The Magnificent Seven?

Not by a Long Shot

Antoine Fuqua's The Magnificent Seven, with Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt, is a far cry from the film it pays homage to, John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven, starring Jul Brynner and Steve McQueen. Imagine that someone who thinks Quentin Tarantino is a genius read a comic book about The Magnificent Seven. Fuqua's is the movie he would have made, and in a word, it sucks. For all Fuqua's asserted reverence for Sturges' film and Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, he profoundly missed the point of both films. John Sturges Magnificent SevenThis in spite of the fact that his movie is full of trivial film references that show Fuqua and his scriptwriters are familiar with westerns.

For example, the Vasquez saloon stunt that took Chris Pratt's breath way was stolen whole cloth from Silverado, of all places, and the film's surprise ending (an utterly bad choice) references Eastwood's Hang 'Em High. We get a smidgeon of Pale Rider and a hint of Rio Bravo, rounding the bases. And there is a moment at the very end when you hold your breath, hoping the kid is not going to cry, "Chisolm! Come back, Chisolm!" Fuqua never misses an opportunity to send the silhouettes of men on horseback along the knife edge of a Ford horizon, but ultimately the movie could as easily been called The Dirty Seven or Mayhem at Rose Creek.

Dancing Badger

So generally, Fuqua did his homework; he watched all those cool westerns. But this was an essay test, and facts aren't enough. Like Quentin Tarantino, he is just not the right man for the job. He gets the notes right, mostly, but misses the music. There is a fundamental goodness, a belief in humanity, at the core of the Sturges and Kurosawa films. This film's core is rotten.

Neither Seven Samurai nor The Magnificent Seven is about bad guys being slaughtered by not so bad guys. That world view is not merely absent, but antithetical to the sources. The original Seven, and Seven Samurai, are nuanced examinations of the nature of morality, self-respect, and masculinity. Fuqua just wanted to shoot bad guys.

"You're a disgrace," the Comanche (from Oklahoma and seriously named "Red Harvest") saving the California farmers (three days from Sacramento but according to some reviewers located in New Mexico, about 800 miles from Sacramento and lots of miles from any worthwhile gold mines) says to the bad Indian — some sort of Navahoish guy inexplicably named Denali and capable of assembling a hundred-plus bad guys from the streets of Sacramento in a single night. "You're a disgrace" to something or other, minorities, maybe. Just so we get it. Ok, we get it. But forgive me for wondering if all the bad guys (none of whom are Asian, black, Mexican or even Swedish) are a disgrace, or just the Indian bad guy. Certainly it's no accident that the survivors of the seven are [Spoiler! Spoiler!!] the Chicano, the Indian, and the black guy.

There are two ways to make westerns. The first is to create a symphony with the instruments of the myth: the fast draw, the laconic stranger, the big cattleman, the redeemed drunk. A lot of movies have that symphonic excellence; perhaps the best is Shane. Howard Hawks specialized in that sort of western, with tough bar girls with hearts of gold, tough guys named Chance and Rip, anachronisms galore, gunfights full of sound and fury and not much else. Sergio Leone may have perfected this meaningless, lovely, sterile exercise. Personally, I think their movies are overrated.

The other way is to try to peel back the mythology and strive for "realism." Delmar Daves (original) 3:10 to Yuma, Henry King's The Gunfighter, Ford's Fort Apache and The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, Clint Eastwood's Unforgiven, Lonesome Dove. There's a fine line to walk, and even Ford sometimes stumbles. It is, in its way, nothing more than an alternate mythology, but the kind of mythology that shapes our aspirations. Ford put it best in Liberty Valance: "When the legend becomes fact, print the legend."

Sturges' Magnificent Seven is firmly in the symphonic camp, with its fast draw whizzes and gun fanning sharpshooters. Whatever you may think of Little Bill (Gene Hackman in Unforgiven), when he calls BS on that crap, he's right. But what distinguishes The Magnificent Seven among its fellows is two things: Its moral center and the the characters. Fuqua saw the movie with a kid's eye. But it was made for adults. Fuqua watched Seven Samurai; Sturges (and Yul Brynner, the scriptwriters and, incidentally, Anthony Quinn) studied it. That makes all the difference.

Speaking of Quinn

For me, the most interesting anecdote about the movie is that Yul Brynner stole it from Anthony Quinn, and the deed ended their friendship. (See the DVD extras for the details.) It takes enormous effort to imagine the movie without Yul Brynner, but Anthony Quiin is a much better match for Kurosawa's hero, the self-effacing military genius played by Takashi Shimura.
Takashi Shimura as Kambei, the leader in Seven Samurai

Takashi Shimura as Kambei

And his presence as Chris would put to rest one of the most tiresome tropes about the movie, the racism of white men saving Mexicans.

