A poor village in Mexico is periodically raided for food and supplies by a gang of bandits led by Calvera (Eli Wallach). After the latest raid, during which the bandits kill a villager, the village leaders decide they have had enough, and on the advice of the village elder (Vladimir Sokoloff), they decide to fight back. Taking what few objects of value the village has, three villagers ride to a town just inside the United States border hoping to barter for weapons. They are impressed by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), a veteran Cajun gunslinger, and approach him for advice. Chris suggests they instead hire gunfighters to defend the village, as "men are cheaper than guns." At first agreeing only to help them recruit men, Chris eventually decides to lead the group and, despite the meager pay offered, he finds five willing gunmen.
The group includes the gunfighter Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen), who has gone broke after a round of gambling; Chris's friend Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), who assumes Chris must secretly be expecting a much bigger reward for the work; the Irish-Mexican Bernardo O'Reilly (Charles Bronson), who has fallen on hard times; Britt (James Coburn), an expert in both knife and gun who joins purely for the challenge involved; and the dapper, on-the-run gunman Lee (Robert Vaughn), plagued by nightmares of fallen enemies and haunted by fears that he has lost his nerve for battle. On their way to the village they are trailed by the hotheaded Chico (Horst Buchholz), an aspiring gunfighter whose previous attempts to join Chris had been spurned. Now impressed by his persistence, Chris invites him into the group.
Arriving at the village, they work with the villagers to build fortifications and begin to train them to defend themselves. They note the lack of women in the village, until Chico stumbles upon Petra (Rosenda Monteros) and discovers the villagers have hidden their wives and young women for fear the gunmen will rape them. The gunmen begin to bond with some of the villagers, and Chico is pursued by Petra. Later, when Bernardo points out that the seven are being given all the choice food in the village, the gunmen share it with the village children instead.
Calvera and his bandits arrive, sustain heavy losses in a shootout with the seven and the villagers, and are run out of town. The villagers celebrate, believing Calvera will not return, but Chico infiltrates Calvera's camp, pretending to be one of his bandits, and learns that Calvera must return as his men are desperate for food.
Upon hearing this, some fearful villagers call for the gunfighters to leave. Even some of the seven waver, but Chris insists that they stay, even threatening to kill anyone who suggests giving up the fight. They ride out to make a surprise raid on Calvera's camp, but find it abandoned. Returning to the village, they are caught by Calvera and his men, who colluded with some of the villagers to sneak in and take control. Calvera spares the seven's lives, believing they have learned the simple farmers are not worth fighting for, and fearing reprisals from the gunfighters' friends across the border. While preparing to depart, Chris and Vin admit they have become emotionally attached to the village. Bernardo likewise gets angry when the boys he befriended call their parents cowards. Chico declares he hates the villagers, and when Chris points out he grew up as a farmer as well, Chico angrily responds that it is men like Calvera and Chris who made the villagers what they are.
The seven gunmen are escorted some distance from the village, where their weapons are returned to them. They debate their next move and all but Harry, who believes the effort will be futile and suicidal, agree to return and fight.
The gunmen infiltrate the village and a gunfight breaks out. Harry, who has had a change of heart, returns in time to save Chris's life, but is himself fatally shot. Harry pleads to know what they were fighting for, and Chris lies about a hidden gold mine to let Harry believe he died for a fortune. Lee finds the nerve to burst into a house where several villagers are held captive, shooting the bandits guarding them, allowing the villagers to join the fight, but is then gunned down as he leaves the house. Bernardo is shot protecting the boys he befriended, with his last breath telling them to look at how bravely their fathers are fighting. Britt dies after shooting at a considerable number of bandits but exposing himself from cover. Chris manages to shoot Calvera, who asks him, "You came back... to a place like this? Why? A man like you? Why?" He dies without receiving an answer. The remaining bandits take flight.
The three surviving gunmen help to bury the dead, then ride out of town. As the group stops on a hill overlooking the village, Chico parts company with them, realizing he wants to stay behind with Petra. Chris and Vin bid farewell to the village elder, who tells them that only the villagers have really won, whereas they are "like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on." As they pass the graves of their fallen comrades, Chris admits, "The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We'll always lose."
