, routine reverence for the 1960 version.
As he attempted to launch into a well-worn whine about Hollywood’s current obsession with reboots and remakes, I pointed out that the “original” Magnificent Seven was, in fact, a remake itself. I attempted to articulate that while it was certainly a good film of historical importance, it wasn’t exactly Seven Samurai and that maybe people gas it up a bit because it’s become some sort of symbol of classic Hollywood individuality and artistry, as opposed to an actual example of those things.
‘The Magnificent Seven’ is a film about six avatars of various traditional male aspirations and fantasies and one avatar of traditional male fears banding together and doing some cowboy shit.
“And anyway,” I concluded. “They all had diarrhea the entire time they were making it.”
When Vaughn died in November of that year and I somehow, miraculously, convinced one of the publications I was writing for to let me put together an obituary/love letter for him, I found myself returning to this idea. More than once.
“Am I overdoing the diarrhea?” I asked my editor. “I just feel like this is something that people should know. I think it’s what Bob would want.”
Reading so extensively about the bodily functions and exploits of Vaughn and almost everyone who ever associated with him had left me convinced that: 1.) I knew him and his wants intimately, and 2.) I could call him Bob.
The diarrhea stayed in the piece. All of it.
“Everyone had diarrhea on the set of The Magnificent Seven” soon began launching out of my lizard brain like unsolidified human waste spewing out of a rugged Hollywood archetype on location in 1959. It spread to my tweets, my casual conversations, my friends’ ability to watch an iconic piece of cinema without thinking about poop, and my entire life.
The reasons for my fixation were simple enough at first:
- I have always felt completely alienated from everything that The Magnificent Seven seemed to represent to people, from America to rugged masculinity to glowing collective appreciation of things regarded as cultural landmarks.
- Diarrhea is funny.
- Subverting number one with number two was deeply satisfying for me.
As my all-consuming Vaughn grief descended into multiple viewings of The Magnificent Seven, though, I began to discover a new and deeper appreciation for this fact and how it had been thrust into the world.
Pre-Vaughn vigil, I remembered The Magnificent Seven as a film about seven avatars of various traditional male aspirations and fantasies banding together and doing some cowboy shit. This, I now understand, is an unfair assessment. The Magnificent Seven is a film about six avatars of various traditional male aspirations and fantasies and one avatar of traditional male fears banding together and doing some cowboy shit. The latter is Bob’s job.
While Brynner’s Chris Adams, McQueen’s Vin Tanner, Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly, Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck, and James Coburn’s Britt are all chasing dudely ideals of some sort and reckoning with what this means to them in stiff-upper-lipped dudely terms—even Horst Buchholz’s Chico is becoming a man while balancing duty and love—Vaughn’s Lee is on the verge of being emasculated.
He might get the best lines in the Seven’s famous circle jerk in which they tabulate the benefits and pitfalls of cowboy life (“Insults swallowed, none. Enemies, none… alive.”) and an eventual tragic redemption, but the bulk of his screen time is dedicated to how unmoored and unmanned he is. He’s a sharpshooter who has lost his touch and is well into the process of losing his nerve as a result. He reluctantly joins the other six because he is on the run from some particularly harrowing enemies, but it soon becomes clear that he’s really trying to escape himself. And he’s not stoic about any of these things, the way a John Wayne type could be. He’s not even haunted by them in the way that a James Dean type might be able to get away with. He’s scared.
It’s a good role, arguably the meatiest of the lot by a significant margin. It’s the kind of role that’s perfectly suited to an actor who has leading-man looks but a character actor’s demeanor, taste, and range, which is exactly the kind of actor Vaughn was. The year before he stepped into Lee’s trembling boots, his unrepressed, gaping wound of a performance in The Young Philadelphians all but overshadowed Paul Newman’s traditionally stoic and handsome presence and earned him an Oscar nomination in the process. Just a few years later, he would take what was, on paper, supposed to be a small-screen James Bond copy and turn him into something much weirder, more intriguing, and maybe even dreamier in The Man From U.N.C.L.E. Vaughn might have been the only actor of his generation so uniquely equipped to play the heart that quivers inside the puffed chest of an all-male ensemble.
No matter how enticing Lee must have been to someone who genuinely cared about the craft of acting, no matter how well-suited he was to someone with Vaughn’s significant talents, there was nothing about that role that would have been easy for any man. He was, essentially, a walking metaphor for erectile dysfunction in a film awash in masculinity. Made in an environment mired in even more of the stuff.
The making of The Magnificent Seven has become almost as enshrined in filmmaking and Hollywood lore as the film itself, for many of the same reasons: It’s a hallmark of a long-gone era of epic films and mavericks. It represents something big, something inherently good, that we have ostensibly lost. It’s ruggedly and uncompromisingly manly and Hollywood. But if you actually pay attention to the details of these lionized behind-the-scenes accounts, it actually sounds more like a festering cesspool of clashing egos and dick-measuring than an inspiring testament to the powers of dudehood.
