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Film Review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (1960; Directed by John Sturges)

Seven mercenaries, men of action made outlaws for hire by their dedication to mastering violence to make their living, band together to defend a humble village of innocent farmers from the roving, pitiless brigands who periodically loot them of much of their scraped-together harvest. In protecting the basic dignity of simple folk of the land, these men accrue a certain dignity that has eluded them in their sellsword existence, though not all of the seven survive the climactic skirmish with the marauders. Social stability is maintained through this sacrifice on behalf of the community by people who find themselves inherently outside of that community, who can never find their place within its midst. Thus, the social contract is preserved by those excluded from its benefits.

This description of plot elements, themes, and wider implications applies equally well to John Sturges’ classic from the twilight era of the Hollywood Western The Magnificent Seven and the Japanese medieval epic film upon which it is based, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. It also fits any number of movies, from Hollywood and beyond, that repeat the basic template in broad strokes if not so frequently in particulars. This long shadow of influence belongs to Kurosawa rather than to Sturges. The Japanese master was as instrumental in re-setting the visual and narrative language for widescreen, big-budget cinema in the post-war era as D.W. Griffith was in setting down a more formative lexicon of that language in an earlier era, and Kurosawa did it without the big budgets and without, perhaps, wholly intending it.

The Magnificent Seven is fairly familiar and predictable if you’ve seen Seven Samurai, but then both films are familiar and predictable if you’ve ever seen an American blockbuster movie basically ever. One of the toughest sells of film studies is surely convincing younger viewers that these visually and stylistically primitive-looking snatches of cinematic history have an aesthetic and entertainment value of their own that translates to our very different era. Ideally, like a Renaissance painting, the best examples will embody some fundamental truths about human nature and society that have remained applicable to the modern observer. This is what makes great films (great art) alive and compelling still, and not merely links in the chain of the form’s evolution, more than entries in the fossil record.

The Magnificent Seven is blessed with several timeless features: Steve McQueen’s modulated swagger and shit-eating grin, James Coburn’s stoic badassery, Yul Brynner’s unflappable haughty superiority (which, like his circumglobal accented voice, is a bit out of place in the Old West). The depiction of the Mexican villagers is also much more respectful and dignified than modern audiences should reasonably expect from notoriously racially insensitive Studio Era Hollywood; they are represented as poor but endearing, universally hard-working and self-interested and motivated in their wavering dedication to the good fight not by stereotypes of foreign shiftiness but by honest survival instincts. The whole structure of the relationship between the gringo gunslingers and the Hispanic farmers is inherently paternalistic, sure, but Hollywood depictions can and have been much, much worse (and Brynner and McQueen are introduced going to bat for the right of a deceased Indian for a decent burial against the prejudiced wishes of a whole frontier town, as well).

Other elements don’t hit the mark quite so accurately. Audiences accustomed to the “realistic” action sequences of half a century of subsequent movies will cringe at the theatrical deaths in The Magnificent Seven (though the genre fan who cannot appreciate some of the tremendous stunt work in the closing fight sequence has a hard heart indeed). Eli Wallach is a sneering but dull villain, and is visually absent but verbally discussed for so much of the film that his climactic appearance is an inevitable letdown (he’s also not remotely Hispanic, almost cancelling out the generally decent representative treatment of the Mexican village). At least he doesn’t prove as distracting as the ham-fisted thespianic antics of wannabe Method matinee idol Horst Buchholz, referred to in this period of his career as “the German James Dean” as if such a creature would be remotely possible, let alone desirable.

Still, The Magnificent Seven was successful in that it transmuted the narrative (if not all of the visual) innovations of Akira Kurosawa for a wider English-speaking audience. What it is not is a better thematic fit for the story’s social implications. Both the Japanese medieval and American frontier versions of this parable involve rugged individualist outsiders accustomed to anti-social violence (samurai or gunslingers) applying those skills to protect the fragile fabric of society from raiders like them who would takes the fruits of the community’s labour by force and thus consign that community to poverty and instability.

For both the samurai of 16th Century Japan and the outlaw cowboys of the 19th Century West, the days of their lawless frontier existence were numbered. The centralized control and attendant increased social cohesion of Edo Japan was not far away for the mostly doomed ronin samurai in Kurosawa’s film, and firm borders, the rule of law and respectability, and economic imperatives would drive the outlaw further to the fringes of the West and eventually to extinction. But films like these are not only (or even primarily) about their textual historical context; they are as much, if not more, about the context of the time of their production and release.

In Japan following a devastating, honour-shattering defeat in World War II, a new social order rose under the imposed conditions of American democratic capitalism. It preserved elements of the old order of shoguns and samurai, but in Seven Samurai mined that proud history to preach collective initiatives in a fluid present and an uncertain future. In a roughly contemporaneous America (The Magnificent Seven followed its Japanese template’s release by six years), unprecedented wealth and security was flowing from a comprehensive social safety net combined with expanding corporate consumer hegemony while an implacable nemesis glowered menacingly offscreen, across an ocean, behind an Iron Curtain (it is surely no coincidence that the ravenous Calvera wears a red shirt).

In Seven Samurai, prideful honour and bravery had to be sacrificed for the common good. In The Magnificent Seven, despite considerable regretful dialogue concerning the unrewarding existence of the outlaw gunman, the position retains a persistent romance that cannot be erased by the necessity of collective order. The cowboy individualist did not fade from American society and culture as the honourable, self-effacing samurai became a relic in Japan. Rather, that figure became the Platonic ideal of American identity, and the collective interest could not help but suffer. How fitting that the community whose simple proletarian existence is protected by seven gunslingers is not even in the U.S. but in Mexico. Like the honest labour that was once the bedrock of American social prosperity, community stability was being discursively outsourced to Mexico on the silver screen even as early as 1960.

Categories: Film, Reviews
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