SECOND ANALYSIS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN
To celebrate the release this week of The Magnificent Seven discs, we re-present our thematic analysis of the score, with several adjustments, additions and corrections. As before, the cues will be explored in chronological order, this time including unreleased cues. We will also be more specific about plot details, in order to more accurately explore the relationship between music and movie.
This means that this article will contain abundant spoilers. If you haven’t seen the film yet, we would strongly encourage you to do so before reading this article.
"Most composers are looking for action-oriented, pulse-oriented…rhythm-oriented scores that propel the movie, and the whole thing is about propulsion. And, as an afterthought, there's love, and there's emotion, and there's other things, but the main thing is pure adrenaline. And a lot of movies are made like that now. If you look at all of the Marvel comic movies or the tentpole movies that are made, how many of them are made with the same formula." – James Horner1
James Horner said that in 2010. He was talking about the lack of originality in many of today’s film scores. The “propulsion scores” he was referring to, with their strong rhythmic pulses, booming bass notes and bizarre sound effects, tended to lack appropriate emotion, effective themes, and other elements that make a score memorable.
The Magnificent Seven has all the elements of a propulsion score. The powerful orchestrations, forceful rhythms, and colorful sounds leave a strong impression. But, unlike the scores that frustrated Horner in 2010, these techniques are not used at the expense of thematic narrative or poignant story-telling. Rather, The Magnificent Seven is an incredibly detailed work, with an abundance of themes, nuanced orchestration and emotional intensity. Together, James Horner and Simon Franglen have constructed a symphony of high adventure, with all the romance and fervor of a true western – a propulsion score of the very best kind.
This analysis will attempt to explore the music as heard in the film. Please be aware that there will be many spoilers from this point on. Before reading this article, we would highly encourage you to first watch the film and listen to the album, and so experience the joy of discovery for yourself without the blemish of pre-conceived interpretations.
Opening Titles (unreleased)
The film begins with serene shots of Rose Creek, the stage where we will lay our scene. Right off the bat, we hear one of the score’s main themes, a gentle melody with hints of both grandeur and sorrow. This is the theme for Rose Creek. It’s surprising that this cue is absent from the album, but perhaps its similarity to Bell Hangers explains its exclusion. Suddenly, an explosion sounds throughout the town, and the film’s mood shifts. So does the music.
Rose Creek Oppression
The cue begins with a blast from a Shakuhachi, a Japanese whistle used frequently in Horner’s other scores. To Horner fans, the sound is both comfortingly familiar and menacing. Trumpets introduce an important leitmotif: three simple notes, repeated incessantly, getting quieter each time. These three notes are played evenly in a duple meter, which means they don’t quite fit. So they repeat, and repeat, never quite filling the measure. The result is unsettling, a syncopated motif that is one of the score’s most catchy. This is an adaptation of a motif from Battle Beyond the Stars, Horner’s first fully-orchestral film score. In that film, the idea reflects the cold, echo-ey void of space. Here, it seems to represent the hot, vicious brutality and vastness of the wild west.
As the brass notes fade away, another familiar melody begins. Two sopranos sing solemnly in a minor key, in parallel. The melody is recognizable from Legends of the Fall and Patriot Games. In those films, it represents the quest for revenge. Here, it essentially highlights the townspeople’s longing to break free of oppression. This theme will become a main character of the score.
But there are hints of another musical idea, a thread that will be woven throughout the score. Beneath the vocals, ethnic woodwinds and percussion, it can be heard on a lone banjo (foreshadowing Bogue’s theme), almost hiding beneath the melody. Played throughout, it is the last four notes of the cue. Keep these notes in back of your mind, because they will be incredibly important.
Devil in the Church
The townspeople gather in the sanctuary to discuss their dilemma. Enter Bartholomew Bogue, the film’s villain. The soft, eerie plucking of a banjo gives a sense of uncertainty and insecurity. Underneath it, Bogue’s theme is introduced. It is played by the violins, slowly, softly, occasionally rising in volume only to suddenly soften again. Simon Franglen has compared this melody to a snake, sneaking its way through the score2. Just like Bogue, it is filled with hidden menace, happy to stay out of sight but ready to emerge with force when necessary.
Bogue’s men corral the townsfolk into the street, and set fire to the house of worship. The wild west motif appears in a slower, melancholy form. Still in a minor key, the three notes patterns are also heard moved up a third, showing the motif’s tender side. At 01:38, after Bogue initiates a cold-blooded massacre, we hear the seeds of the revenge theme in the high strings. As the air clears, a soprano enters with a mournful melody. The soprano is then joined by an anguished male tenor. At 02:32, he voices a fragment of the Dies Irae, an ancient chant which Horner quoted frequently. It comes from a Requiem Mass, a song of prayer for the dead.
