“It’s just money,” director, Antoine Fuqua, replies when asked why he thinks big screen westerns have been out of favour for so long. “Westerns are, to me, the most basic simple stories. Good over evil basically. You can make it more complicated if you want, but it’s not. In the days of The Old West, it was just a big open land, and it was lawless at times and there were some really evil things done to people, but there were moments of great humanity that came out of it. You can never go wrong with those basic elements.”
Those kind of elements are well and truly in play in The Magnificent Seven, Fuqua’s retelling of John Sturges’ classic 1960 western of the same name, which itself was a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 masterpiece, Seven Samurai. With a few tweaks to the plotline of the original (including a much greater sense of cultural diversity, and a far more contemporary villain), this new version is set in the frontier town of Rose Creek, which is under the deadly control of industrialist, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard).
Living in fear, the desperate townspeople employ protection from seven outlaws, bounty hunters, gamblers, and hired guns. As they prepare the town for the violent showdown that they know is coming, these seven mercenaries – played by Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo, and Martin Sensmeier – find themselves fighting for more than money.
“I don’t know why it came up to be remade,” admits Fuqua, who we chat to in the editing suite, where he’s putting the final touches on the film. “I was doing Southpaw with MGM, and [MGM president] John Glickman and producer, Roger Birnbaum, said to me that they thought that I would be great for The Magnificent Seven. That was like a gift for me. Roger was trying to get it made for a long time when he ran MGM [who own the rights to the John Sturges film], but I don’t know why it didn’t get done. I think Tom Cruise was involved at one point.”
Despite Antoine Fuqua’s pedigree of tough, distinctly contemporary thrillers (Training Day, Brooklyn’s Finest, Southpaw), thrillers (The Equalizer), and actioners (Olympus Has Fallen, Shooter), the director hasn’t taken the revisionist path with The Magnificent Seven – though obviously bolstered by modern filmmaking techniques, this western is decidedly old school in its approach. “Westerns evolve and change, and I hope that this can bring them back in a way,” Fuqua says. “If you remember the John Wayne westerns back in the day, they were very wholesome to the point of nausea…they really were. But when John Wayne and John Ford did The Searchers, it got darker and edgier, and the American ideal of the western changed. Then Sergio Leone came, and he brought a whole different style and edge to the genre, where Clint Eastwood was much more of an anti-hero. Then over the years there were more that came and went, but over the years, the western got stuck and didn’t evolve anymore. Then Clint Eastwood came in as a director, and he started making them again, and it got popular for a while, and then the genre went away. The Coen Brothers did True Grit, of course, and there have been a few others. But the point is, westerns only work when the story is relevant today.”
And despite its traditional structure and stylings, Fuqua asserts that The Magnificent Seven is indeed relevant in today’s world. “The reason that I wanted to do this is because of terrorism,” the director says. “It’s the same story. If you look at the original The Magnificent Seven or Seven Samurai, the bad guys are terrorising the town, and they’re taking over the town. They’re boring down their religion, and they’re taking their crops. It’s the exact same thing that’s happening with terrorism today. It’s the exact same thing. Our story is that. You’ll see it at the beginning of the film when [Sarsgard’s tycoon and his cronies] come in and burn the church down and kill people in order to take their land, and strip the mines. It’s terrorism when you do that to people. Then people need to come in and deal with that. Sometimes they have to be just as mean, but with the right heart. That’s why I think it is relevant. Westerns will resonate as long as the story doesn’t get stuck in a certain time frame. They can’t just be about certain elements that people can’t relate to anymore. People can relate to terrorism now.”
This doesn’t mean, however, that The Magnificent Seven didn’t come with a blasting sense of fun. “Nostalgia is an interesting thing,” Fuqua says. “The fact that I got an opportunity to make it and do that with all these guys is incredible. When you step back and go, ‘Wow, we don’t get to make westerns anymore’, it really has an impact. I cherish the thoughts and memories of that. But if somebody said, ‘We’re going to make a western tomorrow’, I would probably pause before I said yes. It was very, very difficult making the film, but when we put it in front of an early test audience, I was like a kid again. I got to see people clap and cheer and laugh. It reminded me of when I watched the original film with my grandmother. The magic of finally getting it there made it all worthwhile. Right now, I’m not standing in horse shit every day with mosquitos all over me, and it’s not thunder and lightning all the time. The magic of movies is when we get into the editing suite. That’s when I start smiling and laughing again…I’m that kid again.”
The Magnificent Seven is released in cinemas on September 29.