Several years ago, a misguided film geek took to the internet to sum up the merits of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” (1954): Yeah, it was OK, he said, but it didn’t compare to the original — “The Magnificent Seven,” which was, of course, made in 1960.
Ah, well. Antoine Fuqua would never make a mistake like that. The director, who grew up watching the 1960 adventure with his grandmother (“She loved Westerns”), is quite aware of what made director John Sturges’ classic the fond memory it is.
“They’re the coolest guys in the world,” the director said of Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen — and James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Horst Buchholz, Brad Dexter and Robert Vaughn — who played the cynical gunslingers who hire on for virtually nothing to save a Mexican village from marauding cutthroats. Arguably, the cast of Fuqua’s new film (which opens Sept. 23) are doing the same thing those old actors did during the Eisenhower administration — enhancing their brand. Still, Fuqua said, it’s not supposed to all be fun.
“What I didn’t realize at the time,” he said, “was that they were taking on serious matters. Not just bullying or tyranny or things like that, but prejudice. Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen decide to help the villagers because it was the right thing to do, you put your life on the line for something that’s simple, but right. I saw it as a pretty powerful statement.”
Audiences will see a similar approach in Fuqua’s version, which borrows heavily from several previous films — not just “Seven Samurai” and “Magnificent Seven,” but “The Wild Bunch” and several Sergio Leone movies starring Clint Eastwood. Denzel Washington is Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter (though he keeps denying it) who signs on to help a mining town that’s been savaged by predatory capitalist Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard). Chisholm — whose look seems intended to recall Melvin Van Peebles in “Sweet Sweetback’s Baadasssss Song” — then enlists McQueenish sidekick Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt) and a group that seems deliberate in its diversity (and why not?): Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the fugitive Vasquez; Martin Sensmeier as the Native American warrior Red Harvest; and Byung-hun Lee as the knife artist Billy Rocks, a character who seems to be, in part, an homage to the great samurai swordsman Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi) in “Seven Samurai.”
Yes, the 1960 “Seven” could be called diverse, in its way — “The villain was a white guy dressed up as a Mexican,” Ethan Hawke, quipped about Eli Wallach, during last week’s news conference at the Toronto Film Festival — but the new movie makes a real effort to create nonwhite heroes. Hawke plays sharpshooter Goodnight Robicheaux, one of the Seven.
And then there’s Vincent D’Onofrio as Magnificent Seven member Jack Horne, a tracker, who sounds as if someone scalped his vocal cords instead of his hair.
“He read the script, he said ‘I’ll do it,’ ” Fuqua said of D’Onofrio. “But he said, ‘I have this idea, though, about the voice. You want to hear it?’ I said, ‘No, no, don’t tell me, let me see it the first day of the shoot.’ When he did it, I almost fell out of my chair.”
Fuqua has played down the significance of the casting, though it does seem as if he backed into it. Still, he said, “We were just trying to cast as diverse as possible and of course each one has a different strength and a different energy. We were going down a list of actors — Tom Cruise was on board at one point, before I came on, and I thought ‘Tom Cruise would be cool.’ It didn’t work out on that end and when I came on I thought ‘Denzel Washington would do it.’ And who’s the Steve McQueen of today? Almost nobody: He had that charm and wit and drive and we also needed the levity to pull it off — and he also has to be wholesome all-American boy. I thought ‘Chris Pratt.’ I really dug Chris. And I heard he loved Westerns.”
Fuqua said he also wanted to get Hawke and Washington back together — Fuqua directed them in “Training Day” (2001), the movie that earned Washington his best actor Oscar and got Hawke a nomination. “I needed someone with his eyes,” the director said of Hawke.
Fuqua’s cast has differing attitudes about their movie’s legacy. “I’ve never seen the original,” said Washington, who wasn’t sure how it would help him play his character. Pratt, on the subject of which movie the new “Magnificent Seven” best resembles, gave a simple answer: “It’s a bunch of guys, seven of us, and we’re [expletive] magnificent.”
For Fuqua, the Kurosawa movie and the Sturges film play equal parts in what he was trying to accomplish.
“I saw ‘The Magnificent Seven’ first and then I went back to ‘Seven Samurai,’ and I wanted to understand the Kurosawa [film] and that culture,” Fuqua said. “The meaning of ‘samurai’ is to serve — people think of samurai as warriors, but it means ‘to serve’ and I thought that was an important statement. Serving people who can’t serve themselves. That’s why I thought the story was still important today. More important, actually.”
A ‘Seven’ movie pileup
You can never have too much of a good thing, or so they say, which brings us to the “The Magnificent Seven,” the remake of which opens Sept. 23, directed by Antoine Fuqua and starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt. A franchise that began with an eastern Western, it has included a TV series that ran from 1998 to 2000 (originally on CBS), in which an Indian village served as the besieged community. It’s also served as a model of sorts for “X-Men,” “The Avengers” and similar formulations, in which a group of reluctant heroes with disparate powers come together in a common cause. The following are key entries in the “Mag7” story, but examples of its influence are everywhere.
THE SEVEN SAMURAI (1954) The setting is feudal Japan and the problem is this: An impoverished farming village is going to be looted — again — by bandits from the hillside, unless the villagers can hire men to protect them. Since they have almost nothing to offer, it is the samurai’s sense of virtue and justice that prompts them to join the fight, in a film classic co-written and directed by the great Akira Kurosawa.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) Modeled on Kurosawa’s template, the village becomes Mexican and the warriors are Old West gunslingers, led by Chris Adams (Yul Brynner), his eventual BFF Vin Tanner (Steve McQueen) and a crew that includes the switchblade-wielding James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Brad Dexter, Charles Bronson, and Horst Buchholz as the tormented Chico, an anemic reminder of Toshiro Mifune’s antic, borderline Kikuchiyo.
RETURN OF THE SEVEN (1966) Actually, Brynner is the only member of the original cast to return for this largely forgotten sequel, in which the men of the same village are kidnapped to provide slave labor for the banditos, with Chris recruited to set them free. Robert Fuller takes the Steve McQueen role.
GUNS OF THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1969) It just gets better: George Kennedy assumes the Yul Brynner role in this second sequel, directed by Paul Wendkos (“Mr. Novak,” “Honey West”), in which the Seven are in league with Mexican revolutionaries to spring their leader from a brutal army prison. The cast includes James Whitmore, Michael Ansara and Monte Markham, who just last year (at age 80) appeared in Ted Geoghegan’s “We Are Still Here,” a horror film.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN RIDE (1972) Perennial bad guy Lee Van Cleef (the “bad” in “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”) is Chris Adams, who’s become a marshal and is reluctant to get involved in rescuing yet another Mexican village. But, you know, he does. The cast is an A list of B actors from ’60-’70s-’80s TV, including Michael Callan, Stefanie Powers, James Sikking and Western villain Luke Askew.
— JOHN ANDERSON