Not Your Father’s Western

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Title: The Magnificent Seven

Rating: 4 Stars

I came in with modest expectations. I’m not a huge fan of westerns and I honestly didn’t see the point of it. Was the original The Magnificent Seven somehow lacking (or for that matter, the Seven Samurai that it was based upon)?

And the answer, surprisingly enough, is yes. Antoine Fuqua managed to create a western that is relevant to our current times while staying true to the spirit both of westerns in general as well as The Magnificent Seven specifically.

First of all, the cast is diverse.  Of the seven, there is an Asian character, actually played by an Asian actor. There is a Mexican character, actually played by a Mexican actor. There is a Comanche character, actually played by a Native American.  And, of course, the lead is Denzel Washington. So, of the seven, only three are white men.  Even more shocking, the ethnic actors are not the first ones to die. In fact, some even survive to the end!

Similarly, previous westerns have the women playing some combination of helpmate, mother, or victim. Here, there is a strong female lead who actually instigates the formation of the seven, and during the climatic battle scenes, is right alongside the men firing her weapon.

In the original The Magnificent Seven (as well as Seven Samurai), the enemies were literal bandits. Here, the banditry, although still evil and deadly, is more of a metaphorical variety. An evil robber baron that is head of a corporation is terrorizing a small town because they happen to be situated where there are huge coal reserves. He kills some and threatens all as he attempts to buy the town’s interest on the cheap. This has resonance today to people today feeling threatened by faceless, monolithic corporations that can ruin a small city simply by deciding to move manufacturing overseas to save costs. This is truly a nemesis that many people today can relate to.

As the seven prepare to fight, they temporarily shut down the mining operation, which is being run by overseers and workers are being worked in near slave conditions. After being freed, the workers are encouraged to join the town people, who are primarily farmers, to help defend their town. To join the working poor with the agrarian poor has been a longstanding, heretofore unfulfilled dream of organizers for well over a century.

And guess what? Even with all of that PC multicultural diversity, it still follows the western pattern and is still an exciting movie.  Would any of us have trouble recognizing the following story arc:

  • A stranger is enlisted to save a town
  • The towns people, most of them untrained in defense, band together, under the stranger’s leadership, to bravely defend their interests
  • The bad guys are really bad shots (they have a Gatling gun for fuck’s sake), while the good guys simply cannot miss
  • Man, revolvers must hold a lot of bullets
  • The character who seems the most self interested ultimately is the one that makes the largest sacrifice
  • The cowardly character sneaks off in the middle of the night but comes back at the last minute to brave the final stand
  • Upon saving a town, to a chorus of tearful thanks, the stranger rides off

And it all works! I was caught up during the action sequences and I was tearful during the emotional scenes. Regardless of the ethnicity of the character, if the character was sympathetic, I cared about him (or her).

In case there was any doubt, this should lay to rest that great, entertaining, traditional movies can be made while acknowledging the reality of our world today.

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