I watched The Magnificent Seven yesterday. It’s an 1960 American adaptation of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (1954). The story is simple: A small village of Mexican farmers is being terrorized by a gang of bandits. The villagers hire seven American gunfighters to protect them. The next time the bandits come around, the gunfighters indeed are able to protect them, though four of them are killed, along with some villages and a lot of bandits.
Toward the end of the film Charles Bronson, one of the seven, gave a rousing speech to three village boys, one of whom had remarked, “Our fathers are cowards.” He gives the boy a few whacks on the backside.
Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers because they are NOT cowards. You think I’m brave because I carry a gun! Well your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility. For you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do this because they love you and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage.
And that set me to thinking about a conversation I had long ago with David Hays.
We were talking about the 1950s, the straighten-up and fly right 1950s. Hays remarked that the decade or so after finishing high school is a time when young men get to play around before settling down to a job marriage and family. A young man who goes from high school to a job, perhaps working in a steel mill (as many of my peers did in the 1960s), will have a bit of money in his pocket that he’s free to spend on having a good time on the weekend. Those who go to college are free in a different way.
But World War II deprived many young men of that period in their lives. Instead they had to join the military and fight. Some were killed, more were wounded, but all who served had that period of freedom interrupted, taken away from them. They came home after the war settled into those rock-like responsibilities without having properly played around. And that, Hays, argued, is why the 50s were so buttoned-down.
Was he right about that? I don’t know. We never investigated. It was just a casual conversation.
But what does this have to do with The Magnificent Seven?
It’s in the contrast between the gunfighters and farmers. The gunfighters are romantic figures, certainly to us, the audience, and to those village boys, if not necessarily to their parents. After all, then women hid away from the gunfighters when they first came into town, fearing they might be raped. Figure the gunfighters as proxies from men off at war – and war has often enough been depicted as a heroic, romantic, activity, no?
So the gunfighters speak to the heroic side of a cohort of men who’d been off to war, and to those who watched them go off. The villagers speak to our domestic and domesticated side, to pedestrian everyday life. Bronson’s speech in that scene validates the pedestrian by affirming its superiority to his more romantic way of life.
The last gunfighter to join the band is also the youngest. He’d seen Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen face down a bunch of thugs, admired them, and wanted to join up with them. So he’s like those young Mexican boys, but older. Brynner rejected him initially, however, because his hands were too slow. But this and that and he was allowed to join up.
He fell in love with one of the village women. And he survived the showdown. As he’s leaving the village with his two surviving companions, Brynner and McQueen, they stop, turn around and look back to the village. He sees the woman. He looks at his companions. Brynner bids him “Adios”. McQueen gives him a thumbs up. He returns to the village and the young woman, who is sitting on the ground with three other women, preparing corn. He removes his gun belt and rolls up his sleeves.
Brynner, looking back: “The old man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose.”
Four shots from the end: The three boys kneeling beside some graves, making the sign of the cross.
Three shots from the end: Brynner and McQueen turn and start riding away.
Penultimate shot: The old man – the one Brynner had mentioned, the one whose watched paid their modest fee – smiles as they ride away.
Final shot: Brynner and McQueen riding away.
* * * * *
Do I believe this? How do I know, I just thought it up.
But I note that a lot of Westerns present us with a dichotomy between gun-toting adventure and pedestrian domesticity. And, while Western movies predate WWII, it’s my rough impression that they bloomed in the 1950s and 60s. TV Westerns blossomed in the late 1940s through the early 1960s.
Something to think about.