Thursday, January 23, 2014

Gods and Farmers

Uniquely human dreaming creates dreamlike human beings. In 1960's The Magnificent Seven, one sees the contrast between the farmer, a practical and realistic human occupation, and the role supported by communal dreams, the gunslinger. The movie is a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai in which the more dreamlike profession portrayed is the samurai, portrayed in the film much closer to the nature of real samurai than the gunslingers in The Magnificent Seven are to real 19th century gunmen. Seven Samurai is a superior film in a lot of ways but both movies are about this essential contrast, this strange human compulsion to place some individuals in roles that could be described both as outsider and sacred. The Magnificent Seven succeeds largely because of its impressive collection of remarkable actors, Elmer Bernstein's exciting score, and the elements of Seven Samurai's story that were carried over.

It's difficult to watch The Magnificent Seven and not think of Seven Samurai, the similarities between the two films' stories often mainly serving to show how much better the Japanese film is in every way, on a scene by scene basis. Instead of Kambei tricking a thief who kidnapped a small child, the subplot that introduces Kambei's analogue, Chris (Yul Brynner), involves him and the Gorobei analogue Vin (Steve McQueen) driving a carriage hearse bearing the corpse of a Native American to a Christian graveyard through a town filled armed white racists. It's a fun scene as we watch the two supernaturally skilled and charismatically rough men casually pick off riflemen in second storey windows to forcibly effect some anachronistic racial equality. Right away we establish gunslingers as superheroes--uncannily skilled and possessing a moral authority superior to and distinctly different from normal.

Instead of the very human, desperate thief who seems as much afraid holding a child hostage as any of the frightened onlookers, we have several vague, frowning racists. Bigotry was and is of course common enough in the U.S. but we can perceive little else about the men. The anachronistic moral authority of the gunslingers also stands in contrast to the samurai's more practical role as the risk taker who saves a life. One wonders why it doesn't seem to occur to anyone that the townspeople will simply exhume the Native American's body once the gunslingers have left town.

The scene is also one of many that establish all the gunslingers as possessing super powers, the ability to use revolvers with speed and precision greater than possible in real life. In Seven Samurai, even the most skilled swordsman, Kyuzo, is shown as being perfectly credible. Extraordinarily skilled but shown defeating only opponents who are markedly undisciplined.

The Kyuzo analogue is Britt (James Coburn) who's faster at throwing knives than most men are at drawing and firing pistols--an ability Kurosawa gave the following year to the larger than life samurai in Yojimbo though, even there, Kurosawa doesn't attempt to suggest Sanjuro can execute a death blow that prevents his attacker from even firing his pistol the way Britt is shown to be able to do.

As such, Britt's fate seems more arbitrary than evocative of realistic horror the way Kyuzo's does. And here we can detect maybe a reflection of the two cultural perspectives behind the two films--it's not hard to see why a Japanese filmmaker, less than a decade after World War II, would portray a skilled and honourable warrior thwarted by new, powerful technology delivered from an impersonal distance. The scene is so powerful that it obviously moved The Magnificent Seven's director John Sturges to emulate it but without the credibility given to Kyuzo's character and shown in the context of a finale that jams together all decisive victories or defeats for individual characters it seems somehow less cruel and significant.

The movie preserves at the end the sense that the farmers win a victory in the continuance of a normal life the gunslingers can never hope to be a part of because of their misfit natures. Though the sexism of Hollywood sabotages the romantic subplot that showed the contrast between samurai and farmer more starkly and cruelly than perhaps even the samurai putting their lives on the line to save the village. Instead of the story about a girl whose father feared the loss of her virginity at the hands of visiting samurai that ironically ends up with the lusty girl seducing the most innocent of the samurai, The Magnificent Seven's love interest for Chico is in the vein of the devoted young sweetheart stock character.

I'm not sure it was a bad idea to combine the eager, untested wouldbe samurai Katsushiro and the erratic black sheep Kikuchiyo in one character, Chico (Horst Buchholz). It would be very difficult to replicate a unique character like Kikuchiyo. Kikuchiyo, though, was crucial for portraying the beautiful ideal of the samurai, the dream of humans who compulsively create this class system, and simultaneously the tragically imperfect reality. He would have no place in The Magnificent Seven because the gunslingers only embody the ideal. Chico has the speech about how the farmers are made treacherous by fear of gunmen but there's nothing to tie the superheroes with the bandits despite the bandit leader's (Eli Wallach) invitation to Chris that he and the others join up with them. They are too clearly from different worlds for Chico's words to carry any weight.

Charles Bronson as Bernardo, sort of the Heihachi analogue--he's introduced chopping wood--is the most interesting character in the film. Bronson is very good delivering a speech to some farmers' children about their parents, having perhaps the best moment to show his acting chops of anyone in the film and one can see he probably would have been a big star much earlier in his career if he had been white. Instead of being the laid back zen clown like Heihachi who functioned as a sort of mirror of Kikuchiyo's natural clownishness, Bernardo is a mouthpiece for The Magnificent Seven's reverence for the farmers. This is one of two points where the film stands in philosophical opposition to Seven Samurai, the other being at the beginning where the villagers, instead of lamenting the absence of a benevolent deity, praise God in piety. It's curious The Magnificent Seven feels the need for Bernardo to impress upon the children how much nobler and more brave the farmers are than flighty gunslingers who run away from putting down roots. There's no praise in Seven Samurai for the farmers and their way of life to contrast the disgust Kikuchiyo feels for them though it doesn't feel necessary. We understand the farmers are human, getting by through whatever means necessary. The contrast isn't necessary because we can see the disgust is Kikuchiyo's feeling rather than a reflection of an independent, objectively moral force which The Magnificent Seven presumes exists.

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