Narrative Constructions John Sturges & Genre
John Sturges The Director and influential filmmaker credited by his peers for his contemporary approach to character based multiple stories narrative and the birth of the formulaic action movie.
Part One: Introduction
Genre is a French word meaning type or kind Genre movies are those commercial feature films, which through repetition and variation tell familiar stories with familiar characters in familiar situations.
[Inter-title: Genre and Hollywood. Steve Neale. 2001. Routledge. London. p. 9]
This video essay will look at John Sturges early work in regard to Genre and the two films The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape.
The essay will then go on to consider the films that they in turn went onto influence within the western and war films genres, in particular their influence on popular films of the time for example the war film Von Ryans Express and the production of the westerns that that temporarily breathed life back into the western genre and became known as the Spaghetti Westerns with examples such as The Good the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in The West.
We expect Westerns to have certain features: as their name implies, they are set in the American West, typically between the end of the Civil War and the beginnings of the twentieth century, focus on masculine conflicts, and involve battles with either outlaws and/or American Indians.
[Inter-title: Thinking about movies 3rd Edition Peter Lehman and William Luhr, Blackwell Publishing 2008 Oxford. p.100]
This essay will in addition explore and analyse how these two films may have had some influence on contemporary filmmaking through character development and multiple storylines. It will also propose that the action sequences featured in his films are the forerunner for today’s action films with directors acknowledging his influence on their own work.
Part Two: Character based Multiple Storylines
The Magnificent Seven as the title suggests is essentially a story of seven characters, although in consideration there are actually eight influential characters in the film when including the leader of the outlaws Calvera in that analysis.
The Magnificent Seven is essentially a remake of the Japanese film Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa made in 1954.
[clip from Seven Samurai time code 1:43]
As in the Seven Samurai each of the characters has their own story, which compliments and then combines with the others to create the overall narrative. Chris played by Yul Brynner the veteran gunfighter and the leader. The drifter who loses his money on a throw of the dice played by Steve McQueen. Harry a friend of Chris who is looking for the big pay off in Gold or Jewels played by Brad Dexter. Then there is the knife wielding Britt played by James Coburn who features in the scene of the duel between a thrown knife verses a drawn gun. Lee is the gunfighter who has lost his nerve, played by Robert Vaughn whose character is just looking for a place to hide. Chico played by Horst Buchholz the Mexican farmer who aspires to be a gunfighter. Charles Bronson playing Bernardo the down on his luck gunfighter looking for his next meal. Each of these characters generate an individual storyline that runs in parallel with the main narrative, a technique, which has been borrowed by other directors since, for example Quentin Tarantino for his film Kill Bill among others.
Sturges is quoted as saying that while he listened to Brynner’s gripes and feigned concern, he was excited about how each actor fought for his turf. He realised that McQueen, Coburn, and the others were gradually becoming indistinguishable from their characters, and that this would imbue the film with a fresh, anachronistic quality.
[Inter-title: Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. Author: Lovell, Glenn. Date 2008. Page 207]
Part Three: The Magnificent Seven a Western or Action Movie
In The Magnificent Seven the conventions of a western are all present, there are gunfighters, the outlaws the paraphernalia and iconology that comes with the western, it is there for all to see.
Neale refers to Buscombe who demonstrated clearly in 1970, the visual conventions of the western are both highly distinctive and highly coded.
[Inter-title: Genre and Hollywood. Steve Neale. 2001. Routledge. London. p. 133]
But look beyond the costume, the location and the historic references to the western era, this is an action movie with sequences that with minor changes are comparable to todays action movies.
There are big action scenes with gunfire coming from all directions; the seemingly hopelessly outnumbered gunfighters take out the outlaws as they ride through the village. Sturges has taken the western to another level, the action is continuous, and the violence exaggerated, each of the main characters engaged in their personal battle with the outlaws. The action sequences depicted could easily be used as templates for more recent films and in other genres.
Buscombe suggests that the visual conventions provide a framework within which the story can be told. However what is more important is that they also affect what kind of story it will be.
[Inter-title: Barry Keith Grant.(Editor) 1995. Film Genre Reader II. University of Texas Press. USA. p. 15]
The sequences appear to be derived from this concept of each of the main characters having their own stories based/developed around their character each therefore appear engaged in a personal battle with themselves and with the outlaws. A good example of this would be Lee’s death, he holsters his gun before kicking the door open then drawing and shooting the outlaws inside, appearing to regain his courage and self esteem only to be then shot. Dying against a wall in a fetal position, a hero dies, for this character there is no happy ending and a break with an almost Hollywood tradition where the hero generally survives. Sturges appears to get away with this by having seven heroes each with their own story and therefore some can be sacrificed without breaking this traditional, this historic approach to the storytelling of a western indeed any Hollywood story. This precedes the current trend where the demise of or sacrifice of the hero at the end of the film has found acceptance with audiences as long as it has value, for example the sacrifice of ones own life to save another or others.
Altman suggests that genre films must not only be similar in order to succeed, they must also be different.
[Inter-title: Rick Altman. 1999. British Film Institute. London. p.21]
It’s possible that outside of script considerations Sturges could have chosen to do this to add something new to the genre. With westerns as with any other genre while it is important to remain true to the style it is at the same time important to be different.
