Home > Greatest Scores of the Twentieth Century, Reviews > THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN – Elmer Bernstein



Original Review by Craig Lysy

Yul Brynner had long explored the idea of an American retelling of Akira Kurosawa’s epic 1954 Japanese film The Seven Samurai. Brynner related; “I felt it was one of the great westerns of all time, only it was made by the Japanese, in the Japanese idiom. But the form, the whole design of it was the ideal western.” He worked with fellow actor Anthony Quinn to develop the concept, but when they had a falling out, he took over the reigns alone and presented his pitch to producer Walter Mirisch. Mirisch believed an Americana retelling of this epic story would resonate with the public, and so purchased film rights from Toho Studios and a distribution contract with United Artists. This was a passion project for Brynner, and he brought in friend John Sturges who acquainted himself well with Gunfight at the OK Corral in 1957, to both produce and direct the film.

Controversy however arose when blacklisted screenwriter Walter Bernstein was hired to write the script. He did so dutifully in a manner that maintained fidelity to the original script used by Kurosawa, however Sturges and Brynner were dissatisfied, and so brought in trusted Walter Newman to refashion it. The film began production with this version, but when Mexican censors forced changes, William Roberts made the edits, as Newman did not travel to Mexico with the crew. A fine cast was brought in to support Brynner’s role as the Cajun gunslinger leader, Chris Adams, including; Steve McQueen as Vin Tanner (the drifter), Charles Bronson as Bernardo O’Reilly (the mercenary), Robert Vaughn as Lee (the traumatized veteran), Brad Dexter as Harry Luck (the fortune seeker), James Coburn as Britt (the knife expert), Horst Buchholz as Chico (the hot-blooded shooter), and Eli Wallach as Calvera, (the leader of the Mexican bandits). Sturges aged while making the film, as harnessing seven egos proved problematic with each actor trying to upstage the other. Indeed, the rift between Brynner and McQueen became legend, only coming to closure years later when McQueen apologized to Brynner as he lay on his deathbed dying of cancer.

The story closely parallels the original Japanese incarnation, but with an American twist. Mexican peasants recruit American gunslingers to defend their village from the constant raids of Mexican Bandits. The Americans agree, successfully defend the village, only to be betrayed later by the villagers who have brought in Calvera and his bandits so as to compel the Americans to leave. After being granted safe passage out of town, the Seven return with a vengeance and slay Calvera and his men, but with heavy loses as four of them are killed. As they depart, they come to the bitter realization that the villagers were the only winners. The film was a modest commercial success, earning almost two and a half times its production costs of $2,000,000. Critical reception was mixed, and it only secured one Academy Award nomination for Best Film Score, but today the film is held in high regard as one of the greatest westerns of all time.

Sturges was an admirer of Elmer Bernstein’s score to The Ten Commandments, and so hired him for the project. Bernstein realized that the film was slowly paced and decided that he needed to infuse his score with the necessary kinetic energy to both inspire, and propel its narrative. He created two primary themes for the film, first and foremost being the Magnificent Seven Theme, a rousing Coplanesque and now iconic theme, which has passed unto legend. This heroic major modal theme offers astounding contrapuntal music with the lyrical main melodic line being led by celebratory violins, countered by a repeating syncopated four-note line led by horns energico. The music fully captures the indomitable spirit of the American west and heroism of our magnificent seven! Most interesting is the theme’s transformation once the seven enter the Mexican village. Within this locale, its bold and rousing heroism is no longer fully declared, instead expressed with fleeting phrases, which suggest the theme, yet never articulate it with a full statement. Bernstein transformed the theme in this setting to be expressed from the perspective of the villagers, and the effect of the seven’s presence among them.

Later in the film a new theme arises, which to my ears is kindred to the Magnificent Seven Theme. The Cowboy Theme is only heard once, and what a singular statement it makes! Its horn driven phrasing is bold, energetic, confident, and perfectly aligns with the Main Theme’s A Phrase. Calvera’s Theme serves as the identity of our villain Calvera, but also for the bandits he commands. Bernstein offers a menacing, syncopated, eight-note construct empowered by wood block percussion, tympani with strings bellicoso, which perfectly capture their predatory banditry. The Villager’s Theme serves as the identity of the three recruiters of the village, as well as the village itself. It displays classic Mexican auras, underpinned by guitar, and emoted with the sensibility of a slow dance. Lastly, Bernstein understood that given the film’s setting in the Mexican-American borderlands that he would need to infuse his soundscape with vibrant Mexican auras and indigenous folk music. I have re-sequenced the cue analysis to align with the film’s narrative flow.

