Posts tagged “Seven Samurai

The Magnificent Seven (1960) Revisited & Magnificent Seven (2016)


the-magnificent-seven-1960

A few years ago I had decided not to catch the reboot of The Magnificent Seven which received mixed to poor reviews. Knowing that I would surely find it on TV somehow in the coming years. There wasn’t a great need to go out and waste my money on the film. Now that time has come almost 3 years after it’s release I can finally say I have caught the Antoine Fuqua remake. Below you can find my thoughts on the original film, which itself is essentially a remake of an even better film – The Seven Samurai which inspired a whole sub-genre of Westerns during the 1960s, which culminated in The Wild Bunch at the close of the decade. Now I have come full circle. 

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 honourable 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, possibly 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 honour.

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 defence 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.

I just finished the remake and was throughly let down really, as with any remake, you always partly thinking about the original (American version) where they deviated, made it their own, which is what you want to do and not just do a scene for scene remake, which is a waste of everyone involved’s time and cheating the audience of a new spin on a successful plot. The first clear difference is that no longer are a town of helpless Mexicans in jeopardy, instead it the all white settlers of Rose Creek who are at the mercy of land hungry Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) shoots up the town with little regard for innocent life. So your standard villain really whose a little too trigger happy. It’s a change from the stereotype of the helpless Mexican who needs the strong white American male to save the day. Now they saving their neighbours, so no crossing the border this time.

The mix of the gunfighters I thought for a time was a little more varied, we have the standard main two leads Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and Faraday (Chris Pratt) who take on the McQueen and Brynner roles respectively. Followed up by the now cowardly Confederate sharp-shooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) taking on the Robert Wagner role quite well. Then the last which I can pin point to the original cast and the start of the diversity quota (which isn’t a bad thing) is Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee) the knife thrower takes on Charles Coburn’s role, and partner to RobicheauxThen we have men who we meet along the way during quick recruitment process under the supervision of their employer Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) who is about the only one in Rose Creek whose shown any initiative to get some help, her gender is no barrier to getting help whilst all the men would rather she mourn her husbands death – she definitely doesn’t know or need a place to define her.

The remake does give agency not just at least one woman, whose allowed to fire a gun, but also another black lead, something Westerns are slowly accepting that black actors can take the lead and audience aren’t turning away from them. Helped in part by Jamie Fox and Samuel L Jackson in Quentin Tarantino’s last two films, he accepts that the past was not as white as the genre had once depicted it. If we ignore the blip that was Wild Wild West (1999) there have been very few black actors in decent support roles have been given the chance to paint a more true picture of the West. Washington’s Chisolm is not defined by his character’s ethnicity until the final scenes. Instead he’s seen as a naturally leader who can inspire, recruit and try and save a town from falling into the wrong hands.

When the team’s assembled they don’t gel as well as the original 1960 team that allowed the audience to get to know them, love them understand them as they interacted with the villagers. They do hang out together but there’s more jokes at the others expense. A lot of time is given to Robicheaux’s inability to fire a gun in battle, a symptom of his cowardice that comes as a result of PTSD from the civil war, which is brushed over before he rides off to the sidelines. Before making uncharacteristically 180 degree turn and come back all guns blazing, which makes no sense for his character.

A major criticism of the final half of the film is a drawn out final battle, when originally staged in The Seven Samurai (1954) there was a steady pacing, matched with tension as they sent wave after wave to attack the enemy. The 1960 remake saw a lot of time devoted to building up the characters, as did the original, which painfully pays off in the final 20 minutes as the majority fall to an honourable death, drawing a few tears from the audience. The majority of the time was given over to the final battle, we had a nice short and sweet, a taste of what is on offer from just seven men. Before going down an extended sequence of setting up concealed trenches  and traps for Bogue and his army to ride into. The final engagement is a drawn out protracted affair which really should have been edited down by at least 10 minutes for more character development to happen. Without it I just couldn’t care as much for these men from varying background, some brought in out of tokenism and others for box-office draw, so when they died there was nothing to feel for them.

Then comes the real killer – Bogue’s secret weapon, a Howitzer which is revealed to finally mow down the resistance. Just its presence is too much for the battle, we know his army should in theory should have won in terms of numbers. Underestimating the resistance of the village who fight to the last. The Howitzer is just too extreme in a game of one sided one-up-manship, literally overkill and unfair. Maybe this is coming from watching a lot of classic Westerns, that sense of fair play, a man should only be shot with a gun in his hand, a chance to defend himself, never shot in the back. Another rule that is broken here. Fuqua could be argued to depicting a Wild West that was more unfair than previously seen, so maybe more true to the violence that went on in short bursts around the country. However the early machine gun was a little too much overkill.

