*** There will be spoilers ***
I’ve been a Western fan for a long time. In fact, it’s the best time to be a fan of Westerns. Between HBO’s “Westworld”, American Murder Song albums, the new Red Dead Redemption 2 trailer, and now the “The Magnificent Seven” reimagining. Westerns were always a big bonding point for my grandfather and I. I would probably have chosen “Fistful of Dollars” over any Saturday Morning Cartoon if I had to. What I always loved was the level of theatrics mixed with grit. With the remake of the Magnificent Seven, in a world where films are growing grittier by the day, I was admittedly a little worried at what could happen with a film already from a genre known for it.
Westerns in many ways defined the idea of a “man”. Many of what we see as the assigned gender roles of men are in Westerns and presented very romantically. While I’ve never been one for gender roles, I have always enjoyed this character type. They were the American Frontier answer to the High Fantasy Rogue character. However, fast forward to today, and that type doesn’t do much for the audience at large anymore. This is especially true for us in the geek community, that prefer our roguishly handsome heroes to be human beings.
So when it comes time to reimagine “The Magnificent Seven”, how can you do that for the modern era while being true to the genre? Well, apparently, the answer is to put Antoine Fuqua in charge. I could go on and on about his accomplishments in film, and representation in film, but I’ll stick to “The Magnificent Seven” and just say that with his track record, I believe NONE of what makes this film great was an accident. Now imagine my surprise when most of the negative reviews seem to focus on what are the perceived ideals of the Western genre. They fail to recognize the actual life in a Western. Some even call the action “lackluster” and “boring”. Imagine that… “boring”… in a historical film where the horrifying reality of a Gatling gun on a tiny town is fully explored? And I wonder if it’s because the film doesn’t cater to anyone. It definitely doesn’t walk up and hand you what you would think a perfect modern Western should be. Instead, it welcomes you into a realistic world full of real people, real life, and a journey that you can fully enjoy taking with them.
Let’s start with our cast. The most diverse cast I could’ve expected from a Western. Westerns are largely filled with almost exclusively white men, with maybe a PoC in there for simply “whatever”. The cast features an almost exact representation for the time. Many times we see people rest of the laurels of “Well there weren’t many People of Color during that time!” to justify racially biased casting decisions. This film spits directly in the face of that excuse with a cast that includes: A black man, a young white man, two older white men, an Asian man, a Comanche man, and a Latin man. Here’s the thing though, it never felt weird, or “token”, or like a cash grab at modern progressiveness. Every character that joined up had a reason that made sense. Their race is never addressed as something that should be a problem. There are a couple moments of antiquated language for other races thrown in, but even that is done with historical accuracy to conversation and not to demean another race.
One of the older male characters, Jack Horne, is presented as not being entirely within his mental capabilities. While his mental status is never blatantly stated, it’s clearly understood without being offensive. The team is initially skeptical of Horne, especially after they watch him kill two men, but they quickly accept him as one of them. No one treats him as lesser, no one ‘others’ him, no one ever calls him “weird”. He’s a part of the team, an important part, and he’s respected among the rest of the group as a peer. People like him deserve positive and realistic representation, and it’s done so effortlessly that it really should be a template for others to follow.
Red Harvest and Vasquez, from what I’ve seen in communities of those characters’ heritages, serve as very faithful cinematic representations. There are some theatrics of course, as with everyone. But their heritage is never treated as a caricature. Red Harvest is shown as capable with a bow and arrow, but also a gun when it’s called for. Vasquez is extremely honorable, and doesn’t throw in poorly inserted spanish words that the writer got from Google Translate. A big part of this is the effort by the casting director to cast people of those heritages in the roles. Not just for appearance sake. There is a level of authenticity that is there with Red Harvest and Vasquez that is seemingly impossible without casting people appropriately. It also spits in the face of white-washing castings that claim people weren’t available for the roles. Effort was taken to find the right men to portray Red Harvest and Vasquez and it pays off incredibly. I would honestly pay for spin offs of each of these characters individually. We don’t get full, info dump backstories for either character, and yet we know enough about them to feel emotional for everything that happens to them. From Vasquez developing a true friendship with Josh, to Red Harvest taking pride in who he is and finding his own version of a family, we feel for them. In any other film, these guys would be throw away characters. In “The Magnificent Seven” they shatter expectations and prejudices, and they steal the show on more than one occasion.