“Main Title” supports the roll of the opening credits over chaparral vistas of the southwest. We open with five powerful chord strikes, which usher in repeating eight-note phrases by strings animato that serve as a prologue to the launch of the Magnificent Seven Theme at 0:15. We bear witness to a powerful bravado rendering of this iconic theme in all its heroic and rousing glory! At 1:22 we down shift with a more intimate rendering of the theme by woodwinds and guitar. We conclude the roll of the opening credits wonderfully atop the Coplanesque energy of strings animato! The film commences at 1:58 with a segue into “Calvera”, where we see Mexican villagers shucking their corn harvest. In the distance we see Calvera and his bandits riding into town, carried by a grand and menacing full rendering of his theme.

“Council” offers an excellent, and complex multi-scenic cue where Bernstein is forced to speak to the intersection of powerful emotions. Calvera’s bandits have finished stealing food and provisions from the village. As he mounts his horse he has the audacity to announce that he loves this village, and then issues a warning that he will return to take the rest of their food. His menace and barbarity is voiced by an aggressive rendering of his theme. At 0:19 an impassioned horn led crescendo builds as an angry villager yelling “Murderers” rushes towards Calvera with a machete. He is gunned down by Calvera and we bear witness to the pathos of his grieving wife hugging his corpse, which Bernstein supports forthrightly with muted French horns nobile and plaintive strings. As Calvera and his men depart, his dark theme carries their progress. At 1:23 the pathos of grief returns as villagers comfort the widow. A strummed guitar ushers in a plaintive statement carried first by solo oboe and then cello with great effect. Kindred stings and woodwinds fill us with sadness as the villagers assemble. They debate whether to flee or acquiesce to their fate before seeking the counsel of the village elder. At 2:02 we have a scene change to the Elder’s hut where he counsels the men to buy guns, and then stand and fight. We hear subtle, intangible references to the Magnificent Seven Theme, an allusion to what is to come.

In “Quest” three villagers ride into an American border town in search of a vendor to sell them guns. Bernstein carries their progress with the Mexican Theme, which displays classic Mexican auras, underpinned by guitar, and emoted with the sensibility of a slow dance. “Strange Funeral” and the following cue offer a score highlight with some of Bernstein’s most inspired writing. The undertaker refuses to proceed with a burial paid for by a patron because the town will not countenance the burial of an Indian in the town cemetery. Chris volunteers to drive the casket wagon with Vin riding shotgun. Dark timpani carry Chris on the carriage, and usher an energetic Coplanesque strings line, which commences their task. A determined horn ostinato with drum counters carries them towards the cemetery, and gradually shifts to a march like cadence. Freeform woodwinds join and embellish the cadence and we build on a crescendo, which culminates in silence as they reach the cemetery, where armed men stop them. Dark portentous timpani and clarinet sow unease until one of the men fires his rifle at Chris. Chris shoots the man in the arm and the gun out of his friend friend’s. Grim woodwinds carry the aftermath where we see the men give way. As Chris calls for six men to unload the casket, energetic shifting string ostinati with bass counters celebrate his triumph, closing on a phrase of the Magnificent Seven Theme. At 4:03 we segue into “After The Brawl” where Bernstein introduces at 4:07 the rousing Cowboy Theme. Back in town the patron thanks Chris and offers him and Vin a drink. After he departs, Chris and Vin exchange names and part ways, with Vin’s departure carried by the strummed guitar, traveling rendering of the Magnificent Seven Theme. We close the cue with a scene change to Chris’s hotel room where he is preparing to turn in, which Bernstein supports with a solo clarinet, kindred woodwinds, strings and plucked harp. The marriage of music and film narrative here is of the highest order.