There’s too many negative points in this film for me really like or care about this film. It’s forgotten what made the other films work, the characters, without them, the film is just a bunch of scenes which join up to make a plot. If you don’t care about the characters who are putting their lives on the line, what’s the point really. Even the star power wasn’t enough to pull me along. Usually I switch off from the film if I just don’t care, but I wanted to see how the much belated film holds up. Even with the modern updates which are positives, it’s not enough for me to come back for more. The last few years have seen some middle of the road to poor Westerns being released, some rightly straight to DVD, some just boring. Hopefully The Sisters Brothers (2018) will be a return to form for a genre which has bursts of energy before falling on a tired classic formula that has a place, but not so much for new releases unless it’s done right and The Magnificent Seven (2016) should really have been left at the pre-production stage.


High Plains Drifter (1973) Revisited


High Plains Drifter (1973)My first encounter with this film was on my birthday during the install of my degree show. I was recommended to watch it by a friend who knew I would like it. That’s an understatement, I loved it. My memory of High Plains Drifter (1973) has long since faded, all I could remember was the ghoulish red town and the whipping flash-backs which stay with you long after the credits have rolled. In terms of the western genre this has more in common with its Italian cousin, the spaghetti western which strictly speaking are not westerns, they have the form of the genre but don’t really have the language of the American full-breed which if I’m honest are less violent during their greatest period. The violence was exploited and amplified. Once you get over the dubbing of all but the American star of the film (Lee Van Cleef, Clint Eastwood et al.) you have this pumped up action film with more sex and violence than you’d have found to that point in the home of the genre. They didn’t carry the legendary status in the characters as subtly as Shane (1953), having built them up in the opening titles as these already fastest guns in the west-types such as Django (1966) where we are treated to another installment. Back home they’re stirred into action, not wanting to fight and draw their guns so easily, having more progression in the gunfighters.

Looking at Clint Eastwood’s influences his time with Sergio Leone strongly influenced him, the violence the stranger with no name, the anti-hero who you end up routing for comes out on top. His first western behind the camera he is still find his own unique voice, one he is adopting from the persona of the man with no name. The tone of Drifter is very European, its hard to sum up in a few sentences, the town looks freshly built, making it more become a backdrop that standout, it’s a newish town that is trying to sustain itself. Laying it’s foundations next to a lake that seems too close for comfort, suggesting it could all be washed away in stormy night. It all becomes very fragile. The town of Lago is actually another character that’s abused in the film (more about abuse later) which we see is transformed, blown up and eventually burnt down. Its part on the film is on some levels more important than the people who inhabit it.

Turning to the townspeople I’m reminded of Bad Day at Black Rock (1955) a town with a dark secret that is bubbling on the surface ready to spill over. Except we don’t have a strong replacement for the mean Robert Ryan who did actually scare the life out of Spencer Tracy (during filming) who was the outsider looking for the truth. The secrets a lot looser here as the film takes on more of a horror tone, Clint’s not giving us a straight Western, it’s a Western-Horror complete with flashbacks which you don’t really see in genre, that plague your mind. A sequence which is played out at least twice but feels a lot more in the mind. It’s the conscience of the town put on the screen.

There is also a strong influence of The Magnificent Seven (1960) or should I say more precisely The Seven Samurai (1954) a cowardly town turn here to one outsider (not seven) that is more dangerous than the men they have been home to for at least a year that have played host to that have just been killed. Except these are all Mexicans who are fighting off bandito’s, they are American citizens who should by rights be able to pick up a gun and fight without fear. They seen off the Mexicans and almost solved the “Indian problem“, why are they so afraid? They need Clint’s stranger who doesn’t really care for them at all. Which leads me back to the flashbacks which are very important in our understanding of who he is, or in fact was. He is not so much flesh and blood as he has ghostly presence, he knows more about the town than he lets on. I believe he is ghost of the whipped town Marshall Jim Duncan (Buddy Van Horn) who we see in versions of the same scene that we’re reminded off. It’s the reason that The Stranger is here, the reason the town’s scared of the men who will be riding back for revenge after a year in prison. We follow these men back, they are ruthless in their journey, killing for horses, clothes and fun, these are dangerous men for sure.