Cut to the main title, and the cue concludes with violent percussion. Note that the last four notes here are the same as the last four banjo plucks of Rose Creek Oppression. This rhythm will be manifested in its fullest form later, but its placement over the title is significant. It is actually derived from Elmer Bernstein’s score for the original Magnificent Seven. In Bernstein’s score, it is a melody line over which the iconic main theme is played, but here it is just a rhythm. By stripping it of its melody, Horner and Franglen are able to pay tribute to the original, while making the motif more suitable for Antoine Fuqua’s modern, grittier film.
The revenge theme begins again as a mysterious rider enters Amador City. This is Sam Chisholm. The vocals and harsh percussive texture invite us to ponder this man’s origins. The theme also instantly connects him to the people of Rose Creek. In fact, at a glance, the cue is almost identical to Rose Creek Oppression.
Volcano Springs, Part 1 (00:00-00:38)
As Chisholm enters a saloon, where he has a brief first meeting with Faraday, arrogant guitars strings add a sense of cockiness to Chisholm’s imposing figure.
The cue begins with a melody that seems to be connected with Faraday, one of the most memorable of the Seven, heard again at 00:52. Throughout the cue, low strings borrow an idea from The 33’s Into the Heart of the Mountain, but it’s not immediately clear why.
Faraday has run into some old enemies, who try to force him into a mine, where they are certain to kill him. As Faraday works his ‘magic,’ the cue begins with charming piano that adds subtle tension, not unlike the opening of It’s Sarah’s Move from Jumanji. Soon, the string pattern from The 33 reappears. Although its place at this point can be confusing, it is wonderful to hear Horner’s previous material used so liberally. Whether it was part of Horner’s original work or Franglen’s insertion doesn’t matter: it is a natural continuation of Horner’s method. And although its inclusion here is initially puzzling, it is appropriate, and will lead to a satisfying pay-off later.
Volcano Springs, Part 2 (00:38-02:11)
Having enlisted Faraday, Chisholm rides out of Amador, also with Emma and Teddy. In this picturesque scene comes the most overt use of any Bernstein material. The trombones blare out a single note incessantly, evenly, forming a foundation over which a melody is played – the same technique Bernstein used for one of his themes. It then transitions into the Rose Creek theme, first victorious and hopeful. Then it moves into a sweet, major-key melody, seemingly a variation of the revenge theme.
Lighting the Fuse
In the film, this cue is truncated, beginning at approximately 00:33. As the group parts ways, the Bernstein rhythm dances alongside the wild west motif. And then, of course, a trumpet sings four simple notes. How bittersweet to hear the danger motif again. It was Franglen’s decision to use the motif, not as any sort of tribute to Horner, but because it was exactly what the scene needed2. Only secondarily does it serves as a humble celebration of James Horner’s craft. And it is as menacing and thrilling as ever. (This cue actually appears in the film three different times. It functions well in every instance, but this seems to be the scene it was written for.)
Volcano Springs, Part 3 (02:09-02:56)
The final third of this track is heard as Faraday and Teddy ride into Volcano Springs. Here, Goodnight Robicheaux will be enlisted, along with Billy Rocks. The Bernstein rhythm is heard in ethnic flutes and hand claps, under a gallant, if a little bit awkward, melody.
Fierce hand claps preface a melody that will appear again, played by horn. A crescendo of strings playing the Rose Creek theme sets the stage for its full appearance. Then the melody is presented in lovely counterpoint, by horn and trumpet, calling to mind Horner’s unique way of writing exquisite brass counterpoint.
A Bear in People’s Clothes
Meet Jack Horne, the next warrior to be recruited. Instead of being dropped into the usual duple meter, the wild west motif seems to have its way here, not allowing us to easily identify any specific time signature. The revenge theme appears on subtle strings. Chisholm and the others ask about Horne’s background, and why he’s “out of work.” But “that’s part of another story, ain’t it?” We hear hints of the “saying goodbye” motif, a melody that Horner used frequently (especially significant in Bicentennial Man, The Karate Kid, A Beautiful Mind, and First in Flight). Although it is often connected with death, it is actually used to signify the parting of ways between characters, more specifically a moment in which a character must let go of – or say goodbye to – a loved one, forever. It’s a heartbreaking motif, and in this scene, it makes us wonder about Horne’s history.
The male vocal from Street Slaughter returns, joined by Native American flavored chant, as the team pitches camp for the night.
In one of the more serene moments of the score, a gentle piano and soothing ethnic flute provide a reflective atmosphere for the conversation between Chisholm and Goodnight. Next, Red Harvest appears, and after a discussion with Chisholm, feels that he could have a place among this group. (Part of this cue is unreleased. Then, Lighting the Fuse is repeated, underscoring a brief riding montage.)
