The Magnificent Seven is one of the most entertaining and influential Westerns ever made but it has some problems that keep it from being a great Western and they start with the hats worn by the seven gunslingers, too many of which are small and jaunty. They're TV cowboy hats, Rat Pack cowboy hats. Yul Brynner's is the worst. It's sort of a tiny tricorne, like the one the poet Marianne Moore sometimes wore. On her it looked cute. On Brynner it looks cute. A cowboy's hat should not look cute.
An actor playing a cowboy may not need a hat with a brim wide enough to keep the sun out of his eyes, or with a tall crown to keep his scalp cool, because he doesn't spend all day on horseback under a blazing sun — he has a trailer he can retire to between rides. But the character he's playing should look as though he could spend all day under a blazing sun and have a hat suitable to the activity.
Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn wear hats that are adequately large, barely, but they've rolled the brims up on the sides to convey a kind of hip jauntiness. Hip jauntiness is not a primary cowboy virtue. Still, it's worth pointing out that the three actors who wear more or less acceptable hats all went on to have careers as the stars of memorable action films, including many Westerns, while those who wear hats that aspire to the condition of the modern fedora did not.
When Eli Wallach and his band of Mexican thieves gallop onto the scene, with their grand and authentic-looking sombreros, your first impulse is to root for them in the battle over the beleaguered peasant village, because they wear the hats of men.
In a Western, wearing clothing that at least approximates the style of the period the film is set in has one great advantage — the film has less of a tendency to date. It always looks classic.
Brynner doesn't give a bad performance in The Magnificent Seven, but he doesn't quite inhabit the Western genre. He has a peculiar regal walk which commentators on the film have often drawn attention to — the walk of an actor who has played the king of Siam a few too many times. It doesn't have the natural, fluid grace of a real cowboy's walk, a real horseman's walk. He also has a Russian accent, which the film tries to sell as a Cajun accent — a preposterous ploy that only draws more attention to its anomalous quality.
His silly little hat becomes a symbol of his unconvincing Western persona — inescapable even when he's not talking or walking. A respectable Western hat would have gone a long way towards reconciling us to that exotic persona.
The same is true of the German actor Horst Buchholz, whose German accent the film tries to sell as Mexican. He has the physical grace of a cowboy, and when he dons a big sombrero for a few scenes he actually looks like a cowboy. At all other times his dainty little hat brands him as an impostor.
What were they thinking?