"What we lost in the fire, we'll find in the ashes." — Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington)
Westerns were the B-movie popcorn fare of my father's generation, buoyed by the occasional A-list production such as John Ford's Stagecoach. Fairly inexpensive to produce, Westerns dominated early television with shows like Gunsmoke, and some blame television for theatrical Westerns being polluted by more introspective screenplays which detracted from the traditional formula in which right and wrong was decided by whoever could draw faster.
The truth is that the best Westerns — films such as Red River, High Noon and Shane — always possessed psychological ambiguity.
Then, in 1960, at the twilight of the genre, there appeared director John Sturges's The Magnificent Seven, a transitional entry between the traditional and the revisionist style ushered in by Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns. In what began as a simple semi-historical adventure, suddenly heroes and sometimes even villains suddenly reflected deeply on what it meant to kill another man with a gun.
Director Antoine Fuqua's remake of Sturges's film, itself a thinly-veiled remake of Akira Kurosawa's masterpiece The Seven Samurai, pulls out all the stops to return the genre to its roots as uncomplicated fables of good vs. evil where there is no question as to which is which.
Reunited with Training Day stars Denzel Washington and Ethan Hawke — who, perhaps not coincidentally, share the film's best moment — Fuqua also enlists Chris Pratt, Vincent D'Onofrio (who affects an unusual stylistic choice in his performance), Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Byung-Hun Lee and Martin Sensmeier to defend a small town besieged by villain Peter Sarsgaard, at the behest of widow Halley Bennett (who also had a role opposite Washington in Fuqua's The Equalizer). An enormously fun cast they are, although I have to observe that, with the exception of Washington himself, this version lacks the "cool" factor of a film co-starring Yul Brynner, James Coburn, Steve McQueen and Charles Bronson, but everybody seems to have a great time.
But why all the bloodshed? And there's hundreds of gallons; in fact, I can't keep up with the body count, especially in the last hour of the film, one prolonged, seemingly endless gun battle. The simple answer is there's gold in them thar hills, and Sarsgaard wants it. That's as complex as it gets. Or is it?
The sociopolitical implication never occurred to me as a child growing up in the heyday of the Western, but as an adult I realize that the perennial villain in virtually all of them is the robber-baron capitalist who wants everyone's land or water or both and is perfectly willing to kill them for it. That is, of course, Westerns where the Native Americans themselves weren't the villains for having the temerity to resent being killed for their land. I'm not sure, given the current electoral season, that a film featuring a rapacious developer who must be defeated by a multiethnic coalition is quite the innocent action film it portends to be, and I'm not entirely certain why the town that must be rescued is no longer populated by Mexican peasants but by what in 1879 would have been middle class white gringos. Nevertheless, Fuqua's subversiveness, more camouflaged than Quentin Tarantino's in Django Unchained, is brilliant.
Of course, you don't have to read all that social commentary into it. The Magnificent Seven is gleefully enjoyable as the kind of Saturday morning popcorn flick your grandfather enjoyed. Saddle up.