Quinn was born in Mexico and grew up in El Paso. With him in the Kambei role, three of the seven would be Mexican (Chico, Bernardo, and Chris). The racism complaint is a classic example of political correctness (the matter is brought up in the Toronto Film Festival press conference for Fuqua's film, in the context of the new film's rather silly inclusiveness).

In fact, the Mexican government had final script approval on the film, and they were intent on avoiding any slight to "Mexicans." (Again, the DVD offers many details.) Bernardo's passionate "Your fathers are not cowards" speech (not in the new film) and Chico's decision to stay in the village (not in the new film) are both changes from the Kurosawa original that emphasize the humanity of the farmers. The villagers come to the border town to buy guns, not gunmen (a change from Kurosawa's script), and then get gunmen because, Chris explains (repeated in the new film) "Men are cheaper than guns." The cries of racism are as hollow as the extraordinary claim that Harper Lee's depiction of the realities of black poverty and deprivation in To Kill a Mockingbird is "anti-black." But there it is, and a craggy Mexican Chris would have stripped their silliness bare.

Yul Brynner's Chris is Cajun (Harry calls him that early in the film), and his overall look was always racially ambiguous, allowing him to "pass" in various films for mixed black, Indian, or Asian (He was actually Russian, Swiss, German, and Buryat Mongol). Although he does not have the racial authority of Denzel Washington, he is hardly a whitebread WASP. Like Eli Wallach, Brynner was outside racial boundaries, except for the blood quantum crowd.

So What's Wrong with the New Film?

Possibly the fundamental complaint I have with the film is its blithe vigilantism. The premise of the film is that a "robber baron" (an odd misnomer the film glibly uses to describe Bogue, the villain) murders a handful of people in cold blood in front of the entire town, a sworn U.S. Marshal (for all the characterizations in the review, Chisolm routinely asserts that he is not a bounty hunter, he's a U.S. Marshal) responds by coming to town and shooting a dozen or so of the villain's men, then turns the town into an armed camp which the villain attacks with a private army, resulting in a general slaughter. This is all happening 200 miles from Sacramento, California, which is to say east of Reno (where's there's gold but no farming), or around Redding or Fresno (where's there's farming but no gold). Two hundred miles from the capitol of California in 1880, there is no legal structure to protect the farmers. Keep in mind that in 1892, the Wyoming Cattlemen's Association mounted a similar attack on the citizens of Johnson County. The U.S. Army intervened within days (ironically, to rescue the invaders). The only event in California vaguely comparable to the film is the Mussel Slough Tragedy commemorated in the climax of Frank Norris' The Octopus. A battle between farmers and railroad men in the San Joaquin valley, it involved about twenty men, with seven dead and most of the survivors arrested, convicted, and in prison within a few months. No army, no destroyed town. It could be argued that this element of the film simply follows the original script, but that is not so.

In the 1960 film, the action is set in Mexico at roughly the same time, when the country was run by a dictator (Porfirio Diaz), banditry was endemic, and the only available legal authority in rural areas was the "rurales," comprised of 1,000 men to patrol the entire country. The farmers are indeed on their own, and they are essentially unarmed, unlike American farmers of the period, who routinely had at least a shotgun for varmints. Calvera references the situation when he complains about having the U.S. Army come after him because he robbed a United States bank ("Only Americans can rob American banks, eh?"). The historic violation of Mexican sovereignty occurred in 1916, when General Pershing pursued Pancho Villa after Villa's raid on Columbus, Texas, but conditions in Mexico were essentially the same in the two periods.
The relationship of Plains tribes to agrarians is the subject of an Indian joke that I like:
A Mandan says to a Sioux, "The Mandan harvest is in late September. When is the Sioux harvest?"
The Sioux says, "Two weeks after the Mandan harvest."
What is more, the pattern of marauders preying on farmers has a long history in the Southwest; as soon as tribes became equestrian, they reverted back from agrarian to "hunter/gatherer," the Navajo preying on the Pueblos, the Utes on the Paiutes, the Comanche on the Omaha.

Seven Samurai is set in a similarly lawless era of Japanese history, the Sengoku period before the victory of the Tokugawa faction (dramatized in James Clavell's Shogun and Kurosawa's Kagemusha.) "Orphaned" samurai, or ronin, like the seven, roamed the country and formed bandit gangs to prey on farmers, as in the film. In both films, the bandit leader aptly points out that the heroes are more like the bandits than they are like the farmers. Tellingly, this observation is not in the new film, which an ironic omission, since it is actually even more apt.

