“The Magnificent Seven” rides again, thanks to Antoine Fuqua’s newest feature, a star-studded take on the classic Western from John Sturges (which was, in turn, a star-studded take on the Japanese epic “Seven Samurai” from master filmmaker Akira Kurosawa) that subtly modernizes its story for a new audience (and a new time). Starring Fuqua regulars Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke and Haley Bennett, alongside an impressive cast that includes Chris Pratt, Peter Sarsgaard, Vincent D’Onofrio, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Martin Sensmeier and Byung-hun Lee, the film delivers a timely, diverse and feminist-leaning story with some major genre roots.
And that’s exactly what its filmmaker was going for when he took on the daunting task of remaking a beloved film that ranks among some of the best of its genre and American film in general: Finding a way to make it modern, make it timely and make it resonant while still honoring a genre that he loves.
Fuqua admits he was initially nervous about taking on the project – a remake of a remake, funnily enough – mostly because of the rich legacy both of the previous films have inspired in cinematic history. But when he realized the possibilities that were being afforded to him by a new take on the material, he knew it was the right move.
“I was hesitant a little at first, obviously for Kurosawa and Sturges, [and] coming behind that,” he recently told IndieWire. “But when I started talking about my cast, MGM was very supportive of the diverse cast and obviously, with Denzel leading that group, that got me excited.”
Something Bigger Than Themselves
It certainly didn’t hurt that Fuqua, who had grown up on Westerns, thanks to marathon watching session with his movie-crazy grandmother, already appreciated the forward thinking that was apparent in Kurosawa’s 1954 Japanese epic and Sturges’ star-studded 1960 Hollywood feature. That’s what really cracked it for him.
“One of the most important things is that I believe in what Kurosawa said [with] ‘Seven Samurai,’ and what Sturges continued: People coming together to stop tyranny,” Fuqua said. “And the idea that perfect strangers that may be a little rough around the edges, flawed characters, can still do the right thing. The fundamental idea of that always stayed with me. They were fighting against something bigger than themselves.”
Fuqua recalled a specific scene from Sturges’ film that helped inspire much of what he ultimately put on the big screen with his version of the classic story.
“The opening scene when Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen – and they didn’t know each other in the movie – decided to escort the Native American up to the gravesite for him to be buried and the townsfolk are trying to shoot ’em always stuck with me,” Fuqua said.
“They were making a statement about racism or intolerance or bigotry. That really hit me,” he added.
Yet, the filmmaker also keenly felt that the film could deliver its message while still being entertaining and enjoyable to watch. It’s a lesson he learned from that wonderful, movie-crazy grandmother of his.
Finding a “Magnificent” Cast
“I had that memory in my brain of watching [the Sturges film] with my grandmother and how much she loved that movie, and I can just hear her voice in my head about it,” he remembered. “I thought if I could make a movie that stays true to that – and make it fun – then that’s worthwhile.”
The key to bridging those two ideas eventually fell to the same thing that struck Fuqua to begin with: The ability to gather a diverse and talented cast to tell the story of the so-called magnificent band of gunslingers, criminals, robbers, outcasts and just plain wild men who save an entire town.
After initially pitching the idea of Washington starring in the film to the studio, the director met with his one-time “Equalizer” star, who sparked to Fuqua’s vision – “I started painting the picture of him coming over the hill on the black horse dressed in black, and he couldn’t stop laughing” – and the actor soon signed on for the film.
Washington wasn’t the only returning star that Fuqua was eager to cast, and he also pursued another “Equalizer” star – rising actress Haley Bennett – to play Emma Cullen, the ass-kicking widow who employs the seven to help take back her town after a great personal tragedy forces her into action. And Fuqua’s “Training Day” star Ethan Hawke? He kind of made his own case for the part.
“I ran into Ethan because he was hosting an ‘Equalizer’ screening here in New York,” Fuqua laughed. “And he literally grabbed me and put me against the wall and said,’ I’m in that movie. It’s called “Magnificent Seven,” I know Denzel is doing the one, so there’s six more to go. And if I’m not in it, our friendship’s over.'” It was a pretty easy sell.
Fuqua newbie Chris Pratt made his own case for the film, too, thanks in no small part to his love of Westerns and his literal ability to croon about it. “We talked a lot,” Fuqua said. “Then he called me one day, and he was singing ‘Oh Shenandoah’ over the phone, so I was like, ‘Okay, he’s in.'”
Other stars, like Martin Sensmeier and Byung-hun Lee, had caught Fuqua’s eye in other roles (the filmmaker said he particularly admired Lee’s work in “I Saw the Devil”), and spoke to Fuqua’s compulsion to put together a diverse cast that enrichen the material without overshadowing it.
“I was like, ‘They’re just cowboys,'” Fuqua said. “There’s no ‘the Asian cowboy,’ ‘the black cowboy.’ You are who you are and you don’t have to represent that. Just be in that environment.”
“One of the Purest Forms of Cinema”
It’s that environment that Fuqua seems to find most compelling. His admiration for the Western as a genre is obvious (and, it must be noted, that Fuqua is a dedicated cinephile who loves nothing more than going to the movies and is very animated when talking about the need to shoot on film, as he did with “Magnificent Seven”), and he’s hopeful that a film like this one might help kickstart a resurgence of sorts for the ailing genre.
“If you look at the Western, how it’s changed over the years, John Ford’s movies were pure and nice and then they get darker with ‘The Searchers’ and Vietnam came and you get ‘The Wild Bunch,'” he said. “They changed based on society, so why give that up? Why give the genre up? Why not explore it more, give it a chance, let it breathe?”
After all, for Fuqua, there’s nothing more timely than a well-crafted Western.
“I don’t understand why we give up genres, and the Western is a great genre. It’s a part of the rich history of cinema, and who we are as we’ve evolved as people, as a community,” Fuqua said. “Each time you see a Western movie, it’s a good reflection of where things are in the world at that time. It’s probably one of the purest forms of cinema that really tells you where the world is.”
So where does his “Magnificent Seven” fit into that tradition?
“It shows that we’re still dealing with the same thing,” Fuqua said. “We’re still dealing with people who are just terrorizing other people. We’re still dealing with people who are abusing other people, burning up the churches, killing people in the streets.”
And the director is hopeful that, despite the film’s tough message (albeit one wrapped up in some very entertaining packaging), audiences can use it to probe some deeper questions, and even some possible solutions.
“We still need some magnificent men and women, like we do have in our military and in our service community, to help stop that. But it it has to be all of us,” Fuqua said. “And that’s not just ‘us’ meaning America. Everybody has to throw a hand in there to help, you know? That’s what I think the movie says, how are we still dealing with the same thing? Why are we still dealing with taking advantage of other people this way? And that’s the idea there.”
“The Magnificent Seven” world premiered at the Toronto International Film Festival. It opens on Friday, September 23.