Brynner seems to have felt that the young punks didn’t respect him enough (and, by their own accounts, he wasn’t exactly wrong). McQueen apparently spent his entire time in Mexico in a fit of extended panic that someone else (that someone generally being Brynner) might end up with a minute more screen time or an inch more horse than him. And this constant battle to be the most famous, the most respected, the one with the most screen time, the best close-ups, and the biggest horse—this constant battle to be The Man among men—permeated the entire filmmaking process.
When you read about these behind-the-scenes stories in essays on the film or hear them chucklingly recounted in DVD features where Bob appears in a cowboy hat in the middle of the field while everyone else wears street clothes and sits in chairs like normal people, they almost sound charming. They’re almost invariably presented as the quirks of genius men doing their genius thing. If you really start to think about these ostensibly charming tales of brilliant men being admirably difficult in the name of art, though, it quickly becomes apparent that the Magnificent Seven set was rotten with petulant chest-beating.
Take this passage from the greatest book ever written, for example:
Once Steve decided to focus his competitiveness on Yul, he started knocking on my door around six-thirty in the morning, an hour or so before we were due to show up on the set. Naturally, I’d invite him in, and our conversations were always much the same.
“Man,” he would say in that husky whisper of his, “did you see Brynner’s gun on the set yesterday?”
“I can’t say I noticed it, Steve.”
“You didn’t notice it? It has a fucking pearl handle, for God’s sake. He shouldn’t have a gun like that. It’s too fucking fancy. Nobody’s gonna look at anything else with that goddamned gun in the picture.” (Of course, Steve meant that nobody would be looking at Steve McQueen.)
What could I say? “Maybe you should talk to the director,” I’d suggest. Steve just shook his head—obviously I was too naive to comprehend the depth and villainy of the conspiracy against him—and left the room.
A couple of days later, there’d be another early-morning knock on the door. “Did you see the size of Brynner’s horse? It’s goddamned gigantic.”
This time I had noticed. “Actually, Steve, I’ve got the biggest horse of the seven.” I called him Senior Jumbo.
McQueen shook his head. “I don’t give a fuck about your horse,” he replied.
Now imagine being handed Lee when even your friendliest co-workers have made it perfectly clear how little you measure up in their big, paranoid man game.
If this environment left Vaughn with any insecurities or need for compensation, it’s not apparent in his performance. Even in his first appearance, Lee is unlike the other six. It’s not that he doesn’t live up to the impressive dash of buildup that the other characters provide before his big reveal. He’s not a disappointment. He’s just… slightly odd. His accent is unexpected and unplaceable. His dress and mannerisms just a touch dandyish. His stare is more sad than steely.
Watching that unravel is bleakly beautiful. Whether it’s his drunken, scenery-nibbling breakdown amid the shaken bar staff or his quaking but determined redemption in death, Vaughn is compelling in a way that his co-stars simply aren’t. He’s compelling in a way that the limitations of their characters don’t allow for. I’d go so far as to argue that he’s compelling in a way that some of their off-screen concerns didn’t allow them to even consider.
In the midst of all of the aforementioned bullshit, it becomes — dare I say it — magnificent.
That last point is particularly amusing to consider when watching what is perhaps Vaughn’s greatest moment in The Magnificent Seven. Before he has his drunken breakdown—when he’s only just started to approach the levels of inebriation that will eventually lead to his unspooling—Vaughn stumbles into the background of a shot while drinking from a large bottle and does a bunch of what I can only describe as “Bob stuff” back there.
It’s strange and a little hammy but imbued with off-kilter brilliance in a way that’s hard to describe—as most of Vaughn’s best work is—and completely mesmerizing. Every time I watch it, I find myself thinking, “Imagine being worried about some dusty old fucking pearl handle when that was behind you.”
It would be a good performance in any context. In the midst of all of the aforementioned bullshit, though, it becomes—dare I say it—magnificent.
Somewhat stranded in a different country (Mexico) and a different state (uncertainty), plagued by flaming assholes of both the literal and metaphorical variety, caught in the crossfires of ongoing dick-measuring contests and consistently reminded that no one considered him a threat in this regard, Vaughn was tasked with embodying an emasculated dandy. And, seemingly unfazed by any of the above, he went about his work and played the absolute hell out of that character.
Not only did he outact the others, but he also went on to outlive all of them. Which meant that he was left in charge of the very last first-person account of what happened on that set. He was, essentially, given the final word on their legacy. And what did the last living member of The Magnificent Seven do with that opportunity?
With neither obvious malice nor need to settle any longstanding scores, nor any obvious desire to sugarcoat or protect anyone, Bob wryly chronicled all of their foibles and deep-seated fears about their tough, stoic, leading-man images. And then he casually informed us—twice—that they were almost shitting themselves the whole time.