Mined from the notebooks, Sunday, October 2, 2016. Posted Wednesday night, October 5.
Denzel Washington (center), magnificent as the kind of western movie hero he should have had a chance to play a long time ago, in Antoine Fuqua’s remake of the 1960 western classic The Magnificent Seven.
Saw the new version of The Magnificent Seven last weekend. Not as magnificent as the original, but how could it be? The original has had fifty-six years to burrow itself deep into the culture and our popular imagination. It’s practically not a movie anymore. It’s part of the collective unconscious. But the new one’s pretty darn good. In fact, I enjoyed it so much that while I was on my way out of the theater I was thinking it might be better than the original.
Took about two minutes of rewatching the original last night to disabuse me of that lunatic notion.
By the way, before we go any further, when I refer to the “original”, anyone who says, “Oh, you mean The Seven Samurai?” is just showing off.
The Seven Samurai is a whole higher level of art and it’s unfair to it and to The Magnificent Seven to think of the latter as a remake. Beside that, the changes, in time, place, language, and genre, along with the resulting differences in cultural references and resonances, set the two movies so far apart from each other in effect that to point out Kurosawa’s name in the credits of The Magnificent Seven is practically just to point out an interesting bit of movie trivia. Calling The Seven Samurai the original Magnificent Seven is like calling Macbeth the original Throne of Blood.
The original Magnificent Seven---director John Sturges’ 1960 shoot-em-up starring Yul Brenner, Steve McQueen, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and Horst Bucholz, with Eli Wallach absolutely wonderful as the villain---is a re-telling of the old story re-told in The Seven Samurai. Almost all stories going back to Gilgamesh are re-tellings of old stories. The questions at work are how good a job did the new storyteller do re-telling the story and how good a job did they do in making the story their own in the re-telling? And, of course, if the story’s being told as a movie, how good a movie is it?
Time has proven that Sturges did an excellent job on all three scores, although no one would argue that on the third he made as great a film as Kurosawa made with the original original. Still, as westerns go, The Magnificent Seven is a classic piece of moviemaking.
Antoine Fuqua, director of the new version starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Byung-hun Lee, Martin Sensmeier, Manual Garcia-Rulfo, and Vincent D’Onforio as the Seven, with Peter Sarsgaard as the lip-curling, capitalist villain and Haley Bennett as the female lead the original conspicuously lacks, settling for a generic love interest instead, succeeds well on the first score. His version is a rousing tale of good old-fashioned western adventure and derring-do.
On the second, he hasn’t done as well. This Magnificent Seven never escapes the shadow of the original. But then Fuqua deliberately didn’t try too hard to do that. In fact, as he told New York Magazine, he saw it as an important part of his job not to.
From directing 2004’s King Arthur, Antoine Fuqua learned a key lesson about building new movies out of old material. “Make it your own, but be conscious of the things that mean a lot to people,” he says. “When you bend it too far, it gets hard for people to wrap their heads around.”
But while Fuqua didn’t feel free to depart too far from the original, he freed himself up in other ways. He gave himself room to pay homage not just to the original but to other classic westerns. Not just pay homage but in places to subvert and even mock the conventions of the entire genre. And Denzel Washington’s character owes more to Clint Eastwood than to Yul Brenner and pieces of the plot seem lifted from Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter, The Outlaw Josey Wales---with the uniforms reversed---and Pale Rider.
This goes a long way towards Fuqua's making the movie if not the story his own and that brings me to the answer to the third question.
Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven is a rip-roaring, exciting, suspenseful, and at times moving western. It may take fifty years to decide if he’s made a classic on par with the original, but it’s good enough that, like I said, I almost had myself convinced it’s better than than the original.
And there are things about it that are better, starting with the leading man.
It’s a good bet people will be watching this Magnificent Seven fifty years from now as one of Denzel Washington’s best movies. Yul Brenner is better in the original than I remembered and more plausible. But mainly his job was to fill a space that should have been filled by the likes of Glenn Ford, Kirk Douglas, Gregory Peck, or Jimmy Stewart---the angry, un-amiable, dangerous Stewart of the Anthony Mann westerns. Denzel is the more ferocious presence those stars would have been.
