The Magnificent Seven (1960) Revisited
I decided a few weeks ago not to catch the reboot of The Magnificent Seven which has had mixed to poor reviews. I’m sure that I’ll catch it in a year or so, however I feel I don’t want to waste my money on potentially a poor film. However I still wanted to catch the original, which itself is the Western take of Akira Kurosawa ‘s samurai epic The Seven Samurai (1954) that is a film that mixes pathos, legend and great character dynamic. It’s a lot to live up even for a western 6 years later across the Pacific. It had also been a good few years since I caught this film, all I could really remember was the final shoot-out and the deaths that hit me hard, even today they still have the same effect. A part of me is wondering how the modern take on the film has worked, I read it allegories the current climate in America, looking at Donald Trump for instance, there’s a lot more going on than him thankfully to inspire the themes of the film.
Looking back to the 1960 take of the film the reading I get is one of support for the invasion of Vietnam, which was at the time the right thing to do. Stopping the spread of communism in the East which already had a negative result in Korea creating two new countries after the intervention. Now the threat had moved to mainland Asia which would have made Russia’s grip on more vulnerable countries. America had already proven itself a superpower during and after WWII so why not continue to flex those muscles. Of course all of that is now history and forms the background for this film that has practically left them in the dust.
So moving that into a wild west context where do you take this politics. We have a group of gunfighter’s who’re requested by a Mexican village to help them fight off bandito’s who routinely take the lions share of their harvest. Pretty similar to the original film, just repositioning to the basic elements. I vaguely remembered any of that until the film opened in the village where the actions going to be centred when Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his men ride in, warning that on his return he wants their harvest. These farmers have never picked up a gun, only had a violent thoughts which they have never acted upon until they’re forced to reconsider. I’ve recently been reading Richard Slotkin’s Gunfighter Nation which is again widening my understanding of the genre, which in turn is helping me when it comes to this and other films. Here the Mexican farmers are clearly the Vietnamese who are incapable of saving themselves, needing the U.S. to ride in and save them. Mexican’s in the genre have mostly been seen as little better than savages, just above Native American’s. Of course it takes a three Mexican’s to cross the border to America to seek that help.
Over in America we haven’t even started to look at the seven heroes who are yet to be assembled. We do however meet the first three before any mention of a call to arms by the farmers. A funeral has just been refused, leaving the traveling salesmen who paid confused until he’s told that the dead man is a Native American, leaving the funeral directors hands tied. It’s only until an enlightened gunfighter Chris Larabee Adams (Yul Brynner) Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) who starts a fight for scenes with the more experienced actor, take over the funeral, picking up their guns, using force to see that a man, Native American or not is given a decent burial. Showing that America has since made its peace, an internal Wild West problem resolved, with a few against equal rights, which can translate to the beginning of the civil rights movements.
Once the plea for help was heard by Adams whose seen as a brave man, after being seen taking a dead man, with Tanner riding shotgun, they see a leader of men who can fight off Calvera. Is this Mexico aspiring to be America, looking up to their neighbours who fought off and won numerous conflicts? Now its time to advertise the position to all those who can make it and show themselves to be honorable gunfighter’s, or brave men of good character with a gun. I have to discuss each member of the, who get varying screen time (apart from McQueen). First to arrive is Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who isn’t the most explored character, he has a history with Adams, possible a card shark who has survived because of his ability with the gun. I just wish he was given more time, which is hard to do with so many actors to consider, vying for screen time, it looks like his scene were either cut or left on the page.
We have already been introduced to McQueen’s Tanner who is fighting for scenes with Brynner who gives his best to the rising star and epitome of cool. A man whose found wandering from job to job, is this one going to give him purpose, even if it’s for a meager $20, maybe the price of potential freedom is more valuable to him.
Next up we have Chico (Horst Buchholz) who isn’t actually considered a member of the group until they are off on their way. Being the youngest he has the most to prove, not just to himself but to the other more experienced men. He’s given a reaction test of sorts, which he breaks under the pressure to perform, possibly seeing a darker side he is afraid of. Possibly out of his depth to prove himself, is he about to mix with men more dangerous than he considers himself.
We turn to Britt (James Coburn) a cowboy who we finding proving he’s faster than another, ending up out of a job. He takes proving himself on his own terms and in his own time, his distinctive skill is knife throwing. It’s enough to distinguish him from the other men, but not really exploited enough in the film, becoming just a hired gun in some respects.
Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly who we discover is a Mexican considers his skills to be unworthy of the fee on offer, until he’s persuaded. He’s the only one to win the adoration of the villages children, seen as a hero, braver than their own fathers. Until he corrects them, given his own definition of bravery, that which carries the responsibility of family and being a farmer. You don’t need to pick up a gun to be labelled brave, that’s something wrongly applied by society and myth.
Lastly we have the more interesting and laconic gunfighter’s whose all but lost his nerve, a life behind the gun for Lee (Robert Vaughn) may appear to be a gentlemen with all the airs and graces, yet they have come at a cost of his state of mind. He’s the only one to wear gloves, he sees/saw himself as a professional who wont get his hands truly dirty. We see him avoiding the action when they seven are surrounded. It’s only when the final showdown happens does he realise he has to retain some bravery to die with honor.
The small army come in and train the farmers to take up arms, which they take from the dead that pile up across the duration of the film. It’s a transformation from the meek to the brave for the Mexicans who eventually take control of their destiny. We feel uplifted to see the Mexicans taking ownership of their futures, after learning from the more confident Americans who have brought with them guns and violence. Of course that’s not what the average film viewer takes away, they see knights on horseback, wearing cowboy hats in to save the day, sharing their knowledge and skills. These gunfighter’s are all aware of what they have, but ultimately what they have lost, glory is not going to win back the lost lives in their past, no wives and children, it’s not a safe life to lead, however they weapon they have chosen is not just a tool of defense against danger it becomes a symbol of danger and death. We’re taught what is important in life and a gun isn’t one of them, a powerful symbol that helped to win the West is being discarded. However I take away the pain of seeing these characters fall to their deaths, after following them through the duration to fall under a few bullet, we realise that’s all it takes ultimately. After all the build up and there is a lot of it we have what we wanted, a bloody gunfight after forgetting the true cost of violence.