Stoic movie review: The Magnificent Seven

The Magnificent Seven (2016 version) is a remake of the classic 1960 movie starring You Brinner, Steve McQuinn, Charles Bronson, and James Coburn, among others. Both of those are in turn based on the classic Japanese movie The Seven Samurai (1954), by Akira Kurosawa, starring Toshiro Mifune. (Yet another, animated, take on the same story was produced in 1998 with the title A Bug’s Life, featuring Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, David Hyde Pierce, and many others.) Why so many versions of the basic, simple story? Because it is a timeless tale of injustice, oppression, and fighting against inconceivable odds; a tale that, as it happens, also features a number of Stoic themes.

The plot unfolds in a village in the Wild West, where the locals are being harassed and exploited by a robber baron, Bartholomew Bogue, played in the ’16 version by Peter Sarsgaard. When Bogue goes too far and kills a number of men and women of the village in cold blood, the widow of one of the victims, Emma Cullen (played by Haley Bennett), goes out in search of help. [Alert: a number of spoilers from now on!]

Cullen finds Chisolm (Denzel Washington), a bounty hunter, and offers him money to help the village getting rid of Bogue. Improbably, Chisolm accepts the offer and sets out to recruit a small band of hired guns, the Magnificent Seven of the title. As we discover later, Chisolm also had a more personal reason to fight Bogue, since his family had been killed years before by the same man, in an analogous situation.

Pretty soon the group is established, to include characters with very different backgrounds and motivations: Josh Faraday (Chris Pratt), a gambler with a bawdy sense of humor; Goodnight Robicheaux (Ethan Hawke), a former sharpshooter for the Confederate army who goes into a panic at the thought of more violence; Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a knife-wielding Japanese who is intensely loyal to and protective of Robicheaux; Jack Horne (Vincent D’Onofrio), a skilled tracker and devoutly religious man; Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier), a solitary Comanche warrior; and Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), a Mexican outlaw.

The mission is near impossible: not only the Seven have to take the town from the numerous armed men left there by Bogues during his temporary absence; they also have to hold off against a veritable army of bandits that is sent by the robber baron to reclaim what he thinks is his land. Chisolm’ people manage the first task by a combination of surprise and superb fighting skills, and succeed at the second, much more arduous objective, by way of ingenuity and at the cost of several lives (only three of the original Seven survive by the end of the movie).

What makes this a good movie to watch for a student of Stoicism is both the character of some of the protagonists as evident from the beginning, as well as the evolution of various others throughout the story. Chisolm, Billy Rocks, Jack Horne and Red Harvest are obviously virtuous from the onset, though in different ways. Chisolm has a keen sense of justice, and he is clearly not moved (only) by money and revenge, he feels actual pity for Emma and the other villagers. Billy’s loyalty to his panic-stricken friend is moving, and endures until the very last minute, when they both are killed by a machine gun. Jack is a bear of a man, yet clearly tender-hearted, presumably because of his religious fervor. But it is probably Red Harvest that most approaches a Stoic from the moment he appears on screen: he fights because it is the right thing to do, and when he confronts a much larger than himself rogue Comanche assassin, he tells him that he is a disgrace, right before delivering the final blow that kills villain.

The remaining three evolve slowly but surely during the movie, from varied beginnings. Robicheaux is initially so ashamed of his panic attacks that he leaves the night before the big fight, but of course manages to overcome his own fears and bravely fights shoulder to shoulder with the others, particularly his loyal friend Billy. Vasquez also fights bravely, but the viewer can tell that he gradually loses his braggadocio and develops real sympathies both for his companions and for the people they are defending. Finally, Josh Faraday, the gambler, not only again evolves out of his initial selfishness and narcissism, but sacrifices his life by implementing an ingenious plan to get rid of their opponents’ machine gun, without which move their cause would have surely been lost.

The Magnificent Seven is obviously a display of courage, not just physical, but moral; of temperance, as the Seven have to patiently lay out their plan and not rush into things; of practical wisdom, as they show themselves capable of successfully navigating a situation where the odds were very much against them; and of course of justice, not understood in the modern sense of an impersonal theory of how to treat others, but personified in the one-on-one relationship we all have with our fellow human beings. And it’s a pretty good movie too!

2 thoughts on “Stoic movie review: The Magnificent Seven

  1. I enjoyed this, because I have a long-standing interest in the relation between philosophy and narrative art. One of my favorite novels in this regard is Ishiguro’s Remains of the Day. It is told from the point of view of the Butler of a great house in the 1930s in England. Mr. Stevens, the Butler, is a very interesting stoic (though he doesn’t think of himself in those terms) – a thoughtful man deeply concerned with what it means to live well in his station as a Butler. Stevens is self deceived, and an unreliable narrator. But it is a stunning work of art, and very instructive about Stoicism. It was also made into a major movie of the same title, and the comparison of the two is also intriguing.

    Liked by 1 person

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