The Magnificent Seven Ride Again

“There’s a tough battle ahead leading to neither money nor rank. Will you join us?”

“I won’t be wronged. I won’t be insulted, and I won’t be laid a hand on. I don’t do these things to other people, and I require the same from them.” J.B. Brooks, The Shootist

“Be peaceful, be courteous, obey the law, respect everyone; but [if] someone puts his hands on you, send him to the cemetery.” Malcolm X, Malcolm X Speaks: Selected Speeches and Statements

In his 1907 autobiography The Life and Adventures of Nat Love, Love wrote: “In those days on the great cattle ranges there was no law but the law of might, and all disputes were settled with a forty-five Colt pistol. In such cases the man who was quickest on the draw and whose eye was the best, pretty generally got the decision.” At its most basic, the Western is a dream, a creation myth set in a wide open space where we make our own law, and our own justice. The Western’s characters grapple with their fears, their dreams, their demons; they decide who is righteous, and who makes the law. And the Western is a microcosm of America, a reflection of the country at the time it's made. Director Antoine Fuqua claims his only wish was to see Denzel Washington on a horse, but his remake of The Magnificent Seven is undeniably a political statement about Trump’s America that also happens to be a very rare thing: a fun, beautiful, new Western that looks forward, not back. By resisting the impulse to mire his film in nostalgia for America’s West as seen in old movies, Antoine Fuqua keeps the Western alive. The Magnificent Seven doesn’t rewrite history — it restores it.

Antoine Fuqua’s grandmother loved Westerns, and he grew up watching them with her on Sunday afternoons. She loved Yul Brynner, and she would talk about each man as they were introduced in The Magnificent Seven. The moment Steve McQueen meets Yul Brynner left an impression on Fuqua: Brynner and McQueen stand up to the racist townsfolk and risk their lives help bury a Native American man in a cemetery these townsfolk have deemed “white.” Antoine Fuqua explained his decision to remake The Magnificent Seven: “I grew up watching Westerns and I wanted to be the cowboy, and they were always white. The Native Americans were portrayed as savages, women were all objects, Mexicans were all workers. But that was not the West.” He wanted to update the Western, and he wanted to make a film that reflected America as it is today, and America as it was: diverse. At the height of the wild West, there were about 20,000 Chinese immigrants in America, and some historians believe up to a third of cowboys were Black, and a third of them were Mexican. The American West has only ever been white in the movies.

Denzel Washington’s character, the duly-sworn warrant officer Sam Chisholm, brings to mind Bass Reeves, the first Black deputy U.S. marshal west of the Mississippi and the man who inspired the Lone Ranger. He arrested 3,000 outlaws, had a Native American partner, used silver dollars as a calling card. In 1901 D.C. Gideon wrote that Reeves was “fifty years old, weighs one hundred and eighty pounds, stands six feet tall and two inches in his stockings, and fears nothing that moves and breathes.” When the Emancipation Proclamation freed Reeves, he wound up in the Oklahoma Territory where he lived with the Cherokee, learned how to shoot, track, ride, and speak several Native American languages. Denzel especially channels Bass Reeves when he meets Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a Comanche warrior, and speaks his language fluently. Then there’s Lee Byung-hun’s Billy Rocks, an Asian indentured servant who kills his masters, and Ethan Hawke’s Goodnight Robicheaux, the bounty hunter sent to find him — but Goody sees Billy in a knife fight and decides he’d rather be his friend.  “What a merry band we are,” Goodnight announces as they ride along before meeting trapper/reclusive mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). “Me a Grey, Chisholm a Blue, Billy a mysterious man of the Orient, a drunk Irishman, a ‘Texican,’ a female and her gentlemen caller. This is not going to end well.” He mentions that his grandfather was killed “by a horde of teeming brown devils” at the Alamo, and Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) responds that his grandfather may have killed Goodnight’s grandfather. “What a charming thought. I sense we are bonding.” After that, their differences seem to be forgotten, the seven united by a common cause.