In an unscored scene the three Mexican villagers proposition Chris to work for them and defend their village from the scourge of Calvera. He agrees to seek out men for them, but defers his decision. In “Vin’s Luck” Vin returns to town to gamble and have a drink at the saloon. Strummed guitar and drums carry his progress and are joined by a tinny sounding saloon piano, sustained chords by violins emoting a odd sounding waltz, which was dialed out of the film as Sturges wanted Chris’s solicitation of Vin to join unscored. Well, Vin accepts and we change scenes to the next day in “And Then There Were Two” as we see the two of them riding out to find Bernardo O’Reilly. Bernstein supports their progress with a traveling rendering of the Magnificent Seven Theme, which is graced by a flute solo with strummed guitar. After Bernardo agrees to join, confident horns sound to mark the occasion. At 1:00 we change scenes on discordant foreboding strings as we see Britt challenged to a duel, which he wins with a lethal knife throw. When Chris attempts to recruit him, he turns him down.

“The Journey” offers a splendid score highlight. The six men and three villagers travel southward into Mexico with Chico following behind, still intent on joining. A bold declaration of the Magnificent Seven Theme with woodwind and strummed guitar interludes for dialogue carries their progress. At 1:33 as they sit around the campfire later that night, strummed guitar and harmonica create a calm and restful ambiance. At 2:22 it is the next day and Chico has hung out some fish from a tree in an effort to entice Chris into letting him join. An energetic string ostinato with Coplanesque horn fare launches a rousing statement of the Magnificent Seven Theme to celebrate Chico’s joining the group. The theme offers a perfect synergy with the beautiful Mexican country vistas. We close at 3:43 with a diminuendo of the theme on guitar as they arrive at the village. As they enter, dark drums and strummed guitar create a foreboding ambiance, as the village seems deserted. In “Fiesta” it is the anniversary of the village founding, and the town turns out to celebrate. Bernstein supports the ambiance with nativist flute, and festive percussive driven indigenous folk music.

“Stalking” reveals Britt and Lee on a reconnaissance mission, stalking out the whereabouts of Calvera and his gang. Bernstein sows suspense, with ambient textures with muted drum and horn calls as they discover the bandit’s horses. Tension begins to mount on a slow building crescendo as Britt sits down in plain view near the horses. Chico joins hidden by cover, and the music dissipates on a diminuendo as we scene change back to the village. In “Worst Shot” the bandits return and Chico and Britt gun two of them down. Bernstein supports the action with the Action Motif, a tense string ostinato with fierce horn strikes, and Calvera’s Theme as one of the bandits rides to escape. The theme is severed as Britt takes him out at 0:29 with a stunning long distance pistol shot. In a scene change to the village, tension is sowed with grim references to Calvera’s Theme as Chris informs the villagers that they must prepare for the coming attack. We shift at 1:40 to a training montage where we see the villagers being taught how to shoot pistols and rifles. Festive Mexican music supports the training, but becomes plaintive with pulse like drums as the villagers speak of their desire for more guns. We conclude with festive Mexican auras as the men build a defensive rock wall.

“Toro” offers a wonderful score highlight with some of Bernstein’s best dynamic writing. Chico is out with the villagers collecting wood when he comes upon a wild steer. Castilian trumpets resound as Chico acts out his fantasy of being a matador. The steer however will have none of it and ignores him. Bernstein supports the comedy with Castilian flare replete with strummed guitar, and trumpet calls. At 1:32 dark orchestral strikes sound as a young woman stumbles upon Chico and flees. A tour de force is unleashed as Chico rides after her in pursuit, carried by intense ostinato by strings bellicose with blaring horns of the Action Motif. A quiet interlude breaks the orchestral storm as he catches her. She is defiant and fights with him, but he swoops her up and carries her back to the village, support by the fierce Action Motif. “Training” reveals further training of the villagers in the use of guns with Vin distracted by the rhythmic synchrony of women washing clothes in the nearby stream. Bernstein graces us with a free flowing Mexican waltz, replete with piccolo and flute adornment. At 1:09 we change scenes to Chris and Vin riding to the Elder’s cabin, intent on relocating him to the now fortified village. Blaring, and syncopated horns bellicose carry the progress.

