by Danny Stout
Box office sales come hard for traditional westerns in an age of futuristic action films. Yet The Magnificent Seven, based on the 1960 version starring Yul Brynner, Eli Wallach, and Steve McQueen, is a fusion of old and new themes wrapped in a more mature, even sophisticated refreshment of the genre. At one level it’s a shoot-em’-up cowboy flick for fading fans of the gunslinger movies. At another, like Unforgiven, starring Clint Eastwood, it conveys the realism of death and sorrow of old west violence. This is accomplished by a former Civil War officer Ethan Hawke, that is conflicted between the urge to fight, and the devastation of death.
Hawke’s aversion for violence is a minor theme, however, as both versions of Magnificent Seven are based on the Old West-style remake of Akira Kurosawa‘s 1954 Japanese-language film Seven Samurai, a film strewn with injured and dead bodies.
This version, starring Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Lee Byung-hun, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier, and Peter Sarsgaard is about a peaceful western town ravaged by a criminal miner that forces the townspeople to sell their land to his gold-mining company. Several resist and are killed, setting up the revenge motive underlying the story. The ruthless treatment of the citizens achieves high dramatic tension. The “get the bad guys” motive is emotionally planted in audience members’ minds, especially when an innocent hard-working mother (Haley Bennett) loses her beloved husband and father of several children.
Revenge is such a strong plot device, that it has its own genre, “revenge movies.” It’s perplexing for the moral viewer heeding Matthew 5:38-39: “Ye have heard that it hath been said, an eye for an eye and a tooth for a tooth: But I say unto you, That ye resist not evil: but whosever shall smite thee on the right cheek, turn to him the other also.” Some site scattered references to avenging one’s foes in the scriptures, but the Christian ideal is peace, and after fiftieth person shot, one questions whether the magnificent seven, although brave, are so magnificent after all. In the second half, someone gets shot about every ten seconds it seems.
Nevertheless, the moral questions surrounding revenge are laid out for us to contemplate. We use words, not guns, but there’s a relevant message for our everyday lives and relationships.
It’s difficult to glean what the screenwriters have in mind, but the theme of protecting one’s land with guns may be an intentional appeal to Second Amendment defenders and NRA supporters, a significant group in the political discourse.
The Magnificent Seven can be read from many angles, and I give it a higher rating than the 62 from Rotten Tomatoes. Director Antoine Fuqua, in addition to the beautiful cinematography, both entertains and provokes with dilemmas of past and present.