Director and stars of The Magnificent Seven reboot explain why film is relevant to the modern age
Westerns might fall in and out of fashion at the box office with the speed of a quick-draw contest but one thing is certain – actors love saddling up, twirling their six-shooters and nudging the brim of their Stetsons.
“To be able to get on horses and be in that environment is a lot of fun,” says Denzel Washington, who heads the cast of Antoine Fuqua’s remake of classic cowboy yarn The Magnificent Seven. “And they pay us – that’s not bad.”
There’s nothing like a bit of honesty from a Hollywood star. The film marks the actor’s third collaboration with Fuqua, after his Oscar-winning turn as a corrupt cop in 2001’s Training Day and their 2014 remake of TV vigilante thriller The Equaliser.
Washington plays Sam Chisolm, a bounty hunter in the 1870s who recruits a posse of sharpshooters to defend helpless townsfolk from a marauding gang led by Peter Sarsgaard’s greedy industrialist, Bartholomew Bogue.
Might not taking on a remake of such a fondly remembered and admired original film be somewhat of a risky endeavour?
“I think people still want to see the bad guy get it,” says Washington. “I think they do.”
In fact, although the new movie trumpets flashes of Elmer Bernstein’s unforgettable Oscar-nominated score, Fuqua’s bullet-ballet is a far cry from the 1960 original, directed by John Sturges, which was itself a remake of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic, Seven Samurai.
In the Sturges film, which starred Yul Brynner, Charles Bronson and an at the time little-known Steve McQueen, the bandits were all Mexican.
“Why would I do the same thing?” asks Fuqua. “We’re in a different time. You’ve already got that movie. It’s great – why would I do the same movie?”
Fuqua isn’t the only one bullish about a remake.
Chris Pratt, who plays the boozy, wisecracking Josh Faraday, also sees nothing wrong with putting a new spin on a classic.
“They [the studio] needed the reach of that title to justify spending the money to make the movie,” he says. “You’d probably be less likely to see it if it was called, ‘Sam the Cowboy and his Six Lonely Friends.’”
Washington – no stranger to remakes after starring in new versions of The Taking of Pelham 123 and The Manchurian Candidate – believes the younger generations are not so bothered about filmmakers tampering with the classics.
“Listening to some folks younger than me, they don’t know and don’t wanna know,” he says. “It’s like when I tell my kids [about something from the past], they go, ‘Dad, that was then. This is ours, now!’”
For all of Fuqua’s tinkering to update the story, there are of course some fundamental elements that remain familiar.
“Certain things haven’t changed,” says Washington. “Yes, the small need the strong to help. I guess those are common themes.”
Given the ruthlessness of Sarsgaard’s character, is this version of the film a critique of corporate America? “It sure ain’t restricted to America,” Washington says. “Unfortunately, these are worldwide themes – greed and destruction of fellow man, and lack of faith and spirituality. These are all problems we are suffering from as a society and as a world.”
Pratt believes audiences crave such straightforward tales of good versus evil in the complicated world of today.
“I think simple is good,” he says, “especially for this kind of movie, from this period. It was a simple time – but brutal.
“There’s a big gunfight. Everyone knows coming into this movie that these seven are going to face an army, and everything that leads up to that is the characterisation, the relationships and the building of these men – you get to know these people. Hopefully, you learn to care about them.”
Tom Cruise was originally circling the project, but when Fuqua came on board he had other ideas. “I wanted Denzel right away,” he says. “I wanted to see Denzel on a horse.”
The director even managed to engineer a Training Day reunion, by casting Ethan Hawke as the eccentric gunman Goodnight Robicheaux. With Pratt’s Jurassic World co-star Vincent D’Onofrio also on board as resourceful hunter Jack Horne, the film boasts an undeniably impressive cast. Korean actor Byung-hun Lee, Mexican-born Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and the Alaskan-raised Native American Martin Sensmeier complete the seven.
You would think that such a diverse cast would be welcomed – yet some critics have accused Fuqua and Washington of cynically assembling a multiracial cast at a time when the Academy Awards are under fire for lacking diversity. “Just skin deep,” noted trade paper The Hollywood Reporter. “It’s more factual,” says Washington. “It wasn’t seven white guys riding around kicking butt in 1879.”
While Fuqua’s film is more progressive than some have given it credit for, the director says that for him, the casting was simply about “making the best movie I could make, with actors I really wanted to work with”. As an example, he cites Byung-hun Lee – or B H as his known – as the knife-throwing assassin Billy Rocks.
“I saw him in [the 2005 thriller] A Bittersweet Life years ago,” says Fuqua. “I wanted go remake it – I just thought he was the coolest guy ever, man. So I said, ‘Yeah, I want to work with him – he’d be a great cowboy.’
“It wasn’t like I was out to wave a flag.”
• The Magnificent Seven is in cinemas now
Published: September 21, 2016 04:00 AM