Fuqua replaces all this namby pamby nuance with an antinomian world in which law means having the biggest stick. It is a concept at the root of American history, but one most of us fantasize about rather than actually wishing for. It can best be described as teenagers with guns. The moral parent of Fuqua's film is not Kurosawa, it's Howard Hawks. The change is signaled pretty clearly in the opening scenes, when Chisolm introduces himself by killing a handful of anonymous guys in a saloon, and then Faraday tricks and shoots a couple of thugs who claim he cheated them at cards. The 1960 film, recall, begins with Chris and Vin taking a stagecoach up to Boot Hill to bury an Indian the townsfolk don't want mixed in with their dead. In fact, the earlier film establishes its inclusiveness from the opening scene, the very inclusiveness Fuqua bludgeons his audience with fifty years later.

Perhaps the best way to see the degeneration of the film is by comparing the characters of the seven. Here's a table to help with references in the rest of my essay:

Chris AdamsSam ChisolmAside from black clothes, being in charge, and looking stern, they have little in common. Their characterization mirrors the Kurosawa leader, Kambei. Chisolm, incidentally, has an odd set of roots. His name evokes the legendary Cherokee Jesse Chisholm and cattle baron John Chisum, but his character is based an equally legendary black U.S. Marshall in Indian Territory, Bass Reeves.
Vin TannerJosh FaradayAgain little in common except status as second in command and being cool and sexy. The role blends elements of three of the samurai, but is not clearly meant to recapitulate one. Faraday gets to say some of Vin's best lines.
BrittBilly RocksBilly Rocks is introduced recreating the knife fight scene that establishes James Coburn's character, but the two have little in common. In the spirit of degrading any 1960s magnificence, the knife fight is mainly a gambling scheme — unlike Britt's or Kyuzo's iconic duel.
LeeGoodnight Robicheaux"Goody" is modeled on Robert Vaughn's emotionally troubled Lee. He is also used to mimic Harry Luck's big moment in Sturges' film.
BernardoJack Horne?At this point, equivalences break down. There are some vague similarities between Bernardo Kelly and Jack Horne, but no convincing ones. Most of Harry Luck's character arc — his venality and his demise — is handed to Goodnight Robicheaux. Vasquez has similarities to Chico (particularly his costume and his self-image) and like Harry he is the least invested in the fight, but the "kid" in the newer film is Red Harvest. There are no Indians, aside from the dead one buried on Boot Hill, in the Sturges' film.
ChicoRed Harvest
The 1960 film did not attempt to recreate each of the samurai from the Kurosawa film. Aside from Chris and Britt, there are few clear equivalences. The "farmer turned warrior" (Kikuchiyo/Mifune) and the "dopey kid" (Katsushiro) are folded together to create Chico. The other three samurai provide bits and pieces of dialog and action to the Sturges' film. Fuqua did not go back to Kurosawa for any of his seven.

The Characters

Perhaps the most telling (and chilling) difference between the 1960 seven and the 2016 seven is that the latter are casual killers. Only one of the original seven (1960, and likewise in Kurosawa) is introduced by having him kill somebody, and that — Britt's knife fight — is a pretty clear example of self-defense; his adversary actually has to shoot at him to get him to fight. In contrast, all of the 2016 seven but one are introduced by a killing (Vasquez' victim is already dead, admittedly, and Red Harvest's is a deer); and in all five cases of homicide, we are to assume that the dead (in Chisolm's case, in indefinite, anonymous bunch) deserved it. Fuqua's seven are just a few steps from the steroid-addled, crotch-grabbing, grunting morons who think war is fun. Sturges' seven would agree with my father, who earned a Distinguished Service Cross and two Purple Hearts in WWII, that killing is not fun.

Kurosawa's Seven Samurai

I've wracked my brains for a single example of Fuqua lifting an element directly from Seven Samurai rather than indirectly from Sturges' film. Nothing comes to mind, except the irony that Fuqua and Denzel Washington are both dismissive of the American film their script parrots. There's no Toshiro Mifune chewing up the scenery and then delivering a tour de force reality check to the elite samurai. There's no youthful innocent about to learn that "dealing in death" is an ugly business. There's no amusing clown suddenly dead in a botched raid. It's all Sturges, all the way down. And the best of that is missing too.