Sturges approach to the western genre itself considered a departure in many respects to what had been seen before it also appears to have influenced a sub genre of the western, that is the spaghetti western, breathing life albeit briefly into a genre moving out of favour with film studios and audiences by the 1960’s.
The Magnificent Seven, Its unabashedly stylized approach laid the groundwork for the darker revisionist Westerns of Peckinpah and Aldrich and the spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone, who, following Sturges’s lead, adapted Yojimbo as A Fistful of Dollars, starring Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name. (The third in the Leone-Eastwood series, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, was co-financed by UA and featured Wallach as a comic Calvera.) “I won’t say Leone copied The Magnificent Seven,” said Sturges, “but he certainly profited by a lot of stuff in that picture, especially the multiple-character thing.”
[Inter-Title: Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. Author: Lovell, Glenn. Date 2008. Page 213]
Part Four: This time it’s War but it’s the same story
For the most part, the category war film is uncontentious: war films about the waging of war in the twentieth century: scene of combat are a requisite ingredient and these scenes are dramatically central.
[Inter-title: Genre and Hollywood. Steve Neale. 2001. Routledge. London. p. 125]
The Great Escape a war film with few scenes of combat, the escapees are unarmed, only the Germans have guns, which appears to undermine Neale’s theory somewhat, fortunately there are many other visual conventions that satisfies the war genre requirements, for example it’s historical setting, locations and uniforms to name but a few.
As Altman proposes that if spectators are to experience films in terms of their genre, films must leave no doubt as to their generic identity; instant reconisability must be assumed.
[Inter-title: Rick Altman. 1999. British Film Institute. London. p.18]
Sturges style of filmmaking developed in The Magnificent Seven is transposed to the war film The Great Escape. Within minutes of the films opening and the trucks rolling into the camp Sturges begins to develop the characters in the same fashion as he did previously.
As John Sturges says “I knew it was too long, but we couldn’t shorten the damn thing anymore,” he said. “We had multiple stories with ten different characters. It was constructed like a house of cards: Take one thing out and it all falls apart.
[Inter-Title: Escape Artist : The Life and Films of John Sturges. Author: Lovell, Glenn. Date 2008. Page 238]
Starting with the character Bartlett, Big X, played by Richard Attenborough whom we see has been almost emotionally destroyed having been in the hands of the Gestapo, but also driven to seek revenge no matter the cost. As the opening scenes progress the individual characters are introduced, their stories developed, each with special skills and backgrounds that add to the overall narrative.
Roles are created specifically to cater for the films American market. For example the character Hilts played by Steve McQueen is a case in point it appears that McQueen is again playing the lone drifter as he had done in The Magnificent Seven, rarely does his character come into contact with the others, his character appears to have its own storyline running in parallel with the main narrative. A forerunner perhaps of the multiple storylines used so effectively in modern films particular examples would include Quentin Tarantino’s film Pulp Fiction and the Kill Bill series of films.
Among the movies that have either reworked the plot or referenced it; include Von Ryan’s Express (1965), The Dirty Dozen (1967), Escape from Alcatraz (1979), Reservoir Dogs (1992), Disney’s Parent Trap (1998), Hart’s War (2002), and Chicken Run (2000), with its trash-bin Cooler and tunnel trolley.
[Inter-title: Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. Author: Lovell, Glenn. Date 2008. Page 241]
Part Five: The Conclusion
[clips – Steve McQueen’s motorcycle jump over the barbed wire then cut to show the final sequence from The Magnificent Seven]
John Sturges directing style appears to have been influential across genres and for generations of filmmakers. Several films made since can trace their roots back to Sturges films The Magnificent Seven and The Great Escape. Through his use of character development and in conjunction with the multiple story approach to directing his fingerprints are clearly visible on some of todays films.
He is also possibly credited with the development of the contemporary style and direction of Action film sequences and across genres, for example Action/Adventure films such as The Raiders of the lost Ark and others in the series of films by Spielberg.
As the pendulum swung back toward formalistic action movies in the 1990s—due in large part to the high-concept blockbusters of
Jerry Bruckheimer and the hyper-kinetic crime thrillers of Quentin Tarantino—Sturges’s style of moviemaking came back in vogue. Name an action director and chances are good that he will have been influenced by Sturges. Steven Spielberg, Clint Eastwood, Robert Redford, Andrew Davis (The Fugitive), John Landis (Three Amigos! ), Edward Zwick (Glory), Lawrence Kasdan (Silverado), Peter Weir (Witness), William Friedkin, John Carpenter (The Thing), Kevin Costner (Open Range), Christopher Cain (Young Guns), Robert Zemeckis (Back to the Future I–III ), Paul Thomas Anderson, and John Frankenheimer have all acknowledged a debt to the director.
[Inter-title: Escape Artist : The Life and Films of John Sturges. Author: Lovell, Glenn. Date 2008. Page 295-296]
Lehman. P. and Luhr. W., 2008. Thinking about movies 3rd ed. Oxford: Blackwell. 100
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Altman. R., 1999. Film/Genre. London: British Film Institute. 18-21
Grant. B., 1995. Film Genre Reader II. Texas: University of Texas Press. 15
Lovell. G., 2008. Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. Wisconson. University of Wisconsin 196-296
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