By the Book: The Magnificent Seven


John Sturges’ 1960 western The Magnificent Seven is considered to be a masterpiece. The movie, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai,  is one of the American Film Institutes top 100 films, and was selected by the Library of Congress for preservation in the National Film Registry. It spawned three forgettable sequels (Return of the Seven [1966], Guns of the Magnificent Seven [1969], and The Magnificent Seven Ride [1972]), and a television series (1998-2000),  but its trope featuring a bunch of ragtag malcontents has been copied hundreds of times, everywhere from Sam Pekinpah’s The Wild Bunch to this summer’s Suicide Squad.  After 56 years, it finally got its big Hollywood remake.  How did it hold up nearly six decades later?  Find out after the break (and spoilers, of course).

In addition to Kurosawa’s work, the original Magnificent Seven owes a lot to the great westerns of John Ford (Stagecoach, The Searchers) and Howard Hawks (Rio Grande, Red River).  It depicts hard men shaped by the vast, harsh beauty of the American West.

The plot centers on a small Mexican village, terrorized by a team of 30 bandits, led by venerable bad guy Eli Wallach. A few farmers venture across the border, where they successfully convince Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) to take up their cause.  Chris quickly rounds up five more men, including old friend Harry Luck, knife expert Britt (James Colburn), mysterious outlaw Lee (Robert Vaughn), hot-headed kid Chico (Horst Bucholz), and good-guy lug Bernando O’Reilly, played by an almost unrecognizable Charles Bronson.

The movie isn’t perfect. Outside of Brynner and McQueen, the team members are sometimes indistinguishable, and you don’t always get a feel for what drives them. There are moments where you really have to suspend your disbelief, particularly when Chico walks into the enemy camp and gains information simply because he’s Mexican. There are also wonderful moments, when the characters discuss the hard lives they’ve lived and the choices they’ve made that have shaped them, or when they reflect on how the “bad guys” aren’t really much different then them. The movie is definitely a product of its time, very white (even the “Mexican” kid is played by a German) and watching it with 21st century eyes it’s hard not to see the subtext, the belief that the downtrodden of the world only need to look to America to come in with guns and solve their problems. Ultimately, though, it’s an optimistic film, and an innocent one in which the themes – of sacrifice and redemption and of finding a place you can consider home – resonate long after you’ve watched.

Only difference? These guys faced right…

Of course,  in 2016 we inhabit quite a different world, and this is reflected in Antoine Fuqua’s remake. Instead of a Mexican town needing help, it’s an American town being terrorized by home-grown Robber Baron-Industrialist Bart Bogue (a splendidly creepy Peter Sarsgaard). And help is provided by a multi-cultural cast that includes the African-American bounty-hunter, Chisolm (an excellent Denzel Washington); a sharp-witted Mexican, Vasquez (Manual Garcia-Rulfo); Billy Rocks, an Asian martial-arts/knife expert (Byung-hun Lee); and a positively Legolasian Native American, appropriately named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). The cast is rounded out by crafty gambler, Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt); haunted Confederate marksmen, Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke); and Mountain Man, Jack Horne (a crazed Vincent D’Onofrio who delivers all his lines with a querulous, fluting voice that made me wonder what he had on Fuqua).

The characters are fairly well-developed, they each have a (somewhat contrived) back story that helps drive the plot.  The action sequences are top of the line and the cinematography, especially the gorgeous wide shots in New Mexico and Arizona, is spell-binding. It’s very much a modern western: slick, easy to digest… and easily forgotten.

….and these guys faced left…really, everything else was exactly the same…

Don’t get me wrong, Fuqua’s remake isn’t a bad movie. In many ways, it’s better. The characters are more developed; the is acting much stronger. The basic story is much more realistic. While both movies are true bro-fests, the original movie pretty much consigns the female character to a love interest. Fuqua’s main female character, Emma Cullen (played by Jennifer Lawrence clone, Haley Bennett), is one of the driving forces of the movie. Sarsgaard’s Boque is much more menacing and ultimately more believable than Wallach’s Calvera (who not only let the Seven live after he captured them, he allowed them keep their guns and trusted them to return to the States… a complete breach of bad-guy etiquette!). Fuqua’s movie, like most made today, was bigger, grittier, and louder. There weren’t 30 bad guys, but 200! Instead of a few dozen bullets, there were thousands! And a Gatling Gun! And explosions! And church burnings! And women and children being killed in the streets! JUST! BIGGER! IN! EVERY! WAY!!!! And in all that bigness, Fuqua lost a little something. That optimism. That innocence. That bit of exceptionalism that made the original resonate so well.

…plus the remake has 100% less Yul…

Really no scene displays that difference better than the one where we first meet our heroes.

In the original, Chris and Vin happen upon a scene of ugly racism. A deceased Native American is brought into town, but the undertaker is unable to get the hearse to the graveyard because racist townspeople won’t allow the body to be buried there. Vin and Chris do it, using force only when necessary. It’s a quiet scene, maybe a bit silly and unrealistic when you think about it, but with it you get to know these two characters, and understand why they ultimately agree to take on Calvera. They do it simply because it’s the right thing to do. In the remake, Chisholm is in town to collect a bounty. After a few tense moments in the saloon, a spectacular gunfight erupts and he takes out all the bad guys, with a little bit of help from Faraday. It’s a great scene, entertaining as hell, but all we learn is Chisholm and Faraday are very good at their jobs. And that trend continues throughout the film… everyone is so damn competent that it eats away at the tension.

Small changes in the plot have larger effects in the movie. In the original, the townspeople are farmers who literally have nothing. In the remake, the townspeople have nothing, but live right outside a gold mine (which is why Borque wants the town), so the potential for great reward is right there. In the original the villagers and their rescuers interact and learn to respect each other. There are key scenes between Bernardo and several boys who idolize him and we find out Chico is actually from a village like this and that’s why he now wants a life riding the plains. Aside from the obligatory training montage, there is little interaction in the remake, and little of the affection you saw in the original. A love story in the first movie (between Chico and a farmer’s daughter), is briefly intimated (between Faraday and Emma) and then dropped in favor of more explosions. Finally we discover that Chisholm has personal reasons for wanting revenge on Borque, and didn’t exactly take this job out of the goodness of his heart.

…wait, you mean you could have taken this job for free?

So all-in-all, 2016 Magnificent is really less a remake than a homage that  updates many of the key plot points with current day technology and sensibilities, but ultimately never captures the feel of the original.  Watch them both, and tell me what you think!


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