Editor’s note: Spoilers for 2016’s version of “The Magnificent Seven” follow.
If you think you’ve never seen Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954), you’re wrong. You’ve been watching it all your life, in countless remakes and borrowings. It’s in Hollywood’s DNA. Now you have a chance to see a distant glimpse of it again, in a new version of “The Magnificent Seven” by director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day,” “Shooter,” “The Equalizer”).
This is the second time Americans have attempted to remake “The Seven Samurai,” the first being “The Magnificent Seven” of 1960, starring Yul Brenner and Steve McQueen. Both American remakes are entertaining enough, with plenty of violence and fun repartees. The formula for introducing characters that Kurosawa developed—define the impossible mission, then assemble the crack team one at a time—is a winner every time, as is the basic narrative: underdog warriors defending the innocent from the tyranny of evil men.
But “The Seven Samurai” has two things its imitators lack, quite apart from Kurosawa’s masterful command of the film form: majesty and humanness. Whereas “The Seven Samurai” is ultimately about a defeated people’s struggle for redemption, its imitators are about, well, nearly nothing.
It’s perfectly understandable that MGM would have seized on the idea of remaking Kurosawa’s greatest film. He was the most “Western” of Japan’s prominent directors, and many of his movies were perfectly adaptable for American audiences. The spaghetti western that launched Clint Eastwood’s career, “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), was copied almost scene-for-scene (plagiarized, actually) from another Kurosawa samurai film, “Yojimbo” (1961). Eastwood would go on to make that mysteriously quiet and deadly gunslinger the most iconic face of the American western. But what made that cowboy so unique is that he wasn’t a cowboy at all, but rather the American face of a feudal Japanese warrior condemned to a lonely and endless peregrination—in other words, a rōnin.
The Plight and Redemption of the Rōnin
A rōnin is a samurai warrior who has lost his privileged status, usually because his feudal lord has been killed or defeated in battle, and now roams a hostile world, struggling to survive and suffering endless humiliations. Japanese literature and film include lots of stories about rōnin. But in “The Seven Samurai,” all the samurari seem to be rōnin. The film is set in a time of civil wars, during which the countryside is overrun by bandits while the towns teem with idle, penniless rōnin reduced to wandering about in defeat, wondering what the point of survival is without dignity.
Kurosawa knew his audience. When the movie was released, millions of former soldiers of the Imperial Japanese Army had been reduced to wandering the rubble in defeat, similarly wondering where redemption might come from. For them, Kurosawa had a humane and humanizing answer: What makes you a samurai is not your position in a social hierarchy, but the goodness of your works; not the image your vanity demands, but the honor inside of you.
This unmistakably Christian message is driven home in one of the movie’s vaguely biblical opening scenes. The lead character, a great (former) samurai, is introduced as he’s getting ready to rescue an infant that has been taken by a murderous and hysterical bandit inside a hut. To get close enough to get the baby and kill the bandit, he decides to trick the bandit into thinking he’s a Buddhist monk, by shaving off the samurai topknot at the back of his head. The villagers gasp at the unheard-of act of self-abnegation from a samurai. The baby is rescued and reunited with its mother; the bandit is killed.
Seeing this, residents of a nearby village who live in terror of a periodic raids from a large group of bandits on horseback prevail on the samurai to help. The samurai, who spends the whole movie rubbing the part of his skull where the samurai topknot used to be, decides to assemble a team of other samurai, a treasury of archetypes Hollywood is still drawing on to this day: the archer with the brilliant sense of strategy; the portly warrior with the hearty laugh; the quiet and unshakably calm super-swordsman; the eager young upstart; and of course the clownish rustic who pretends to be rōnin, inspires his fellow peasants to defend themselves, and in the end proves himself worthy of the samurai.
The seven prevail in the end. Yet they have lost half their number. And did it bring the redemption they sought? “In the end, we lost this battle too,” says their sullen leader. But the peasants won, and that’s what matters.
Lost in Translation
Now consider the problems of transposing this story for American audiences. First of all, it presupposes a social hierarchy with three separate castes: samurai, villagers, and outlaw bandits. How do you recreate a caste system in the classless American West? MGM’s answer in 1960 is a comic caricature of Yankee imperialism. Except for a passionate young Mexican, all the “samurai” parts are white. All the villagers and bandits are … Mexican. In other words, Yul Brenner and his “samurai” gunslingers are doing good by intervening in a conflict among Mexicans.
They don’t do a particularly good job. After they successfully fend off an initial raid by the bandits, our magnificent seven are tricked into leaving their positions, and return to find that the bondoleros, led by Eli Wallach, have taken over the town and have them surrounded. They are forced to give up their weapons and beg for mercy.
Incredibly, however, the villains agree to let the cowboys leave unhurt if they promise to not come back, and they can even keep their guns. This magnanimity would prove foolish. The seven ride away, easily forsaking the villagers to save themselves, but that night, something stops them.
“Nobody throws me my own gun and says, ‘Run,’” intones James Coburn’s character, a faint imitation of the quiet super-samurai. “Nobody.” In the end, the magnificent seven decide to go back and kill the bandits, apparently for the principle that real men don’t back down in a schoolyard scrap. America was now primed for Vietnam.
Re-Translated for 2016, and Little Gained
In the latest iteration of “The Magnificent Seven,” director Antoine Fuqua sees no need to humanize the villains. He sees no need for diversity, either. Apart from a token Chinaman, a pair of Comanches, and of course Sam Chisolm (the lead role, played by Denzel Washington), everyone is white.
