Shepherds Who Deal in Lead

Let me tell you a story.

There is a little village of farmers in a fertile valley at the foot of a beautiful blue and green mountain that rises up toward the sun. One day, a powerful man who wants the valley for himself comes along. He oppresses the villagers and sets himself up as their new ruler; they send a messenger to find good men who will come, fight for them, and save them from the new tyrant.

The story isn’t a new one. It certainly had been around for a long time—even before John Sturges directed the first Magnificent Seven movie back in 1960. But, just because a plot is old doesn’t mean it can’t be used by an artful director to speak a powerful prophetic message to a new audience in a new cultural context. That is what Antoine Fuqua set out to do with his 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven.

The seven virtuous gunslingers that Fuqua brings together to topple the reign of bloodthirsty Bogue and return the village of Rose Creek to its original settlers are a regular ethnic cocktail. The band is made up of a black peace officer named Chislom (Denzel Washington), a rascally gambler with a heart of gold named Faraday (Chris Pratt), an ex-Confederate sharpshooter nicknamed Goodnight (Ethan Hawke), a Japanese ronin in chaps who is equally good with guns or knives named Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee), a pious mountain man named Jack Horne (Vincent D'Onofrio), a Mexican outlaw named Vasquez (Manuel Garcia-Rulfo), and a Comanche Indian named Red Harvest (Martin Sensmeier). The only one who doesn’t clearly represent a repressed minority is Faraday.

Chris Pratt plays his character well even if he seems to have just stepped off of the set of Guardians of the Galaxy, stopping only long enough in transition to change his space mask and raygun for a cowboy hat and revolver. It is just a surprise that Fuqua didn’t cast him as a one-legged homosexual Eskimo just to make sure he gave everyone equal representation.

Fuqua didn’t get that obvious, but the message of cultural and ethnic diversity still comes through loud and clear, and there’s nothing wrong with that. However, the obstacle that keeps this film from being one of the best films of the year is how Fuqua frames the discussion of racial diversity. For all the members of the seven to work together, they would have to all agree on what the greater good ought to be. But, different cultures answer that question quite differently. Fuqua seems to ignore the worldview differences of the main characters, particularly Red Harvest, by assuming they all share the same Judeo-Christian ethic, symbolically represented throughout the film by a church building at the center of Rose Creek.

The message of the film is laudable at first look, but doesn’t hold up under closer scrutiny. Fuqua tries to paint a picture of cultural cooperation but ends up blurring cultural distinctives and revealing his characters as predictable, though still likable, stereotypes.

However, Christian viewers who believe that at some point in the future, all people, regardless of their cultural and ethnic backgrounds, will share and obey the same moral law, may be able to redeem the utopian aspects of the film and see it as a hopeful projection of what the world ought to be like.