As far as Hollywood remakes are concerned, the problem has long hit pandemic levels that make the Spanish flu look like a head cold. When directors even mention revisiting flicks like Drop Dead Fred or Starship Troopers, it's clear that the only real interest is in spreading this creative plague across all of time and space.
Not that remakes have to be a terrible occurrence. And there's one film series that actually makes an important argument for ongoing remakes. What began as Akira Kurosawa's 1954 epic Seven Samurai has since morphed into The Magnificent Seven (1960) and this month's promising remake starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt.
That's not even counting the loads of other re-imaginings and remixes, a list which includes:
- Three sequels of the 1960 version (1966's Return of the Seven, 1969's Guns of the Magnificent Seven, and 1972's The Magnificent Seven Ride).
- 1980's Battle Beyond the Stars, in which the story is retold in outer space.
- A TV series that ran from 1998 to 2000 on CBS.
- Adam's Sandler's "comical" spin with 2015's The Ridiculous 6.
- Plus a couple of books (Robert B. Parker's Potshot and Stephen King's Wolves of the Calla) that make heavy use of plot devices and dialogue from the 1960 film.
Despite the constant rehashing, the series has always felt fresh and new. Each subsequent generation has not only enjoyed Kurosawa's classic, but gotten a chance to tell its own version that feels distinct to that unique time and place. So, then, what does make these seven so damn magnificent?
Is 'Magnificent Seven' a worthy remake of 'Seven Samurai'?
In the most basic sense, there is something elemental about the story: A group of outsiders and underdogs band together to save people against the onslaught of evil cowboys/space aliens/land barons/etc. It's a narrative that not only gives folks a sense of hope, but says a lot about how we see ourselves in the world. That people who have trudged through life (most versions of M7 feature at least one drunk and a man dealing with a crisis of conscience) can ascend beyond their limits and become a champion of light. The fact that it only takes seven people to save the day makes the world feel a little more scalable. It's a distinctly American ideal to think a few men — with guns blazing and hearts brimming with purity — could ever beat the world. In a lot of ways, the crux of the series isn't much different than a Twilight or Divergent; it's fantasy, a form of role play. Except, take away the shiny vampires and teeny-bopper archers and replace them with gruff, old gunslingers. You too can be a hero, gents and dames, and it just takes a perfect storm of luck, timing, and a bit of decency.
Speaking of fundamental elements of good storytelling, the success of this series/concept is all in the numbers. Buddy cop films are beloved because it's pitting two cops against the world (and almost always one another). We love flicks about a love triangle because the vast amounts of drama inherent in this most lurid configuration. Movies about five leads, like Power Rangers or Guardians of the Galaxy, are effective because something about this configuration is both similar to a sports team and the perfect number for a vast and nuanced team. Seven members, then, opens up all sorts of added opportunities for character-driven drama. It's not just about the group's interactions, but all the sordid mini-factions and interplay that happens between members. Plus, seven *somehow* feels slightly more believable if you're going against the world, yet still small enough not to harm the underdog qualities inherent throughout.
The Power Of Seven
It's also worth noting that there is the power of seven. A calendar week is seven days long, the Sumerians had the seven-branched Tree of Life, we call feeling euphoric "being in seventh heaven," there are seven continents on the planet America was founded in July (that'd be the seventh month), Snow White hung around Seven Dwarfs, and seven is the number of both sins and virtues.
As much as the entire concept exists in an almost timeless, quasi-metaphysical space, the value of this series goes much deeper. It's a story that can easily adapt to the wants and needs of its many authors.
When Kurosawa unveiled his original, Japan was still reeling from the fallout of World War II. The country was trying to redefine itself in the face after what would become the downfall of the long-standing imperial system. This is the kind of societal pain that, in many ways, Japan struggles with to this very day. But while the nation struggled with its future, Kurosawa took a look back at the grand tradition of samurais, and told a masterful and essential story. Just as Japan had gone rogue and wreaked havoc across Asia, the men in his film were all ronin, wandering soldiers without masters or a sense of destiny. By coming together in the service of good, the seven samurai recast their personal fates, and with it helped show the Japanese people that honor and decency can overcome anything history throws their way. At the same time, the film was a reminder of the strength associated with Japanese culture, a proud example of what these people were capable and how no modern events could ever snuff out such profoundness.