In Seven Samurai and the original Magnificent Seven, the men of the village fear for their women and hide them, and it’s an old man who advises these villagers. Petra of Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven and Seven Samurai’s Shino are only love interests, and their worth to their fathers is in the preservation of their virtue. But Fuqua’s remake reimagines a woman leading the homesteaders of the mining town Rose Creek. Haley Bennett’s Emma Cullen is the only one with balls enough to protect Rose Creek. She does not need to be taught how to shoot. She avenges her husband’s murder, and she saves would-be hero Chisholm’s life. Chris Pratt’s Joshua Faraday tells Cullen that she “might want to wear some pants if [she’s] fixing to fight,” and she ignores him: she wears a dress, and she fights. When Goodnight flees, she offers to take his place. In Chisholm’s and Bogue’s final showdown in the town’s church, a struggling Bogue reaches for Chisholm’s gun and almost takes it from him. It’s Cullen who shoots Bogue, saving Chisholm’s life. Chisholm seeks revenge but she seeks righteousness, and the film’s most heroic moment belongs to her.

The Mexican village in John Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven was beset by Mexican bandits, but screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk created a villain named Bartholomew Bogue, a white mining industrialist played by Peter Sarsgaard, a man described as a robber baron — a man not unlike Donald Trump. He believes all men have a price, that gold is God. These homesteaders aren’t farmers fighting for barley and rice — they’re defending the land that belongs to them, defending their homes. Bogue is the one who trespasses, he is no better than a bandit as he tries to use fear, money, and murder to take their homes from them. Historian Frederick Jackson Turner had called the frontier “the meeting point between savagery and civilization,” one of the Western’s basic tensions, but Fuqua flips our expectations about who the civilized and the savage are. In the film’s commentary, Martin Sensmeier calls Bogue and his men “terrorists” — they are the savages.

In his 1997 biography of John Wayne, Garry Wills writes that immigrants once asked the question: “What is an American?” and, according to Wills, the answer that Hollywood gave them was John Wayne. Wills explained: “The archetypal American is a displaced person — arrived from a rejected past, breaking into a glorious future, on the move, fearless himself, feared by other, a killer but cleansing the world of things that ‘need killing,’ loving but not bound down by love, rootless but carrying the Center in himself, a gyroscopic direction-setter, a traveling norm.” Reflecting on Wills’s definition now, the “archetypal American” sounds nothing like John Wayne, and a hell of a lot more like the immigrant pondering the question in the first place. The story of The Magnificent Seven rejects the rugged, independent individualism represented by John Wayne and reminds us of an American dream that belongs to the community, to the disenfranchised.

Whether it’s about samurai or gunslingers, this story has always been subversive, anti-capitalist, opposing the dominant order. In the beginning, the Seven’s motivations aren’t quite pure, whether it’s money, revenge, evading a warrant. And then it becomes the greater good that these men fight for as they take the hero’s journey together. The farmers in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai are not noble, but that doesn’t mean they don’t deserve to be defended. The distinction between peasants, the bandits, and the samurai — between good versus evil — isn’t clear cut. They are all victims of the feudal order. But Fuqua draws a distinctive line between the homesteaders and Bogue. Like Trump, Bogue embodies the dominant order. His perspective is that of a capitalist, and a predator: “If God didn’t want ‘em sheared, he wouldn’t have made ‘em sheep.” The Seven’s breakthrough is that it doesn’t matter whether the villagers are bad or good, they are vulnerable and they deserve to be protected.

Antoine Fuqua described Sturges’s The Magnificent Seven as “classic mythology, it’s the hero’s journey, and it’s about the best of us coming together for one cause, to do the right thing.” These are the people who save the homesteaders from a tyrant: a Black lawman, a Comanche warrior, a Mexican outlaw, an Asian assassin, a Confederate veteran suffering from PTSD, a drunk Irish gambler, a religious trapper, and a woman. They are outsiders, exiles, and outlaws who come together for a common good, who find the good in themselves. These are the people preserving and protecting the dream of America against those trying to destroy it. Trump’s America doesn’t belong to him — it never has. The state of the Western and the state of America both seem perilous now, but maybe there’s still hope. When Chisholm talks about the end of the Civil War with Goodnight, a war where these two men once fought on opposite sides, he reassures us: “What we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes.”

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