THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN

USA 1960

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There is more talk and a lot less action in The Magnificent Seven than people remember. Not all the confrontations between the good and bad guys are violent. There are just two battles between the seven gunslingers and the marauding Mexican bandits of leader Calvera.  And this is in a Western that is over two hours long.  Chico is accepted as the seventh member of the hired American gunmen not because he proves his worth as a tough guy but because he catches a couple of fish for lunch.  In one scene the seven mercenaries hand over their weapons to the Mexican bandits without a fight. Later, though, they return to do the decent thing on behalf of the poor villagers and claim their manhood. Something similar happens in The Wild Bunch. The two movies can be viewed as almost alternative ways of telling the same story. The difference is that the heroes in The Magnificent Seven can hold their booze and do not mess around with whores or rob banks. They are the men without women that Ernest Hemingway identified in his marvellous short stories, men who will struggle in a hostile world.

If The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Seven Samurai, it is The Wild Bunch that honours the Japanese classic. All three films are romantic and poetical but only Seven Samurai and The Wild Bunch persuade us that their heroes are attempting to survive in a real and harsh world. But even if The Magnificent Seven can neither claim authenticity nor originality, it is a marvellous movie and, thanks to its charismatic actors, is always consistent with the glamorous world that is created. There are no false notes in The Magnificent Seven.

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Chico is the not yet adult in the gang but by the end of the film he understands his nature, his need for a wife and why he must settle and become something other than a warrior and a man without a woman.  He communicates his decision to Chris, the leader of the gang, with just one word, ‘Adios’, and nearly sixty years and God knows how many viewings later that moment still dries my throat.  The triumph of The Magnificent Seven is how it makes its action hungry audience feel for its characters. The conversations and debates between the heroes and villains are not just polemical argument although that exists in the film.  The scriptwriters, and despite what the credits say there are two of them, provide solid characterisation. The competent actors do more than play their parts but we also grieve because we have recognised the existential promise and potential of these seven brave but not so great men. The film ends with us sharing their glory but realising the truth about their and our own existences.   Life lasts too long to be sustained by promise and potential. The final shot shows Chris and Vin riding off together into a gorgeous landscape. The two men have everything and nothing, memories of nobility but an empty future.

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The script of The Magnificent Seven is credited to William Roberts. He also contributed to the Sam Peckinpah gem, Ride The High Country.  Apart from that effort his career was spotty but talented Western directors brought out something in Roberts.  No one can deny that Sam Peckinpah and John Sturges were exceptional.  Not all of the films of Sturges succeeded, and he was less innovative as he became older.  At his best, though, he was a master craftsman with a fine eye for the outdoors and a firm control of action. Ten years before The Magnificent Seven, Sturges made the low budget B movie, Mystery Street. The Time film critic called it ‘modest but perfect’.   Jeopardy is also a neglected classic. Its tension is managed with real expertise, and there is not a wasted moment in the whole film. There is also the masterwork Bad Day At Black Rock. Perhaps Sturges needed lyrical dialogue to create his own outdoors visual poetry.  Not to complement the dialogue but to ensure his own work was worthy of comparison with that of the scriptwriter. He had his failures, and his motivation may have consisted of nothing but competitiveness.  But to misquote what Steve Judd says in Ride The High Country, John Sturges could enter his father’s house justified.

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Walter Bernstein is the not named screenwriter on The Magnificent Seven. He is now 98 years old and still works as a visiting instructor at New York University.  In the 50s he was blacklisted in Hollywood for his membership of left wing organisations. Many including me have already written about how The Magnificent Seven dwells on the meaning of masculinity and what constitutes heroism, morality and loyalty, and how it all relates to violence.  The political element, which is likely to have been contributed by Bernstein, is usually overlooked.   The script makes clear that responsibility and application are important to personal worth but so is resistance. The heroes of both The Wild Bunch and The Magnificent Seven progress from individual non-conformism to communal rebellion. There are villagers in The Magnificent Seven who are willing to compromise and accept the demands of their oppressors. These moderates, or what today we call centrists, settle for supposed expediency.  Rebellion means that the villagers are obliged to make decisions about themselves, their lives and the presence of unjust authority.  Democracy requires not only respect for others but also resistance, defiance and a stand against oppressors.

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Such thoughts are not present in the economic approach of bandits like Calvera.   He says to Chris, the leader of the seven gunfighters, ‘Men in our profession do not worry about things like that.’ Near the beginning of the film he kills the villager who attempts to prevent the bandits taking food from the village. The scene reveals that Calvera is not only violent but regards all protest as stupid and unacceptable. He is not unlike the people who set up the blacklists in Hollywood. It may be taut but there is a lot of dialogue in The Magnificent Seven. Calvera is as talkative as anyone.   He has conservative values, and his hatreds include people who are restless and not willing to conform, the decline in religion and the immorality of modern women.  Rather than see himself as an exploiter of ordinary people who have to work hard for a living he complains about the extra responsibility of the powerful.  His men have to be fed, he insists.  Calvera forgets to mention that he only feeds them so they can rob on his behalf.  Calvera argues that the people he persecutes are weak and that their exploitation must be what God intended.  They should know their place and not be curious about how the powerful operate.   After the final battle the old man of the village understands the cost of resistance. ‘Only the farmers have won. They remain farmers.’ Somebody once said the same about the working class but that was before the arrival of consumer capitalism and the supposed death of struggle.   Now, though, we have globalisation and increasing inequality.  Who knows what will happen.

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The recent leak of the Paradise Papers has added to what we know about tax havens and their clients. Estimates vary as to the exact amount being syphoned away from the taxman but whatever is the exact figure it relates to trillions. Something around £7trillion has been robbed from government funds around the world.  Reluctant billionaire taxpayers prefer to pay millions to right wing extremists to dismantle government services rather than fund a local hospital.   These rich tax evaders are like Calvera. They act friendly and somehow manage to feel like victims while they rob everyone blind.  If only ordinary people would stop being restless, they say to their political lackeys.  Whatever the entrepreneurial prowess of these fortunate few the creation of a wealthy elite requires ordinary people to hand their money over to someone else.  Just in case that fails there are governments that impose taxes on the people who have already handed money over to the wealthy few.  Governments use the money they have raised to make investments in schemes that help the rich to make more money.  And if that is not enough, financial institutions create even more money and circulate debt. It sounds like pigs in the trough because that is what was created by the people who got ahead. Calvera spoke about the needs of his men, and global capitalists talk about their portfolios and businesses.  ‘Men in our profession do not worry about things like that.’

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Calvera could have been speaking on behalf of the richest 47 people on the planet, the same people who own over half the global economic wealth and ignore the billions of minions who live on less than $2 a day.   Jacob Rees-Mogg is by some people thought of as a potential Prime Minister.   He believes that the folk who criticise the £7trillion tax scam are ‘hypocritical and not very bright’.   Calvera thought the villagers deserved to be exploited.  He felt that they were submissive sheep created by God.   If Calvera had not been such a short-term thinker, he may have understood that his way of life and unnatural hierarchy could not be sustained.  The short-term approach of this Mexican bandit was, of course, a consequence of his hypocrisy and not being very bright.  There was a time when the Tory Party was supposed to represent solidity.  Now it prefers houses of glass.

Howard Jackson has had six books published by Red Rattle Books including novels, short stories and Horror Pickers, a collection of film criticism.   If you are interested in original horror and crime fiction and want information about the books of Howard Jackson and the other great titles at Red Rattle Books, click here.

 

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