“Calvera’s Return” offers a stunning action piece. As Calvera and his bandits approach the village an aggressive string ostinato carries their dark purpose and launches a menacing rendering of his theme. As village boys signal their approach, an onslaught of fierce drums join in unholy communion with Calvera’s Theme. Fleeting references to the Village and Main Themes attempt to rise, but fail to coalesce, overpowered by the percussion onslaught. The churning string ostinato and his theme carry Calvera as he arrives in the village square and is confronted by Chris and his men. When intimidation fails and Chris orders Calvera to disarm, the battle commences. We bear witness to yet another astounding action piece with “Calvera Routed”, where Bernstein unleashes his orchestra with ferocious and dynamic interplay of his Magnificent Seven and Mexican Themes, which contest with Calvera’s Theme. As Calvera’s men are decimated, the musical force dissipates as they flee for their lives. The aftermath is supported by a heartfelt rendering of the Mexican Theme, which concludes the cue.

In “Ambush” Calvera and his men begin sniper fire and Chris deploys the seven to counter, sending Vin and one of the villagers into the hills. Horn calls, chattering xylophone snare drum percussion and a dark bass ostinato sow tension. At 1:26 strummed guitar ushers in a tender rendering of the Mexican Theme as Vin and the villager spend a quiet moment reflecting on all that they have accomplished. “Petra’s Declaration” offers the score’s most tender and intimate moment. It reveals a smitten Petra expressing her feelings for Chico as he stands guard. We are graced with the intimacy of the Mexican Theme born by violins romantico and guitar. The transfer of the melodic line to solo flute and guitar sustains the scene and is exquisite. “Bernardo” reveals Lee waking in terror from a nightmare and then revealing to two of the villagers that he is not a hero, but a coward. Strummed guitar, dark bass, anguished horns and plaintive woodwinds support his dark revelations. At 1:34 we change scenes, carried by playful and festive Mexican rhythms as we see the village boys bonding with Bernardo. At 2:20 we segue to the inn where there is dissention among the villagers, with some wanting to continue the fight, and others wanting the Seven to leave. Chris apparently manages to win the day, but uncertainty amongst the villagers remains. The tense moment is supported by plaintive phrases of the Main Theme.

In “Surprise” Chris decides to strike Calvera first by driving off his horses, which would force him to attack on foot. Rousing fanfare ushers in the Magnificent Seven Theme, which transitions to a more intimate form with guitar as they approach Calvera’s camp. Unsettling Xylophone textures reveal that Calvera has broken camp, and Chris aborts the mission and returns to the village, where Calvera and his men surround them. His menacing theme supports his victory. “Defeat” reveals Calvera being magnanimous by granting Chris his men safe passage back to America is they give up their guns. He promises to give them back after they depart if they public submit to his demand. Ambient textures, forlorn strings and shifting statements among plaintive woodwinds speak to Chris’s public humiliation. Later as Vin speaks to him of seeking a better life, an intimate rendering of the Main Theme unfolds with a solo oboe. We conclude on woodwinds as Bernardo lectures the village boys to respect their parents. A gentle expression of the Mexican Theme by woodwinds supports the scene. In “Crossroads” the seven ride out carried by fierce staccato horn fare and string ostinato of the Action Motif. At 0:44 the bandit escorts give back their guns, and then ride back to town. Strummed guitar and flute references of the Mexican Theme usher in dark phrasing as Chris and the men decide to return to the village and fulfill their contract. Grim pulsing timpani and dissonant horns ratchet up the tension, slowly building upon a crescendo, which dissipates with discordance when Harry refuses to join and rides off. At 3:40 a refulgent strings and a bright trumpet sound to herald the dawn. We see the six sneaking into the village, which Bernstein expertly supports with staccato writing for woodwinds, drums and horns.

