Editor’s Note: The Magnificent Seven opens in wide theatrical release today, September 23, 2016.
In the second-to-last scene of director Antoine Fuqua’s (Southpaw, The Equalizer, Under the Sun, Training Day) less than magnificent, predictably bloodless remake of John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven, Fuqua oddly sets aside the overt pro-diversity message for a far more conservative, regressive one: Denzel Washington’s bounty-hunter-turned-community-organizer, Sam Chisholm removes a recently used rifle from the hands of Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), a proto-feminist who sets the plot in motion by hiring Chisholm and his band of six, not-so-merry men to save her town of Rose Creek from the personification of corporate greed and unfettered capitalism, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). On the surface, the gesture represents the end of violence and the restoration of law and order, the foundational myth of the American West, but also a different kind of restoration, the strict gender codes of a newly reasserted patriarchy (because Chisholm gives the rifle to a surviving townsman).
Even as Fuqua populates his remake with non-white leads, The Magnificent Seven runs headlong into an ironic contradiction: Three men of color, each one a victim of American imperialism and colonialism, protecting the “rights” of settlers to farm and raise livestock in peace, free of the corporate capitalism that elevates profits over people.
That seemingly intentional misstep shouldn’t come as a surprise to anyone even passingly familiar with the American Western. Like the American history it often purports to represent, literally and figuratively, the Western is filled with contradictions and paradoxes, complexities and profundities that can’t be reduced to a single, unified meaning. As the United States has evolved into a more demographically diverse, more cultural country (notwithstanding the reactionary, nativist politics of the GOP’s current presidential candidate and his numerous followers, of course), so has the Western, but even as Fuqua populates his remake with Washington, a two-time Academy Award-winning actor, and two other non-white leads, Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw, and Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a monosyllabic, Native-American warrior, The Magnificent Seven runs headlong into an ironic contradiction: Three men of color, each one a victim of American imperialism and colonialism, protecting the “rights” of settlers to farm and raise livestock in peace, free of the corporate capitalism that elevates profits over people.
Those rights immediately come under literal fire when Bogue and his hired mercenaries invade Rose Creek, throwing open the doors of the local church and threatening the townspeople with violence if they don’t sell their land at bargain-rate prices to his mining company (see also, the current controversy over fracking for contemporary relevance). Fuqua and his screenwriting team, Richard Wenk and Nic Pizzolatto (True Detective), immediately foreground Bogue’s symbolic status: Once he gives a speech about Capitalism, Democracy, and God (not necessarily in that order), he’s meant to represent more than mere cartoon villainy. As portrayed by a near emaciated Sarsgaard, Bogue’s mustache twirling cruelty and capriciousness certainly makes him a villain worthy of Chisholm’s enmity (and our own), but he’s also meant to represent the dark side of America’s western expansion (i.e., Manifest Destiny incarnate).
Unfortunately, Fuqua relegates Bogue to just a handful of scenes (three total, actually), a function of The Magnificent Seven’s central conceit: Once Emma Cullen hires Chisholm to defend Rose Creek against Bogue’s predations, The Magnificent Seven segues into obligatory “get the team together” mode. Chisholm picks up his first recruit, Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), an Irish gambler and gunfighter, in a nearby town, before parting with Faraday (double the recruits in half the time). Faraday adds Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), an ex-Confederate sharpshooter with PTSD, and Robicheaux’s right-hand man/business associate, Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee, an international star hired primarily for his overseas box-office potential than his character’s narrative contributions), while Chisholm recruits Vazquez and Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a semi-crazy mountain man. Red Harvest becomes the seventh and final member – seven if we don’t count Emma Cullen (in which case Fuqua should have retitled his remake The Magnificent Eight).
Fuqua feints occasionally toward diversity and inclusivity, but given the demands of Hollywood filmmaking and escapist-minded moviegoers, he doesn’t press the issue too often or even overtly.
Fuqua feints occasionally toward diversity and inclusivity, but given the demands of Hollywood filmmaking and escapist-minded moviegoers, he doesn’t press the issue too often or even overtly. Chisholm might be African-American and The Magnificent Seven may be set less than twenty years after the end of the Civil War, but any wariness or hesitation he encounters has little, if anything, to do with Chisholm’s status as a black man in Post-Reconstruction America than his status as a bounty hunter, killer, and mercenary, a rootless man without a home or family. That’s probably the direct consequence of the studio’s desire to present a positive, “color blind” iteration of (fictionalized) American history and avoid potentially alienating a certain segment of the general moviegoing public, but that’s the difference between a relatively big budget, mainstream Hollywood film made by a genre conservative like Fuqua and an independent, controversy-courting, genre-subverting entry made by an actual auteur like Quentin Tarantino (Hateful Eight, Django Unchained).
Everything else, from the introduction of a near mythic Chisholm astride his horse as he rides across the landscape – complete with waves of shimmering heat – through the last shot of the survivors riding off into the literal sunset repeats long hardened genre tropes and conventions, leaving moviegoers with the well-founded suspicion that Fuqua and his screenwriting team were perfectly content to play the quote or homage game with Western fans and provide casual fans with more than enough PG-13-rated action to keep them satiated while a few, potentially intriguing, under-developed themes perpetually simmer in the background, never to be seen or heard from again once the lengthy shootout to end all shootouts takes over the last half hour of screen time.
Antoine Fuqua's remake of The Magnificent Seven repeats well-worn genre tropes and conventions, leaving moviegoers with the well-founded suspicion that the film is perfectly content to play the quote game with Western fans, while providing the rest of the audience with just enough PG-13-rated action to keep them satisfied.