Then there’s the relationships between the male characters. Even in old Westerns, the male characters were closer than you would expect from modern cinema. The relationships shown between then men are ones of such deep respect that, from a total fangirl standpoint, makes it easy to see “ships”, but it’s never looked at that way. I think that’s a highly important thing to point out. The toxic ideas of masculinity have all be eradicated loving closeness between male friends in a lot of modern society. Even something as simple as two men hugging is called “gay” and often dismissed. So, to me, the friendship between Goodnight Robicheaux and Billy Rocks is one of the most important parts of this movie. Goodnight is a former soldier in the Civil War who we find out later has PTSD from his many battles. Billy is his partner, who is equally proficient with knives as he is with a gun. At first all we know is simple “Where I go, he goes” which is a wonderful phrase of friendship. Later in the movie, though, we see examples over and over of the depth of their friendship. Goodnight at one point begins having a panic attack. Billy doesn’t freak out or coddle him, he simply prepares him a cigarette and hands it over. Later, when Goodnight is leaving the team in the middle of the night, we see Billy staying behind, presumably the first time they have parted, and Billy is uncharacteristically getting drunk. There are more examples, but the point is: those two scenes would’ve been very easy to tweak slightly to show an actual romantic relationship. I immensely appreciate that they simply showcased this as two best friends who truly care about each other deeply. It’s a sentiment that should be far more prevalent, and absolutely be represented more in media.
Then we have my favorite person in the movie; Emma Cullen. Now, I may be partial because my maiden name is Cullen and we needed some redemption after other franchises, but Emma is the exact woman this film needed. She begins the film losing her husband at the hands of the villain of the story, Bartholomew Bogue, who is set on taking the town and paying the people pennies on the dollar for their homeland. She is of course devastated, but she is not destroyed. When she meets Chisolm she wants to hire him to take out Bogue and stop his terror. She’s even asked if she just wants him dead for revenge, but she answers that she’s only after what’s right, but that revenge is fine too. In that moment she’s already proven herself to be more than a stereotypical female character that wants to kill the man who killed her husband. It’s a factor, yes, but it doesn’t define. Through the movie we see her being just as strong as, and even sometimes a better shot than, the men. She is presented as extremely capable, and the male characters never treat her poorly for it. In fact, she’s never objectified and she’s never threatened with sexual violence. That seems like a small victory, but it’s very important. It’s yet another set of laurels that many films rest on that female characters’ purpose to stories are attributed to their bodies. In fact, her femininity is only commented once, and it’s when Josh tells her that if she’s going to fight when them, she might want to swap her skirt for pants. Even better is that she blatantly ignores this advice. She maintains how she wants to dress, and it doesn’t limit her in any way, because that’s reality. It also comes off as a very deliberate choice by Antoine Fuqua. He chose to have Josh tell her to wear pants, and then he chose for her to blatantly ignore that. When presenting a character in a dress that’s capable of fighting and shooting, it would make sense that she’s learned how to compensate for how she chooses to dress. She doesn’t trip over her skirt, she isn’t sobbing wildly at the devastation of the attacks, she is never manhandled through her wardrobe, and her feminine presentation is never shown as a weakness. It’s so natural that it could nearly go unnoticed, and that’s the best part about it. We don’t question Emma. We don’t find her dress, behavior, or skills to be strange aside from a moment of Josh being impressed by her. She is never a romantic option for any of the cast. In fact, she’s a respected, unofficial, member of the group.