Brad Dexter was cast at the urging of Frank Sinatra, who knew Sturges well, because Dexter had saved Sinatra's life when the two were swimming off the coast of Hawaii. James Coburn was a great fan of the Japanese Seven Samurai, having seen it 15 times, and was hired through the help of co-star and former classmate Robert Vaughn, after the role of the expert gunslinger had been rejected by actors Sterling Hayden and John Ireland.
Sturges was eager to cast Steve McQueen in the picture, having just worked with him on the 1959 film Never So Few, but McQueen could not get a release from actor/producer Dick Powell, who controlled McQueen's hit TV series Wanted Dead or Alive. On the advice of his agent, McQueen, an expert race car driver, staged a car accident and claimed that he couldn't work on his series because he had suffered a whiplash injury and had to wear a neck brace. During the interval required for his "recuperation", he was free to appear in The Magnificent Seven.
Yul Brynner approached producer Walter Mirisch with the idea of remaking Kurosawa's famous samurai film. But once Mirisch had acquired the rights from Japan's Toho Studios, and finalized a distribution deal with United Artists, Brynner was sued for breach of contract by actor Anthony Quinn, who claimed that he and Brynner had developed the concept together and had worked out many of the film's details before the two had a falling-out. Quinn ultimately lost his claim, because there was nothing in writing.
Script credit was a subject of contention. Associate producer Lou Morheim commissioned Walter Bernstein, a blacklisted scriptwriter, to produce the first draft "faithfully" adapted from the original script written by Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni and Akira Kurosawa; when executive producer Walter Mirisch and Brynner took over the production, they brought on Walter Newman, whose version "is largely what's on screen." When Newman was unavailable to be on-site during the film's principal photography in Mexico, William Roberts was hired, in part to make changes required by Mexican censors. When Roberts asked the Writers Guild of America for a co-credit, Newman asked that his name be removed from the credits.
Filming began on March 1, 1960, on location in Mexico, where both the village and the U.S. border town were built for the film. The location filming was in Cuernavaca, Durango, and Tepoztlán and at the Churubusco Studios. The first scene shot was the first part of the six gunfighters' journey to the Mexican village, prior to Chico being brought into the group.
During filming there was considerable tension between Brynner and McQueen, who was displeased at his character having only seven lines of dialogue in the original shooting script. To compensate, McQueen took numerous opportunities to upstage Brynner and draw attention to himself, including shielding his eyes with his hat, flipping a coin during one of Brynner's speeches, rattling his shotgun shells, and hanging low from his horse to drink from a stream. Brynner, who was only half an inch taller than McQueen, would often build up a little mound of earth to stand on when the two actors were on camera together, only to have McQueen surreptitiously kick the dirt out of place before retakes. When newspapers started reporting on the altercations on set between the two, Brynner issued a press statement, declaring, "I never feud with actors. I feud with studios." Years later Buchholz said Brynner had put a stop to McQueen's antics by telling him the next time he tried his upstaging tricks he, Brynner, would simply remove his hat to get back the spotlight for good (Brynner is one of the most legendary bald men in film history).
The film was shot in Panavision, an anamorphic format.
The film's score is by Elmer Bernstein. Along with the iconic main theme and effective support of the story line, the score also contains allusions to twentieth-century symphonic works, such as the reference to Bartok's Concerto for Orchestra, second movement, in the tense quiet scene just before the shoot out. The original soundtrack was not released at the time until reused and rerecorded by Bernstein for the soundtrack of Return of the Seven. Electric guitar cover versions by Al Caiola in the U.S. and John Barry in the U.K. were successful on the popular charts. A vocal theme not written by Bernstein was used in a trailer.
In 1994, James Sedares conducted a re-recording of the score performed by The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra, which also included a suite from Bernstein's score for The Hallelujah Trail, issued by Koch Records; Bernstein himself conducted the Royal Scottish National Orchestra for a performance released by RCA in 1997, but the original film soundtrack was not released until the following year by Rykodisc. (Varèse Sarabande reissued this album in 2004.)