The Seven now assembled, we return to Rose Creek. As in Rose Creek Oppression, the revenge theme blends with the Bernstein rhythm and wild west motif, reminding us that nothing has actually changed yet – the oppression of Rose Creek continues. At 1:02, a seven-note snare drum sounds, recognizable from so many of Horner’s scores – Legends of the Fall, Apollo 13, The Four Feathers, to name a few. It is a pattern that seems to represent patriotism in some form. It here blends seamlessly with the revenge theme, forcing us to wonder: are the characters acting out of a sense of duty to Rose Creek? Or what are they really after?
Seven Angels of Vengeance
It opens with a catchy, energetic riff for strings and brass. The wild west figure sneaks into the mix at 00:25, clearer than before, more of a melody than an ambient sound. At 01:02, the cocky guitar strings of Volcano Springs reappear as Chisholm smoothly reloads his pistol. At 01:12, a lyrical melody joins the mix, giving a sense of nobility to the action. And at 01:56, we get our first glimpse of the main theme. A relative of the flying theme (see It’s Logical – Episode 1), it is both epic and simple. It is less about the soaring grandeur of flight, but the hope which lifts the spirit and spurs the characters on to noble deeds. However, this is a very brief glimpse – it will be fully developed later.
Goodnight Robicheaux has yet to fire his rifle. Even as one of Bogue’s men rides away, he cannot bring himself to shoot. We hear chaotic, echo-ey brass, strongly connected to the wild west motif. These notes, although distinct from the wild west idea, is also derived from the Battle Beyond the Stars motif. But in this moment, instead of highlighting the violence of the west, perhaps it draws a connection with a specific character. In the space flick, the young hero Shad must defend his people from invaders, in spite of his pacifistic creed. Both Shad and Goodnight want justice, but they don’t know if they can bring themselves to partake of the violence.
Chisholm gives the cowardly Sheriff a message for Bogue, and we hear Bogue’s slippery string theme hovering over the scene, as if he is still present despite the Seven’s victory.
7 Days, That’s All You Got
The town gathers to meet the Seven, but are less than grateful. Many of them have no intention of fighting. But it’s too late for that. The wild west identity is a chilling reminder of the horrors that war will bring, and the Rose Creek theme sounds hesitant, unsure of itself.
Town Exodus – Knife Training
Indeed, a large portion of the town decides to leave before the conflict starts. The Rose Creek theme is both melancholy and positive. Many will die but, as Jack Horne says, “Some people would die for much less.” The revenge theme reprises as the remainder of the men begin to train, first learning knife techniques from Billy.
Goodnight Robicheaux does his best to teach the tepid townspeople rifle technique, but after what happened in the gunfight, Faraday doesn’t believe that Goodnight has it in him. He publicly challenges him, leaving Goodnight no choice. The strange, brassy sounds from the conclusion of Seven Angels return as Goodnight proves himself and Faraday is, for now, satisfied.
So Far So Good
The main theme is presented again, still not complete, but more present than ever before. Things are really beginning to come together.
The Seven attack Bogue’s men at the mine, and set free the mistreated miners. As they ride past a waving American flag, we hear the patriotic snare drums, and the miners are invited to join them in their cause. As the liberated men troop into town, we hear once more the theme from The 33, and the connection is finally made clear: miners!
Bogue’s theme is menacing as always, and this time, a strange, possibly synthetic sound adds foreboding to the scene. Together with the Bernstein rhythm, the music portends the terrible battle to come.
Pacing the Town
The wild west motif accompanies the preparations. An unsteady pattern in the low strings reflects the town’s excitement and anxiety. As Chisholm looks out from the church doorframe, over the town that he will save, we hear the main theme. This is only the third time it has appeared, but is now being clearly established as the identity for Rose Creek’s saviors, a new theme for the Magnificent Seven. At 02:12, the wild west pattern appears in strengthened form – danger is approaching. At 02:27, the Rose Creek theme shows its aggressive side, with strong brass and percussion.
As the townspeople celebrate their achievements inside the saloon, Chisholm reflectively looks out from a balcony. The preacher thanks him for their newfound hope, but Chisholm reminds him that everyone may die. Hints of the revenge theme hang over them like a cloud.
The Rose Creek theme is heard in a similar arrangement as in the Opening Titles cue. Once again, the town’s church bell will ring out, as a sign of defiance to Bogue. Suddenly, Red Harvest races in on his horse, with news that the army approaches – the wild west motif and Bernstein rhythm blend with a scratchy-sounding flute. Cut to the army, riding quickly toward Rose Creek. In an unreleased portion of the cue, a choir sings a single, swelling, intense chord.
Goodnight Robicheaux is not all that he seems to be. Before he can sneak away, Chisholm approaches him. The trumpets play a war-like melody, the same melody we heard in Volcano Springs, where we first met Goodnight. The patriotic snare drums tell us of the history these characters have together. But Goodnight has seen enough killing, and Sam cannot make him stay.