As Sam Chisolm, the leader of the Seven, he burns holes in the screen. Unlike Brenner’s Chris Adams, Chisolm is a lawman not a hired gun, though he's not opposed to doing a bit of freelancing on the side. That allows Washington to play Chisolm with an anger and air of menace that, while daunting, never threaten to define his personality for us. They’re professional qualities. Tools of the trade and part of what passes for a uniform. He puts them on like he puts on his gunbelt and his big, broad-brimmed black hat, to go to work.
First order of business, though, is to make plain an important change from the original to the new Magnificent Seven. In outline, the plots are the same. Bad guys threaten simple townsfolk. Simple townsfolk hire a band of gunslingers to drive away the bad guys. But the original is set mainly in Mexico and the simple townsfolk are simple peasants leading simple movie peasant lives. The remake is set somewhere in the United States---possibly California but that’s not made clear---and the simple townsfolk are farmers and not all that simple in their ways and their personalities. In fact, on the whole, they’re an angsty and emotionally conflicted lot and not all that likable. I think the change in location was made not just to make this a different movie or even to avoid the kind of well-meaning but unfortunate ethnic stereotyping the original fell into. I think it was done in order to give the designers permission to make things in the town more “realistic'---that is, gritty, dirty, ugly, and drab---and to give the actors parts to play more “realistically'---that is, they get to emote more.
Whatever the reasons, I think the change is one of the things that work to make it a lesser movie than the original, as I’ll explain in a bit.
The other obvious change is in the characters of the seven heroes.
There are no one-to-one correspondences between Fuqua’s leads and Sturges’. The closet, I think, after Washington in the role of leader played by Brenner in the original---They both wear black. But Brenner smiles a whole lot more.---is Chris Pratt as Josh Faraday, Chisolm’s sidekick and lieutenant, the role McQueen filled in the original.
But, good as he is, Pratt is no Steve McQueen and Faraday is no Vin Tanner.
Tanner is good-natured and easy-going. Faraday is good-natured and easy-going but careless. Tanner has a sense of mischief. Faraday has learned to enjoy being in trouble, a useful adaptation to circumstance since he gets himself into it so often. Tanner has avoided being tied down by responsibilities on a kind of principle. Faraday is just plain irresponsible. Tanner is drifting, going the way the wind blows just to see where it takes him. Faraday is adrift. He’s letting the wind take him because he has no idea what else to do with his life. Tanner is shrewd and observant. He picks his fights and takes no chances without first figuring out the odds. Faraday is impulsive and self-indulgent. He’s been getting by on his wits and his luck and we get the sense that his luck has been running low and he’s afraid, with good reason, it’s about to run out.
That I can write that much about Faraday tells you something else Fuqua has done differently. His seven leads are played by stars or known up-and-comers and he’s given them characters to play.
McQueen, Bronson, Coburn, and even Robert Vaughn have achieved icon status, but in 1960 only McQueen could have been considered a star and he was a television star, the star of the TV western Wanted: Dead or Alive. Horst Bucholz was a star in Germany, but The Magnificent Seven was his first American film. The rest were known, as well as they were known, as regular guest stars on television. It’s hard but if you try, you can see them as what they were to the audiences at the time, talented, young---McQueen was thirty, Coburn thirty-two, Vaughn only twenty-eight. Bronson was an old man of thirty-nine.---journeymen actors getting a lucky break and making the most of it.
But there wasn’t much for any one of them to make of their parts. When you get down to it, they were each playing an attitude more than a character. The leader, the cheerful one, the greedy one, the arrogant one, the sentimental one, the coward, and the kid. Their characters barely even have names.
The new Seven have all been given extensive backstories and come with enough to be the leads in their own movies or, at any rate, regulars on Deadwood, if David Milch ever gets around to resurrecting it. In some ways, the movie is about them as characters rather than about them as heroes of an adventure story we’re meant to be paying the closer attention to.
In the original, the villagers, even with the stereotyping, are individualized. We feel we know them. What’s more, we like them. We’re rooting for them, which is why we root for the Seven. And they save the Seven as much as they are saved by them. Sturges never lets us forget that these are not good men. They’re not altogether bad but they’re killers for hire. They’re in the business for the money and the thrill. What happens is they draw strength and learn virtue from the villagers.
