The best films of the Western genre are defined by a direct confidence and a clarity of purpose. The movies are often simple, but their style is unmistakable and unapologetic. They stand in marked contrast to many recent action films that want to be violent, but not too violent, cool, but not unsympathetic, ethical, but not moralizing. They constantly look over their shoulder and joke half-heartedly about their own formulaic structure and the compromises of their production. They are defined by their milquetoast aversion to risk. The Western genre, like the sequels and adaptations that fill cinemas today, was also marked by remakes.
Despite sporadic forays from well-known directors in recent years, the Western is no longer a living genre. Each new entry has to at some point reckon with the weight of its predecessors. They are often judged almost as much for the deftness with which they atone for the sins of past films as for how entertaining they are and how well they work as Westerns. The tension between enforced metafictional inquiry and uncomplicated action has produced a number of great recent films, but has prevented the revival of the Western.
The remake, though, is not only alive, but growing, and to increasingly dispiriting results. There’s nothing intrinsic to imitation that’s deadening to the soul, but reading about Marvel’s nine planned films in its “cinematic universe” has that effect. Westerns were deeply flawed, perhaps unavoidably so, but for all its faults, none can say Sergio Leone’s 1964 A Fistful of Dollars (a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo) doesn’t feel alive. And with a remake of Magnificent Seven in theaters, it’s worth looking back at the first one (a 1960 Western directed by John Sturges and itself a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 Seven Samurai)—what it did well, what it didn’t, and the nature of the genre to which it belonged.
Though it fails to match Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven is still a good film. The gunfighters project a charming, if slightly one-dimensional, confidence; the fight scenes are, appropriately, both cool and tinged with tragedy; and the emotional notes are unashamedly sentimental.
The Magnificent Seven is not a loose adaptation. It follows both the plot and themes of Seven Samurai. Seven desperate but skilled samurai (or gunfighters) are hired to defend a poor peasant village from bandits. Both films have six largely stoic fighters offset by an expressive outsider who ultimately proves his worth. Although this element, central to Kurosawa’s film, is made a subplot in Sturges’s. While Toshiro Mifune’s Kikuchiyo is often played for comic relief, Mifune animates his wild presence with a defiant dignity. Horst Buchholz, though he gives a talented performance as Chico, is never more than the undisciplined youth he is first made out to be. And though the fights in The Magnificent Seven are fun, they lack the bravura choreography of those in Seven Samurai.
The largely endorsed caste system of Seven Samurai lends a problematic undercurrent to the film, but The Magnificent Seven’s racial undertones make this element even worse. The original six defenders of the village are all Americans (barring the half-Mexican heritage of one of the gunslingers) and the peasants they defend, as well as the bandits who assail them, are all Mexican. Chico, in addition to being, like Kikuchiyo, the son of peasant farmers, is ethnically distinct from those he admires (though the actor is German).
Two of the gunfighters are introduced as they forcibly, against armed resistance, integrate a cemetery with the body of an American Indian, and the Americans frequently expound on the nobility of farming, but this is a difficult message to make in a film where the lone American Indian is not only unheard, but unseen, and Mexican farmers are dependent on the generosity of selfless foreigners. In both films, the village’s defenders mourn their losses and philosophize that only the farmers have truly won. But two gunfighters riding triumphantly into the sunset on horseback at the end of The Magnificent Seven, along with the film’s racial politics, strikes a deeply discordant note.
If exemplifying many of the uncomfortable racial politics of the American Western, and much of the elitism deeply ingrained in films of heroic violence, The Magnificent Seven also gets a lot about remakes right. It isn’t a remake of Seven Samurai as a gimmick. Few people would have seen it because of their love of Kurosawa’s samurai movies. It also doesn’t imitate the original for audience satisfaction. There are no self-indulgent nods to Kurosawa’s film. Many scenes are lifted almost line for line for their usefulness in Sturges’s narrative, not for the brief joy of recognition in the viewer. And elements from the original that wouldn’t make sense in the altered time and place are excluded.
Sergio Leone’s 1964 Spaghetti Western, A Fistful of Dollars, is an (unofficial) remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo. A Fistful of Dollars, though failing to receive permission to imitate the Japanese samurai film (resulting in a successful lawsuit) and hewing even closer to the Kurosawa version than Sturges did in The Magnificent Seven, is every bit as cool and every bit as great as the original. Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name in The Dollars Trilogy plays the nearly silent and unnamed hero as well as Mifune did in Yojimbo. Despite the numerous translations involved, nothing essential to the spirit of Yojimbo is lost in Leone’s adaptation.
The international aspect of A Fistful of Dollars, in addition to its magnificently crafted scenes, is striking. The film is shot in Spain, set in Mexico, directed by an Italian who didn’t speak English, starring an American actor who didn’t speak Italian, and based on a Japanese samurai film. A Fistful of Dollar’s sequels, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, have original stories, but are neither significantly better nor worse. They lose the original’s stark simplicity, but the increasingly complicated narratives are carefully plotted. And both, like the original, are incredibly fun to watch. For a Few Dollars More could be justified solely by a scene where a character proves his marksmanship by keeping the Man with No Name’s hat aloft by shooting it with his revolver, each shot sending the hat careening upwards through the air. By the time the trilogy ends with The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Leone had made an indelible mark on film, shaking up a stale genre, and inspiring countless parodies and imitations.
Like the Western in the 1950s, before it was reinvigorated with Japanese and Italian influences, the twenty-first-century remake is becoming depressingly lifeless. George Lucas’s 1977 film, Star Wars: Episode IV – A New Hope, was influenced by Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo and his 1958 The Hidden Fortress, but was significantly more than the sum of its parts. J. J. Abrams’s 2015 Star Wars: Episode VII – The Force Awakens (billed as a sequel, but in reality a remake) was not. Instead of excited, it left me feeling numb. Star Wars: Episode IX is slated to come out in 2019. (I assume Star Wars, like the Super Bowl, is going to stick with Roman numerals except when faced with the anticlimactic “L,” at which point it will switch to the much more aesthetic 50.)
There are a lot of good remakes as well as bad, though this can be hard to remember in this, the age of unending sequels, adaptations, and shared cinematic worlds. Not every film needs to be considered high art, but even the most trivial action film should inspire some new thought, some new empathy, some spark, and should make the viewer feel more. At the very least, a film ought not leave the audience unaffected. A film need not have an original story to be good, but it must have something new to say to be magnificent.