Is there a more iconic Western image than that of Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen and their fellow “samurai” standing up against the forces of evil banditos, facing impossible odds to save a group of villagers who have just betrayed them? Could there be a more apt depiction of the Far East’s notions of bravery, sacrifice, honor and brotherhood in such a Wild West locale? Is there anything quite so, dare I say, badass, as when Chris (Brynner) mutters, “It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.”
And yet, watch The Magnificent Seven more closely, and you may spot an even deadlier battle taking place — one of egos between Brynner and McQueen, the film’s two lead characters. In his tell-all autobigraphy, Eli Wallach, who plays the bandita boss Calvera, describes Yul Brynner’s consistent anxieties about McQueen upstaging him. For instance, the former wanted to make sure he always appeared taller than McQueen — to the point that he would make a mound of earth to stand on in every scene they shared. For McQueen’s part, he would kick the mound every time he passed it.
Other examples of the duo’s guerrilla warfare are evident throughout the film, according to Wallach. In scenes where Brynner was centrally focused, McQueen would do things to draw attention to himself. During the hearse scene, for example, the actor shook his shotgun shells and took off his hat to check the sun. In another scene where the seven are crossing into Mexico, McQueen improvised a gesture where he leaned off his horse to dip his hat into the river. Brynner was apparently so incensed by these actions, writes Wallach, that he hired a production assistant to count the number of times McQueen touched his hat while Brynner was speaking.
It is perhaps ironic, then, that the two men who survive to ride off into the sunset together are Brynner’s and McQueen’s Chris and Vin. On their way out of town, Brynner quips, “Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” Was McQueen touching his hat? Watch The Magnificent Seven to find out who got the last laugh in this behind the scenes battle.
The Magnificent Seven plays on Tuesday, April 15 at 8PM | 7C on AMC. For a complete schedule, click here.