Review by Corinna Tomrley
Hmmm. So, westerns have always been, or had the potential to be, pretty problematic. Or to put it another way, basic and/or offensive in their treatment of race, morality, women, oh I dunno, pretty much everything. Later ones did tend to address or even overturn some of this. Genres, after all, aren’t static. And I know I know we can look at the westerns from the beginnings of cinema to, what the 70s, even the 80s perhaps and say ‘they have to be viewed in their historical context’. But in 2016?
I am pretty baffled, actually, by what I’ve just watched. And also about the experience of watching it in a massive West End IMAX cinema with a bunch of predominantly critical people. I’m gonna make a sweeping assumption that lots of these people will (or should) be clued in that laughing at racist ‘jokes’ isn’t ok. There are quite a few aspects of The Magnificent Seven remake that are iffy and it totally obliterated any of the qualities that the film has underneath all of that.
Now, confession time: I’ve not seen the original (or Seven Samurai). Although, to be honest, I kind of want to now despite westerns being one of the genres that does little for me. But despite not being a fan, I’ve seen westerns, believe me. I grew up having to sit through the spaghetti ones again and again and again. Watched some in film school. And then had a boyfriend who liked the Leone ones and I can appreciate their majesty. Red River is also one of my favourite films, despite me hating John Wayne. But then Monty Clift is in it and the juxtaposition between him and Wayne is fascinating. And there’s that homoerotic gunplay scene with Monty and John Ireland. But, on the whole, I wouldn’t really choose to see most of them.
Yet I know that they can be done well and casual racism and Native-Americans-as-evil tropes are addressed and overturned in more modern ones. And you might get a ‘strong woman’ in there too.
So here’s the thing. In The Magnificent Seven, there’s seven of them (natch) and three of the seven are white.
We have the unusual blockbuster occurrence that the majority of the heroes are people of colour. Wow, amazing. Pretty wonderful. But then it’s not so great. On the whole, they are ‘types’ that are somewhat clichéd depictions their racial identities: the martial artist Asian character (Lee Byung-Hun), the lone wanderer Native-American character (Martin Sensmeier). With the Mexican character (Miguel Garcia-Rulfo), it’s not him that is the stereotype. No, something much worse happens; that I’ll come to in a minute. But whilst you have all of these characters whose race is addressed, the main character, Chisolm, the big boss of the 7, is black. And no one mentions it. And it’s, what? Late 1880s? When I am pretty sure his presence wouldn’t have been automatically accepted by all and sundry. I have no qualms with Denzel Washington’s casting as the lead role. I love him and he’s good in it and that should happen much more often. But this isn’t a ‘colour blind’ film and so it can’t be a ‘colour blind’ character. It was just very odd. And in a way made the stereotyping of the other non-white characters even more shit.
SPOILER ALERT: I did wonder if the reveal at the end was a reference to his race. As a result of Bad Man Bogue’s greed, Chisolm’s mother was raped, his sisters killed and Chisholm was strung up and bears the scars. Yes, rape, murder etc is something that Bogue’s men do to everyone, but the mention of lynching cannot help but evoke specific racist violence. Still, this doesn’t explain why a whole town – although suspicious when Chisolm first arrives – is totally accepting of him (and indeed the multicult of the whole gang).
But not all the characters are beyond being racist. Oh no. I was flabbergasted when Faraday (Chris Pratt), did a ‘lazy, drunk Mexican’ impression to take the piss out of Vasquez and it was not overturned, questioned, or anything. In fact, horrifyingly, the audience I was in laughed. I blurted out, ‘yeah, cuz racism is so funny, isn’t it?’ Why was that supposed to be funny? It’s not. It’s childish and awful.
Oh but Corinna, I hear you cry, you can’t one minute complain that racism isn’t depicted and then complain when it is. Except it’s not that simple. Up to this point in the film, Faraday has been the jovial, conceited yet charming one. It’s Chris Pratt ffs. So I assume we’re supposed to find this, what, endearing? Are we supposed to laugh with him? I was waiting for the moment later on when this would be addressed in some way, making that incident one that Faraday learns from. But, nope. There’s just more egotistical joshing from Faraday, the lovable, racist cutiepie.
The next problematic character is Jack Horne, played – it has to be said – magnificently by Vincent D’Onofrio. Now, I’ve always thought D’Onofrio is one of the best actors of his generation and despite getting some acclaim, is pretty much underrated considering his chops. He should be being spoken of as the Brando of our time. No, not quite that because he doesn’t do the messy, self-destructive showboating of a Brando. D’Onofrio is so good. And in this, he is, by miles, the strongest of all the cast. He’s so great, though, it’s almost like he’s in a different film. His characterization is just compelling. But his character is a former ‘scalp hunter’ made redundant when the government stopped paying for the slaughter of the indigenous people. Oh, there’s a smidge of ‘tension’ between him and Comanche Red Harvest and a joke is made that Red is nervous about Horne checking out his hairline… cuz genocide is fucking hilarious too, right? So he’s a hideous character with a horrific past. But what do they make fun of? Oh, he’s fat. And he stutters a bit and his voice is high. If Jack Horne had not been a mass murderer of indigenous people I could have fallen in love with him and watched a two hour film just about him as Vincent D’Onofrio played him. Fuck you Hollywood for making the worst of the bunch the most sympathetic and fully rounded. Although I suspect in anyone else’s hands he’d have been as 2D as the rest of them.
But – racism out of the equation – the shallow, two-dimensional can be ok in a cliché-ridden genre. And I actually liked that director Fuqua pays homage with a gun fight that has a stuntman falling from a saloon balcony, another ‘thrown’ through a window etc, etc. But the casting alone is surely supposed to be addressing race in some way? No, why do that, silly. It would make all the white people in the audience uncomfortable. We’re just there to see all the ‘bad guys’ being shot, right? Because the men the 7 are there to fight are the really evil ones. A genocidal guy is ok, really, because he wants to hang out with the gang and help the poor folks of the town. And those tomahawky, slashy skills are gonna come in real handy when the shit hits the fan.
There’s a female character, played by Haley Bennett who is ‘tough’ but she’s so by-the-by, a cliché in herself as the tough woman in a western and wheeled out at a few key moments and then forgotten so that I couldn’t really care about her. Which, you know, as a chick and a feminist, I should, right? I was more distracted as to why this ‘good wife’ of the town was dressed so that her tits kept showing. Was that for the boys in the audience? So that when the gun fighting and machismo weren’t quite enough for them they had something to look at as the woman shot people and cried? Yeah, she’s got moxie but don’t get threatened because look she’s also got blood spatters on her cleavage. She’s tough but you can think about her tits and her tears.
The showdown is ok. I was there, I was pulled into the desire for revenge and slaughter of the ‘bad’ army of baddy baddies. But it went on forever and I lost focus and interest part way through it. And, as is my bugbear with most action films, I lost the plot with what I was actually watching. Perhaps sitting front row of an IMAX isn’t a good idea after all. But I have a feeling that even if I watch it on telly it will still be too fast, too much cutting and I’ll start thinking about something else. Like, why are we supposed to care about this again?
The Magnificent Seven is in UK cinemas from Friday 23rd September