Molly Brigid Flynn laments the decline of the Western, as she contrasts the original Magnificent Seven against the recent remake:
In the original Magnificent Seven, a Mexican village beset by bandits cannot count on the absentee rurales (mounted police). The Old Man advises the farmers to buy guns north of the border — “guns are plentiful there” — but they buy gunmen instead. The seven hired loners lead the village’s defense against Calvera (Eli Wallach) and his gang. The film displays the superiority of the quietly industrious village over the Old West town. Yet, the farmers’ settled, communal life requires defense by unsettled, strong individuals, naturally drawn to other goods.
In an early scene, a traveling salesman (ladies’ corsets) passing through the Old West town does “what any decent man would” — pays the coroner after watching people step over the corpse of Old Sam in the street. But some townsmen object to the Indian’s burial in the potters’ field filled with white murderers and robbers. “How long has this been going on?” the salesman asks. “Since the town got civilized,” the coroner responds, apologetically.
“I don’t like it,” he adds. “I’ve always treated every man the same — just as another future customer.” The mixed blessings of capitalism, encapsulated in a sentence. Whether from decency or morbid self-interest, the two businessmen rise above bigotry, but still need tough guys Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen), who volunteer to drive the hearse past the shotguns. This one scene in the old movie packs more thought about commerce and civilization than the new movie’s entire 133 minutes.
In their youthful independence, Chris and Vin’s main objection to civilization is that it’s boring. But once their gang arrives to defend the village, the quiet life becomes charming, admirable, worth defending. The American individualists gradually appreciate its wholesome excellence. Like midlife, civilization has its goods — but so do youth and independence. Superior in one way, inferior in another, Chris and Vin ride off after saving the village, while Chico — in love — stays for the long haul of settled life.
Erasing these reflections on capitalism and civilization, community and character, Antoine Fuqua’s new Magnificent Seven hunts smaller game.
The new movie only superficially displays a contemporary liberalism. Much has been made of its ostentatiously diverse seven, “a rainbow coalition.” An African American leads the team, which includes a Native American, a Mexican, an Asian American, and a minority of white guys (all three die). As Anthony Lane comments in The New Yorker, “It was difficult to ignore the patronizing tone of Sturgis’ tale, in which helpless Mexican villagers in white blouses are saved and blessed by the intervention of American tough guys, so the new version is wise to recruit a Latino gunslinger to the front line.”
Here Lane betrays a common prejudice against midcentury America. In Sturges’ film, Chico is Mexican, “from a village just like that one,” and Bernardo half-Mexican, even though the actors playing Chico and Bernardo (Horst Buchholz and Charles Bronson) were not. Also, in Sturges’ version the problem was not that Mexicans cannot be “tough guys.” The trouble was that the wrong people were tough. Westerns often emphasize the fact — a truth across ethnicities and a difficulty for all civilizations — that good people are less likely to be good fighters. Worse still, lost on Lane and director Fuqua is that the 1960 film asserts the Mexican village’s superiority over the American town.