Ben’s Blog: How The West Was Lost

Posted October 11th, 2016 by Ben

Schrödinger’s Cat has been much misrepresented. The thought experiment that pivots on a cat being simultaneously dead and also not dead was originally intended to highlight the essential illogic at the heart of quantum theory. However Louis Macneice was right, the world is “incorrigibly plural” and we are strangely comfortable with things being multiple. Antoine Fuqua’s revision of The Magnificent 7 is cynical, honest, bold and nervous all at once, a fitting metaphor for modern America.

John Sturges’ 1960 epic, openly lifted from Kurosawa’s 7 Samurai with the unblinking confidence of the true colonialist, retains the simple authority of a founding myth. Kurosawa loved the original and gave Sturges a sword, but it is Fuqua who gives the Japanese master his deserved screen credit. Indeed one way of looking at the new film’s portrait of an ethnically diversity wild west is as part of a wider act of reparation. The American frontier was much fuller of African and Asian migrants than that dreamt about by post-war Hollywood. However it’s hard to watch Byung-hun Lee’s brilliant version of James Coburn’s version of Seiji Miyaguchi’s weaponry master Kyuzo without feeling that casting a Korean has less to do with homage to history or Kurosawa, than with delighting the increasingly essential Asian market. Of course, like Schrödinger’s cat, the film can be all these things simultaneously, but what it can’t retain is the original’s blunt power, its all-American self-belief.

This is a nervy and unconfident film. Things settle down for the final bloodbath but before reaching the safe territory of goodies and baddies, quips and squibs, the edit jitters and jumps as Fuqua raises questions of race, ownership and morality without daring to offer answers. Even the villain is at pains to stress he’s no member of the high capitalist club like Rockefeller, rather he’s the seedy sort of wicked industrialist you can despise whether you vote Sanders or Trump. The trade of proto-industrialist for Mexican bandit raises another interesting duality. I couldn’t shake the sense that Peter Sarsgaard was channeling Mel Brooks in Blazing Saddles, surely the first mainstream western to dare a black hero and the deeper Chris Pratt stuck his tongue in his cheek, the more Fuqua’s movie felt like a double remake.

Crucially the new film caves in to the cheap raise of a personal motive. Denzel Washington‘s Chisolm, unlike Yul Brynner’s Chris Larabee Adams or Takashi Shimura’s Kambei Shimada, is driven by the need for revenge. If this heightens the delight of Sarsgaard’s end, it cannot fail but undercut the simple nobility that propelled both original and original imitator. If Brynner was America protecting Europe from the Nazi’s through a sense of moral purpose, Chisolm is America storming Afghanistan after the twin towers came down. Like all wars for revenge this leaves the body count far harder to ignore and leaves the rushed voice-over resolution ringing hollow. The decision to hold back Elmer Bernstein’s glorious theme until the closing title further highlights how this film could find no place for something so noble, magnificent and uncomplicated as a tune we can all whistle.

A far subtler melody weaves through David Mackenzie’s sublime neo-western crime drama Hell Or Highwater. Also based around a cowboy fighting a capitalist force intent on stealing his land, in this case the Texas Midland Bank. Yet this is a film that really does find time for the historical perspective. Sat across the street from the bank, Gil Birmingham’s laconic native american-mexican cop remarks how “150 years ago all this was my ancestor’s land… ’til the grandparents of these folks took it and now it’s being taken from them – except it ‘aint no army doing it, it’s those sons of bitches right there.” In the end both films are about stolen goods that will never be returned to their rightful owners.

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