“The Magnificent Seven” Ethics (Spoiler Warning!)

I have noted more than once what an excellent ethics movie the original 1960 Western classic “The Magnificent Seven” is. Occasional  Ethics Alarms contributor and apparently retired ethics blogger Bob Stone made an excellent case for what he calls his favorite ethics movie here, but the screenplay makes its own case with exchanges like this one:

Harry (Brad Dexter): “There comes a time to turn mother’s picture to the wall and get out. The village will be no worse off than it was before we came.”

Chris (Yul Brenner): “You forget one thing — we took a contract.”

Vin (Steve McQueen): “It’s not the kind any court would enforce.”

Chris: “That’s just the kind you’ve got to keep.”

or the very first scene, where gunslinger Chris volunteers to drive a horse-drawn hearse to Boot Hill where a group of armed bigots are threatening to shoot anyone who tries to bury a recently deceased Indian, who lived in the town, in the town’s cemetery along with “decent white folks.”  Steve McQueen (Vin) goes along as Chris’s wing-man, and the first two of the seven team up for an act of pure altruism.

The remake of the film opened over the weekend, and in part because I’m doing a program for the Smithsonian about the lore surrounding the movie, I saw it. And took notes.

It’s not bad. I enjoyed it. It is yet another example of how Hollywood no longer trusts the Western genre or its traditional trappings: the heroes in this and the heroes in most modern Westerns are now portrayed as super-heroes, ridiculously fast on the draw, absurdly accurate with every shot, and able to ride like circus performers. At a certain point, this silliness leads to a damaging loss of suspension of disbelief. The intrusion of gratuitous diversity was also annoying: the end features three heroes riding into the sunset, and they consist of an African-American, a Native American, and a Mexican. How they missed including a handicapped gay woman is mystifying, and somebody should organize a protest. Well, at least all the whites and the Asian guy were killed. That’s something.

The remake has also left the famous precursor of the original “Magnificent Seven” behind, for almost nothing remains of Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese classic, “Seven Samurai.”  Only two characters have traveled through the three films more or less intact: The Leader (Kambei Shimada, as played by Takashi Shimura; Chris Adams, played by Yul Brenner; and Sam Chisolm, played in the new film by Denzel Washington), and The Master, a warrior so unmatched at all forms of combat that he fights only to challenge himself (Kyuzo, played by Seiji Miyaguchi in the Japanese film; James Coburn as Britt in the first “Seven” and martial arts star  Byung-hun Lee as Billy Rocks in the remake). The other characters have been cross-bred or replaced entirely, though those familiar with the original 1960 Western will  spot the shreds of what remains.

For example, Ethan Hawke plays a cross between Brad Dexter’s Harry Luck, a venal treasure hunter in the original, and Lee, Robert Vaughn’s gunfighter who’s lost his nerve.  Thus Hawke is a venal treasure hunter who’s lost his nerve, and when he abandons the team before the final showdown (like Harry), you know he will come riding in to try to save the day (like Harry) but not before recovering his nerve and shooting skills (like Lee) ending up dead (like Harry and Lee).

I hate to say this because it might spoil the film, and no reviewer has noticed it, but the film plays more like a serious parody of “Blazing Saddles” than as a remake of “The Magnificent Seven.” The Japanese classic and John Sturges’ 1960 film (as well as Pixar’s “A Bug’s Life,” also a “Seven Samurai”/ “Magnificent Seven” homage) involved a poor village of farmers being annually robbed of food by marauding bandits. The new version begins with a middle class town being cruelly oppressed by hired thugs working for a greedy capitalist (like Hedley Lamarr, the preening villain in “Blazing Saddles.” ) Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard, is so evil that he has innocent men and women killed and burns down the church, a level of gratuitous badness that it approaches comedy, like…

Bogue would have his thugs beat up an old lady like that, there is no doubt. When he recruits a huge army to attack the now reinforced by seven town (the movie also often feels more like “The Alamo” than “The Magnificent Seven”), it looks very much like the band of “rustlers, cut throats, murderers, bounty hunters, desperados, mugs, pugs, thugs, nitwits, halfwits, dimwits, vipers, snipers, con men, Indian agents, Mexican bandits, muggers, buggerers, bushwhackers, hornswogglers, horse thieves, bull dykes, train robbers, bank robbers, ass-kickers, shit-kickers and Methodists” that Lamarr (Harvey Korman) recruits to defeat the rebelling citizens of Rock Ridge–who are also led by a black hero, just like Sam Chisolm. In fact, I laughed out loud at the collection of scary villains in the new Seven; all that was missing was Nazi soldiers. There was an evil Indian, though. And an evil guy with an eye-patch.

The townspeople lure the marauders into the same traps as the ones in Rock Ridge: hidden dynamite, though “The Magnificent Seven” didn’t show dummy horses being blasted sky-high. (No, there were no dynamite booby-traps in the original “The Magnificent Seven,” and it hadn’t been invented when Kurosawa’s  story took place). The remake also climaxes with a show-down between the Leader and the head bad guy, unlike the original, but exactly like “blazing Saddles, even down to the villain trying to cheat by pulling a hidden weapon.

Still not convinced? Among the new “Seven” is a replica of “Blazing Saddles'” Mongo, played by Vincent D’Onofrio as Jack Horne! Horne even throws down a horse, though not quite like Mongo did…

But I digress.

