politics

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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THE MOVIE CHALLENGES

TRILOGY OF TERROR

USA, 1975

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Dan Curtis must have had strong teeth. No one in authority in 70s American television programming would have encouraged him to make The Night Stalker and Trilogy Of Terror. Back then American TV executives were determined to embrace what they thought was the lowest common denominator. These executives claimed to understand the power of what used to be called media networks. Independent minded producers like Dan Curtis survived by gritting their teeth and staying determined. Trilogy Of Terror is a portmanteau movie that collects together three stories by the great Richard Matheson.  His vampire and Robinson Crusoe inspired novel I Am Legend is unsurpassed.  Amongst his always readable short stories are an exceptional handful, most of which made it into The Twilight Zone.  Curtis directed Trilogy Of Terror and produced The Night Stalker. Trilogy Of Terror is not as great as the vampire classic The Night Stalker but it deserves its cult status amongst movie fans.

If Trilogy Of Terror succeeds as a TV movie, the individual stories are not memorable. Most people will anticipate the twists in the first two episodes.   The third is less predictable but, because of what has preceded it in Trilogy Of Terror, we soon have an idea of what will happen. The influence of American TV executives is also more pronounced in Trilogy Of Terror than in The Night Stalker. This influence manifests itself as soft focus photography, over-exposed colour film and self-censorship. Oddly, none of this diminishes Trilogy Of Terror. Albeit mainly in passing, Trilogy Of Terror refers ever so politely to rape, Satanism, incest, voyeurism, pornography, diabolic possession, sexual sadism and masochism and, of course, murder. It even has a savage and relentless monster with dreadful teeth although it is only a foot tall.

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The title of the first story is changed from The Likeness Of Julie to just Julie. The original title by Matheson is clever. It refers to image and authenticity and the confusion that exists between men and women over identity. But the title of the movie episode is restricted to just the female name. The second story is called Millicent And Therese. In print the title of the third story by Richard Matheson is Prey but in Trilogy Of Terror this becomes Amelia.  All three stories in the TV movie have short titles that are nothing more than the names of females. The names alone constitute ambiguity and mystery.  In each episode a woman uses fashion and available grooming alternatives to construct a persona. The identities of these women are not just shaped by their emotional needs but by their physical appearance, the influence of other women, circumstance and male expectations and assumptions.

Karen Black appears in all three films.  Across the three episodes she changes her character on five occasions.  Dress, spectacles and manner are as important as personality. Bright make-up alerts us to the threat of one of the three women, and all are the opposite of what they appear. Karen Black is obliged to be the seductive siren, a female psychopath, a homely spinster, a repressed daughter and an awkward but independent academic. Black was a good choice for the film because she was both attractive and physically flawed. She suffered from strabismus. When she wears glasses, her crossed eyes look confused and suggest an excluded, defeated and repressed spirit.  The same eyes, though, when exposed, light a face that has charm.  Her voice is also complicated. It varies between being a timid whisper, an irritating whine or a sharp accusatory whip.

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Before Trilogy Of Terror the three stories were stand-alone efforts that appeared in print at different times. Dan Curtis was not stupid and he selected them for a reason. He uses the stories to make a feminist point that in a male American TV producer was unusual in 1975. None of the female characters in Trilogy Of Terror have an authentic self. In two of the stories the men are remote and unimportant figures but in the first story we witness a relationship between a man and a woman. The male thinks that by undressing his professor he will discover something sexual, authentic and perhaps primitive. He is doomed because he fails to understand that the deception between men and woman is not just mutual but complicated. The final victory of the woman includes a triumphant burning of the photographs that the deceitful male has taken.  She has asserted her own identity, defied the deluded masculine gaze, satisfied some peculiar appetites and overcome the technology that the powerful male assumed would enable him to seduce and control. Written down these events sound impressive and classic Matheson. But the predictable ending of the episode is weak and the narrative is underwritten. The episode feels like it has a missing scene. When Julie says, ‘You see, I’m really bored,’ there has been nothing to explain this boredom.

The second story, Millicent And Therese, concerns a schizophrenic identity.   The local doctor who is part GP, psychiatrist and all round good neighbour takes the story towards whimsy and is a weakness in a plot, which already has stretched credibility in an earlier scene with a male lover. The encounter with the child is also unnecessary. Its inclusion is odd considering the excess editing in Julie. The child actor, though, is great. If Millicent And Therese shows sympathy for the female plight and guilt that is a consequence of excessive masculine authority, it also explains male paranoia about women. It may be pleasant for men to have women pander to their expectations and create contrived identities but even men pay a price for these demands being indulged. The continual performance required from women means that men are confused about the authenticity of their own desires.

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In the third story a mother dominated woman called Amelia unwraps an exotic purchase from a gift shop. The small statue has powers, and the episode requires her to fight and struggle against a relentless and violent monster. This is both chilling and comic. The episode has at least three surprising and startling moments and it is as terrifying as anything that could be seen on TV screens in that decade.  The identity of Amelia is shaped by a desperate need for maternal approval. At the end of the episode Amelia is free of that need but her identity has paid a terrible price. Life for Mother will not be that good, either.

The confusion between the genders that Dan Curtis identified and highlighted 40 years ago still exists. Michael Fallon is, as The Canary editor Kerry Anne Mendoza describes him, a man educated above his intelligence and promoted above his ability. He was also a competent, pragmatic poodle and he had an important part to play in the Conservative Party as all-purpose lapdog. Fallon is no longer the Defence Secretary of the British Government. Like Chad the male character in Julie, our previous Defence Secretary was poor in evaluating the identities of the women he groped.   He made the assumption that they would be flattered and excited by the presence of his wrinkled hands on their bodies. Damian Green claims to believe in faith, family and flag.   Green is the Minister for the Cabinet Office, or the Deputy to the Prime Minister. Think not to be trusted Alsatian. Colleagues describe this social conservative and alternative terrier as ‘high risk in a taxi’.  According to a certain spreadsheet, there are others. In both the main British political parties there have been occasions when the careers and needs of male politicians have been regarded as more important than offences against women.   Damage to female employees has been regarded as collateral.

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Men and women have seduced and been seduced by one another from when they appeared on the planet but we are still hopeless and helpless. Power, privilege and hierarchy have made a complex mix toxic. Not that the Daily Mail has lost its confident step. No worries in that particular media outlet about the authentic female self in a society constructed by a male hierarchy. Not slow to act it has done a smear job on an offended woman and described her as ‘a very pushy lady’.  The message of Trilogy Of Terror was that the authentic self is not available to women.  They are expected to be a construction that will help those who own newspapers like the Daily Mail to maintain order.   The problem for the proprietors of the Daily Mail is that they are not quite so adept these days at keeping the genders in their supposed place. It may feel like chaos on the streets right now but progress has been made since a headstrong TV film producer challenged accepted notions of how men and women saw each other and themselves.  Today there is not just Dan Curtis who has noticed something odd.  Actresses complain of sexual exploitation, and political party activists feel less obliged to indulge men who have either been educated above their intelligence or promoted above their ability.  Meanwhile the Daily Mail sells fewer copies.

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.