James Coburn Knew That Less Was More With His Magnificent Seven Role

At this point, it would be hard not to know the story of "The Magnificent Seven," even if you've never seen the original 1960 Western classic. Of course, that's in large part due to the fact that the film itself was a remake of another classic, "Seven Samurai."

It's a story that's been told time and again, decade after decade: a small town is in trouble, being threatened by villains, and the townsfolk need to recruit hardened fighters to help them defend their land. Enter a group of misfit hired guns who protect the village, while at the same time helping the villagers learn how to protect themselves. You've seen the story repeated in "A Bug's Life," and "The Three Amigos," and even in an episode of "The Mandalorian."

But when it comes to Americanized versions of "Seven Samurai," it's hard to argue that anyone has done it better than director John Sturges with "The Magnificent Seven." It certainly helped that he was able to put together an all-star cast that included Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, and Eli Wallach. But another star often stole every scene in which he appeared, despite having only 11 lines of dialogue in the entire movie: James Coburn.

It certainly helped that Coburn was very familiar with the original film, directed by the legendary Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa. Coburn, who also starred in classics such as the 1963 World War II film "The Great Escape" and would follow up his breakout cowboy role as Britt in "The Magnificent Seven" with several appearances on TV Westerns like "Bonanza," "The Rifleman," and "Rawhide," was such a fan of the original Japanese film that he essentially begged to be a part of the American adaptation. 

Quick on the draw, slow on the gab

Coburn plays the character of Britt in the film, a quiet but lethal man who's deadly with a blade, just like his "Seven Samurai" counterpart, Kyuzo. He's introduced in a scene in which he's challenged to a duel by a cocky gunslinger, and after some prodding, Britt easily dispatches the other cowboy with a lightning quick throw of his knife. While the loudmouth cowboy he reluctantly kills says plenty in the scene, Britt remains almost completely mute. Instead, he lets his actions — and his weapon — do his talking.

It's one of the most memorable scenes in the movie, and arguably the best introduction of any one of the seven. And that was just fine with Coburn, who understood that for his character, words were secondary, as he told Entertainment Weekly in an interview:

"It doesn't matter how many lines you've got: It's how you perform, what performance you put forward. I got most of mine from the guy [Seiji Miyaguchi] that did it in Japan. He didn't have to say anything. He just did it."

Given how little he has to say throughout the film, it's a credit to Coburn's performance, and understanding of the character, that he's one of the most memorable of the seven. In a colorful cast of characters, the guy who says the least stands out. We suppose it's like the old saying: it's the quiet ones you have to watch out for.