You bet your horse against my Irish whiskey.
I liked this one better. Chalk it up to modern sensibilities and more recognizable stars, but 2016’s Magnificent Seven was better than 1960’s Magnificent Seven. The key to this non-blasphemous statement is that this movie was clearly not as good as Seven Samurai. Of course, saying that, is like saying that Danny Elfman is no Tchaikovsky.
I actually remember very little from 1960’s Magnificent Seven and that is a damning statement. One line I have heard Denzel Washington make is that people would ask him which member of the seven he was, and he would say, “The Black one.” The joke being, of course, there was no Black member of that Magnificent Seven. The diversity of characters was one aspect that 2016 improved on 1960. Other improvements included: charm, humor, action, and commentary on the predatory nature of capitalism.
Peter Sarsgaard as Mr. Bogue, in The Magnificent Seven © 2016 MGM.
Now, there was certainly room for improvement in this film. For instance, Garry Marshall would have found the villain a bit over the top.1 His move was shooting people for no reason. I mean, there was a reason, that reason was to hammer home the point that he was evil and that you the viewer should want him dead. The movie needs you to really, really, really want him dead for it to work. Screenwriters Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolato included lines about the fake Pinkertons being cowards only good at shooting strikers in the back. Because if you do not strenuously want Bartholomew Bogue—Peter Sarsgaard, The Dying Gaul—dead, then you might stop and think about the 200 men who must die in order for him to die too. From a utilitarian standpoint, 200 vs 7, the greater loss would be the 200, not the 7. And these 7 anti-heroes would die to save 200 people. In this case, they happen to have to kill 200 people to save the good people of Rose Creek from being run out of town by the robber baron Bogue. Thus we have the classic western trio—immortalized by the first western2 director to master the art of remaking a Kurosawa masterpiece with A Fistful of Dollars née Yojimbo—namely: The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly.
But what to do with the Ugly? Eli Wallach’s Tuco was more of a villain than an anti-hero in that classic, whereas these uglies have a range. Before I get to them, though, in Seven Samurai the seven were ronin—masterless samurai—whose place in feudal Japanese society was complicated. For class purposes, Ronin were too high up for peasant jobs, but by definition had no samurai retainer (employer). This left them trained to abide by a code that their circumstances could not afford. Thus their misdeeds provided for a greater ethical fall than a low class bandit could have. Chisholm—Washington—worked as a freelance marshal/bounty hunter. He was a ronin. As for the rest of the six…
Faraday, Cullen, and Chisholm (Pratt, Bennett, and Washington) in The Magnificent Seven.
Josh Faraday—Chris Pratt, Guardians of the Galaxy—was a gambler who does card tricks and shoots extremely well. His character was truly Western, as a non-consumptive Doc Holliday—Val Kilmer—from Tombstone. He does kill people, but has a sense of decency and only does it to save himself or others.
Goodnight Robicheaux–Ethan Hawke, Before/During/After Sunrise/Sunset—was a former Confederate sniper with the affectation of a gentleman. This makes him similar to the Lee Van Cleef, the Bad, although it was in For a Few Dollars More where Van Cleef played Col. Mortimer, whose trail of bounty hunter vengeance ties in closely to Chisholm’s story.
Billy Rocks—Byun-Hun Lee, The Good, the Bad, and the Weird—was Goodnight’s best friend. He is, as the actor’s name would suggest, Korean. They became friends when Goodnight came to claim Billy Rocks as a bounty but found Billy kicking-ass in a bar and just up and retired from bounty hunting. Billy was the knife expert. He makes money by showing that he can shoot quicker than people in non-lethal duels, unless the opponent wants a fatal rematch. So he is more Good than the Bad he played in The Good, the Bad, and the Weird.
Vasquez–Manuel Garcia-Rulfo–was the Mexican in the group. This was tactfully handled when Faraday sees him and says something like, “Oh good, a Mexican. Now we’re set.” The one surprise about his character was that he got the drop on Chisholm and Emma Cullen. As Chisholm was treated as the best of the best, this made for quite an introduction.
Jack Horne—Vincent D’Onofrio, “Law & Order: Criminal Intent”—was wonderfully nigh unintelligible as a former Native American hunter who lives in a cabin by himself. He has a hatchet and a giant rifle. He quotes the Bible and seems to address Jesus quite frequently. For a man who has killed so many, he seems like a gentle soul.
Red Harvest–Martin Sensmeier–played Charles Bronson’s role as the Comanche warrior. He primarily used a longbow. While waiting in line a man commented that this was part of the modern attempt to diversify the film. Strong disagree! This was a nod to the leader of the seven samurai, played by Takashi Shimura, who—as seen below—wielded a longbow. The presentation of Red Harvest probably would have seemed very progressive in 1960.
Kambei (Shimura) and Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) in Seven Samurai.
Bonus Magnificence: Emma Cullen—Haley Bennett—there came a time when it looked like she would need to step up and take the role of number seven. Generally she acquitted herself quite well, which was nice. She did have one classically infuriating scene where she becomes a damsel in need of rescue. It set up an appropriate showdown, but still the cost of showing her as cowering and incompetent was a steep one. Hey, I said the movie was better, not perfect.
So, they, plus some explosions and gunshots, comprised what made this movie a lot of fun. Without exception the main actors were excellent. For this style of movie the acting that Antoine Fuqua got out of them was very impressive. I cared about what would happen to the characters, even though I knew that their quest was a tragic one. Had Bogue not been so overtly evil, and presented as such, there would have been more suspense about whether or not he would wind up dead in the end. No spoiler alert needed, because if you think evil will triumph over good in such a classic Hollywood western, then nothing could really spoil a movie like this for you.
1 This is funny on two levels. Firstly, he directed painfully broad romantic comedies, with one dimensional characters. Secondly, he was a fine actor whose best work came as the overly angry boss, like in A League of Their Own and “Murphy Brown”. ↩
2 This works on two levels as well, because Sergio Leone was Western in the sense that Italians are part of Western culture, and western by virtue of his most famous films being western by genre. ↩