Big Budget ‘Magnificent Seven’ Buckles under PC Concerns

For roughly the first third of the 2016 version of “The Magnificent Seven” I was laughing at the uneasy balance that writers Nic Pizzolatto (“True Detective”) and Richard Wenx and director Antoine Fuqua (“Training Day”) were trying to strike to bring political correctness to a politically incorrect time: The Wild West in 1879.

Let’s begin by putting this in a historical context. In 1879, the Gold Rush was mostly over (1848-1855). During that time, California became a state (1850). The Civil War was finished (1861-65). By 1870, Sacramento had a population of 16,283. Sacramento currently has a population of 485,199 (2014) and is the sixth largest city in California. The First Transcontinental Railroad was finished and opened in May 1869.

The 2016 version of “The Magnificent Seven” takes place in the mining town of Rose Creek that is conveniently off a train line. There is an actual Rose Creek in Tuolumne County, California, which is Yosemite Gold Country. The only current incorporated city is Sonora. Sonora, CA to Sacramento is about 94.4 miles and just under two hours by car, 29 hours walking or ten hours by bicycle according to Google Maps.

According to Reference.com, riders can only cover about 20-30 miles a day. Modern endurance riders may cover 100 miles in less than 24 hours, but they wouldn’t be using stock horses. Pony Express riders covered 80-100 miles a day, but changed horses every 25 miles. We know that this particular Rose Creek is a three-day ride from Sacramento.

In the movie’s Rose Creek there is a real Bogie man named Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) who owns most of the town and barges into a church meeting and bullies the congregation into selling their land cheap by slaughtering Matthew Cullen (a sadly wasted-too-soon Matt Bomer of “White Collar”). His widow Emma (Haley Bennett) eschews black mourning and favors a low-cut short-sleeved white blouse as she rides with her friend Teddy Q (Luke Grimes) to hire some guns.

If you’ve ever spent time in the deserts of New Mexico (where parts of this were filmed to give it a Western feel), then you’ll know that white doesn’t do well in the dust and sweat of a horse ridden in the desert. In the mountains of Southern California, there is dust, dust and more dust that coats your eyeballs, your face, your hair and your bared skin but that won’t protect your skin from the relentless ultraviolet rays of the California sun so it’s wiser to cover up. Yet you can almost here the mental machinations of this script: We need a strong woman but we need to make her sexy, just not in a sleazy way. She needs to have a motivation, but we won’t let something like mourning get in the way of the story.

Emma bumps into a warrant officer, Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) who is licensed in Kansas and several adjoining territories. At first Chisolm declines her offer to come and clean up Rose Creek until he learns about Bogue. Chisolm begins recruiting other men skilled in weaponry: gambler and card trickster Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), former Confederate sharpshooter suffering from PTSD Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawkes)  who makes money off of bets placed on East Asian knife-thrower Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), skilled tracker and off his rocker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), Mexican outlaw Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Fulfo) and Comanche loner Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier).

When the seven plus Emma and Teddy return to Rose Creek, they fight with Bogue’s men. They win, but Sam is sure that in three days, the survivors will make it to Sacramento and in three days, they will return with reinforcements. That leaves the Magnificent Seven exactly seven days to teach the townspeople who choose to remain and fight, how to shoot. They also build some booby traps, too.

In this frontier town, no one seems to be able to shoot well enough to hit the side of a barn (or get kill a deer, bison or wild pig for food or protect themselves and  their livestock from coyotes and wolves). The Magnificent Seven get to know the townspeople and we learn their plan, at least parts of it. At the last minute, Robicheaux, suffering from PTSD and perhaps even foreseeing his own death, deserts. It becomes the Magnificent Six. Emma takes his place in the plan, so we’re back to seven.

The ending involves a lot of people dying. Spoiler alert. There’s a Gatling gun involved and how it is put out of commission is one of the more ludicrous parts of the movie. There’s also that politically correct balance of one good Comanche warrior, Red Harvest (Sensmeier), taking out the bad Comanche warrior, Denali (Jonathan Joss), who works for Bogue.

The Comanche were actually found in New Mexico, Colorado, Kansas, Oklahoma and North Texas and not in California.

As in the original “The Magnificent Seven,” not all seven live. Dead are Faraday, Robicheaux, Horne and Rocks. Surviving are Chisolm, Vasquez and Red Harvest. The Asian guy, Rocks, was not the first to die and that was some comfort and a win for diversity. In the end, Chisolm’s grudge against Bogue is revealed and Chisolm gets his revenge with a little help from Emma.