At 00:45, and especially after 02:20, slippery, high-pitched, electric-sounding squeals hail to The Chumscrubber and Southpaw. While Goodnight’s character is vastly different from both Dean Stiffle and Billy Hope, they have a number of things in common. All struggle with intense inner turmoil, are surrounded by a hostile world from which they cannot escape, and are plagued by intense guilt. This cue is serene, thoughtful, one of the last tender moments before the final battle.
As Rose Creek’s women and children take shelter in a cellar, Bogue’s theme entwines itself with the wild west motif, warning us of the terrors that Bogue will inevitably bring.
As the army approaches the town, Rose Creek’s men prepare the explosives. There is intense percussion, building up to the explosion that marks the start of the fighting.
Army Invades Town
Heavy brass and panicked strings accompany the army’s approach, with the entrance of snare drums at 00:26. A minor version of the Rose Creek theme at 00:52, and again at 02:04, in a subdued form.
This cue is one of the score’s highlights, bursting with energy and heartfelt magnificence throughout. The title implies that this cue takes place during Faraday’s final charge toward the Gatling gun wagon, but it actually takes place much sooner in the battle. Even so, the sequence does mostly follow Faraday.
It opens with the same material as Seven Angels of Vengeance, but with a harsher, deeper texture. At the 2:44 mark, Lighting the Fuse is tracked in once again, beginning with Faraday’s dash back into battle. Then the cue resumes with the Magnificent Seven theme, somewhat condensed, as the heroes continue their battle. At 03:40, the cue is again interrupted, this time by Seven Angels of Vengence’s main theme variation. The cue concludes with Rose Creek’s theme.
As the fighting takes a drastic turn for the worse, Bogue’s theme is heard, no longer as a snake hiding beneath the grass, but completely pronounced, terrifying in its intensity.
The Darkest Hour
The Darkest Hour was originally written as one long cue, 07:20 total. The choice to shorten it on the album was most likely made in favor of releasing other material, even though the full cue is an incredible composition, and yet another highlight of the score. It seems to begin in triple meter, and the wild west motif, here in triplet form, finally has its way, fitting comfortably in each measure. Bogue’s theme is heard on brass, angry. At 01:09, the Seven’s theme is presented in its fullness. At 01:40, it is performed gloriously. A brass harmony line, filled with heart-wrenching suspensions, accompanies the strings’ melody. Pairs of booming “thumps” from the percussion remind of the heroics of Saving New York (from The Amazing Spider-Man).
The wild west motif enters along with Bogue, who encounters Chisholm. The percussive sounds of the revenge theme join the Bernstein rhythm. As they have a stand-off, the revenge identity becomes stronger, and the patriotism snare drums enter the scene, again begging the question: what is Chisholm fighting for?
House of Judgment
Bogue’s theme is heard again, banjo and all. The devil is back in the church. The strings have a subdued nature, contrasted with forceful percussion. Then the strings become downright chilling, as the relationship between Sam and Bogue is made clear.
It’s Emma who saves the day. With Bogue finally defeated, Chisholm approaches her, and takes her rifle. She won’t need it anymore. A soprano voices the Magnificent Seven’s theme, slowly, fully, with the orchestra providing gentle harmonies. The voice is striking in its purity and strength. It continues as Chisholm steps into the street, to meet the survivors. But there is nothing more to be done. It’s time to leave.
As Emma concludes the tale, the last of the Seven ride away. After a dark shadow of the main theme, confident strings play the Bernstein rhythm, assuring us that the fighting is over. The orchestra swells as other instruments join the blend, even a brief humming sound. Then, the Seven’s theme, in its final, victorious form. The Bernstein rhythm is here, too, united to a melody once again. The score concludes with Rose Creek’s theme. The town is safe again, and the people have their lives back.
The Magnificent Seven
Over the end credits, we are treated to a new arrangement of the original Bernstein theme. While it may seem out of place to conclude this rich new soundtrack with the work of another composer, is an excellent arrangement and performance, and it does not somehow take anything away from the rest of the score. In fact, its role in shaping the Horner/Franglen score shouldn’t be underestimated. They share so much, both stylistically and practically, that it serves as an appropriate conclusion. (Although, as always, an original end credits suite can be desired.)
The Magnificent Seven is a delightful gift from James Horner and Simon Franglen. It is both full of surprises, and is exactly what we’ve come to expect from a James Horner score. It has it all – catchy action cues, bold orchestrations, swelling themes, and brilliant musical narrative. It is a complex, nuanced score that can only be fully appreciated in the context of Horner's oeuvre, and the Bernstein score, but is also accessible and fun. As time passes on, I daresay this score will only become more cherished. It is a reminder that the music of James Horner will always be here for us to enjoy, forever stuck in our heads, and always in our hearts.