Dangerous Knowledge

I had only some slight curiosity about the new “Magnificent Seven,” but when my son expressed an interest in seeing it we decided to enjoy a family outing, complete with a monster-sized bucket of popcorn.  The popcorn was delicious and the movie wasn’t at all bad, beyond being preposterous.  The seven gunfighters of the title expend a staggering quantity of lead, knives, and arrows with what seems to be laser-guided precision.  Their superhuman marksmanship results in heaps of slain desperadoes who lie strewn along the dusty streets and alleys of Rose Creek, a farming community perched atop a vein of gold coveted by the mustache-twirling villain of the piece, an industrialist with more minions at his disposal than even Gru ever hoped to command.  

While not to be taken seriously, the movie is skillfully assembled and utterly entertaining, with standout performances by Denzel Washington, Ethan Hawke, and Vincent D’Onofrio, and an especially engaging smart-aleck turn by Chris Pratt as a gun-encumbered card sharp.  Each star outlines his character with a few swift, sure strokes, in the hope that audiences will give a hoot about them when the bullets fly.

The movie is based on a 1960 John Sturges Western, which was in turn adapted from a 1954 Akira Kurosawa film called “Seven Samurai,” a black-and-white epic set in sixteenth-century Japan.  “Seven Samurai” was a revisionist film, the renowned director’s attempt to take some starch out of the mythology surrounding the warrior clans and roving swordsmen of Japan’s feudal period.  American actors and filmmakers who saw the Japanese film when it reached our shores in 1956, immediately saw parallels with this country's own legendary past and proceeded to churn out not only “The Magnificent Seven,” but three sequels and, a few decades later, a TV series, not to mention uncounted films, paperbacks and TV episodes which borrowed elements from the Sturges film.  

While Japan offers a backdrop slightly smaller than California, its history of civil war and samurai swordplay spans nearly 700 years, though the era mined for Japanese cinema, the twilight of the samurai, lasted a mere 260 years.  While the U. S. is blessed with an abundance of wide-open vistas for frontier shoot ‘em ups, our signature national myth played out over a mere sliver of time, from the end of the Civil War to the tail end of the 19th century, encompassing barely more than three decades.  Despite some notable exceptions such as “The Shootist,” “Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid,” and “The Wild Bunch,” films set early in the 20th century, the bulk of Western myth-making fits neatly into a timeline stretching from a few years on one side of 1880, to a few years on the other.  The bullseye appears to be 1881, the year of the street fight in Tombstone, which, according to a tally made by Films In Review in 1993, had by then appeared on film two dozen times.  It might be worth noting that the three movies named above which are set early in the next century, share a common melancholy theme:  the party’s over for the Wild West, and it’s time to grow up, retire, or go out in a blaze of glory.   

Knowing a little something about the era of the American West can be dangerous.  At the very least it can make for a troubling afternoon at the movies.

In “3:10 to Yuma,” the splendid 2007 remake of a Glenn Ford Western from 1957, based on a short story by Elmore Leonard, there was a scene that made me start doing math in my head when I should have been looking at the breathtaking scenery.  I may get a detail or two wrong here, but as I recall, Ben Wade, the charismatic outlaw played by Russell Crowe, talks about being abandoned by his recently-widowed mother at a train station when he was eight years old.  Since Wade seems to be about 40 when he’s telling the story (Crowe turned 43 the year the film was released), and the setting is c. 1884 Arizona, Ben Wade’s mother apparently considered boarding a train that would take the two of them “back East to start over” in 1852.  Exactly where did Ben Wade’s mother abandon him?  With all of his talk about San Francisco, it might seem the obvious candidate, except that there wouldn’t be a railroad there for another decade.

Set in 1879, “The Magnificent Seven” is discreet about revealing its precise locale, although it seems to be somewhere in California, a three-day ride from Sacramento, we are told.  There’s no railroad, no telegraph, no way to get around or send a message except by horse.  Them’s the rules.  Thankfully, besides scads of miscellaneous bad men, there is also an endless supply of ammunition and dynamite.  Oh, and a Gatling gun.  I won’t give away any more secrets except to say that four of the Seven don’t make it to the end credits, and the local minister assures the surviving heroes that the townspeople will take good care of their fallen friends.  What about all the other guys, I wondered.  Isn’t it going to look kind of suspicious to have a village of about 40 citizens with a cemetery the size of Forest Lawn?  And who gets the gold now?  

Oh, just sit back and enjoy the movie.

© Dale Switzer 2016  dale@lovewellhistory.com