Antoine Fuqua, the director of  “The Magnificent Seven” Jr, told an interviewer that the scene in which Chris and Vin risk their lives for a dead Native American affected him deeply as a child, because it was such as selfless act. Thus it is beyond comprehension that he allowed the screenwriter to remove all of the ethics and ethical values from his movie, though the audience doesn’t realize how completely until the end.

That opening scene Fuqua says changed his life is gone, to begin with.  (Figure that out.) The hired gunfighters are sought, not as in the Kurosawa film or the original, by a group of townspeople seeking protection from the bandits, but by the vengeful wife of a man murdered by Bogue; the town isn’t even aware of her mission. The seven samurai are offered only rice and gratitude; Yul’s crew are offered a pittance, food and a bed. In both cases, it is clear that that the Seven are primarily driven by a desire to help the poor and oppressed. It’s true that Harry thinks there is a treasure involved, and Bernardo (Charles Bronson), like Lee, is desperate, but Chris, Vin, Britt and Chico (Horst Buchholtz) have only altruistic motives. In the new version, the leader, Denzel, accepts what looks like a fair amount of lucre, though he seems to be genuinely moved by the widow’s plight. He recruits #2 (Chris Pratt) to pay off his debt; #3, an outlaw whom he is chasing, in exchange for not shooting him, #4 by making him believe there’s a treasure, #5 because he’s pledged to serve #4, and as for Mongo and the silliest looking Indian to appear on screen since Johnny Depp’s version of Tonto…


…who knows why they come along? If it was explained, it flew right by me.

In the original, the Seven talked repeatedly about why their fight was important because it was right; there is none of this in the remake. Why becomes clear when we learn, as Sam finally has Bogue at his mercy, that this was all personal: Bogue had previously taken over the Kansas town where the leader of the Seven and his family had lived. Bogue’s men raped Sam’s mother, and killed Sam’s sisters! And he shows a scar around his neck, where he was unsuccessfully lynched.  That’s why he took the job—not to help the town, not because it was right, but because he wanted vengeance for a personal wrong. This is a vendetta, not a mission of mercy.

To get his revenge, he gets about two-thirds of the townspeople and four of the seven killed. (This casualty rate, at least, matches the two earlier films.)

Even the device of having the remaining citizens in the now blown-to-smithereens town thank Sam as rides away (this also is redolent of  “Blazing Saddles”) doesn’t Sam’s his conduct more ethical. To Sam, his fellow Seven, the town and its residents were only a means to an end.

This “Magnificent Seven” is just another revenge action movie, like the “Kill Bills” and “Unforgiven.” The cast is excellent (Chris Pratt and D’Onofrio especially), and Fuqua is a talented action director. As the current Presidential race shows, Americans seem to think ethics is irrelevant to their lives, so the film may do well.

Maybe it will inspire people to go watch the original, again, or for the first time. Then they’ll learn what motivates real heroes.

24 thoughts on ““The Magnificent Seven” Ethics (Spoiler Warning!)

  1. Loved both “Seven Samurai” and the original “Seven” especially McQueen’s ad libs on the hearse ride up to boot hill. I bet Brenner had a tough time keeping a straight face when McQueen shook that 12-guage round next to his ear.

      • You threw me for a loop and made me second guess myself when many many many moons ago I realized that child actors actually grew up sometimes into adult actors when bored one day I rewatched the Explorers (a quintessential 80s kid movie) and thought, man that little kid looks just like the guy from Lord of War and Training Day…oh hey, the other little kid is River Phoenix.

        The Explorers was his first movie as a recall so you made me back track and wonder. I had to look it up to be sure.

  2. I wasn’t even a fan of The Magnificent Seven . I thought it paled in comparison to The Seven Samurai. I can’t imagine how bad this thing is.

    And I can’t believe you mentioned Kill Bill and Unforgiven in the same breath.

    The first was made by a hack and the second by a master film maker making a movie that comments on violence and how it effects everyone. I don’t think “Unforgiven” is just a “revenge” movie at all.

    • I never liked “The Unforgiven”; it’s an anti-Western, with a hero who is out for blood and gets it. The character is as much of a driven psychopath as Ethan in “The Searchers,” without the redemption at the end. It is certainly a revenge drama.

      • I disagree. He is a repentant killer and only reluctantly takes on the job to provide for his children. Its only at the end when he hears that Little Bill has killed his friend that pushes his humanity aside, by drinking that bottle whiskey, that he seeks revenge for the death of his friend. Before he was killing for money now he is killing for friendship and out of loyalty. That is his redemption.

              • Its a boring regurgitation of the old westerns from the 50’s , from the plot to the cheesy costumes . Its just Kasdan trying to apply the retro story telling of Raiders and Empire to a western and failing . Badly.

                • Nah. What it was was a witty homage to the cliches and tropes of entire genre, with four archetypes representing the Western heroes of the 40s, 50s, 60s and 70’s, often tongue in cheek, using Kasdan’s film history expertise and simultaneously honoring a genre and poking fun at it. The better a viewer knew his Westerns, the more fun it was. (Costner was the Fifties cowboy.Scott Glenn 40’s, Klein the Sixties, and Glover the 70s.)

                  Jeff Goldblum was wasted, though.

  3. You forgot the third variation on the theme. Being fair, apart from some truly excellent performances by George Peppard and Robert Vaughan, it was eminently forgettable.

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