What relevance does The Magnificent Seven, a film about cowboys and corrupt land barons set in 1879, have for audiences in 2016?
John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven (1960) is both a love letter to the Old West of Hollywood and a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai.
The transplanting of the action from feudal Japan to 19th century Mexico is not a perfect fit and Sturges attempts to channel the fatalist philosophy of the samurai to his noble-hearted gun fighters. The Magnificent Seven ends with the line “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.” This is an echo of Samurai, which closes on the melancholic “So. Again we are defeated.The farmers have won. Not us.”
These are two films about the world moving on from the savagery of war to a more civilized world. A world to be inherited by farmers, who will build strong communities that will grow into cities. It is a bittersweet reflection on the sacrifice of noble fighters who died to establish the seeds of a modern world.
Antoine Fuqua’s 2016 The Magnificent Seven up-ends that thematic through-line. Instead of looking back to a past that we as the audience have moved on from, Fuqua’s film argues that the battle facing the beleaguered town of Rose Creek is one very much of the present.
The film opens with a town meeting inside the Rose Creek church. The townsfolk are angry that a greedy industrialist named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is polluting their water supply from a nearby mine and aggressively taking over their land. His thugs burst into the church and Bogue arrives, taking the place of the preacher and delivering a speech about capitalism as the forerunner of divine will. If the people of Rose Creek resist his acquisition of their land, they are denying the will of God. Then Bogue’s men set fire to the church.
Subtle this film is not, but there is a clear analogy to the rampant abuses of free market capitalism at work here.
The previous two Seven pictures were about consigning barbarity to the past. Fuqua’s film has capitalism identified in the opening scene as a barbarous force that will destroy communities in the pursuit of profit. Bogue justifies his actions by claiming the authority of God and then without a moment’s pause orders his men to shoot anyone in Rose Creek who protests. Their claim to land is worthless, because it has no commercial value. The people are themselves expendable, because they have no power.
Much has been made of the racially diverse casting, with the seven gunfighters now numbering an African American bounty hunter, a Korean knife fighter, an exiled Comanche and a Mexican outlaw. In an interview with Vulture, Fuqua disputed charges of political correct revisionism:
“There were a lot of black cowboys, a lot of Native Americans; Asians working on the railroads. The truth of the West is more modern than the movies have been.”
Indeed his Magnificent Seven serves as not only a corrective to the white-washed West of 1960, but in its American setting it brings home the theme of ordinary people threatened by the powerful and greedy, who are happy to destroy communities for profit while paying lip service to Christian values. Chisolm and his men defend Rose Creek because to them it represents the promise of a better future, one where ordinary people have the courage to stand up to the abuses of the powerful.
Let’s just say the timing of this film’s release with the current US Presidential Election is serendipitous.
The Magnificent Seven is out in Australian cinemas from Thursday 29 September.