Bernstein's score has frequently been quoted in the media and popular culture. Starting in 1963, the theme was used in commercials in the U.S. for Marlboro cigarettes. A similar-sounding (but different) tune was used for Victoria Bitter beer in Australia. The theme was included in the James Bond film Moonraker.
Other uses include in the 2004 documentary film Fahrenheit 9/11; in the 2005 film The Ringer; as entrance music for the British band James, as well as episodes of The Simpsons that had a "Western" theme (mainly in the episode titled "Dude, Where's My Ranch?"). The opening horn riff in Arthur Conley's 1967 hit "Sweet Soul Music" is borrowed from the theme. Canadian band Kon Kan use the opening bars of the theme in their single "I Beg Your Pardon". Celtic Football Club (Glasgow, Scotland) used the theme music whenever Henrik Larsson scored a goal.
The Cheers episode "Diane Chambers Day" (season 4, episode 22) revolves around the bar denizens being invited to watch The Magnificent Seven, and ends with them singing an a cappella version of the theme.
The Mick Jones 1980s band Big Audio Dynamite covered the song as "Keep off the Grass" (although this cover was not officially released). In 1995, the KLF also did a drum and bass cover of the main title as "The Magnificent"; it was released under the group alias One World Orchestra on the charity compilation The Help Album.
In 1992, the main theme of The Magnificent Seven came into use on a section of the Euro Disneyland Railroad at Disneyland Paris. Portions of the theme play as the train exits the Grand Canyon diorama tunnel behind Phantom Manor, enters Frontierland, and travels along the bank of the Rivers of the Far West.
The "Main Title" was used as an intro tune on many nights of Bruce Springsteen's 2012 Wrecking Ball Tour. The theme was played as the E Street Band entered the stage, adding to the dramatic atmosphere in the stadium.
Howard Thompson of The New York Times called the film a "pallid, pretentious and overlong reflection of the Japanese original"; according to Thompson, "don't expect anything like the ice-cold suspense, the superb juxtaposition of revealing human vignettes and especially the pile-driver tempo of the first Seven." According to Variety magazine's December 31, 1960, review, "Until the women and children arrive on the scene about two-thirds of the way through, The Magnificent Seven is a rip-roaring rootin' tootin' western with lots of bite and tang and old-fashioned abandon. The last third is downhill, a long and cluttered anti-climax in which The Magnificent Seven grow slightly too magnificent for comfort." Akira Kurosawa, however, was reportedly so impressed by the film that he presented John Sturges with a sword.
At the 33rd Academy Awards, the score was nominated for Best Score of a Dramatic or Comedy Picture, losing to Ernest Gold's score for Exodus. Many decades later, however, the score for The Magnificent Seven was listed at No. 8 on the American Film Institute's list of the top 25 American film scores.
The film has grown greatly in esteem since its release, largely due to its cast (several of whom were to go on to become superstars over the decade following its release) and its music score. As of January 29, 2017, it has a freshness rating of 90% on Rotten Tomatoes based on ratings of 40 critics. It is the second most shown film in U.S. television history, behind only The Wizard of Oz. The film is also ranked No. 79 on the AFI's list of American cinema's 100 most-thrilling films.
The film was a box office disappointment in the United States, but proved to be such a smash hit in Europe that it ultimately made a profit. Three sequels were eventually made: Return of the Seven (1966), Guns of the Magnificent Seven (1969), and The Magnificent Seven Ride (1972). None were as successful as the original film.
The film also inspired a television series, The Magnificent Seven, which ran from 1998 to 2000. Robert Vaughn was a recurring guest star, a judge who hires the seven to protect the town in which his widowed daughter-in-law and his grandson live.
The 1980s action-adventure series The A-Team was initially devised as a combination of The Dirty Dozen and The Magnificent Seven. The show's pilot film plays much on the plot of The Magnificent Seven, and there are similar plot echoes in various other episodes. James Coburn was originally approached to play John "Hannibal" Smith, the team's leader, a role that ultimately went to George Peppard in the series; and Robert Vaughn was added to the cast in the final season as part of a revamp attempt to boost fading ratings.
A remake of the film was released on September 23, 2016, with Antoine Fuqua directing and Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D'Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier and Peter Sarsgaard starring.