ELI WALLACH : Before Tuco There Was Calvera
When the opening credits of John Sturges’ The Magnificent 7 come to a close, Elmer Bernstien’s memorable western score shifts dramatically as an army of bandits on horseback ride into the frame. The music is no longer exciting and adventurous. It’s threatening and seeps with aggression. The reason is very simple. Eli Wallach makes his presence know for the opening scene of this classic western. Wallach’s Calvera is my contribution to the villain blogathon hosted by a trio of fun sites. Speakeasy, Shadows and Satin and Silver Screenings.
Clad in a red silk shirt in front of an army wearing nothing but greys and browns allows Wallach’s bandit leader Calvera to stand out all the more in this crowd of dusty bandolero’s. To set the stage for the film, Wallach has led his riders into a small Mexican farming village that he continually terrorizes as he pleases and takes whatever his men need to survive leaving the villagers just enough to get by on. Preaching to the cantina owner Sotero, Wallach tells of his problems and moves around as if the cantina belongs to him, from emptying the cigar case to grunting and slapping anyone who talks back. While riding out he makes a point of leaving a new widow behind. Upon the seven minute mark in the film Wallach rides out and doesn’t return for another hour and 2 minutes!
It’s during that time that his legend grows as the peasant farmers seek the help of gunslingers and much of the conversation centers around Eli’s Calvera. From our point of view it’s easy to look back and see the now legendary actors needed to take him down. We get the coolest man in black this side of Johnny Cash in Yul Brynner joined by Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson and James Coburn. All four would leave a long shadow in film. Robert Vaughn, Horst Buccholz and let’s not forget Brad Dexter round out the Magnificent 7.
The next time we see Wallach he is confronted by the seven. Appearing truly insulted by the farming community and the hiring of Brynner and company he spits out a great line to Brynner, “If God didn’t want them sheared he would not have made them sheep.” He’s cocky and arrogant, “Generosity that was my first mistake.” When told to ride on the mood shifts and the swagger changes to a grimace and anger. The actor’s gold plated teeth clearly showing through the snarl.
Wallach is a treasure in this role and is clearly enjoying himself . He has all the props to make him bigger than life from the black hat and the large rings to the bullets around his waist that look as if they are made of gold. Chewing on a cigar he spits out many of his lines when things are not quite going his way. As with all villains we know the basic outcome, his downfall is due to a repeat of his first mistake, generosity. That and over thinking what to do with the seven. Wallach who was billed second to Yul Brynner here is no caricature. His character is fully fleshed out and I love how you can see the wheels spinning as he contemplates the many situations he finds himself in.
Reading Wallach’s book The Good The Bad and Me
as well as hearing his commentary on the blu ray of the film leaves one admiring his energy and the fun he had on set creating the character. This was the first western in his long career that included future cowboy adventures such as the Leone epic as well as other titles including How The West Was Won and MacKenna’s Gold.
So the next time you here the trivia question “name the actors who played the Magnificent 7”, throw Eli’s name in there as an added bonus. He too deserves some recognition for his contribution to the Sturges classic.