In an unprecedented development, the blog finds itself reviewing two westerns on the spin. Once upon a time (in the west), this might not have seemed so notable, for the cowboy movie was a Hollywood staple for decades, with literally thousands of films being produced. Not so many these days, of course – and the films that do get made are usually reinventions, or low-budget deconstructions, or remakes, or films that creep into western territory without genuinely being truly of the genre (is The Revenant a western? Is Cold Mountain?).
So it should come as relatively little surprise that the movie under review is Antoine Fuqua’s new version of The Magnificent Seven, as this is one of the very few westerns with any name recognition these days that wasn’t made by either Sergio Leone or Clint Eastwood. This would usually be the place for me to complain about Hollywood’s habit of doing pointless remakes of brilliant extant movies, but (possibly annoyingly) the new movie has a ready-made defence: the 1960 John Sturges version of The Magnificent Seven was, of course, already a remake, of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film Seven Samurai. (Neither Sturges nor Kurosawa gets a credit on the new film, by the way.)
The thing is that Seven Samurai is, not to put too fine a point on it, one of the greatest movies ever made, and the 1960 Magnificent Seven is also a classic in its own right, an almost-perfect film. (The story has been pastiched many times since, too, and some of those were also pretty good – I really should look again properly at Battle Beyond The Stars one of these days.) Surely the new film is just asking for a critical drubbing up by going up against this sort of competition?
The story is more or less recognisable. The year is 1879 and the inhabitants of the small town of Rose Creek are being driven from their homes by ruthless businessman Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), but being a tidy-minded sort of villain he sets a convenient three-week deadline for them to pack up and get out. Feisty young widow Emma (Haley Bennett, who is a perfectly acceptable actress but whom I suspect will mainly succeed in her career due to her resemblance to Jennifer Lawrence), whose husband has been killed by Bogue’s men, refuses to be cowed and sets out to find help in resisting him.
And, well, she ends up with seven gunmen, as you might expect. Denzel Washington plays Yul Brynner, Chris Pratt plays Steve McQueen, Ethan Hawke plays Robert Vaughn and Byung-Hun Lee plays James Coburn. (The film is trading off the popularity of the Sturges version, so I don’t think it’s unreasonable to make this sort of comparison – though I should mention that character fates from the 1960 version aren’t necessarily repeated in the new one.) Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier complete the septet, though their characters are essentially original.
Well, that’s one way of putting it. As you may have noticed if you’ve seen the trailer, one of the seven is now a native American, one is a sort of Korean ninja, and various other ethnicities are in the mix too. Some have gone so far as to describe the new film as a ‘diversity western’ (as opposed to what, I wonder), and there’s a slightly laboured scene drawing attention to just what a mixed crew they’ve ended up with. Still, at least this film hasn’t drawn the tsunami of abuse directed at the all-female Ghostbusters remake, possibly because there’s at least a tiny element of historical accuracy here, and the original film and its sequels took a few steps in this direction, too, featuring black, disabled, and Russian gunfighters.
It’s perhaps illuminating to consider just what has been changed in the new movie: well, first off, the whole film is set in the US, rather than the seven going off to Mexico to defend some villagers – but this is hardly a surprise, given the Mexican government objected to its citizens being presented as so weedy 56 years ago, before we even get onto present-day US-Mexican relations. On perhaps a related note, the villain is no longer a simple bandido but a super-rich industrialist intent on despoiling the landscape for his own betterment, but I think suggestions that the bad guy is a thinly veiled caricature of the current Republican presidential nominee are probably pushing a point. Perhaps most significantly, in story terms, this is no longer just a story about a bunch of guys going off to do the right thing simply because it’s the right thing: there’s some Questing For Vengeance going on here, because being virtuous for its own sake is apparently not a proper motivation any more.
I’m not sure I agree with this: one of the things I like about the 1960 movie is that it’s such a simple story of good guys pitted against bad guys, without a great deal in the way of moral ambiguity. Then again, this is very much a post-Unforgiven western, with the west presented as a hard, somewhat squalid place: nearly everyone has a beard and looks like they probably smell quite bad. At least the good guys are still pretty good, although what were subtle touches in 1960 have become hammer blows here – the knife-throwing member of the seven is festooned with blades, the one whose nerve has gone is afflicted with the screaming ab-dabs, and so on. The bad guy is, regrettably, fairly terrible: he’s an absurdly underwritten cartoon villain and it’s very jarring when he eventually starts coming out with some of Eli Wallach’s dialogue from the original script.
This doesn’t happen too much: only a few lines and a couple of bits of business are retained, but I can’t decide whether this is for the best or not. These moments are fun, but do you really want to be reminded of another, better movie? Where the film really struggles is in its soundtrack, which was one of the final projects worked on by James Horner before his death. Writing a completely original Magnificent Seven soundtrack would challenge the greatest composer who ever lived, for Elmer Bernstein’s music is surely one of the most famous and best-loved scores ever written – it’d be like trying to write a new Star Wars soundtrack without being able to utilise any of the elements written by John Williams. Sure enough, the music spends most of the film trying as hard as it can to surreptitiously suggest Bernstein, before the movie caves in and plays the main theme of the 1960 movie over the closing credits. Of course, by this point it just feels rather incongruous, almost like a contractual obligation.
In a sense this extends to much of the film – it’s really compelled by its very nature to reference the Sturges movie, because that movie’s continuing popularity and fame are the main reasons why this one exists at all. But it never really feels comfortable doing so – it wants to be dark and gritty and psychologically complex where the 1960 film was breezy and light and entertaining (The Magnificent Seven is itself a very 1960 sort of title – no-one gives their movies such on-the-nose names these days).
In the end the new Magnificent Seven isn’t a particularly bad film, but it isn’t going to rock anyone’s world either, I suspect. I think part of the problem is that Hollywood studios stopped making westerns on a regular basis so long ago that they’ve kind of lost the knack. It does feel oddly self-conscious about the classic genre elements, and much more comfortable with its modern-style action sequences (suffice to say much stuff blows up amidst automatic gunfire). The cast are pretty good (Ethan Hawke probably makes the biggest impression) but most of them still look more like grown men dressing up as cowboys than authentic western heroes. Perhaps the classic western is truly dead and it is time to stop interfering with the corpse; this movie passes the time fairly agreeably but if you want to watch this story, you have other, far superior options available to you.