Now for the action! The story is a basic “good guys save the town from the bad man” Western. It’s a story base that is prevalent in all of them. I appreciate greatly that the trope is used as it makes all the progressive additions feel right at home. The action is refreshing in so many ways and that’s probably why so many find it lack-luster. They’re expecting blockbuster action, when what they should appreciate is realism with a cinematic flair. That kind of action was always what I loved about classic Westerns. A showdown at high noon is far more exciting when people are spinning their guns and striking poses. The theatrics in Westerns are for art’s sake, and not for creating the biggest explosion. (Though there are many explosions too, done so with amazing creativity.) One of the most interesting elements in this action, versus other films, is that it all takes place around the middle of the day in chiefly the middle of two streets. Many films want dark and gritty environments, whereas this action is primarily on what seems to be a lovely and sunny day. The action is in a tight shooting gallery of sorts. This isn’t a sprawling metropolis, or creepy jungle, or huge office building. It’s just a tiny town, and the action bottlenecks into this civilian territory, which makes it more violent. This becomes even more heart-stopping when Bogue pulls out a Gatling gun, a relatively new machine at the time. We see the indiscriminate spread of gunfire, and realize very quickly that not a single person is safe, and they could all very rightfully die, even our seven leads. Much to my surprise, and delight, not a single character comes out unscathed and/or alive. If they died, they died realistically. If they lived, they were injured in ways that will need to be tended to. These are realities of a fight like this, and I’m grateful for it being showcased. Even the cinematic touches to the action were kept to references back to classic Westerns with some trick shots on horses, flourishes of the hand, fancy gunslinger shots, and take downs. (Side note: Big shout out to the horses and their trainers for all of these scenes.)
And oh no, I have not forgot Denzel Washington and his portrayal of Sam Chisolm. He is the glue that binds all these fantastic elements together and makes this film the masterpiece that it is. This isn’t the first time Antoine Fuqua and Denzel Washington have teamed up. Their first project was “Training Day”, a masterpiece in itself. There is always something special that you can see in films where the director and lead have a pre-existing relationship. Admittedly, I was concerned for Denzel being the lead solely because he is one of my favorite actors. Many big name stars fall into the issue of not being able to disappear entirely as a role. When you see them in a movie, you still know it’s them, and the suspension of disbelief can’t be achieved. (Admit it, you always wait for Samuel L. Jackson to say “motherfucker” no matter what role he’s in.) Well, as a huge testament to why he’s the best, Denzel was completely Sam Chisolm, and as far as you can feel, this person is real. Chisolm is so richly complex, and he only gives information on himself in tiny pieces as necessary. None of those moments come off as throw away, nor are they celebrated as we have just unlocked a piece of his backstory. The revelation of Chisolm’s motivation is played with such a visceral realness that you find yourself with the same angry tears, and agreeing with his madness in the name of revenge he so rightfully deserves. It is one of the most, as much as I hate the term, “Oscar-worthy” moments in this film, and Denzel grips your heart with it. When his moment of revenge is stolen, we almost expect him to lose it. His behavior prior to that moment would leave us reasonably expecting a psychotic break. Instead, Chisolm begrudgingly accepts it, and shows a quiet resignation that revenge was at least dealt, even if not by him. The entire range of emotions plays across his face, and it’s honestly so breathtaking that it solidifies that no other actor could’ve lead this movie with such power.
“The Magnificent Seven” not only redefines the genre, it redefines how we approach progressiveness in modern cinema. This movie gave us everything we’re always yelling we want in modern films, but it accomplishes it with such grace that we don’t even realize it’s been handed to us gift wrapped. This movie will not be widely heralded as the progressive masterpiece that it is, and that’s probably a good thing. It normalizes everything to the point where it stands to heavily influence film in a subversive manner. Everything in the movie just works, and it creates an amazing action film. Here’s to hoping other films take a page from Antoine Fuqua’s book and step up their game. “The Magnificent Seven” has called all other films that claim they must sacrifice quality to be progressive out to the town square, dueled them, and won with a hidden hairpin.