By Christopher Sharrett.
I have always thought that John Sturges’s 1960 Western The Magnificent Seven has suffered too unfavorably in comparison to its source material, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). Kurosawa’s film, like all of his samurai films, was heavily influenced by Ford, Hawks, and Walsh, making him, to my mind, the most westernized, the least interesting, least meditative of the classic Japanese directors. While seeing its limitations, I have always responded positively to Sturges’s film, viewing its principles and emotions as wholly authentic and laudable, and more emotionally accessible than Kurosawa’s. Whatever its limitations, it offers a remarkable standard in contrast to the degraded recent remake by Antoine Fuqua.
I have subtitled this piece “loss of grace” because this is what Fuqua’s film suggests to me, and not only in regard to itself: it embodies much of what is going on in the contemporary Hollywood cinema. When I say “grace” I mean all aspects of the term: the lithe beauty of the human body’s movement (offered in the Sturges film by Steve McQueen, whose physical acting defined him as the “king of cool” [a fairly useless expression] for two decades of American cinema until his untimely death in 1980); the dignity of the human race through its travails; and even the religious definition of grace, specifically the bestowal of God’s blessings for faith and good works. Together, “grace” is a necessary concept to art in defining humanism, in accepting the importance of the human species. This has been rejected by Fuqua’s film, which is all bravado, childish pranks, meaningless gunplay, displays of machismo, and pointless citation of the cinematic past for no good purpose, not even homage – although this postmodern quoting is not as wholly meretricious, to the point of insulting the works cited, as that which we see in Tarantino.
Fuqua’s Magnificent Seven has been lauded for its multiracial Seven, which includes an African American (Denzel Washington in the lead role), a Native American (shirtless, with bow and arrow, and ever-changing “warpaint”), a Latino, and an Asian, who, predictably, is the samurai of the group, adept with knives. The racial gesture would be laudable, although its realization is clumsy to the point of being laughable and insulting. The members of the Seven are not characterized beyond their eccentric skills, a few borrowings from the original film, and caricatured racial/ethnic representation. And there is the question of dramatic realism at all levels. The film is set in the 1879 West, which means two years after the betrayal and conclusion of Reconstruction, and the imposition of white supremacy North and South. It is almost impossible to conceive of the men of this multicultural group even having contact with each other, much less fighting for a common purpose. As far as simple racial balance is concerned, we might note that the Seven of Sturges’s film includes a Cajun, a Latino, and a “half-breed.” In an early scene, Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) bury a Native American man left to die in a ditch by the good citizens of a white border town.
The Sturges film has been criticized for its condescension. A group of Mexican peasants beset by a monstrous, predatory outlaw named Calvera (Eli Wallach) travel to a Texas town searching for gunfighters to help them defend themselves. The question: are there no competent men in Mexico? Is Mexico still part of the Latin “backyard” of America? Are the peasant farmers mere children in need of protection? The point can be argued, but arguments about The Magnificent Seven as an allegory of capitalism also arose in the Sixties. Calvera does to the people of the Mexican village precisely what the oddball villain Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) of Fuqua’s film does to the people of an entirely white frontier town, although Calvera’s actions are more plausible, less involved in cinematic spectacle. This point needs emphasis: this multicultural gang (and they do have the aspects of a gang given their anachronistic language that at times combines jive with pop psychology [“are we bonding yet?’’]) protects the white American community, as if this is not associated with capitalism and oppression. By the early Fifties (High Noon, 1952) the genre knew that the convention of the innocent white settlement had to be rethought. By the late Sixties, we have the town ravaged by capitalism (The Wild Bunch , Once Upon a Time in the West ). By the Seventies (McCabe and Mrs. Miller , High Plains Drifter ), the town is seen as irredeemable, worthy of total destruction. Fuqua’s story is nearly that of the masterpiece Heaven’s Gate (1980), but Cimino’s is a film told with keen intelligence.
As for Mexican farmers coming to Texas (in Sturges’s film) to find killers, doesn’t this make good sense? Was not Texas, along with other vast chunks of Mexico, stolen to make more room for the slavocracy, in a horrid war looked back upon bitterly even by Robert E. Lee? Not to idealize Mexico, or its colonizer, Spain, but it is entirely poetic that the farmers come into a racist, kill-crazy part of the continent to find protection.
The finding of help in the Fuqua film is of little concern; the motivation is uninteresting, after an absurd, pointless bloodbath that opens the film, restraint never being one of the film’s qualities. The Sarsgaard character is told to project as strongly as possible that he is evil. Sarsgaard is a competent actor, but if we think of Calvera, played by Eli Wallach, a versatile stage actor who could realize anything, one understands what has been lost, and what current Hollywood artists settle for to get the project done. Calvera is the living devil, and like the devil throughout history’s narratives, he has good humor, is even lovable at moments, but his real, terrifying self appears.
Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven is a tale of self-redemption and self-sacrifice, of bad men undergoing anagnorisis, realizing the truth about their wasted lives. There is a crucial scene in this regard in the Sturges film, filled with truth, lies, and contradictions, that has absolutely no correlate in Fuqua’s version. There is a poignancy to all this, since the villagers think they are being helped by decent, moral men. For the Seven, for all their eventual compassion for the farmers, the saving of the village is a means to their own moral ends, except that the old wise men (Vladimir Sokoloff) tells them that there is no redemption, that they are no more than a strong wind, and most tellingly, that they have lost, with only the farmers the victors. One of the most moral (and moving) scenes is Bernardo’s (Charles Bronson) scolding of the village children for thinking their fathers “cowards.” He tells them, in one of Bronson’s best scenes of a long career, that his skill with a gun means nothing, that the bearing of responsibility, which their fathers do on a daily basis, is the real test of courage, which he has never had. This scene should be shown repeatedly, perhaps as public service announcements on TV, to the current gun culture, except it would be laughed away.
Speaking of guns, Fuqua, like so many other filmmakers, seem not to know that when you are hit in the thorax with a 44-40 rifle bullet, you are split apart and hurled across the space you occupy. Sam Peckinpah showed this to us in his distinguished films, while reviewers called him a “master of violence,” ignoring his moral lessons and his superiority in his day as dramatist. Today we have bloodbaths that are fun pyrotechnics, expected as part of the admission price in a society immersed in perpetual war.
Self-sacrifice has no role in the Fuqua film – I don’t care how many men blow themselves up with dynamite. The Seven under Fuqua are wiseguys, about whom we get some superficial data. Who could care? Good actors like Vincent D’Onofrio, who is supposed to be, for unspecified reasons, a “tracker,” are wasted utterly. Denzel Washington’s Sam Chisholm is the leader, Yul Brynner’s correlate. Given the right script and direction, Washington can be interesting; here, there is laziness, even at the level of his name (which the filmmakers apparently thought sounded sufficiently Western). He is a “warrant officer” in 1879. Such a role for a black man was not unthinkable, but mostly during Reconstruction, when free black men got as far as the U.S. Senate. After the Compromise of 1877, an individual black man moseying about serving warrants, is, sadly, pure fantasy. The film exploits the issue of race by turning itself into a revenge-for-slavery narrative, although one not as degraded and absurd as Django Unchained (2012). Nevertheless, the introduction of this theme, however appropriate as fantasy during another period of violence against blacks by the white power structure, may be a familiar way of replacing social change with irresponsible daydreams about the past. If the film’s ending is intended as a form of reparation for slavery, it is insulting many times over.
The story of The Magnificent Seven, as per Sturges, is one of human solidarity, as the Seven eat with the farmers (realizing the farmers are starving, the Seven give up their food), work with them, joke with them, even discover love (Chico’s [Horst Bucholz] love of Petra [Rosenda Monteras], causing him to give up his acolyte status to Chris, and return to the life of a farmer). The film is entirely responsible in developing a work of moral fiction, in attempting to address large parts of human experience.
We are reminded constantly of what the film is missing that cannot be found. Where is there a Yul Brynner to take the lead? Brynner’s incredibly sonorous voice is pure authority combined with wisdom, his face reflecting the terrible ironies of his life, his understanding of the task in front of him. Steve McQueen’s physical self-possession is an instruction most contemporary actors should attend to but cannot (why, in the age of CGI?). It has long been acknowledged that Sturges’s film launched several careers: Brynner was well-established on the stage, especially for his lead in The King and I (Broadway, 1951; film, 1956), a role he repeated hundreds of times. It is impossible to tolerate anyone else starring in that play. McQueen was already launched, but The Magnificent Seven would propel him to stardom. James Coburn and Robert Vaughn had substantial careers in front of them, each credible in action cinema – Coburn is remarkable in two Peckinpah triumphs, Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid (1973) and Cross of Iron (1977).
Most noticeable in its absence in the Fuqua remake is Elmer Bernstein’s remarkable score, probably the most well-realized film score in cinema history. Fuqua uses a snatch of the main theme at the start of the end credits, apparently a nostalgic sop to older filmgoers. The main theme was performed countless times by artists of the Sixties; it was eventually bought by a cigarette company to accompany its ads as it, like all art, was pulverized by capital (Yul Brynner died of lung cancer; before his death he filmed a statement against cigarettes to be shown after his death as a warning: “I am dead as you watch this”). Bernstein’s main theme begins with a massive, concussive brass flourish, its chords repeated several times, followed by the theme itself as brass steps back for strings. It is a fanfare, making us realize, during and especially after viewing, that this is a story about extraordinary men offered as ordinary – and a bit contemptible. It is a score about human grandeur. Some remarked that Bernstein was too influenced by Aaron Copland; Copland is here, but he never had Bernstein’s control. The score is Wagnerian in the truest sense, not because of any pomposity but because of its leitmotifs tied to the heroism and limitations of people. It creates an organic work rather than tell the audience, in the manner of much film music, how it should feel.
There is no point asking why we must endure these remakes. Hollywood is now almost wholly vacuous for reasons that elude me (other than its control by executives). One would think people would exercise judgement, and in fact one can find the occasional original “adult” film. It remains easy to redo an apparent sure thing, even though it merely evidences a loss of talent and intelligence, a loss of grace.
Christopher Sharrett has taught film for many years at Seton Hall University. He is a Contributing Editor for Film International.