“I seek righteousness, as should we all, but I’ll take revenge.”
The Magnificent Seven is a search for both righteousness and revenge even as it considers whether or not the two can coexist. Of course this is not the first version of the story. This is a remake (or really reimagining) of the 1960 John Sturges classic, which in turn was a reimagining of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai. (We could even trace all of these back to the prototype Western, Shane.) But while this is not a new story, this incarnation of Mag 7 has more modern sensibilities and concerns. And while in some ways this is a classic Western, there is more to this film than the gunfights (which, by the way, are really well done).
The little farming community of Rose Creek is being oppressed by Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), the owner of a nearby mine. He has brought in mercenary security people to harass the town folk so they will sell their land for a pittance. After a deadly demonstration of their indifference to the people, newly widowed Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett), sets off to find someone to help. When she sees bounty hunter Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) dispatch a wanted man (and a few of his friends), she tries to hire him to come help her town. When he hears who is doing this, he agrees.
Along the way back he gathers a group—some he knew already and some new hangers on: gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Platt); former Confederate sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his current partner Billy Rocks (Byung-Hun Lee); a master of knives, Vasquez, Mexican outlaw (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo) whom Chisolm recruits by saying he won’t take him in; mountain man and trapper Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio); and Red Harvest, a Comanche warrior (Martin Sensmeier) who has been told he really doesn’t fit with his tribe. When they get to Rose Creek, they make quick work of the various villains in Bogue’s employ. But they know that in a week’s time Bogue will be able to hire an army to come and squash the town. The seven have that much time to get the town folk ready for the big battle.
One of the more modern perspectives deals with who the villains are in this story. They are not outlaws, rather they operate within the law to terrorize the town. Bogue dresses and acts like a businessman. In the beginning of the story, as the town holds a meeting of how to deal with Bogue, Bogue (and his team of private security) walk into the church where the townspeople are meeting. He proceeds to paint a picture of the gospel of capitalism. It is the idolatrous desire for riches that he sees as driving the American ideal. To stand in the way of such capitalism is to deny the true American god. So unlike previous versions of this story, this reflects a class struggle between working class and the corporate world.
Yet the seven fighters themselves are in neither world. They are wanderers who are not part of a community. They may live by violence and sometimes deceit like Bogue and his men, but they do not prey on the helpless. There is a certain sense of honor, albeit sometimes twisted, that guides them. Where the film comes up short is in the development of the group dynamics. These seven men have varied backgrounds, and sometimes should be at odds with each other. For example, Chisolm fought with the Union, Robicheaux with the Confederacy; one of them had a grandfather killed at the Alamo, Vasquez had a grandfather who fought there with Santa Anna. Yet, the group never seems to have the internal quarrels that we would expect. They are just a bit too harmonious.
It is of interest that the church has an important place within the story. (Although it is not overtly about the church.) The opening scene takes place within the church, but then Bogue’s men set it afire. Through the rest of the story, what remains of the burned church are the most recognizable thing in the town and often tight in the center of the frame. But even though mostly destroyed by Bogue’s men, it still functions strongly. Before the big battle, the townspeople gather in front of the church to pray. The remains of the steeple serve as a key spot for snipers. Some go into the church to reflect on what is about to happen. And the inevitable climactic one-on-one between Chisolm and Bogue takes place on the steps of the chancel.
The presence of the church throughout the story points us to the consideration of righteousness in the midst of a story about revenge. In this story about a battle against evil, we may not be sure there is a place for righteousness at all. Certainly the seven mercenaries don’t really qualify as righteous. (I don’t think its accidental that none of them wears a white hat.) They are killers who operate on both sides of the law (and often in the gray areas between). They are men who live by violence. They have come—some for money, some out of friendship to Chisolm, some for adventure, some for their own personal sense of revenge—to fight a fight that is not really theirs. Yet the righteousness is to be found in the offer of self to save another from injustice and violence.
The church’s place in the film also asks us to consider whether this is a story of redemption. Do the acts of courage and sacrifice made by the seven counteract the less virtuous lives they have led to this point? Are we willing to forgive what they have done before because of what they do now? Or is redemption something else in this story? Should we perhaps not look to the seven as the redeemed, but as the redeemers who set the town free from the oppression of evil? And can redemption come through violence?
Like the other iterations of this story, this film also makes a point that the cost for any such redemption can be very high. Let’s just say that not all the seven ride away at the end of the story. Also, the population of the town is considerably smaller. This may be a victory, but it is not one to be celebrated because there is so much to mourn. Just as the church stands in ruins throughout the film, those left at the end may be mere shells of what they were at the beginning of the movie. It is a reminder that even when winning such battles, it is ultimately a great loss.
Photos courtesy of Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer Pictures and Columbia Pictures