The Stranger’s presence in Lago shakes everything up, from his first hours he has raped a woman Sarah Belding (Verna Bloom) which is brutal to watch, yet filmed from the woman’s perspective a glimmer of what is to come from Unforgiven (1992) nearly 20 years later. As much as Eastwood is a feminist he wants to come across as the revengeful type who will take what he wants. Maybe this was Duncan’s lover, we just don’t know. We do know that she vocal in her experience to the law who simply want to pacify her modern views that wont be accepted until the next century. We don’t linger as much on the rape as we do in Eastwood’s later film which hinges on request of the prostitute who places a bounty on the man who disfigured her. From a lower position in society they are exerting more power than the men who want to keep both cases quiet. Ironically their next encounter is much more consensual after working his charm and danger, as if he has broken a horse in, now he simply has to ride it when he wants (yes I know it’s a poor analogy but suits the film).

Here in Lago having The Stranger in town is very much to their advantage who abuses that power. From the beginning he turns things on there head. With a free card to do as he please, have what he wants he makes the much small person Mordecai (Billy Curtis) the sheriff and mayor of the town, the butt of the jokes, is placed in the strongest position behind the stranger. He’s not there for comedy with Clint who wants to play with these people who are fighting themselves more than they had before. It’s chaos in Lago. In-fact Mordecai’s built up, from being this typically comedic role to one of great importance, he uses his position to abuse those who have given him s*** for years, now it’s his turn. He is also another way into the past of the town, he too has a connection to the late Marshall, which may lead to his role in the film being so prominent.

I could go on forever about this film there is a lot going on so I’m going to turn instead to the ending which once again got me thinking of another piece I could make in the future, as the town is literally painted red, bringing new meaning to the phrase, which ironically has roots in my home county of Leicestershire in the town of Melton Mowbray when the Marquis ran riot causing mayhem and literally painting the town red in places. This is too strong to be coincidence, turning the idea on its head so the townspeople are causing the mayhem, they are preparing themselves, practically inviting the trouble. Renaming the town Hell, which has move to the surface of the Earth. The town can be seen far quiet a distance now, in one uniform colour of bright fake-blood.

All brought about by Eastwood’s ghost which is more than just showing up the town. He is getting revenge on them all, luring them into a false sense of security before deaths unleashed upon them. The role of the gunfighter’s turned on its head, no longer is he the gun for hire or protector of the people he is using his position to induce fear and draw it from his own past. Could he be the devil as the film draws to a close, he rode literally out of nothing and back into nothing, as if the ghost can now rest peacefully knowing that he has settled his unfinished business. Eastwood early on is showing that the standard western has to change, with his Italian influences and the changing language of cinema. You could say this is more fun than the formulaic Western but that would be ignoring the level of violence and rape that goes on. He is definitely pushing the boundaries of what you can do with the genre which he is reshaping in his image.

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Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013) and Unforgiven (1992)


Unforgiven:Yurusarezaru mono (2013)I’ve been waiting to catch the Japanese remake of Unforgiven (1992), wondering how it would compare, which I can’t help but do. On the face of it these two films are the same in terms of the basic plot, the three men who ride into avenge a prostitute has been attacked. There is however more added depth to Unforgiven/Yurusarezaru mono (2013)  with the added strand of their countries civil war between the now samurai and Shoshon in the 1860’s, which mirrors the American civil, I don’t remember that in Eastwoodwestern at all. (However I haven’t seen it in 4 years) which gives the characters more of a back-story, not just gunfighters who left a trail of death and destruction in their wake. Much the same goes for the two elder men Jubei Kamata (Ken Watanabe) and Kingo Baba (Akira Emoto) who start out on one last job in hopes of collecting the reward money. Something that Jubei has long since given up since his days of killing to survive. To raise a family and work a small farm. You could say on the surface that he is a changed man who is simply struggling to keep his family alive in the 1880’s. Whilst Kingo is willing to go on one more job.

With Jebei’s wife long dead he soon gives into his friends persuasive words, riding out a while later. Its still very much the same film, switching 19th century America for Japan, its’s that simple. Of course the dialogue is different, at times I can’t read the subtitles as some bright spark decided to make them white in a font that becomes invisible in the snow. Moving on we soon meet up with a younger man who wants to join up with the veteran swords men, ready for another killing. Even his back story is fleshed out more, finding out he is a Anui a race that the then Emperor was trying to reduce, much like the taming of the Native American over the other side of the Pacific. 

Add into the mix the small town where all the action takes places we have the sherif who exerts more power than necessary. Using violence to quell violence. Much younger than Gene Hackman‘s Little Bill Daggett who mirrored by the far younger sherif who doesn’t care who he hurts, using the law to shield himself. Whilst the group of prostitutes are struggling to be listened to. You could say it’s a feminist film, but I’m not too sure, as much as there women are willing to defend themselves, they still pay for men to do the dirty work. They are hiding behind the strength of a man and his gun/sword. 

