Also read my “Now” post for this blogathon HERE!
I’m a sucker for Westerns. It has been one of my favorite genres since I was a small child. When my niece and nephew were little, I tried to impart my love of classic movies to them (mostly successfully, I’m happy to report). When my nephew was 10 years old, I showed him one of my very favorite Westerns, the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven.
As we watched it, I was a little concerned that my nephew would find it boring. Though I wouldn’t categorize it as a cerebral Western, it has long stretches without action and focuses more on the characters than the shoot-em-ups.
The minute it was over, he begged me to show it to him again.
Based on the Akira Kurosawa film Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven has a deceptively simple plot: poor farmers who live in a small Mexican village are terrorized every year by a gang of bandits who take most of their food and supplies. Desperate to keep the bandits out, they decide to gather everything of value they own and use the money for hired guns.
I say “deceptively” because there is a lot more going on in this film than a simple revenge plot. When three of the farmers arrive at a border town, they witness an unusual tableau. An undertaker is refusing to hold a funeral paid for by some passing salesman. It’s because the dead man is Native American, and the town refuses to allow him a burial in Boot Hill.
Two professional gunmen, Chris Adams (Yul Brenner) and Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) defy the threats by the townspeople and drive the hearse to Boot Hill. The farmers are so impressed they ask Chris to help them drive out the bandits.
Both Chris and Vin have seen better days but still balk at the proposition. The story is set at a point in the West’s history when civilization (and its laws—not to mention prejudices) are taking hold. The need for gunmen is rapidly declining. They are almost walking anachronisms and keenly aware of it.
They eventually agree to help the farmers and cobble together a team of six men (James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter) including themselves. A young hot-head (Horst Buchholz) persists in following them and is eventually permitted to join the group.
In the village, they teach the residents to fight against the bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his men. Against their will, the men begin to care about what happens to the villagers and the town. They face their own fears and what they have missed in life because of the path they have chosen. They realize that bravery isn’t always facing down an opponent with a gun, and gain a deep respect for the famers.
For this blogathon I will also review the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, which boasts are more diverse cast of main characters. Here’s the interesting thing, though: the original actually has more to say about racism than the remake. Chris and Vin risk their lives so a Native American they didn’t even know can get a decent burial. This incident gives rise to one of the best lines of dialogue in the movie:
“Well I’ll be damned. I never knew you had to be anything but a corpse to get into Boot Hill. How long’s this been going on?”
“Since the town got civilized.”
Unlike most classic Westerns, the non-white characters are essential to the story and portrayed as complex human beings. (Except for Wallach, Buchholz, and Vladimir Sokoloff, who plays the village elder, most of the Mexican characters are played by Mexican or Mexican-American actors. I even recognized a couple of the Mexican actors from my days of watching telenovelas.)
What I’ve always found most appealing about Westerns is the theme of community (represented by the village here) and also the theme of reinvention/clean slate. The gunmen are becoming outmoded, yet find they have a final chance to recast themselves as true heroes. Given the opportunity to abandon the villagers to their fate, they risk everything to drive the bandits out for good. Even they aren’t quite sure why they do it. Nor do they see themselves as winners in the fight.
When the film first came out it was mostly reviled as a pale attempt to remake Seven Samurai. (Kurosawa disagreed, and presented director John Sturges with a samurai sword in appreciation.) As the years have gone on, it has risen in estimation as a thoughtful film with both rousing action and memorable characters.
It’s no wonder my nephew was so anxious to see it again.