For most fans, High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and The Magnificent Seven (1960) are the Trifecta of excellence in Western movies. Which of the three is the greatest western ever made? Over the past forty or so years, I have spent many an hour in heated discussions regarding just that question.
Earlier this year, Jake Hinkson provided a thoughtful examination of High Noon in honor of the film’s sixtieth anniversary. This movie comes from the school of “a man’s got to do what a man’s got to do,” a common western theme. Newly married town marshal Will Kane (Gary Cooper) quits his job only to learn that an arch-enemy is coming to town to kill him. In spite of his wife’s pleading and in spite of no one in the town being willing to help him, Kane does “what a man’s got to do,” and stands alone to fight.
And in another article comparing Shane to the 2011 movie Drive, Jake Hinkson says, “Both films are about unconsummated passion and unspoken love and the way these feelings are channeled into acts of violence.”
Shane (Alan Ladd) is a gunman who comes to work at a farm, falls in love with the farmer’s wife and rides off to fight the bad guys so that the farmer won’t be killed, sacrificing his chance to be with the woman he loves while preserving her family.
In both High Noon and Shane we see one man facing evil alone, with love for a woman an integral part of the story; Shane’s unspoken love for Marian, and Will Kane who could not look like a coward even with his new wife pleading for him to just leave town with her.
Of the three, my vote always goes to The Magnificent Seven. Six of the seven are long-time gunslingers who know that their way of life is rapidly moving toward extinction. The seventh is a young man, Chico, who longs for the glamour and adventure he thinks a gunfighter’s life holds. Besides treating us to Elmer Bernstein’s incomparable score, in this video we see that these men know who they are and they show us what makes them unique to their time and place.
Based on Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954), The Magnificent Seven incorporates the underlying “a man’s got to do” theme only in the sense that fighting is their job. The nomad existence of moving from battleground to battleground is the life that, individually, each of these men has chosen. But, along the way, the western territories have settled down. Jobs for hired guns are few and far between. The big “farmer/rancher” wars are no more. When Chris (Yul Brynner) is approached by a few men from a small Mexican village in need of help to fight off Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his bandits who raid the town and steal food and crops, he rounds up a few men, willing to sign on for a pittance, and they travel into Mexico to do what they do best—work as hired guns. Nobody expects a shoot-’em-up. The plan is that when Calvera sees that the village has protection, he’ll lead his bandits to raid another town. Of course, that is not how things go, and when the seven are given a chance to ride away unscathed, they come roaring back, almost as much to defend what they’ve made of their lives as to free the village.
I decided to write this post when I mentioned The Magnificent Seven to some younger friends and was shocked that they never heard of it. Well now you’ve heard of it. If you have never seen it, watch it now. If you are a long time fan, it’s time to see it again.