Also read my “Then” post for this blogathon HERE!
It seems like every day there’s another announcement out of Hollywood that a classic film is being remade. 99.9% of the time, I’m totally uninterested in the resulting films.
However, when it was announced that there would be a remake of The Magnificent Seven with a diverse cast and African-American director Antoine Fuqua helming, I became very excited.
As much as I love classic Westerns, there’s no getting around the fact that most of them erased the diversity of the frontier. About a quarter to a third of working cowboys in the West were African-American. Many more were Mexican and Native American. People from literally every corner of the globe went to the American West seeking a new life.
This erasure in films has slowly been changing since about the 1970s, but the few Westerns made nowadays are still overwhelmingly focused on white characters.
So much so that some reviews of the 2016 film expressed doubt that an African-American man could be a lawman, yet they did exist historically. (Ironically, I also read a review of the original film that expressed skepticism about someone like Yul Brynner existing in the West—even though his ancestry is mostly European. Go figure.)
The most famous African-American Western lawman is probably Sam Bass. I suspect that the character of Sam Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, is based on him somewhat.
This version of The Magnificent Seven is similar to the original, but diverges from it in some key aspects. Instead of a Mexican village terrorized by bandits, it is a mining town called Rose Creek that is being taken over by a robber baron named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Intent on owning all the land and its gold, Bogue tells the residents to take twenty dollars each for their farms and vacate, or face the consequences. Then he torches their church and guns down several people who object.
One of the victims is Matthew Cullen (Matt Bomer). His widow Emma (Haley Bennett) sets out with another resident, Teddy (Luke Grimes), to find men who will help them defeat Bogue. They encounter U.S. Marshall Sam Chisolm and plead for his help. He refuses until he learns that their enemy is Bogue.
He gathers a group of gunmen, including gambler Joshua Faraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate soldier Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his partner and knife expert Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), mountain man Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), and Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo). They meet up with Comanche warrior Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), who rounds out the group.
So how does this version compare to the original? Well, mostly, it doesn’t. That doesn’t mean it’s a bad film—I found it a solid, entertaining Western for the most part. I enjoyed the performances immensely (heck, I could watch Denzel in a Western all the live-long day, every day). It was refreshing to see a woman driving the plot in a Western, too.
Unfortunately, the characters simply lack the depth of those in the original. Mainly because this version forgoes what drove them in the first place: their own irrelevance in a rapidly changing West. Instead, it substitutes a rote revenge plot. (Chisolm has a personal grudge against Bogue, of course.) Giving at least the lead character an actual reason to defeat the villain changes the story profoundly, and not in a good way. Bogue is such a stereotypical baddie, he’s almost silly at times. Calvera was a much more complex villain in the original, who was able to manipulate some of the townspeople to support him.
But like I said, as a straight-up, shoot-em-up, the film is highly enjoyable.
The film does make ONE major misstep I find almost unforgiveable:
They close out the credits with Elmer Bernstein’s iconic theme music from the original.
Dudes. Don’t remind people that a better version of your film exists.