Today’s Hollywood remakes seem like increasingly desperate attempts to cash in on a familiar name, with no object beyond suckering the unwary into giving the latest dreck a good opening weekend. There was no reason to remake “Ben Hur,” for example, and no attempt (as far as I could tell) to update it or give it a different twist from the original. And if so, what would be the point? What’s the rationale of trying to remake something that was already perfect? It’s like thinking the world needs another version of “My Way” because Frank Sinatra flubbed it.
The only way to approach these remakes is not to regard them as worth reviewing for their own sake—what a dreary task that would be—but rather as an opportunity to revisit the original and appreciate what was great about it.
Which bring us to “The Magnificent Seven.” There’s a new version out there in the theaters right now. I haven’t bothered to see it, and I won’t. I found Mario Loyola’s pan in The Federalist utterly convincing. The key detail (spoiler warning, for what that’s worth) is that they replace the Mexican bandit villain from the 1960 version with a greedy industrialist, a godawful contemporary cliché. You could criticize the tendentious political overtones—the bad guy has to be a capitalist!—but that seems beside the point. Artistically, the worst thing about this choice is that it is crushingly boring. I’ve been told that the film is packed with over-the-top action scenes, but I’m already falling asleep just reading the plot summary.
Yet Loyola’s review also throws some shade on the classic 1960 version of the film, viewing it as just another inferior remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 film “The Seven Samurai.” In the process, he misses all of the really interesting things about the American version.
To understand “The Magnificent Seven,” you have to understand it not as a mere remake of Kurosawa’s film, but as taking that film’s basic plot and character ideas (as well as elements of Kurosawa’s influential cinematography) and connecting them to themes explored in Westerns of that era. What makes “The Magnificent Seven” a great film is the way it is a culmination of important Western themes about the role of a man of violence in a civilized society, and about what it means to be a man.
Here I’m going to give the usual spoiler warning. If you have never seen the 1960 version of “The Magnificent Seven,” go do that now, and while you’re at it, apologize to everyone for having been so woefully ignorant of your cultural heritage as an American. Then come back and read the rest of this article.
Loyola theorizes that the events of “The Magnificent Seven” were transposed to a Mexican village to create a class distinction between the cowboys and the peasants in an otherwise classless American West. But the only real class difference that exists in the film is one that can be found at all times and in all societies, one that’s as old as the contest between Homer and Hesiod: the farmers versus the warriors. The farmers need the warriors to protect them, but the warriors don’t fit into the civilized, settled society of the farmers.
This was a common theme in Westerns of the 1950s. Consider the famous ending of “The Searchers” (1956), when everyone else has been happily reunited, and they head into the family homestead, but John Wayne’s character—a rugged gunman with more than one killing to his name—remains outside on the porch, framed against a glowing landscape. He’s a permanent outsider, able to appreciate the love and warmth of domestic life but unable to fully join in.
In “Shane” (both the 1953 movie and Jack Schaefer’s short, perfectly written 1949 novel),the hero is a gunslinger haunted by his old life and seeking refuge. He becomes a farmhand for a sturdy settler and his wife, only to be drawn back into violence when they need his protection, even if it means leaving behind his life of peace. As he explains, “There’s no living with it, not a killing. There’s no going back from it. Right or wrong, it’s a brand.”
I can’t imagine it was a coincidence that this theme was so popular in the 1950s, when a significant number of American men had fought in World War II or the Korean War and had recently gone through precisely this transition from military to civilian life.
The answer provided by the Westerns of the era is that a warrior’s proper role is to protect the peaceful life that he isn’t part of. This is crucial for understanding the whole plot progression in “The Magnificent Seven.” It explains the villagers’ initial fear of their own guardians, since the only men of violence they have known are predators like Calvera, the film’s villain. It provides the material for small subplots in which Steve McQueen’s Vin trains the villagers to fight and Charles Bronson’s Bernardo is befriended by three boys from the village.
It also explains the Seven’s decision to go back and save the village after Caldera has captured them and released them. They go back because their code is the opposite of Calvera’s. In his code, which is as old as the hills and the brigands who hide in them, it is natural that the strong use their strength to prey on the weak. “If God hadn’t wanted them shorn,” he explains, “he would not have made them sheep.” It is incomprehensible to him that an expert warrior—”a man like you,” he keeps repeating incredulously to Yul Brynner’s Chris—would risk his life for what he regards as lesser men. A few of the Seven return for pride (James Coburn’s Britt) or misplaced greed (Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck). But most of them do it because in their code the role of the strong is to protect the weak, which is why they can’t walk away and leave their new friends to Caldera’s mercy.
Again, the warriors are necessary to the farmers, but they can’t join them. At the end, “only the farmers have won”—them, and the one member of the seven who is able to hang up his guns and join them.
That leads us to the other big theme of “The Magnificent Seven” and other Westerns of the era. While the film’s big-name actors draw the most attention—the whole project started as a star vehicle for Yul Brynner—from a literary perspective, “The Magnificent Seven” is really the story of the youngest of the seven, Chico, played by the least well-known actor: Horst Buchholz, a German actor recruited, through the magic of Hollywood, to play a Mexican.
Chico is an eager but inexperienced young man who seeks what he thinks is the glamour and adventure of being a gunslinger. He is initially rejected from the group because he lacks their expert skills, but they are impressed by his pluck and determination and eventually take him on. By the end of the story, he has proven his courage and gained the respect of the men he admires—but he also learns that he doesn’t need to follow in their footsteps.
For Chico, “The Magnificent Seven” is a coming-of-age story. He learns that manhood isn’t about swaggering or waving a gun around. It’s about courage, responsibility, and doing the right thing.
That, too, fits in with the themes of the era. “Shane” is told from the perspective of a farmboy who regards Shane as his hero and learns from him what it means to grow up and be a man—but who remains on the farm with his father when Shane rides off into the sunset. In “The Searchers,” too, Jeffrey Hunter is John Wayne’s younger sidekick, who learns from him but is able to leave a life of violence and settle down. That was the ultimate answer for those men coming back from war: you can be a man of violence, for a while, when it’s necessary to protect others. But the real, enduring work of a man is about work and family.
Does anybody explore these themes any more? Does every film have to be just a shoot-em-up filled with unrealistic stunts, dedicated to nothing wider than the proposition that all six-shooters have 12 bullets?
We live at a time when we’re offered a choice between the good, liberal Pajama Boy without an ounce of masculinity, and the Potemkin Alpha Male who mistakes cartoonish bluster for manliness, one of whom happens to be running for president.
“The Magnificent Seven” presents a much better alternative, wrapped up in an exciting, action-packed plot and—oh, yes, I almost forgot—the greatest Western theme music ever written. So skip the multiplex this weekend and revisit this classic, instead.