The original “The Magnificent Seven” was about a gunslinger named Chris Adams, who leads a group of men to save a small Mexican village from the domination of a bandit named Calvera (Eli Wallach). The villagers ride to a U.S. border town to hire them. The initial idea is that by resisting, the town and the seven will force Calvera to find another town to terrorize. The seventh gunman isn’t one that is hired, but a young man, Chico, who follows them and is taken in for luck. One of the gunmen does suffer from some kind of traumatic stress and one does desert the group only to return. Chico falls in love with one of the village women and stays as the survivors leave, somewhat envious of the families and farms they leave behind. Calveras can’t quite understand why the men return.

Of the original movie’s seven, those who die are  broke Mexican-Irish gunfighter Bernardo O’Reilly (Charles Bronson), Harry Luck (Brad Dexter), Britt (James Coburn)  and Lee (Robert Vaughn).

Surviving are Chris (Yul Brynner), Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) and Chico (Horst Buchholz). The movie was filmed in Mexico.

The movie lost money in the U.S. but made a profit in Europe. Brynner returned for the 1966 sequel “Return of the Seven.” Robert Fuller replaced McQueen as Vin Tanner. In the first sequel Chris returns to save Chico (now played by Julián Mateos) who has been abducted.  In the 1969 sequel, “Guns of the Magnificent Seven,” Chris was played by George Kennedy and the plot has Chris attempting to free a revolutionary who opposes the dictatorship of President Diaz in Mexico. For the 1972 “The Magnificent Seven Ride,” Lee Van Cleef was Chris Adams and the action takes place in Arizona (a territory) with Chris Adams now a marshal and a married man. None of the sequels matched the success of the original movie.

The diversity in casting had already become part of “The Magnificent Seven” history with the American TV series of that name. The CBS network series ran for two seasons with 22 episodes. The cast did not have a Chris Adams character, but a Chris Larabee (Michael Biehn), who is looking for the person who killed his wife and son.

There is a Vin Tanner (Eric Close), who is a former bounty hunter and expert tracker. Ezra Standish (Anthony Starke) is a Southern gambler and con man. Josiah Sanchez is a preacher and former gunfighter whose father was a missionary and who cares for his sister. Nathan Jackson (Rick Worthy) is a former slave who had served in the Union Army during the Civil War. Jackson has a relationship with a Native American woman. J.D. Dunne (Andrew Kavovit) is the tenderfoot character, the hothead who is taken in and educated by the other six. Dunne is often the source of the comedic elements in the series. Buck Wilmington (Dale Midkiff) is an old friend of Chris’ and a ladies man.

The series also included a potential love interest for Chris, the widowed Mary Travis (Laurie Holden) who is the editor for the local newspaper and has a young son. Mary is the daughter-in-law of circuit judge Orrin Travis (Robert Vaughn).  J.D. Dunne also has a love interest: Casey Wells (Dana Barron). The TV series is currently streaming on Hulu.

What is lost in the TV series is the sense of desperation–the solitude and precariousness of a gunslinger’s life and the threat to the poor in the Wild West where guns ruled the day.

The 2016 version for big explosions and instead of fighting for the defenseless farmers living on the brink of starvation, the seven gunslingers are fighting big business and greed. Chris isn’t mysteriously motivated by something that remains unnamed in the movie. In the 2016 version the leader, now Sam Chisholm (after the political activist or the trail?), is driven by personal revenge, and he’s willing to let his “friends” die for it. Sam Chisolm is the law, operating outside of the law and the dead are casualties of his own personal vendetta. He is, to put the final bullet in political correctness, saved by the woman he was supposedly hired to help. Like the cast of the original, the men are all good actors. Director Fuqua attempts to evoke the West with grand vistas and big skies, but the heat of the sun is too often visualized by solar flare in Mauro Fiore’s cinematography, breaking the fourth wall of cinematic revery.

The charm and the theme of the original western and its samurai predecessor, “The Seven Samurai,” has been buried in a coffin of obvious political correctness maneuvering under too much star wattage and fancy shooting and big explosions. In 1960, the original movie’s budget was $2 million. This movie’s budget is $90 million. Bigger isn’t necessarily better.

 

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