Yet while The Seven Samurai is a form of patriotism for the Japanese, The Magnificent Seven plays a slightly different role for Americans in the early 1960s. Consider what took place in the first year of that most swinging decade. That January, John F. Kennedy announced his bid of residency. With his win that November, he kicked of a renaissance of American politics and democracy. In March, the first 3,500 American Marines were shipped off to Vietnam, which irrevocably altered the landscape of American foreign policy. Heck, even the flag changed that July to reflect Hawaii's induction into the union that previous August. America as we knew it changed in several ways, and with greater shifts to come in the '60s and beyond, Magnificent Seven was a way for a nation to cling to its past. To look upon the days of cowpoke and dusty trails, a time when men conquered the savage lands and claimed their god-given domain over the lands. Not a period when things were so up in the air and downright frightening.
Though the America of 2016 isn't struggling with specific wars like WWII or Vietnam, we're nonetheless in the middle of an equally harrowing battle. The movie business in general has a terrible past of either straight-up racist behavior or just ignoring diversity. And if you don't believe me, there's legit science to back it all up.
While one would think we'd overcome these behaviors by 2016, we have not. In the last year alone, we have a movie about ancient Egyptians starring white dudes and Matt Damon cast as the hero of Song Dynasty-era China. But with the Magnificent Seven remake, there is a huge bright spot for cinematic diversity. You've got Denzel Washington as lead Sam Chisolm, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo as the Mexican outlaw Vasquez, Byung-hun Lee as the assassin Billy Rocks, and Martin Sensmeier (of genuine Tlingit descent) playing the Comanche warrior Red Harvest. On the one hand, this is a huge blow against Hollywood's old, anti-diversity tendencies. But if you ask director Antoine Fuqua, the casting decisions weren't meant to be a statement; rather, he paints it as an organic occurrence (after getting Washington on board just to ride a stallion, of course). Fuqua might be underplaying the significance, but the fact that he feels this way says a lot about how we view race in this country and the positive steps we're already taking.
The M7 series is more than just about dealing with massive cultural wounds of the past. We have another, hugely current issue with gun violence, and with a few months to go before 2016 ends, we're on already track to smash gun-buying records as cities like Chicago deal with historic numbers of shooting deaths. A film like M7, then, helps ground the story of guns in America, no matter where you land on the issue. If you're a gun lover, it demonstrates that violence like this can be a force for good, and that with a few bullets we can exemplify those American ideals of heroism and courage in the face of tyranny. If you abhor the existence of guns, it'd be almost comical to watch a film like this and see how many times we tell the story of guns making the difference despite their more obvious shortcomings. That's not to say that people will go into the film with these ideas buzzing at the top of the ol' brain pan, but it is all too rare for a film to deliver such nuance in regards to an ongoing societal debate — especially with such ease. Great art can reflect back at us what's good and decent or any fundamental shortcomings. In this day and age, more media should be able to do that, to serve as evidence in a debate about who we are as consumers and citizens of a nation.
As the gun debate rages on, there is at least one thing wrong with Americans: We live in a world obsessed with the escapism of nostalgia. From series like Stranger Things to remakes of Ghostbusters to the return of Crystal Pepsi, we're enamored with looking back at ourselves. It's fun, but mostly it feels sad and congratulatory, and completely dismisses the importance of developing new ideas and breaking away from long-held norms. If we're going to do this to ourselves, M7 is a much better option. It's looking back at a time that feels both contrary to our own (we have iPads and running water) and yet also wildly familiar (between gay marriage, the possibility of a female President, and (gulp) driver-less cars, it feels like we're in a new Wild West). It's also the kind of nostalgia that means something. Not for the simplicity of wacky ghosts or sugar-loaded snack foods, but for a time when people stood up for one another and valued community. Where the true currency in life was how much you gave a damn about your neighbors. Perhaps I'm some out-of-touch geezer, but if we're going to relive history again and again, it might as well be something with real merit and valor.
It's hard to discern if this pandemic of remakes will ever be resolved. One can hope it sort of runs its course, like an outbreak of lice in an elementary school. But for at least a couple hours, the M7 series should show us what good can be found in revisiting our past. The way it entertains while also educating, and its cultural value beyond just being another shoot-em-up Western film. How the series demonstrates the proper time and place for rampant nostalgia. So, here's not only to this latest remake, but to every cinematic cowboy whose rode into save the day. May this story remain ever fundamental to our ever-changing culture and never let it sour. Unlike that Clash of the Titans rework.
Check out the trailer for The Magnificent Seven, in theaters September 23rd:
What do you think of Hollywood's current trend of rebooting established movie franchises?