Saturday, March 18, 2023

Duck Soup and The Magnificent Seven [Media Notes 86]

Yes, I know, a strange juxtaposition. There’s a reason for it. Both films end in carnage, which is quite visible in one, but not the other.

Duck Soup is a 1933 film by the Marx Brothers. Groucho plays Rufus T. Firefly, leader of Freedonia, which is in conflict with its neighbor, Sylvania. After various high jinks, some funnier than others, war is declared and then enacted. Freedonia is in dire straits, but Freedonia somehow manages to win. We don’t actually see the carnage, but it is clearly implied by stock battle footage of various kinds. The film is short, 68 minutes.

As for The Magnificent Seven, I watched the 2016 remake (which I also saw in the theater, of the 1960 film directed by John Sturges, which is, in turn, based on the 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, by Akiro Kurosawa. A small town, Rose Creek, is taken over by Bartholomew Bogue, a wealthy goldminer. Some of the residents object to his actions and are murdered. Bogue leaves and the widow of one of the murdered men joins with a friend to find bounty hunters to help the town. They find Sam Chisolm (Denzel Washington) and he recruits six others.

They return to Rose Creek, train the townspeople how to shoot, and lay various traps for Bogue and his men. They arrive, there is a fierce battle in which many are killed, and the townspeople are victorious. All this takes 133 minutes.

As I say, these are very different films. Discussing them together because both end in carnage doesn’t seem like it makes much sense. Perhaps it doesn’t.

Yet, when you peel away the layers, each film tries to minimize violence between organized groups of people, the citizens of Freedonia and Sylvania in one film, the townspeople and Bogue and his men in the other film. National sovereignty seems at issue in one case while wealth and land are at issue in the other.

Duck Soup presents us with all sorts of mistakes and misunderstandings surrounding romantic competition between Firefly and Ambassador Trentino of Sylvania. They seek the hand of wealthy Mrs. Teasdale. That’s what the war is about. As the movie ends, Groucho and is comrades (played by his brothers, Chico, Harpo, and Zeppo) are pelting Trentino with fruit while Mrs. Teasdale sings the Freedonia national anthem.

The Magnificent Seven presents Bogue as an evil man. Near the end we learn that Chisolm has a personal grudge against him for murdering his family after the Civil War. At this point the control of the land and cheap labor has disappeared from view.

Thus, each in its own way, each film allows as to minimize group conflict and bracket death as the particularistic result of desires by specific individuals.

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