The men are discovered and the battle begins in earnest, however the initial action music is not included on the album. In “Harry’s Mistake” we have another score highlight where Bernstein provides a tour de force. Harry has had a change of heart and returns to aid his friends, only to be shot off his horse. Dire horn fare declarations resound as Harry is shot off his horse. Chris helps him to safety inside where Harry relates his regrets and expires. A plaintive solo flute emoting the Main Theme with kindred woodwinds and grim drumbeat support Harry’s passing. At 1:19 the orchestral onslaught resumes as the six fight desperately for their lives. Calvera has the upper hand and a dire sounding of his theme joined with blaring horns brutale carry his progress. We flow seamlessly into “Calvera Killed”, another action gem, which features Calvera’s drum propelled theme contesting with the Action Motif and phrases of the Magnificent Seven Theme in astounding interplay. At 0:22 Calvera is shot by Chris and his theme resounds one final time to carry the moment. At 1:09 a triumphant Chris stands over the dying Calvera, who asks with his dying breath why he would you come back for a place like this? A plaintive flute carries his theme to support his expiation. At 1:35 the orchestral onslaught resumes as the villagers join to defeat the bandits. At 2:09 Bernardo saves the lives of the village boys, with the cost of his life. As he lies dying we hear the Villager’s Theme full of regret carry his passing. We close upon a forlorn solo trumpet eulogy of the Main Theme as Chris surveys the carnage, including Britt’s corpse, taking his knife as a keep sake.

In “Finale” a wistful rendering of the Mexican Theme supports a new day as Chris, Vin and Chico prepare to leave, as we see the four crosses of Lee, Britt, Harry and Bernardo on the hillside. A chastened Chris remarks that only the villagers have won, and we always lose, as they depart. At 1:07 solo flute and guitar carry the Main Theme, and we see hesitation in Chico’s eyes. A solo flute joins with a romantic rendering of the Mexican Theme, brimming with happiness, to carry him back to Petra and a new life. As Chris and Vin depart refulgent strings emote a final statement of the Magnificent Seven Theme, which culminates in a flourish atop the Coplanesque fanfare.

I offer praise to Emilie A. Bernstein, Robert Townson and Varèse Sarabande for this excellent restoration and reissue of Elmer Bernstein’s famous score, “The Magnificent Seven”. The audio quality is excellent, and provides a fine listening experience. The score’s rousing titular theme has become iconic, and takes its place within the hallowed halls of the Pantheon of great film score themes. Bernstein perfectly captured within its notes the indomitable American spirit, confidence and heroism found in the lore of the cowboy West. A fine contrast is provided by the malevolent Calvera’s Theme, and its juxtaposition, and interplay against the Main Theme enhanced the unfolding contest between Chris and Calvera. Indeed, the dynamic action writing provided the necessary kinetic energy to both animate, and propel the film’s slowly paced narrative. The infusion of the soundscape with Mexican auras and nativist folk music was masterful, and served to create an authentic and vibrant setting for our story. The Magnificent Seven Theme offers one of the few instantly recognizable themes within the American collective consciousness, one that embodies within it, the core of the American experience. But I would be remiss if I did not also laud the outstanding action writing and inspired thematic interplay. I consider this one of the finest scores of the Silver Age, and a testament to Elmer Bernstein’s mastery of his craft. I highly recommend you obtain this magnificent score. Please note that at this time the score is not readily commercially available, and it is my sincere hope that Robert Townson and Varèse Sarabande consider another pressing so that new generations of film score lovers can enjoy this masterpiece.

For those of you unfamiliar with the score, I have embedded a Youtube link to a wonderful 15 minute suite: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=1IBC9D1wfbc

Buy the Magnificent Seven soundtrack from the Movie Music UK Store

Track Listing:

  • Main Title and Calvera (3:56)
  • Council (3:14)
  • Quest (1:00)
  • Strange Funeral/After the Brawl (6:48)
  • Vin’s Luck (2:03)
  • And Then There Were Two (1:45)
  • Fiesta (1:11)
  • Stalking (1:20)
  • Worst Shot (3:02)
  • The Journey (4:39)
  • Toro (3:24)
  • Training (1:27)
  • Calvera’s Return (2:37)
  • Calvera Routed (1:49)
  • Ambush (3:10)
  • Petra’s Declaration (2:30)
  • Bernardo (3:33)
  • Surprise (2:08)
  • Defeat (3:26)
  • Crossroads (4:47)
  • Harry’s Mistake (2:48)
  • Calvera Killed (3:33)
  • Finale (3:27)

Running Time: 67 minutes 37 seconds

Varese Sarabande VSD-6559 (1960/2004)

Music composed and conducted by by Elmer Bernstein. Orchestrations by Jack Hayes and Leo Shuken. Score produced by Elmer Bernstein. Album produced by Robert Townson.

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  1. May 20, 2022 at 4:11 am

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