I hate Westerns. I really, really do. When I was a kid in rural East Baton Rouge Parish (and especially when we went to visit even-more-rural friends and family in St Helena), they seemed to make up the bulk of television outside of primetime; moreover, family friends who were fortunate enough to own more than ten videocassettes (which was how I defined wealth then, and, perhaps, now) still had a collection that was largely made up of Western cinema. The filmic depiction of the mythological Wild West, with its overwhelming anxiety about bandits,
borderline racist depictions of native people, the uniform whiteness of the protagonists (which led me, as a child, to be unable to tell characters apart), and overall bland cinematic eye really turned me off. I can barely even stand to watch the Western episodes of The Twilight Zone, my favorite show of all time; when one comes on during Syfy’s annual marathons, it’s the cue for me to go outside and get some fresh air.
There are exceptions, of course, to every rule. As a rule, I loathe musicals, but I can see the merits in, for instance, the Heathers musical, which I saw both in New York and in Austin, and I am more willing to accept characters breaking into song in animation, which is already acceptable removed from cinema vérité (Bob’s Burgers and The Simpsons most notably, but also more traditionally musical fare like The Little Mermaid). There are Westerns that I like, enjoy or otherwise feel something like fondness for; my grandfather loved Quigley Down Under and thus so do I, The Quick and the Dead is a fun movie, and Sergio Leone’s Westerns are cinematically engaging on a level that intrigues me. And, of course, 1960’s The Magnificent Seven.
When The Verge did their write-up on 2016’s Magnificent 7 last month, they heralded its arrival in their headline: “behold, the progressive Western.” I didn’t see that review before I saw the film, but it was also the first thing that struck me about this film after I largely ignored the promotional materials. Although the film follows the structure of the original film (and, by extension, Seven Samurai), gone are the questionable and dated trappings of the old school Western, replaced with an easily digestible parable about capitalism and race dressed up in a gunslinger’s shoot ‘em up. And it’s pretty great!
Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard) is a corrupt industrialist who has his sights set on Rose Creek, a mining town in northern California. He and his cohort of morally bankrupt private detectives, thinly veiled versions of the Pinkertons who broke up strikes in the real West, roll into town and burn the facade of the church, telling the townsfolk that he will return in less than a month to purchase the last of their hard-earned land for less than half of its worth, and they can either fall in line or die. Shortly thereafter, widow Emma Cullen (Haley Bennett) and her friend enlist the help of warrant officer Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) when he passes through town in pursuit of a fugitive. Although he is at first reluctant, Chisolm relents when he hears that the Bart Bogue is behind this transgression, he agrees to help Rose Creek defend itself.
In a plotline that has been homaged from The Avengers to Star Wars (so much so that most viewers likely think it’s older than locomotion), Chisolm recruits six more men to join him: rapscallion sharpshooter and gambler Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), Mexican outlaw gunslinger Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Ruffo), legendary New Orleans rifleman “Goodnight” Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke) and his knife-wielding associate Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), Comanche wanderer Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), and tracker Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio). The seven men come together (with Emma acting as a kind of alternate teammate in various situations) to try and teach the settlers of Rose Creek to defend themselves against Bogue’s imminent invasion.
I really enjoyed this film. Above and beyond the general thrill of a legitimately fun Western with clearly evil and less-clearly-good characters, I loved the subtext. Gone is the marauding bandito who terrorized the peasant village of the original, replaced by the face of true evil in every generation: avaricious capitalist men driven by their lust for and worship of material goods (and the power that they bring) with no regard for the cost of human life and dignity. Instead of helping to protect and serve the populace of Rose Creek from outside influence, the sheriff of the town has been bought and paid for by Bogue; the innocents who have entrusted him with their lives are mowed down by him for immoral reasons, just as we so often see the loss of life (largely of people of color) at the hands of modern police forces. The deputies of the town are amoral thugs with no sense of right or wrong, hired mercenaries with so much blood on their hands that they’ll never be clean; not only are they evocative of the Pinkertons but also of the PMCs used in Iraq and elsewhere, before and during the war on terror.
Standing in their way are a black man (given that the film is set in 1879 and the fact that Chisolm refers to living in Arkansas, he is likely to be a former slave), a Native American, an Asian man, and a Mexican sharpshooter (in one notable exchange, Vasquez remarks that there is no such thing as a “Texican,” illuminating the lie in the name given to him by others who sought only to steal the land and livelihood of himself and his people). Beyond these POC are other marginalized people, including a soldier with PTSD and an elderly man who has been declared useless by society. And a woman!
In a more traditional Western, Bogue would represent progress, the man bringing civilization to the “savage” western edge of the country, but here he is shown for who he really is, a corrupt monster who uses bullying and violence to make his mark on the world, and, ultimately, he is undone by a diverse coalition of men (and a woman!) who forsake old grudges (as seen in the interactions between Red Harvest and Jack Horne as well as Vasquez and Faraday) in order to prevent an evil reaping of innocent people. And, hey, it’s a surprisingly progressive film that you can probably get even your racist grandpa to watch. Check it out!
-Mark “Boomer” Redmond