Friday, September 30, 2016

The Magnificent Remake

The Magnificent Seven (2016) came out last week, which is a titular remake of a classic western from 1960, which itself is a thematic remake of Akira Kurosowa's uber-classic Seven Samurai. That's fertile ground for the question of "how do remakes work in the modern era?"

Image result for magnificent seven Image result for magnificent seven Image result for seven samurai

We were just talking yesterday about movies that look at the camera and tell you the moral. From Balioc:

I will grant that there is such a thing as a difficult movie.  There are movies where it’s a serious interpretive challenge even to puzzle out what the “point” is, let alone to determine how you would make that point in a new idiom and a new voice.
The Magnificent Seven is not that kind of movie.  The Magnificent Seven is a movie where, at the very end, the main character literally looks into the camera and tells you point-blank what the story’s message is.  This should not be a thing you screw up.  This is Easy Mode for scriptwriters.

The message he refers to is the last line, where the archetypical hero-figure says "Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose."

This is fairly similar to the end of Seven Samurai (English translation). "We've lost again. No, the farmers are the winners. Not us."

The last line of the 2016 remake is given by one of the villagers this time, describing the departing heroes as we linger on the graves of the four fallen "They were... magnificent." It's amazing how they replace shockingly blunt but good writing with... even more blunt, bad writing.

These lines both do a very good job of highlighting the major themes. In the 1960 version, there's a constant return to "The heroes and villagers are different. The villagers fear the heroes. The heroes resent the villagers. Despite this, they manage to work together to accomplish amazing things, and they form a connection. But in the end, they are still in different worlds." In the 2016 version, there is just "The heroes were really great guys."

Everything in the M760 version (and Seven Samurai, just assume that for the rest of this review[1]) is based around this. The villagers are afraid to hire heroes, because they don't really think them any better than the bandits. Their initial approach is hesitant. When the heroes finally come to town, no one greets them or thanks them, and the heroes in response ring an alarm to show that fear will bring people out. The villagers send all their young women to hide, leading to befuddlement by the heroes at their town's weird demographics. This leads to the different-flocks romance between one villager woman and the youngest of the heroes. Which itself leads to this hero, when he survives, at the very end turning around and settling down to life as a villager instead. And because of all this do we see the only true connection forged between these groups.

In M716 there's nothing like that. Instead a vengeful widow eagerly hires them, there's never any moments of awkwardness between villager lifestyle and what cynicism they assume of the heroes, and at the end everyone leaves happy. (In addition, the main hero wasn't in it purely to protect people, it is revealed he got involved because the leader of the bandits killed his family.) This can be read as a laudable attempt to put everyone - men and women, villagers and samurai - on equal footing, but in doing so it gives up the difficult struggles that different people must overcome to work together.

(To some degree this similarity is emphasized by the choice in villains. M760 used Mexican bandits, and in trying to avoid the racism of that, M716 uses a robber-baron white capitalist figure who gives disgusting diatribes about the manifest destiny of his wealth. But in actuality, this figure is more alien and devilish than the charismatic warlord, played by Eli Wallach - who genuinely loves his men and who's oafish hypocritical speeches about religion are truly funny. In M760 you understand why the heroes have a lot more in common with the bandits, and the bandit's leader's confusion at why the heroes are even doing this.)

And yet, to be honest, one must admit that this sort of differentiation makes the most sense in 7S. There was a real difference in between an experienced swordsman and someone who had never picked up a spear. The widow in M716 issues a rejoinder to that with the famous quote "God made men different, but Samuel Colt made them equal." And it's just true that the widespread usage of small arms leveled the playing field between aristocratic warriors and anyone who can pick up a firearm, a huge shift that contributed to a lot of populist (and democratic) political developments.

M760 tries to ignore this by saying that guns can be more expensive to buy than men to hire, but this is fairly hard to believe and places the 1960 version in a fantasy land more akin to the feudal samurai than the industrializing West. Of course, M716 takes this reality of guns as equalizers and brings it to its abhorrent conclusion: the final battle with its trenches and Gatling gun is much a World War One set piece as anything else (which gives more context to the PTSD arc portrayed by Ethan Hawke.)

[1] In hindsight, the way M760 took a lot of scenes from 7S - a movie from Japan, a black and white movie, from another language and nation, that's nearly twice as long - and basically does a scene-for-scene translation, is pretty amazing.


  1. There's at least an argument to be made that the 1960 Magnificent Seven is the version with the purest message, precisely because guns can serve as equalizers.

    Why do the peasants see the samurai, basically, as terrifying aliens? Because the samurai basically are terrifying aliens. They have, by dint of training and upbringing, destructive skills that no peasant could ever hope to match. (More or less, fudge fudge.) Relying on them for martial aid is just a recognition of the world's realities: samurai can fight, peasants can't. Which is an interesting dynamic to examine, and a real one -- but on some level it doesn't have much to say beyond "different people are in fact different, and that has consequences."

    Why do the villagers see the cowboys, basically, as terrifying aliens? Because of worldview and expectation. That's it. There's no fundamental, ontological divide; any one of them, with a revolver, can be almost as powerful as a professional gunslinger. But the villagers fear fighting, and they fear death. They have things to lose: land, family, social role. The power of the Magnificent Seven is not the functionally-magical power of warrior-caste training, but simply the power of being prepared to fight and die, which is in fact the power of having nothing to lose.

    And I think it's much more worthwhile to tell a story about the reasons that the power of having nothing to lose, alone, makes you a terrifying alien.

    1. Yes. To say a film is actually a fantasy (as the in the last paragraph) is not to diminish it.

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