50 Years Difference

The Magnificent Seven is 56 years old. 3 years older than me.

It’s very interesting to see the changes and difference between two films telling the same story, fifty years apart.

The original 1960’s version is a timecapsule of sorts… made at the height of Hollywood’s love affair of the Western, before more realistic depictions of the genre would focus on the blood and violence of the American Frontier. The violence and action in it is of the sterile, stylized Hollywood kind: all of it staged and non-threatening. It’s a romantic film really, one that glorifies the hallmarks of the shoot ’em genre: blood that looks more like paint, perfectly round bullet holes, shooting guns out of hands, etc.

The 1960 version (based on Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai) stars  Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, Steve McQueen, and Horst BuchholzCharles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, James Coburn, and Brad Dexter.

Fifty years ago, the gun was seen as something pure. It was the weapon that won the West, what established America as the land of the Free, home of the Brave.

It didn’t quite carry the stigma it does today, or maybe that’s just me looking back at it through the lens of nostalgia. Guns and violence still happened in 1960’s America… it just didn’t seem to happen as often as it does today.

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From the moment the film starts and Elmer Bernstein’s rousing score fills the speakers, you know you are in for a “feel good” kind of movie. It’s a straightforward good guys vs. bad guys situation and the music lets you know its going to be fun, exciting… something to cheer for.

It’s a throwback to watch it, having just sat through the Antoine Fuqua 2016 re-make with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, Haley Bennett, Luke Grimes, Matt Bomer, and Peter Sarsgaard.

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What strikes you about the original is its bravado – it’s almost naive chivalry and lighthearted tone.

Both films open with the villains first, showing us the rough and ugly side of the West – only, the 2016 version is set in an unnamed territory (somewhere, apparently, a week’s ride from Sacramento) whereas the original is about the hired guns protecting a Mexican village over the border and outside the USA.

The tone is strikingly different in each – the 1960’s version is almost upbeat, the Mexican bandits not all that threatening, except for Eli Wallach who slaps a guy around and then shoots a man dead. The 2016 version is right from the start more dramatic and dangerous, with Sarsgaard’s greedy, land-obsessed Bogue threatening a child, burning the town’s church to the ground and then shooting a man dead.

In the 60’s version you kind of get the impression that (because of the music and the staging) that the stakes and consequences are not really that high. The men that join the Seven are noble knights on a quest – they expect to die in battle, for honor and glory.

The 2016 version however, never really gives you that impression. It can’t. Because those kind of ideals don’t really hold water these days. The men who sign up for the Seven in the modern take are more mercenary, more brutish in a way… they walk into it knowing that they will probably die – but they also will be taking a lot of “bad” guys with them.

Its interesting to note that the subtle, subconscious politics of the 1960 version – that the poor Mexican farmers need to cross the border into America to buy guns and hire more able-bodied fighters to defend their land and homes. The USA was still seen as the savior of the world then, before Vietnam, before Watergate and Irangate, before Iraq and 9/11.

And it’s another (almost embarrassing) re-iteration that only the White Man is capable of taking care of business. All of the hired hands in the 1960 version are White men – except for Horst Buchholz who plays kind of a half Mexican hothead (its not stated outright only implied) whose name is Chico.

The 2016 version of the Seven is more diverse, with the leader being black, and including not only a Texican (“There’s no such thing as a Texican” I think is the line from the script) but a Korean knife-thrower and a Comanche to boot.

Not that it matters in the slightest really – race and nationality don’t really matter when you are putting together a team of gunslingers. What matters is are they good and are they willing to kill.

When we first meet the leader of the gunslingers in the 1960’s version, he’s taking on the job of escorting the body of a dead Indian to a graveyard – its a statement against racism in a kind of backhanded way – seeing as how the white dudes are helping out a dead guy.

The issue of race never really arises in the 2016 version, at least it didn’t seem to for me – the confrontation at the end between Denzel Washington and Peter Sarsgaard didn’t really seem to be a racist one so much as just a bad guy getting his for being a outright sonofbitch and doing nasty things to innocent people back in Kansas. The racism in that exchange isn’t blatant or outright, but it’s there… and I found it very interesting to see how the good guy is black (dressed in black – an homage to Yul Brynner’s character in the original) and the bad guy is white (but also dressed in black) and how it speaks (intentionally or not) to the tensions that are taking place in our streets as I type this.

The reviews for the 2016 remake praise the acting but also point out that it really doesn’t change or innovate much from the original – other than they are fighting to protect a bunch of white farmers from greedy white men, rather than protecting Mexican farmers from a gang of Mexican bandits.

The gun fights and killing in the 2016 version is a bit more brutal than that of the 60’s version (with more explosions of course) but no where near as gory and gut-wrenching as say The Wild Bunch or Rambo.

But the one thing that struck me about the film was the ending.

In the 1960’s version, at the end, the aftermath of the violence and the impact that it has on the villagers is pretty much the same as the townsfolk in the 2016 version. But whereas the 60’s version is more somber and quiet, the 2016 version is a kind of weird celebration with lots of dead guys and townspeople congratulating themselves and the three surviving gunslingers. It just struck me as odd.

And like the 60’s version, there’s still a speech about how the ones who died will be remembered as heroes – but when the music swells and the survivors are riding off in the original, the music sounds out of place. It’s overly heroic, but it doesn’t have the rousing thematic quality of Bernstein’s score – which comes rushing onto the screen when the credits start to roll, which is almost jarring and a blatant reminder that this is a re-make: look, were using the same music here! Clever, huh!?

It was a decent re-make, a more modern take, a more realistic one. But I can’t say its better. I think original did a better job of making the Seven likable and identifiable – more human in a way.

But that’s the trouble with re-makes, I guess. Comparisons are inevitable and its rare when a remake improves on something. Finding the right ingredients is always tricky.

But, go see it for yourself, make your own judgment. It’s not a bad way to spend a couple of hours.

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