The Magnificent Seven is a western, pure and simple.
It is not a deconstruction. It is not a reconstruction. It is not filtered through the lense of postmodernism or through the prism of postcolonialism. It does not interrogate the underlying assumptions of the western, nor does it explore the relationship between the myth of the frontier and the brutal reality. From beginning to end, through and through, The Magnificent Seven is very much a straightforward execution of the familiar western tropes delivered with a minimum of irony or reflection.
There is a certain charm to this. Director Antoine Fuqua takes great pleasure in running through the standard western tropes, particularly those epic tracking steadicam shots of riders galloping through acres of beautiful countryside as the theme music builds. There is a certain pleasure to be had in The Magnificent Seven as a film resistant to modernisation, a film content in the assumption that the language and iconography of the genre does not need to be tweaked or updated beyond the application of some computer-generated imagery and a modern cast.
There is also something deeply frustrating in all of this, something that reduces The Magnificent Seven to a rather lifeless collection of western imagery tied together in a fairly unimaginative way without anything particularly bold or exciting to say.
It is a copout to complain that The Magnificent Seven is a remake. After all, as countless clever twitter users have reflected, the original film was itself a remake of The Seven Samurai. More than that, there is a certain artistic merit and credible to the art of the remake. After all, storytellers and audiences love to revisit old stories to find new relevance in them. Remakes are not inherently bad things. Ghostbusters was a much better film than many of the other sequels and spin-offs littering the summer, to pick one example.
However, the best remakes find a way to make their stories relevant to the modern world. The past couple of years have seen an explosion in revisionist and subversive westerns, from Django Unchained to The Revenant to Bone Tomahawk. The genre clearly still has important things to say, particularly in the context of contemporary America. The big issue with The Magnificent Seven is that it seems utterly unwilling to say any of those things. Instead, it turns the western into an elaborate wax work museum, akin to the theme park in Westworld.
There is certainly a visceral thrill to seeing all of these familiar clichés played out on the screen without a hint of winking irony. Men walk through saloon doors, only for bodies to be thrown through windows moments later. Marksmen time their gunfire to overlap with load explosions to conceal their sharpshooting. Characters seem to abandon their colleagues, only to return when things look their bleakest. A character is disarmed by a single bullet from a determined cowboy; as he kneels down to pick up his gun, the second shot knocks it clear.
The characters are broadly drawn archetypes. The ringleader with a secret agenda who is motivated by more than just the money offered. The quip-happy sidekick who initially seems cynical but eventually proves his worth. The big burly wilderness man (“that bear is wearing people clothes”) who mumbles to himself and makes others uneasy. The veteran soldier who is clearly traumatised by past experiences, and who seems to have sworn himself to a life of something resembling peace. The sassy motivated schoolmarm who will do what her menfolk cannot.
To be fair, some of these roles are well cast. Vincent D’Onofrio seems to have cornered the market on playing characters who are more weirdly-accented forces of nature than human beings, affecting an accent that makes Wilson Fisk’s diction seem naturalistic. Although not given enough character to play until the final five minutes, Denzel Washington remains on of Hollywood’s strongest leading men. However, it is Ethan Hawke who is the film’s most valuable player. There is a sense that The Magnificent Seven would be stronger built around his character.
However, this broadly-drawn archetypal quality has its problems. After all, there are several characters in the film whose defining characteristic seems to be based on ethnicity. There is the Asian team member whose special skill is with knives rather than guns. There is the slyly-named “Red Harvest”, the Comanche member of the group who fights with a bow and arrow. There is an awkward moment at the climax, as two rival armies square off against one another, as Red Harvest finds himself fighting to the death with the opposition’s single Native American soldier.
Despite the film’s stubborn refusal to modernise or to engage with the modern world, there are certain storytelling decisions that suggest a modern twist on the classic western formula. Traditionally, the western has been the story of the frontier and of western expansion, the formation of the United States and the taming of the wilderness by those European settlers. That subtext is deeply problematic, and so The Magnificent Seven is careful to frame its central conflict in terms that avoid such a reading.
The villain of The Magnificent Seven is not a Mexican bandit pillaging along the border. Instead, it is an evil capitalist who (for reasons left ambiguous) wants to buy the land occupied by the small community at the centre of the story. Maybe he owns a railroad network. Maybe he is digging for oil. Maybe he is prospecting for gold. Maybe he wants to open a chain of themed restaurants. The Magnificent Seven is never too concerned with its antagonist’s motives beyond the necessary details; he wants the land currently occupied by the small town.
This is not about westward expansion. After all, Bartholomew Bogue actually lives further west of the town. He owns a palatial abode in Sacramento, where he seems to wander through his mansion wearing his gun belt. Bogue is presented as a wealthy industrialist plotting to steal out the land from decent hard-working folks just trying to raise their families. While the traditional western was all about taming the frontier, The Magnificent Seven is decided more modest and twenty-first century; it is about a community struggling to hold on to what they have.
This was, incidentally, a key theme in another modern western released recently. Hell or High Water was about two farmers desperate to keep their land away from the greedy financial institutions who would claim it. However, while Hell or High Water is careful to frame its resistance in ambiguous terms – with repeated references to the indigenous communities from which the land was originally taken – The Magnificent Seven plays into the romance of the western as a story of violence and righteous struggle.
There is something disconcerting about all of this, coming as it does towards the end of what has been a rather vicious election cycle that is very much tied to American identity and mythology. The Magnificent Seven has a diverse cast of characters, including an African American lead, a Mexican bandit, an Asian knife specialist and a Commanche killer. However, it never reflects on the irony of these characters fighting to protect the land rights of a bunch of white settlers desperately trying to hold on to their homes.
Indeed, the film’s central protagonist is an African American who does not bat an eyelid at one of his colleagues referring to “the War of Northern aggression” and who counts a Confederate sharpshooter among his closest friends. These white characters seem quite comfortable aligning themselves with a diverse group of mercenaries in pursuit of the greater good, but the film never explores their historical context. It is suggested that there is no long-standing division between these characters which might need to be addressed.
It could legitimately be argued that The Magnificent Seven imposes a Trumpian vision on the western. It is a romantic depiction of the lives of the noble working class who live “three days” horseride away from the wealthy elite on the coast. Indeed, Bogue announces his evil by burning down a church, the church taking on a symbolic value for the besieged community. These are decent and hard-working folk who find themselves with no recourse but armed insurrection, empowered by their righteousness. There is something deeply uncomfortable bubbling beneath the surface of The Magnificent Seven, as if the film invites its audience to see America as many Trump voters might.
The Magnificent Seven is quite effective in places, as an extended tribute to a classic genre. However, it lacks the verve and energy of the best westerns, capturing the likeness but not the spirit of the genre it so longingly evokes. More than that, it uncritically inherits the genre’s fondness for mythologising the American frontier as an idealised haven where the European settlers need to be protected from outsiders; even if they have to be protected by outsiders.