Fuqua, who is also black, makes some interesting stylistic choices. Chisolm, leader of the seven, wears all black and a moustache, exactly like the lead role in the most iconic “blacksploitation western” of the 1970s. But what made “Boss Nigger” a blacksploitation film was the constant reference to black cultural stereotypes: a pair of jive talkin’ black cowboys give dumb racist white men their comeuppance to a funk music soundtrack. It was all about race.
In that sense there is nothing blacksploitation about “The Magnificent Seven.” In fact, there is hardly a single reference to Chisolm’s race in the entire movie, with the arguable exception of the obligatory opening saloon scene, where all Hollywood gunslingers establish their bona fides by killing a bunch of vaguely ornery extras. He has more than enough range to make his characters all about race, or not at all about race. Here he delivers the latter. Perhaps Fuqua dresses Chisolm up as “Boss Nigger” not to revive blacksploitation, but to inter it once-and-for-all.
If George Clooney is our generation’s Cary Grant, Denzel Washington is our Jimmy Stewart, great to watch in any role and breathing life into even the most lifeless characters. Standing in for Steve McQueen, Chris Pratt is thoroughly enjoyable as the alcoholic gambler Joshua Faraday.
Unfortunately, despite a cast brimming with talent, none of the other seven is the least bit memorable, nor much less are any of the villagers. The leading “villager” who hires Chisolm to protect the village (and who is widowed by the villain at the start of the movie), tells us what she’s after: “I seek righteousness. But I’ll take revenge.” Sounds interesting, but that’s all we ever learn about her.
As an action movie, “The Magnificent Seven” is brilliantly paced and choreographed, never a dull moment. The movie’s downfall is the script, which was co-written by Richard Wenk, a veteran of other Fuqua action movies, and the talented Nic Pizzolatto, creator of the HBO series “True Detective.”
Here, the script is not quite as bad as Pizzolatto’s script for the awful second season of “True Detective,” but it is not nearly as good as his script for the show’s first season. It can’t even manage to be consistent about the seven’s most basic motives in defending the town. Some of them seem to be doing it because there will be one less bounty hunter after them, or because they have nothing more fun to do; and even the high-minded Chisolm turns out to be on a revenge mission against the villain, who tortured, raped, and then murdered his family. We only find that out at the end. (Talk about a pointless reveal).
Toss In a One-Dimensional Modern ‘Villain’
The most interesting element in this “Magnificent Seven” is the villainous Bartholomew Bogue, a thoroughly evil capitalist entrepreneur played by Peter Sarsgaard. In both “The Seven Samurai” and the first remake, the villains were bandit outlaws. For a 2016 remake, that wouldn’t do at all. As any American university student or Black Lives Matter activist could tell you, the very idea of a bandit outlaw is just privilege justifying the oppression of yet another disempowered group. Only power can be truly evil, particularly corporate capitalist power. So the villains can’t be bandits. They have to be … capitalists!
And why humanize them, when everyone knows capitalists are evil incarnate? At the start of the movie, Bogue interrupts a church service to announce he’s coming back in a few weeks to buy all the land in the town for his mining operation, for maybe a third of what it’s worth. And the townsfolk better sell, because he will kill them all if they don’t. To make sure they get the message, he burns down the church.
Hollywood has produced many stories of robber barons intimidating defenseless frontiersmen into selling their land, including for example “Pale Rider” (1985) and Robert Altman’s tragic masterpiece “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” (1975), a movie that proves Hollywood can make westerns as great as “The Seven Samurai.” It might seem mundane and unproblematic for Fuqua to alight on this construct instead of the problematic “outlaw native.”
But “Pale Rider” and “McCabe and Mrs. Miller” were truly wilderness frontier movies, in which the capitalist villain seeks to intimidate either a small group of people, or the partners who own the land, after a more-or-less legitimate offer to buy their share. The new “Magnificent Seven,” by contrast, is set in 1879, with industrial civilization and the rule of law rising rapidly all around. Land transfers obtained by massive force or fraud, to make no mention of mass murder, risk being unenforceable—not very smart for a capitalist entrepreneur.
But this capitalist, in addition to being a psychopathic mass-murderer, is an idiot. After the seven ambush and kill several dozens of the evil gunmen, Bogue dispatches several hundred gunmen from Sacramento to kill every man, woman, and child in the town. He doesn’t stop to ponder how he’s going to buy up their land if they’re all dead and all the deeds are tied up in probate; or how he’s going to handle accusations that he came by his property by massacring God-fearing Christians in an area of the country firmly in federal control.
He doesn’t stop to ponder much of anything, actually. In the final scene, he unveils a Gatling gun that it made no sense to keep for after he has sent his men against the heavily fortified town and lost virtually all of them. Had he opened the assault with the Gatling gun, and then sent the men in, he would have ended the day alive and in control of an empty town, however little that might be worth.
After a quarter century of anti-capitalist indoctrination, American audiences can be expected to sit comfortably with the idea that one can be both a capitalist entrepreneur and a depraved mass-murdering lunatic. That blend comports nicely with the worldview of Bernie Sanders and his supporters, and more than a few Donald Trump supporters too. Of course, back on planet Earth, you can’t actually be a successful capitalist entrepreneur if everyone around can see that you belong under heavy sedation in a psych ward.
Whether the new “Magnificent Seven” has a social agenda or is “socially conscious,” I’ll leave to experts in identity politics. It certainly doesn’t have a human agenda. It is popcorn: compulsively enjoyable, and totally forgettable. It has nothing important to say, a perfect part of its time. Audiences will love it.