Gone from the new film are the two men who identify with the farmers, Bernardo and Chico. In their place we get Jack Horne, whose only "skill" is a kind of childlike indestructibility, and Vasquez, who is in some ways the most inexplicable character in the film. He's a wanted killer, but he joins up in a one-on-one confrontation with Chisolm because Chisolm agrees not to "come after" him if he does. At the time, if I remember correctly, he has the drop on Chisolm. Aside from a bit of grandiose plagiarism from Silverado, he's not much more than a cardboard spear carrier but, again inexplicably, he is one of the three survivors.

Ethan Hawkes' "Goodnight Robicheaux" has no Kurosawa analogue, and only the vaguest connection to Robert Vaughn's Lee. Both of them are Confederate veterans. Goody is suffering from some sort of cross between PTSD and buck fever, which is supposed to modernize Lee's much more credible failure of nerve because his skills are deteriorating. Goody's Southerner is pretty hard to swallow. His best friend is Asian, he and Chisolm — a black man — are buddies, and he refers to the Battle of Sharpsburg as Antietam. He supposedly a legendary sniper, but we never see him actually snipe anything.

The other strange cipher in the film is Red Harvest. His name has no Indian precedent that I know of; it is probably a nod to Dashiell Hammett's novel of the same name, popularly associated for some reason with the plot of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. He and bad Indian Denali are identified on Wikipedia as "exiled" Comanches. This is not a concept I (or most Comanches) would be familiar with. Apparently their "exile" has relocated them from southern Oklahoma to somewhere 200 miles from Sacramento, California. Denali, incidentally, is the spitting image of Satanta, a Kiowa. Fuqua claimed that his "Comanche consultant" approved Red Harvest's Mohawk haircut. I'm not sure what his consultant was smoking; Comanches with Mohawks apparently didn't allow their pictures to be taken or painted. Aside from a checkbox on the diversity sheet, Red Harvest doesn't have much to do. He and Denali prefer to fight with bows and knifes, of course, being Indians.

There is, of course, one other character who can't be ignored: the villain. And again Fuqua's vision is starkly trivial. The villain in Seven Samurai is merely the foremost of many bandits. He is identifiable enough that we understand the significance when he is killed by the youth Katsushiro after he murdered the sensei Kyuzo with a gun. Sturges turned this minor role into a tour de force for one of our greatest actors, Eli Wallach. Wallach's Calvera is charismatic, eloquent, narcissistic, and cynical. When he lets the seven go after some of the villagers betray them, it seems like a perfectly coherent and reasonable, if horribly bad, decision. That whole sequence was invented for the Sturges film, replacing the abortive attack on the bandits' camp in Seven Samurai. It is, of course, completely missing from Fuqua's film. Why? Because his villain is a cardboard capitalist, not an ambiguous bandit. His Bogue, as one reviewer points out, is a farrago of malicious silliness. He plans to take over all the property in the town by murdering the inhabitants, apparently unaware of probate court. He can assemble an army of 100 men — with the aid of his "disgraceful" Comanche henchman Denali — overnight (and obtain a Gatling gun for insurance). Having a Gatling gun, he chooses not to use it until most of his army has been massacred in a ballet of mayhem. His fangs are plastic.

In Sum? Somewhere Between Zero and One

I like this movie less the more I think about it.

Let's conclude by looking at what is truly the film's pièce de résistance, the blindsiding finale. Bogue, who torched the church while establishing his meanness in the opening scene, ends up in front of it, where Chisolm, surely deliberately, shoots him in the leg. He demands sanctuary in the church. Then we learn the terrible secret that Goody has been hinting around about for most of the film. Chisolm wants revenge. Bogue raped his mom. Bogue killed his family. Bogue — look at the scar, honkey! — tried to hang Chisolm. But Chisolm is a nice guy, you know, so instead of shooting Bogue on the altar, he prays with him. No, I am not making this up. Then Bogue sneaks a little ankle gun and is about to kill Chisolm when, lucky day, the brave redheaded woman shoots him. On the altar.

Pass on the ridiculous religious stuff. Look at the implications of the revenge theme. This has not been about decency and doing the right thing, it's been a personal vendetta. Chisolm conned at least four men and untold townspeople in order to get Bogue. For all the hypocritical piety, the real motivation of the story is just getting even. If there is anything, anything, that would be farther from the humanistic foundation of the films Fuqua is parodying, it will take a while to think of it.

Fuqua's film wears its unsightly heart on its sleeve. And after working my way through the countless offenses of the film, I'm sure it's no accident that the three survivors of the seven are none of them white. Fuqua's welcome to his revenge theme, but he put dirt on a a pair of movies he is unworthy of.

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