Magnificient 7 - wide shot

Image courtesy of Columbia Pictures/Sony Entertainment/MGM

The Remake Goes West:

The Magnificent 7

| published October 15, 2016 |

By Cameron Dale, Thursday Review contributor

Obituaries for the Western movie have been written many times, by many authors. In fact, the Hollywood genre has seen ebbs and flows more than any other type of films, despite the fact that many the great myths and ethos of the American West are based in the motion picture and how it has delivered legends of the Old West to the viewing public. A staple of theaters for decades, some westerns of the past 15 years have been famous (even infamous) box office catastrophes (The Lone Ranger; Cowboys & Aliens).

But original stories are hard to come by these days. The last times we watched mostly original Old West plots unfold was in Clint Eastwood’s critically acclaimed Unforgiven, and in Kevin Costner’s grand-looking Open Range—though in each case each writer-director borrowed heavily from other films.

But Hollywood has churned through so many scripts in so many arenas that it seems there is nothing new under the sun for the major studios, or the minor ones as well. Enter the reboot, the spinoff, and the remake. That means most of the good stuff from the 1950s, 60s and 70s is up for grabs, for better or worse. Recent reboots of James Bond, Batman, and Star Trek have all fared well, and earned the studios piles of cash.

Ben Hur is a recent example—big budget, epic scale special effects and set design, a cast of thousands. Except that it somehow missed the mark, not through some lack of cinematic scope or Biblical detail, but through missing star power. Other than Morgan Freeman’s key supporting role, Ben Hur had no top name stars, and its weak box office power was a direct reflection of that error.

The producers of the recent Magnificent 7 swerved hard to avoid that trap. Denzel, they advertise. Need we say more? The Hollywood marketers suggest that almost two thirds of people who have gone to the theater to see this movie have done so because of Washington’s presence at the center of the cast. Star power matters after all.

For sure, audiences have been flocking in to see this grand remake, and not just because of the top billing given Denzel Washington. The ensemble cast includes Chris Pratt (Zero Dark Thirty; Jurassic World), Ethan Hawke (Dead Poets Society; Assault on Precinct 13), Vincent D’Onofrio (Full Metal Jacket; Men in Black), Lee Byung-hun (G.I. Joe: Retaliation; Terminator Genysis), Manuel Garcia-Ruflo (miniseries From Dusk ‘Til Dawn; Cake), and relative newcomer Martin Sensmeier (Salem; Lilin’s Brood; the HBO mini-series Westworld). Peter Sarsgaard, always good as the bad guy, plays a particularly nasty businessman/developer/industrialist and all-around evil-foil to our ragtag group of unlikely anti-heroes and grim heroes.

Filmed principally in northern Louisiana (bet you didn’t see that one coming!) with the use of tax deferments and economic incentives in the post-Katrina economy, the movie nevertheless gains visual authenticity and impeccable credibility with its lavish sets and visual details—effective enough to convince any fan of the western that the story looks and feels authentic. Still, there are obvious places in the scenery where digital composition has been used to recreate the grandeur of the American west, pointless—to my mind—when it would hardly seem more expensive to pack up cast and crew for at least some limited shooting in the real deal western states. Digital effects make great dragons, monsters, aliens, strange planets. They do not make a great tool for recreating American bluffs, buttes, mountains or prairie. Still, to supplement this, some scenes were shot in New Mexico—and there are jarring moments when you can tell the difference between what was created by computer and what was painted by nature and God.

Other than this occasional visual flaw, I have no complaints. The plot is of course a remake/retread of the original screen version of the Magnificent Seven (directed by John Sturges; 1960), which starred Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Eli Wallach, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and Robert Vaughn—a much more top-heavy cast with then some of the biggest Hollywood names. That classic was filmed in a variety of towns and hamlets in Mexico, or in the wide open spaces of Arizona, Utah and New Mexico. No digital backgrounds needed, and nary a matte painting required. Its now famous score by Elmer Bernstein and its cinematography by Charles Lang made it a big screen masterpiece, and a massive money maker that year.

It was also a story heavily rescripted and retooled from the classic Seven Samurai and other Japanese warrior films of Akira Kurosawa—finely-crafted swords traded for the rifles, revolvers and knives of the Old West. Among the writers of the 1960 version of The Magnificent Seven were Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni, though in the Hollywood of that era they received no on-screen credit. I learned their names—along with that of the masterpiece creator Kurosawa—in film classes at Auburn University, where we watched Seven Samurai for credit, and where we studied Kurosawa’s influence on the up-and-coming filmmakers in the United States, Europe, and Asia.

In the classic American Western there are more-or-less two movie eras: the one anchored to the “hero” and his almost super human ability to dodge bad guy bullets and angry native arrows (primarily movies pre-1960), and the era of the anti-hero, a period of reluctant warriors, fallen men and fallen women, hardscrabble lives, and real bullet holes with measurable exit wounds. The original (1960) Magnificent Seven straddles this hinge in the legend and anti-legend of Old West. The 2016 remake is decidedly in the latter camp: its protagonists are not idealists, nor are they without imperfection. Some are hooligans and ner–do-wells merely taking up the mercenary task of battling a comically greedy and ruthless oligarch. Still, the plot works, and works well, even if we recognize that this is an entirely commercial effort at extracting some cash out of what has often been declared a dead cinematic form. As I said, when originality fails, shoot a remake.

The plot of our 2016 version is simple but hard not to like and understand: businessman and industrialist Bartholomew Bogue (Sarsgaard), irritated when a bunch of local people attempt to push back against bullying and exploitation, orchestrates the massacre of half of the town when they attempt to prevent him from taking over a valuable mining operation. A handful of survivors ride off to nearby towns in search of some form of law enforcement who will help—some decline, but warrant officer Sam Chisholm (Denzel Washington), an old adversary of Bogue’s, accepts the mission. Knowing the risks and aware of the violent skill of Bogue’s hired guns, Chisholm patches together a band of mercenaries—each possessing deadly skills of their own.

Not to spoil things—after all, any moviegoer will tell you that there will be an epic gunfight in this kind of sprawling story—but the “good guys” win the final, apocalyptic battle, though not without a few of their own getting killed in the process. The bad guys are laid to rest, justice prevails, and local townsfolk dust themselves off to restart their lives.

The movie serves as a great vehicle for Washington—who gets to basically play the struggling good guy part he has been playing for decades—as well as Pratt, Hawke and D’Onofrio, whose characters are fun to watch.

I see that some reviews at Thursday Review frame the question of seeing this movie or that movie as one of the big screen impact. Surely, the remake is worth seeing on the wide screen. But the flip side is that this movie may also look good on Netflix, HBO, DVD or Blu-ray as well. Depends on your movie budget, I suppose. In that vein, pick that fight yourself. I offer my own thumbs-up for this sprawling western.

One sad footnote to the film’s legacy: it is now, as it turns out, composer James Horner’s last movie score. He died only part way into the principal development of the soundtrack, and the remaining music was scored by friend and protégé Simon Franglen. This, plus Elmer Bernstein’s original classic theme music, makes the soundtrack both diverse and of several tones and styles.

Related Thursday Review articles:

Reflections on the 50th Anniversary of Star Trek; R. Alan Clanton; Thursday Review; September 18, 2016.

Ben Hur: Revenge of the Digital Remake; Maggie Nichols; Thursday Review; August 20, 2016.