(This is especially true of Bronson’s character, Bernardo O’Reilly, who is adopted by a group of boys from the village. As they cheerfully and proudly tell him, it’ll be their job to mourn him when he’s killed and make sure there are always flowers on his grave. O’Reilly sardonically asks if that means they’ll be happy if he’s killed.
Oh no, they assure him. They’ll be just as happy if he survives.
“Maybe happier,” says one.
“Maybe,” adds another.)
This new group of heroes come across more as a collection of loveable rogues and scoundrels. Their violent pasts and deadly occupations are taken as givens of the time period and more or less forgiven or excused or explained away. And while they’re not in it for the money---because there’s hardly any money in it---they’re not in it for any principle either. They’re mostly just along for the fun of the adventure and, it looks like, the fun of playing off each other, and I mean the characters as well as the actors.
They get interested in saving the town when the plot requires them to but for the most part their minds are on other things and their hearts are elsewhere. So are Fuqua’s. He doesn’t seem to care that much for the townsfolk except in that they’re victims menaced by his villain. And for all the realism of the make-up and costuming and the actors' acting, it’s often hard to tell them apart. This is particularly true of the men whose faces are lost behind too much “realistic” facial hair.
We don’t even get to see these farmers’ farms. So we don't get to know except as an abstraction what they keep telling us they're willing to die fighting for.
So in this, it has less human feeling than the original.
But I have to admit, I got caught up in the acting of the leading men. Denzel first and foremost, but the others are all charming and charismatic and make their characters compelling. My favorites were Ethan Hawke and Vincent D’Onofrio.
D’Onofrio plays an old bible-quoting mountain man and renowned Indian fighter named Jack Horne (No doubt in honor of Tom Horn, played in the movie by that name by Steve McQueen.) who says his prayers, recites scripture, and threatens bloody vengeance in a high-pitched hoarse voice that is either the result of his having had his throat cut and his vocal cords severed in a fight some time back or spending too much time alone singing hymns to the trees and hills at the top of his lungs.
Hawke plays Goodnight Robicheaux. a crack rifleman and Confederate Civil War hero whose guilt and PSTD have, fifteen years after the war, finally caught up with him. Robicheaux’s days as a killer are secretly over, but he needs people to be afraid of him in order to make his living. He’s been getting by on his reputation and by a pretense of bravado and cavalier charm that we can see is a parody of his once brave and noble self.
Lee and Sensmeier are fine in lesser roles, but I was particularly taken with Manuel Garcia-Rulfo who really doesn’t have much to do as the gentleman bandit Vasquez except adopt an attitude of raffish charm. Oddly---or maybe not---he reminded me more of McQueen in the original than Pratt did.
And then there’s the villain.
Peter Sarsgaard looks like he’s having a high old time playing the grasping, monomaniacal Bartholomew Bogue as practically a mustache-twirler out of an old-time melodrama. He doesn’t actually twirl his mustache, but he makes it clear that if the mood struck him, he would, and he'd get away with it.
But that brings me to another significant difference between Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven and Sturges’, and it’s epitomized in the differences between the two movies’ villains.
Eli Wallach is great of course and is obviously having his own great good fun as Calvera, the leader of the gang of bandits terrorizing the village the Seven have been hired to protect. But the key point is that Calvera’s gang is just that, a gang. It’s a big gang but still just a collection of thugs, drifters, ne’er-do-wells, bums, and other types of life’s losers and minor villains. In short, they’re just outlaws. Bank robbers, horse thieves, and cattle rustlers. They’re formidable only because there are forty of them and they’re led by Calvera. Which is why they stay loyal to him. They know they’re nothing without him. He in turn is loyal to them for pretty much the same reason. And that’s pretty much the whole of his motivation. His evil plan is to keep his gang together for as long as he can. That means keeping them fed through the coming winter. So the only thing he wants out of the villagers is food. Right now that’s all he’s interested in.
Not land. Not money. Not power. Not wine, women, or song. Not that he’s averse to any of these. But they’re not his immediate concern.
Bogue, on the other hand, is obsessed with money and power. He’s a robber baron intent on increasing his empire, which is based on land grabbing where the land being grabbed is rich in minerals and shiny metal. He doesn’t want anything out of the town his private army is terrorizing. He wants the town. There’s gold in them thar hills and he’s going to have it. All of it. And he doesn’t have a gang to help him with this. He has an army. He’s rich enough to hire mercenaries by the hundreds.
