The Magnificent Seven

Yes. The Magnificent Seven is a movie, not a book, and this year’s version is a remake at that.  I don’t usually bother going to see remakes, but in this instance I was curious because Antoine Fuqua, who decided to remake the film, said it was because he was so affected by Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai, and by John Sturges’s 1960 American version.  In an interview on National Public Radio, Fuqua specifically noted the effect that the social messages in John Sturges’s 1960 American version had on him.

In the 1960 version, seven gunslingers hire on to help a Mexican village fight off a band of bandits who have been repeatedly raiding their village for supplies.  In Fuqua’s 2016 version, seven gunslingers hire on to help an American western town fight off a villainous mine owner who owns the local sheriff and wants to run them out and take their land.

The 1960 version had tremendous and varied social messages imbedded in it. I did not expect Fuqua’s version necessarily to have the same messages, but had hoped, based on his interview, that it would  have some social import.  Having now seen his film, and considering his interview statements, I am puzzling over why he bothered to remake it (other than to give Denzel Washington an old west gunslinger role to play and making money–but then, one could make any western.  He didn’t need to do it under this title).

Fuqua’s version is an adequate western by 2016 standards, but it simply provides the well-worn good guy-bad guy dynamic; the character of it’s heroes (or should one say, anti-heroes?) are not so much developed as “suggested.”  They are “types,” and where they are given history or motivation, those read as thin.

Fuqua’s version borrows a few lines from the 1960 film, but the impact is not the same.  For example, in the 1960 version, Eli Wallach, as the bandit, says of the villagers, “if God didn’t want them sheered, he would not have made them sheep.”  He adds that not to “sheer” them (take their goods periodically) might even be sacrilegious.  The Wallach villain says this as an explanation and a shrugging philosophical excuse.  Despite his villainy, he has a certain humor and human quality about him.  He may not be sympathetic, but he is given a motivation that, from his point of view, is understandable.  Fuqua’s villainous mine owner says the same line after a killing spree, and with total contempt, but no truly compelling motivation.  Furthermore, his evil is utterly cartoonish and overdone at this point, so the line reads as overkill (pardon the pun).  By contrast, in the 1960 version, each and every character–from the seven to the farmers to the bandit–is fully developed.

So far as social import goes, Fuqua’s film might as well be one of the old cattlemen versus fence-building farmer movies combined with the stylistic tradition of The Wild Bunch, or Clint Eastwood’s spaghetti westerns.  On the other hand, the Sturges version made many social points–from the very beginning of the film, where Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen brave violent opposition to transport an Indian to be buried in a cemetery where white men lie, to lines like those of Charles Bronson, when little boys of the village, who have more or less adopted him, call their fathers cowards, and he spanks one hard, responding:

“Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.”

The 1960 version allowed the Seven to be heroic, while showing that true bravery–what it takes to be “a man” is more complex than shooting a gun, and that the seven recognize it.

Finally, the writing in the 1960 version was magnificent.  There is so much wonderful dialogue that allows the actors to reveal character, while simultaneously moving the plot along and furthering the social themes of the film.  This is in no way matched by the most recent version, nor did it seem to me that such an effort in the writing was even made.

For examples of the wonderful dialogue in the 1960 version, click here:  Though I have watched many westerns since, this was one of only two western films I liked for a very long time, and even now, one of the two best, because it is not merely a western, it is more.  So even if you are not a lover of westerns, please, please, PLEASE, try watching the old 1960 version some time and see what you think.  And let me know what you think!




Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *