Sunday 20 November 2016

The Magnificent Seven by Wenk and Pizzolatto — and Newman, Bernstein and Roberts!

I might as well say right up front that there are a number of things about this remake of the classic western that annoy me. But none more than the fact the writers of the original 1960 movie get no credit whatsoever. We'll discuss that in a minute.

First, what of this new incarnation? Well, it's a considerable hit, as was the last outing by director Antonie Fuqua and star Denzel Washington — The Equalizer. But I didn't think much of that, either.

Denzel looks impressive enough, but the script gives him virtually nothing to do. Vincent D’Onofrio is the only really vivid character in the Seven — as towering mountain man Jack Horne (gene spliced from real Western legends Liver Eating Johnson and Tom Horne) with a high, whispery, wavering voice. 

And there's some memorable performances from non-members of the Seven. Haley Bennett is splendid as a local woman widowed by the villain of the piece. And speaking of that villain, Peter Sarsgaard is just a terrific bad guy. 
But the movie takes forever to get going as it assembles its rather pallid and bland bunch of compañeros. And the final battle against Sarsgaard and his hordes doesn't redeem it. (Also — I don't believe a Gatling gun would have been of any effect at that distance. Any weapons experts out there who can confirm this?)

The movie is written by Richard Wenk (who did The Equalizer for Fuqua and wrote the remake of The Mechanic) and Nic Pizzolatto. Pizzolatto is an interesting figure. He created the celebrated TV series True Detective. 

And Pizzolatto's much discussed fascination with Dashiell Hammett is in evidence here, with the Indian member of the Seven called Red Harvest (the title of a Hammett novel), and talk of a strike-busting Pinkerton-style detective firm called Blackstone (Hammett worked for Pinkerton). 

There have been some excellent westerns in recent years. Django Unchained was pure joy and The Salvation was an absolute masterpiece. In addition there's been a number of fascinating oddities such as Jane Got a Gun, Bone Tomahawk and The Homesman, but The Magnificent Seven fails to measure up to any of these.

Probably the most damning comparison is with the Coen brothers' True Grit, which showed that it's possible to come up with the remake of a beloved western classic which is as good as, and even better than, the original.
One of many nuisances with The Magnificent Seven is that, unlike Bone Tomahawk, no attempt has been made to give the dialogue an authentic period ring. It’s laced with an anachronisms — “hallucinating”, “bonding”, “capitalism”.

On the other hand the music — by James Horner and Simon Franglen — is invaluable, crucially adding suspense to a slack confrontation scene, pumping up the final big action sequence, and providing an impressive coda… though after that, over the end titles, they play Elmer Bernstein’s original theme, and we’re reminded what movie music is really all about. 

Speaking of the original, let's return to the matter of the writers' credits, and the fact that the creators of the 1960 version get no recognition here. Of course, that film — and this one — are based on Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai (written by Kurosawa and Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni). But they don't get any credit, either.

So, just for the record, the superb sixties western was the work of three American screenwriters. Only William Roberts receives any official credit, but the first draft was by Walter Bernstein, who was blacklisted at the time. Then Walter Newman took over and basically wrote the movie as we know it. But he wasn't available for location rewrites, and William Roberts took a hand.

When it was clear Roberts was going to get a credit, Newman petulantly had his name removed. A move which cost him dear, in terms of money and recognition.

But all of these writers deserve to be named in connection with the new version of The Magnificent Seven. Without them there would be no movie to remake... and screw up.

(Image credits: There's more than seven posters at Imp Awards.)


  1. Haven't seen the new one yet, but something you wrote identifies a major problem: "its rather pallid and bland bunch of compañeros." The original "Magnificent Seven" (and to some extent, Kurosawa's original) had unique, clearly identifiable characters: the kid, the hunted/haunted guy, the greedy guy, the leader, the half-Mexican, the knife guy, and Steve McQueen. Not a bland one in the bunch; all of them capable of being the protagonist in any other story. When Roger Corman remade "Magnificent Seven" as a science fiction flick called "Battle Beyond the Stars," he remembered that need for clearly identifiable characters.
    It sounds like the makers of this movie forgot that. Having seen the previous three versions of this story, I have no need to see this one, I think.

  2. Ah, sorry if I put you off. Everyone should make their own decisions about this movie, and millions love it. But it was resolutely unengaging, especially compared to the original -- and thank you for reminding me about Corman's cheeky "Battle Beyond the Stars"! And thanks for reading.