Before I start watching a western, I’m always convinced I’ll hate it. I can’t explain where this aversion came from. It’s certainly not rooted in reason. As a committed cinephile I know I shouldn’t hold such unwarranted opinions. I know that some of the greatest movies in cinema history are westerns. Even my own experience speaks against my bias.  I’ve been pleasantly surprised by almost every one of the, albeit few, westerns I’ve seen. I was entranced by Clint Eastwood’s cool in Sergio Leone’s "Man with No Name" trilogy. I was thrilled by the relentless clock in High Noon. And yet biases die hard. Going into The Magnificent Seven, I tried to keep my raging bias against westerns in check. I tried to banish my lack of enthusiasm for the film to the dark corner of my mind where I bury my unacceptable cinematic opinions, like my occasional desires to re-watch Hook.

Still, I found it difficult to get my butt on the couch to actually watch the film. Its pedigree helped. I’d seen John Sturges’ other ultra-famous film, The Great Escape, as a kid and remember loving it. And that cast. I mean, how could I not be excited about the ensemble of macho 1960s stars? Surely if nothing else, I could expect a great piece of escapist fantasy full of the manliest men in Hollywood history.

As the film opened, I was immediately greeted by an onslaught of western tropes. Chipper gallivanting music? Check. Elmer Bernstein’s opening theme made me want to gallop right over to the nearest saloon and get into a gunfight. Mexican village terrorized by a villainous gangster? Check. Eli Wallach, as the compellingly unstable Calvera, sure is good at stealing food from cowering farmers in style. Sweeping southwestern vistas? Check. Arroyos and Mesas have never looked more gorgeous than under the luminous glow of early color film. And strong, silent protagonists? Check. Yul Brynner. Need I say more? Okay. Steve McQueen. Charles Bronson. James Coburn. Robert Vaughn. In fact, a rather large portion of the first act of the film involves establishing how strong and silent these guys are. As Yul Brynner’s Chris Adams establishes his eponymous team of seven to save the village, we’re treated to multiple feats of taciturn virility. James Coburn reluctantly throws a knife into a man’s chest after having his nap interrupted. Yul Brynner makes a young wannabe cowboy cry by clapping too fast. A shirtless Charles Bronson chops a whole bunch of wood.

By this point I’m completely hooked, as I knew I’d be. My irrational aversion sinks out of me like a southwestern sunset. This profusion of on-screen charisma combined with the familiar tropes of westerns is deeply comforting. These seven misfits feel like they’ve been riding through this landscape together for as long as it’s existed. Even though they’re stern and silent, I want to be a part of their gang. I can understand why the young hotshot Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, is so desperate to join them on their quest to rescue the village. As I reach the midpoint of the movie, the Magnificent Seven are preparing the town for an onslaught by Calvera’s gang, and I’m preparing for an hour of non-stop action. Up to this point, The Magnificent Seven has been a fun, if insubstantial romp, and I expect it to continue that way.

But it’s at this point that the film takes an unexpected turn that helped me understand why it’s a classic. I did get the mega-dose of action I was expecting, but I also got a deeper look into the themes of responsibility and freedom amidst the gunfire. The men, both individually and as a group, repeatedly engage in conversations about their choice to live outside of regular society. I’m not familiar with the conventions of standard westerns, but I found this idea fascinating because it feels like a deconstruction of the myth of the cowboy. Beneath the macho exterior of these silent men are outcasts who couldn’t take the life of the farmer. They’re all running from responsibility as much as they’re running towards the next gig. Take the scene where Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly admonishes some boys from the village for calling their fathers cowards. He makes it clear that it requires a real act of courage to take on the responsibility of a family. It’s a responsibility that Bernardo knows he’d never be able to shoulder. It’s a responsibility that none of these outcasts would be able to shoulder. It’s this balance the film strikes between portraying these men as mythical heroes and broken individuals that really struck a chord with me.

In the end, I loved this film. As the final credits rolled, I ended up asking myself why I had so much difficulty getting myself to watch the film. Why am I so uninterested in watching westerns in general? After watching The Magnificent Seven I’m starting to think it’s because the myth of the cowboy is so strongly ingrained in my mind’s eye that I can’t imagine a cowboy as a compelling character. He’s quick to draw his gun when provoked. He utters few words and betrays little emotion. I see him moseying along in the southwestern twilight on his trusty horse, silently eyeing the landscape with its long saguaro shadows. He’s more like a god than a man; he’s unchanging and eternal. He might go on adventures, but his character is indelible. Perhaps I’m uninterested in watching a person that seems so resistant to change. Perhaps Hollywood, over the years has been too effective at marketing the cowboy as a certain type of person. The Magnificent Seven reminded me that cowboys are not simply archetypes with guns, but rather flawed men with desires, regrets, and yearnings under their hard exteriors. Hopefully I’ll remember that the next time someone asks me to watch a western.