I think the conception of Bogue owes something to Deadwood’s version of George Hearst who is meant to embody the evils of capitalism and serve the theme that money corrupts everyone and everything. But in execution Bogue is essentially a Wild West Bond villain. Come to think of it, he could be a character out of The Wild Wild West, which was a Bond movie re-imagined as a TV western. Dr Miguelito Loveless didn’t have anything on Bogue in his lust for power and world domination or in melodramatic over-the-topness. It’s just that Bogue, if he was in the need, would hire his own mad scientist rather than having to bother with being one himself.
One of the beauties of Sturges’ Magnificent Seven is that in its plot and characterizations it has the simplicity of a fable. It is a fable. But like all good fables it’s about something real. It’s a fable about the closing of the western frontier.
That is, it’s about the end of the Wild West.
Calvera and his gang have to resort to robbing the villagers of their food because they can’t earn their keep the usual way, robbing banks and rustling cattle, anymore. Civilization, and with it law and order, is closing in on them. There is an army in the movie, although it’s offscreen, and it belongs to the United States’ government. At one point, Calvera expresses his dismay and his surprise that the last time he and his gang crossed the border into Texas to rob a bank, the United States sent the army after them.
“A whole army!”
That narrow escape taught him a lesson. His days as an outlaw are numbered.
Now, here’s the critical point.
The days of the Seven are numbered too, if they’re not already over and done with it. At least in the United States, their services are no longer required. No more hired gunslingers need apply.
Oh, here and there, patches of the Old West where questions of right and wrong have to be settled with guns in the hands of men quick on the draw still exist. But the incident that introduces us to Chris and Vin and that catches the attention of the trio of villagers who have come looking for men like them to hire to come save their village---Chris and Vin driving the hearse carrying the coffin of an Indian up to Boot Hill where it’s met by a small band of bigots with their guns drawn, looking to keep the Indian from being buried in the same ground as whites, and isn’t that a metaphor for the settling of the West?---is instigated by a pair of traveling salesmen who have simply taken it for granted that common decency, fair-mindedness, a degree of tolerance, and the rule of law are the order of the day. This is how the country now works. The reason Chris and Vin have to take over is that the salesmen have to catch the next stage and don’t have time to go looking for the legal authorities.
In other words, although I don’t believe any exact date is given, the movie starts in the 20th Century or at least with the 20th Century well on its way.
Fuqua’s movie is set in 1879. But that’s just a date to explain the fashions and the guns. It’s not a true historical marker. And, as far as it matters, the United States doesn’t exist. Bogue operates as free of legal and political constraint as if there are no laws and no politics because there is no government. In reality, the settling of the west was almost entirely a political enterprise, sponsored by, encouraged, defended, and to a great degree financed by the federal government. Violence was rife but it was mostly a matter of the United States Army killing Indians as they drove them from their land and duly-sworn lawmen taking guns away from drunken cowboys.
Bowe wants to take their land away from a bunch of farmers. But to give you an idea of what life was like for real farmers in the West, at around the time the movie is set, the Ingalls family had already left their little house on the Kansas prairie, and they’d left it not because they were driven out by evil capitalist warlords with their own private armies. They had to leave because their homestead turned out to be on the Osage Indian reservation and for once the government was honoring a treaty with the Indians.
What I’m getting at is that the original Magnificent Seven is a fable with resonances with actual history and the remake is basically a fantasy whose main resonances are with other Western movie fantasies.
Still, it’s a lot of fun. Fuqua did what he says he wanted to do, make his own movie while remaining true to the spirit of the original. It isn’t as magnificent as the original but while you’re watching it you won’t care. Like I said, it’s a rip-roaring adventure with some terrific old-fashioned western action scenes and stunts and some excellent acting. And...it’s a great Denzel Washington movie.
He is, as usual, magnificent and, man, does he wear that big black hat well.
The Magnificent Seven, directed by Antoine Fuqua, screenplay by Richard Wenk and Nick Pizzolatto. Based on The Magnificent Seven directed by John Sturges and The Seven Samurai directed by Akira Kurosawa. Starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and Haley Bennett. Rated PG-13. (I know. I’m surprised too. It’s pretty violent.) Now in theaters.