Thursday, April 09, 2009

The Magnificent Seven

Magnificent Seven posterThe Magnificent Seven (1960) is a Western modeled on Japanese director Akira Kurusawa’s Seven Samurai (1954), about seven gunmen hired to liberate a Mexican village from routine pillaging by bandits.

The Magnificent Seven opens with bandits, led by a scoundrel named Calvera (played by Eli Wallach), raiding a humble Mexican village while its inhabitants stand frozen and helpless. At their wits end, they consult their elder and he insists on confronting the enemy, sending them to the border to buy guns. The meek farmers are doubtful, but they go anyway. In an American town, the farmers witness two gunslingers called Chris (played by Yul Brynner) and Vin (played by Steve McQueen) displaying their valor by driving a hearse containing a dead Native American to the cemetery despite the ire of prejudiced locals. They appeal to Chris to work for them and he agrees to bring together some good gunmen, even though the farmers offer them a pittance in exchange. Aside from Vin, Chris succeeds in hiring a fortune-hunter named Harry, a tough Irish-Mexican named Bernardo O’Reilly, a reserved knife-thrower named Britt, and an outlaw named Lee. The six of them head down south and are trailed by an impetuous young Mexican named Chico, who Chris eventually accepts as a member of the group.

The villagers are too frightened to greet the foreigners and during the fiesta the next day the Americans merely watch and wait. They kill three of Calvera’s spies so that their presence remains secret. The following scenes depict the Americans working alongside the Mexicans to assemble traps and barricades, and to instruct them on how to operate guns. The Americans are portrayed as determined, patient and earnest teachers and the Mexicans as willing, but not always able students. Their first battle is a great success, due to catching Calvera and his men off-guard within the newly-fortified village, and they send the survivors high-tailing out. The victory fills the farmers with a newfound sense of bravado, but it is quickly dampened when they consider that Calvera may return. Cracks begin to appear in the rough-and-ready attitude of the seven. Vin yearns after the things he has sacrificed as a hired gunman: a home, a wife and a family. Lee has terrible nightmares and lives in fear of the final shootout when he will loose. Both the Mexicans and Americans argue amongst themselves whether to risk fighting Calvera again or reinstate the status quo. Chris and three Mexicans speak ardently to the others about the need to carry on.

When the seven return to the village one night, they are ambushed by Calvera and his gang, who humiliates them by demanding that they remove their gun belts and leave for good. With a surprising lack of foresight, Calvera only seized their guns to show the villagers who was boss, and returns their guns once the seven are outside the village. All but the wealth-driven Harry have become attached to the village, either for sentimental reasons or personal honour, and they return the next day for an intense shootout. They are outnumbered and casualties are high. Harry, who has a change of heart, is shot dead upon arrival, followed by Lee, Britt and O’Reilly. The farmers fight valiantly with nothing but chairs and spades, but Chris is the one to finally kill Calvera. In the final scene, three of the remaining seven are thanked by the village elder, and as Chris and Vin ride away, Chico turns back to remain with a Mexican girl whose infatuation draws him uneasily away from the footloose lifestyle of the older men.

The Magnificent Seven could not more clearly be an allegory for U.S. interventionism. Following cultural studies theorist Stanley Corkin, the film references a liberal interventionist model, one that seeks to improve social justice and material conditions abroad, and was produced when U.S. interventionism was viewed positively after the Korean War (1950-1953). At the outset of the film, the protagonist is shown risking his personal safety to ensure that the body of a Native American is treated with equal dignity. The task is apparently taken as a dare, but its moral undertones are clear. The personal motivation behind this act is not explained, nor is the fact that he organizes six other men to fight bandits in Mexico for a dismal wage. Moments before death, Calvera asks Chris incredulously: “You came back, to a place like this, why? A man like you, why?” The villain cannot recognize that Chris simply wanted to extend the liberties enjoyed in America to the Mexicans. These liberties include being free from persecution and also being free to accumulate wealth; it is emphasized that the village is poor because Cavera takes all of their surplus crops. This benign intervention has a cost, as is seen by the graves of the dead Americans. However, the final scenes show their success in leaving the village more peaceful, stable and productive.

The relationship between the Americans and Mexicans in The Magnificent Seven is incredibly paternalistic. The Mexicans passively accept being downtrodden by Calvera until the Americans bolster their courage, and they lack the gunmanship and strategy for counter-attack until given them by the Americans. This relationship of student/follower/recipient versus teacher/leader/provider is even expressed in the physical and verbal interactions of the two groups. The Mexicans are often seated when the Americans are standing, or in other formations that give the Americans greater stature. Often one American will address a group of Mexicans, and they will pipe up one after the other in a childlike fashion. The film does attempt to garner some respect for the Mexicans by suggesting that their bravery exceeds that of the Americans, having chosen the responsibilities of family and farming rather than being roaming mercenaries. At the same time, America emerges as a superior entity in The Magnificent Seven for its commitment to and capacity for delivering freedom to the oppressed.

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