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  • Stefan Riedlinger

The Magnicifient Seven - Elmer Bernstein - Soundtrack Review

Today is Western Time! This is the first review of a Western soundtrack and the first review of a score by Elmer Bernstein on my website. I found one orignal trailer of the movie:

The composer

Elmer Bernstein is one of my favorite film music composers and it is astonishing what he achieved during his career. Bernstein was born April 4, 1922 in New York and died August 18, 2004 in Ojai, California. Like Jerry Goldsmith, he was very often nominated for the Academy Award, fourteen times in total, but won the Oscar just one time, also like Goldsmith. Bernstein won the Oscar for the musical score to the movie “Thoroughly Modern Millie” (1967).

Bernstein’s most popular works include the scores to “The Magnificent Seven”, “The Ten Commandments”, “The Great Escape”, “To Kill a Mockingbird”, “The Hallelujah Trail “, “Ghostbusters”, and “Airplane”. He was not related to the conductor Leonard Bernstein, but the two men were friends and distinguished from each other by the use of the nicknames Bernstein West (Elmer) and Bernstein East (Leonard).

What I did not know before writing this review is that Bernstein faced censure during the McCarthy era of the early 1950s. Bernstein was called by the House Un-American Activities Committee when it was discovered that he had written some music reviews for a Communist newspaper. After he refused to name names, pointing out that he had never attended a Communist Party meeting, he found himself composing music for mediocre movies such as “Robot Monster” and “Cat-Women of the Moon”, a step down from his earlier “Sudden Fear” and “Saturday's Hero”.

But McCarthy was not able to destroy the career of Bernstein, so the composer came back after a few years and became very popular with this musical contribution. The scores for “The Magnificent Seven” and “To Kill a Mockingbird” were ranked by the American Film Institute as the eighth and seventeenth greatest American film scores of all time, respectively, on the list of AFI's 100 Years of Film Scores.

The movie

American director John Sturges is well-known for his great Western movies. “The Magnificent Seven” (1960) was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Japanese-language film “Seven Samurai” (1954) and is truly deserved to be considered as a classic movie, starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, and supporting cast Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, Brad Dexter, and the German Horst Buchholz. They play a group of seven American gunfighters hired to protect a small agricultural village in Mexico from a group of marauding native bandits led by Eli Wallach.

You can find a lot of funny and interesting stories about this movie, for example, that Brynner as the biggest star of the cast at that time wanted to be treated in the best way, e.g. he wanted to have the biggest place to stay on the set. I also read that McQueen was annoyed by Brynner’s behaviour and teased him during the shooting.

Robert Vaughn wrote a great story about the rivalry between Brynner and McQueen: “Brynner, who'd won an Oscar for “The King And I”, was the biggest star - aloof and distant - and accordingly stayed in a private house. The rest of us made do with a motel. The rivalry between McQueen and Brynner was clear from the start. Steve started knocking on my door around 6.30am, an hour before we were due on set. Our conversations were always along the same lines. 'Man,' he would say in that husky whisper, '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 f*****g pearl handle, for God's sake. He shouldn't have a gun like that. It's too f*****g fancy. Nobody's gonna look at anything else with that goddam gun in the picture.' Of course, what Steve meant was that nobody would be looking at Steve McQueen. Two days later, there was another early-morning knock on the door. 'Did you see the size of Brynner's horse? It's goddam gigantic.' This time I had noticed. 'Actually, Steve, I've got the biggest horse of the Seven.' McQueen shook his head. 'I don't give a f*** about your horse,' he replied. 'It's Brynner's horse I'm worried about.'

I want to ad one movie clip here with a famous scene of the movie:

The music

Elmer Bernstein’s score to “The Magnificent Seven” became soon a classic. The main theme became iconic and was used in commercials for Marlboro cigarettes, and, for example, also in the James Bond movie “Moonraker” as a funny meant citation. It is interesting that the original soundtrack was not released until rerecorded by the composer for the soundtrack of “Return of the Seven” (1966).

In 1994, James Sedares conducted a re-recording of the score performed by The Phoenix Symphony Orchestra. 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. Sedares’ interpretation of the soundtrack is quite nice but sometimes a little bit too academic and, especially in the beginning, too slow. I like to hear the main theme in a much faster way played and with more energy. Therefore, I prefer Bernstein’s recording.

You will find the main theme in a lot of tracks in the soundtrack, there is also a quite beautiful theme for the Mexican villages, heard for the first time in “Council” until it gets interrupted by the theme for the ruthless banditos, a powerful theme for the bad people. Throughout this career, Bernstein demonstrated his great sense for developing melodies and also for local atmosphere, so you have a lot of Mexican flavour in tracks such as “Toro”. A wonderful piece is the track “Training” which underscores, the gunfighters’ training of the Mexican to deal with guns and rifles. Due to the nature of the movie, there are many action tracks in this score. One action highlight to mention is one of the last tracks called “Calvera Killed”. The last track called “Finale” is another variation of the beautiful love theme.

I found a clip with some scenes of the movie and the main themes in it:

The movie is still a great fun to watch even though I do not understand the last line of Brynner in the movie. In my opinion, this is a little over the top in its approach to bring tragedy to the whole story. Brunner’s costume was so popular that the actor put it on again and played the gunslinger in Michael Crichton’s SF thriller ”Westworld” and in the sequel “Futureworld”, that time more of a parody of his role in “Westworld”.

Bernstein’s score became so popular that nowadays a lot of Western scores sound like this one. If you, therefore, listen to Bernstein’s score for the first time, you will be surprised how familiar it sounds. It was so popular that times that even Bernstein began to produce sound-alikes for his other western scores. Who can blame him for that? Bernstein created with this soundtrack the definite western score for American western movies, like Ennio Morricone did with his scores for the Italian western.

Here is a clip with Bernstein directing the score:

Get a feeling what kind of recording you like – Sedares recording in excellent quality, or Bernstein’s full recording from the 60s with a bad sound quality sometimes. Anyway what you chose, enjoy this wonderful soundtrack from one of the best American film music composers for one of the best American western movies.

Copyright © Stefan Riedlinger, 2015, all rights reserved. The reviews and other textual content contained on the site may not be published, broadcast, rewritten or redistributed without the prior written authority of Stefan Riedlinger.

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