No matter how many times we pronounce it dead, the western remains gratifyingly unwilling to turn up its boots. Just last year saw several worthy additions to its ranks, including “The Hateful Eight,” “The Revenant,” “Bone Tomahawk,” and “Slow West.” Not bad for a deceased art form.
Still, that’s a far cry from the 1950s, which saw more westerns released than all other movie genres combined. One theory for the western’s decline is as American urbanization expanded, frontier settings seemed increasingly alien. Cattle gave way to Cadillacs, Winchesters to Winnebagos. There were 26 western series on TV in 1959, the year that the U.S. made Hawaii its 50th and final state. As the space race turned our attentions to the skies, the frontier started to gather tumbleweeds.
However, westerns aren’t about time or place so much as they are about the process of building society in a wild and unruly land. And that brings us to “The Magnificent Seven,” Antoine Fuqua’s remake of John Sturges’ 1960 classic. (Speaking of lawlessness, the 1960 version was itself an uncredited remake of Akira Kurosawa’s “Seven Samurai,” but proper credit has been restored in Fuqua’s version.)
Fuqua has said he wanted his movie to be a statement against Donald Trump and the politics of racial division: His Seven are a diverse bunch, led by Denzel Washington and including Mexican actor Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, Korea’s Byung-hun Lee, and Native American Martin Sensmeier. Individually, they’re not especially fearsome, but in the words of Trump’s presidential opponent, they are stronger together. United by a common purpose (and a satchel full of money), they rally the inhabitants of a town that’s been threatened with extinction by a ruthless businessman, and they — well, you can, guess that part.
So far, so metaphorical. With his buzz-cut widow’s peak, Peter Sarsgaard’s Bart Bogue may not look especially Trumpian — there’s precious little on top of that head for the Old West equivalent of Jimmy Fallon to playfully muss — but it’s hard to miss the parallel when he rants about how, unlike Vanderbilts and the Rockefellers, he had to build his fortune with his own two hands, and he had no compunction about bloodying them in the process. He’s a rich man who feels that other rich men look down on him, yet he’s filled with contempt for those were born poor and have stayed that way. He hates anyone who isn’t him.
Bart’s plan, which is of the evil variety, is to force the townspeople to sell their land for a pittance so he can mine it for coal. Anyone who doesn’t take that ungenerous offer will be killed, and he’ll take their property anyway. The town’s sheriff is, naturally, on the take — sad! — leaving Haley Bennett’s newly widowed townswoman to pool her neighbors’ life savings and seek out guns for hire. So the real America, whose strength is in its diversity, bands to fight their common enemy: an old, amoral, rich white guy.
But hang on a minute. Isn’t the idea that citizens need to take justice into their own hands a cornerstone of Trump’s campaign? While he’s not literally urging people to take up arms, he’s certainly pandered to those worried the government wants to take them away. And he’s suggested that government needs to be torn out at the root, and voters — especially aggrieved white ones — need to do it themselves. For Trump, the American ideals of plurality and tolerance are a luxury we can no longer afford; they are vestiges of softer, less-threatening times that we must shed if we are to survive.
Westerns have always been entwined with America’s myth of itself, a place where one good man (or woman, but really, a man) with a gun is all it takes to set things right. It’s always been a lie, but it’s one that’s powerful enough to be the subject of John Ford’s “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence,” in which a reporter advises Jimmy Stewart, “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” Ford’s movie cannily allows us to have it both ways: It tells us that the legend is a fraud, but suggests that fiction can be more satisfying, and more important, than mere truth.
Quentin Tarantino’s “The Hateful Eight” and “Django Unchained,” by contrast, are pure mythbusters (which is not to say that they’re not entwined with Tarantino’s personal brand of bullshit), a toxic miasma that settles on the classic western and leaves nothing unpoisoned. His is an old west where racism is not just a way of life but a structural necessity, a slowly rotting pillar beneath the mansion of state.
Fuqua, and his screenwriters Nic Pizzolatto and Richard Wenk, aren’t clever enough to built a new myth; unlike the “Fast and Furious” movies, their post-racial camaraderie is more a matter of theory than practice. (Watch for the scene that attempts to explain why a former Confederate sharpshooter is willing to take orders from a black man not 15 years after the end of the Civil War, and see if you can extract a lick of sense from it.)
Like “Suicide Squad,” the movie assumes that we’ll accept its motley crew as a cohesive unit because the plot requires it, throwing up only a few easily surmounted racial hurdles — Chris Pratt’s gunslinger lost his grandfather at the Alamo; Garcia-Rulfo suggests his grandfather, fighting on the Mexican side, might have killed him. But those differences quickly melt in the heat of battle, leaving unfettered capitalism — which, Sarsgaard’s robber baron argues, Americans have a habit of equating with democracy and with God — as the movie’s one and only true evil.
Ultimately, the Seven lack proper bonding, but it’s more a failure of craft than concept. Still, it cripples the movie by glossing over the deep and abiding divisions in American life that persist even when logic might dictate otherwise. Bringing people together will always be a more complicated business than splitting them apart — a dilemma that both presidential candidates now find intimately familiar.