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Now that the Great Work of painting my lounge is complete, I have the time to catch up on a few reviews. I saw this film a month ago at the Cottage Road cinema with big_daz, ms_siobhan and planet_andy, and was very impressed. Although I'm aware that it is a reworking of The Seven Samurai, I haven't seen that, so can't comment on the relationship between them. But this film certainly works in its own right. It has some cracking dialogue, a really strong cast, and a level of characterisation which goes well beyond what you would normally expect from a shoot 'em up Western. Three things in particular struck me about it as I was watching.

Firstly, the unusual prominence of issues of imperialism, interventionism and race. Obviously all Westerns are about the colonisation of wild landscapes, but this film seemed more interested than most in complicating the picture. This starts with the opening scene, in which Yul Brynner's character and a friend ensure that a native American Indian is able to be given a proper burial, as the local townsfolk wish him to, in spite of an armed gang trying to stop the undertaker from doing his job. This is still an essentially racist narrative of Good White Guys vs. Bad White Guys to which non-white people are largely incidental (in this case, literally dead), but at least it acknowledges race as a contested issue which has victims.

The theme is then continued by the fact that the village which the seven gunmen go to defend against bandits is in Mexico (rather than Texas or Arizona). This means that they don't have any social ties to anyone in the village when they agree to go and help, as it is explicitly positioned outside their culture, and huge play is also made of the fact that the villagers have almost nothing at all to offer in payment. The gunmen go partly because they enjoy fighting, but also because they want to protect the honest efforts of the villagers to build a life for themselves by cultivating the land against the dishonest attacks of the bandit Calvera and his gang.

The resulting story of brave, noble, technologically advanced Americans intervening to protect timid, primitive Mexicans is quite racist and / or culturally imperialistic, too, but again it is deliberately complicated. Four of the seven gunmen die in the ensuing battle, leaving Yul Brynner's character to observe that in the end it is only ever the farmers who win, while men like him always lose. So interventionism looks pretty unattractive and futile by the end of it all, and good honest productive labour a rather better prospect.

The second, smaller thing to strike me was how similar the scenes of the seven gunmen training up the villagers to use weapons and defend themselves were to the scenes of experienced gladiators training up runaway slaves in Spartacus (1960). Indeed, the whole stories of the two films are quite comparable, revolving as they do around the efforts of good but powerless people to free themselves from the burdens imposed by malicious powerful ones - though the attempt is more successful in The Magnificent Seven than it is in Spartacus. When I looked up the release dates of the two films to help understand the relationship between them, I found that Spartacus came out just a few weeks after The Magnificent Seven, so I suppose that both the training scenes and the overall narratives of each must reflect shared audience demands and shared production processes in the film industry as a whole at the time. It is yet more support for swisstone's argument that what Classicists think of as 'Classical' films are not really viewed as a distinct genre by the people who make or watch them.

Finally, as tends to happen more or less every time I see a Western (which isn't actually very often), I found myself coming out of the cinema fascinated once again by how it is that this genre could have almost entirely dominated the film industry from the 1930s to the 1950s, but then dropped so thoroughly out of favour. I can understand why it was popular in the first place, as the central theme of building new civilisations in the wilderness is clearly pretty close to American hearts. Westerns of course they also offer plenty of opportunities for chases and gunfights, which always seem to be popular. I also understand how, with the advent of exciting special effects in particular, audiences switched their allegiance to things like SF and horror films, and indeed that in some ways the Western never really went away at all but was subsumed into those genres (see e.g. Firefly / Serenity for a particularly clear example).

But there must be more to explain their total reversal of fortunes, mustn't there? Changing gender roles eroding the appeal of the macho cowboy? Increased discomfort with the ideology of colonialism and imperialism at the heart of the stories? Shaken confidence in the American dream after the combined experiences of the Korean and Vietnam wars? The rise of the cold war making gun-fights on horseback look rather old-fashioned? Or, of course, a fatal combination of all of those, and more.

Let me know if you have any theories of your own.

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( 9 comments — Leave a comment )
Aug. 9th, 2013 08:38 pm (UTC)
I suspect-- though I stress I haven't studied this at ALL, despite liking Westerns a lot-- that it's a combination of a US cultural shift and industrial/technical changes. I can't really be more specific than that, though if you're interested I'm sure I can find you some literature on the subject.

If you liked the film you might try the 90s series The Magnificent Seven which dealt with a lot of these topics in a reasonably complicated way (though not perfectly). It also managed to construct some reasonably complex female characters (though again not perfectly).
Aug. 10th, 2013 08:52 am (UTC)
I think Vietnam killed the Western. Also the Civil Rights movement. In the light of what was going on in the real world the assumptions behind the genre came to seem simplistic, racist, imperialist. Most of the best westerns from the 60s and 70s are revisionist. Actually, the best westerns always were. John Ford's The Searchers- often voted the best ever- was dealing with racism as early as 1956. When it's anti-hero walks out of the farmhouse at the end of the movie there's a feeling that the things he represents- the manifest destiny of the white race, rugged individualism, the whole John Wayne package- no longer have a place in a changing world. The gunmen have had their day. The farmers are taking over. Most western from then on preach the same message. It gets to be old hat. After The Wild Bunch and Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid- both of which end with their heroes going down in a hail of bullets- the genre more or less ran out of trail.

The rise of the spaghetti western- so much cooler and flip and knowing- also needs to be factored in. When Hollywood started imitating its imitators it was clear the genre was in trouble.

The Magnificent Seven follows The Seven Samurai quite closely. The training sequences are there because they're there in the original. If The Magnificent Seven is about race the Seven Samurai is about caste. The line about the farmers always winning is lifted straight out of Kurosawa.
Aug. 10th, 2013 12:26 pm (UTC)
Yep, sounds like much the sort of factors I was guessing at. I should definitely see The Seven Samurai some time, too.
Aug. 10th, 2013 02:16 pm (UTC)
It's a better movie than TMS.
Aug. 10th, 2013 11:14 pm (UTC)

Was about to make a comment comparing the treatment of race in the MS and the farmer/samurai class divide in the SS. But I just realized it would be a bit of a spoiler (the films aren't quite 100% the same).

But yeah - way better film. Go see it!
Aug. 11th, 2013 06:32 pm (UTC)
I don't really mind about spoilers, to be honest, but I have added The Seven Samurai to my Lovefilm list, so will find out for myself soon enough! :-)
Aug. 10th, 2013 02:44 pm (UTC)
They don't have a traditional cowboy and western setting but I would argue that both Expendables follow a fairly traditional 'western' story arch. Though they are also fairly dreadful in a gung ho kind of way but the second one not only has Dolph being rather delectable but also has a kick ass female character who takes no shit from anyone and she isn't presented in a traditional hollywood female way either.
Aug. 11th, 2013 04:55 pm (UTC)
If you're interested in the issue of imperialist narratives in Westerns, you might enjoy Reel Injun, a Canadian documentary about Native people in film. It's thought-provoking and often very funny, and it interviews a who's who of actors and filmmakers (both native and white). You can see the trailer here.
Aug. 11th, 2013 06:34 pm (UTC)
I definitely like the title! Thanks for the rec.
( 9 comments — Leave a comment )

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