I think to really compare both films I need to re-watch the original Eastwood classic to truly understand what is going on. I think there was a conscious effort to make this version stand alone,  whilst the main story elements are the same, it would;t be the same without the final showdown which was shaken up and completely different. I didn’t feel the terror at the transformed man, maybe it was the snow that soften it, not as dramatic as the rain on the soaked ground. Again I have to see for myself. It was however interesting to see once more the relationship between American and Japanese cinema. Before it was Kurosawa‘s Yojimbo (1961) and Seven Samurai (1954), who influenced Sergio Leone and John Sturges The compliment is being returned from Clint Eastwood by Sang-il Lee.

Unforgiven (1992)Moving onto or backwards to the original as directed by Clint Eastwood I found myself understanding both in greater detail and his own observations of the western as a genre, how it formed. The violence of the west and the gunfighter which has recently seen his latest film American Sniper (2014) becoming the most successful war film of all time (probably to be beaten later his year). Focusing always on the man behind the violence, not the act itself, what drives man/person to act in such a brutal and dangerous way toward others. Scaring those around you, in order to have power, dominance, material wealth, and self-confidence.

When a man gives up that violence as we find with both Jubei and William Munny they are tamed by wires who have died by the time we meet them. Now a shadow of their former self’s, trying to do good by their family. Before we have seen the lone gunfighter’s come into town, not looking for a fight, always walking into it by the films end. Which happens here in great style. And in great tradition of the aged gunfighter Eastwood carries that on, in his last western role, becoming then too old to really so it justice. I can see strokes of El Dorado (1966), The Gunfighter (1950) and The Shootist (1976) they are no longer the young men they once were, struggling to get on a horse or even walk without some ailment holding them back. Time is their only true enemy. Munny is no longer able to shoot straight without changing weapon at least once.

The legend of the gunfighter and the west itself it question the form of travelling writer/biographer W.W. Beauchamp (Saul Rubinek) who arrives with English Bob (Richard Harris) one of the last great gunfighter’s who legend is bigger than himself. A status constructed by the writer and a lot of creative license to mythologize the untamed west, glorifying a man to become more than his actions. Creating a history that sells to the masses, attracting tourism and money. The very foundations of the genre, which can sometimes be based more on fact if in the right hands. Beauchamp spends most of his time discussing the events of English Bob’s gunfights with Daggett who puts the writers book to shame, the truth behind the legend which. The facts are sometimes harder to swallow than fictions. We discover that the man now in jail had only survived so long was down to pure luck Drawing your gun first was never a sure way to win a gunfight, it takes skill and thinking to win at a draw. Draw your gun first as your aim is not always right, giving the other a chance. Add to that the alcoholic element for Bob who is painted in a far darker insidious light, is more malicious in his killings. Not the brave man who saved the day, more of a lucky drunk who could’t stop shooting. The skill of the gunfighter in the pages of dime novels or the screen is a romanticised vision of an age of survival; kill or be killed.

This is also a macho trait which we find in the youngest of the two men in ride with Munny to avenge the prostitute. The ‘Schofield Kid’ (Jaimz Woolvett) creates his own legend, first recruiting Munny to join him on what could be an adventure, a quick job that itself had been blown out of proportion. Stating that he has killed 5 men before they start even begin, knowing his youth is holding him back to match Munny’s record which is never really totted up. A very masculine trait to “big” yourself up to look and feel better, reputation is a very important part of masculinity. This doesn’t wash with Munny who eventually joins up with on friend Ned Logan (Morgan Freeman) who then all join up. I can see even at the start, the subtle changes that were made between this and the Japanese remake to have its own identity, to not just be a scene for scene copy unlike I Died a Thousand Times (1955) which allows it to be the same in terms of structure whilst having its own identity, its own culture.

Both have these built-in myths of past fighters, with swords or guns who have had great battles which have been constructed around the events which were probably bloody and full of horror, alcohol, and fear. If you deconstruct both films down to their main points we have a male figure who has lead a violent life, which has a built in legend and reputation that others have built up and admired. Without the facts to hand we have no idea what really happened, the trauma, the horror, more importantly the shame they now carry with them. I remember from my first review a few years back of the Eastwood original I focused on how the violence in a man can be tamed or even suppressed, able to reform. Until it’s triggered we don’t know how dangerous we can still. Eastwood’s gunfighter will always be more terrifying cinematically, probably because I am a great western fan than of samurai which is almost equal in its horror of the slaughter of the men. The changing of the end is what I was most critical of, going for the sherif first was a wrong footing, the main villain is always killed last.

Whatever these two films are, they do carry on that great tradition of that American/Japanese cinematic relationship of informing each others story telling. Showing the western is not dead and both countries have very different but similar histories which at the heart of human. All cultures create legends out of historical figures from moments they would sooner forget.

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