Tuesday, May 30, 2017

you must answer for every good deed

Bernardo (Charles Bronson) makes for an interesting sort of heart to the titular Magnificent Seven. Sure, Chico (Horst Buchholz) is the passionate one, but Bernardo seems to be the one who really feels what's going on.

Interestingly, he almost doesn't take the job because he's used to better pay. The prospect of six men (later seven) versus thirty guns causes him to pause in his wood chopping (which he is doing to earn his breakfast when Chris (Yul Brynner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) come for him). "I admire your notion of fair odds, mister," he tells Chris. Against bigger odds before he was paid $600, and $800 for another job. They tell him the offer is $20, then they start to walk away. "Right now, that's a lot," he tells them. And, he goes back to chopping wood. The thing is, he doesn't just need money. He needs something to do.


Three village kids come to Bernardo at one point later and he tells them they could be hurt, they rightly point out that so could he. "It's not the same thing," he snaps. "This is my work."

"It's our work, too," one of them tells him. As brave boys of the village, they choose to be out there too. Plus, they're in charge of avenging Bernardo if he dies, and to "see to it that there's always fresh flowers on [his] grave."

Later, they ask to go with him when he leaves town. Because, as one of them tells him, "We're ashamed to live here. Our fathers are..." and, he can barely spit out, "cowards." Bernardo grabs that boy, pulls him over his lap and spanks him repeatedly. Then, he says,

Don't ever say that again about your fathers. They are not cowards.

You think I'm brave because I carry a gun? Your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility. For you, your brothers, your sisters and your mothers. 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.

Nobody says they have to do it. They do it because they love you and they want to.

I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule, with no guarantee what will become of it--this is bravery. That's why I never even started anything like that. That's why I never will.

So much of what this film is about is right there. I mean, this was in theater's in 1960. The politics of America were changing. Fifties' conservatism replaced with more radical things. There's both an interesting nostalgia in Bernardo's veneration of farmers and a certain irony because he's clearly wrong about what responsibility he has taken. The Old Man (Vladimir Sokoloff), after all the combat is done and the few remaining of the titular seven are readying to leave, echoes the veneration of the farmer. Plus a little more. He says:

Yes, the fighting is over. Your work is done. For [the farmers], each season has its tasks. If there were a season for gratitude, they'd show it more. ...

Only the farmers have won. They remain forever. They are like the land itself. You helped rid them of Calvera, the way a strong win helps rid them of locusts. You're like the wind--blowing over the land and... passing on. Vaya con dios.

Again, the farmers venerated. They are like the land itself. They are forever. There will always be farmers as long as there is civilization. But, the Old Man is also wrong. For, if we can take anything from a western, from a film, it is that heroes, men who stand up for whatever reason, are also forever. Chico explains at one point, "Villages like this--they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years." For this village (or the town in the remake), the story of these seven men will be told again and again. Chris agrees in the end that only the farmers won. It feels to me like the wrong note to end the film. Sure, four of the seven have been killed, as have numerous villagers, but that is part and parcel of the western. People die. Life goes on in spite of and because of their deaths. In the sequence that we meet Britt (James Coburn)--echoed in the scene we meet Billy Rocks (Byung-hun Lee) in the remake--he kills a man in such a casual dual you can imagine this happens every day. It's central to the western myth, that homesteading was hard, but living in western towns was also hard because there were bandits and corrupt bankers, Indians and robber barons. And gunfights in the streets... so many gunfights in the streets.

The seven men here are doing a job, sure. But, doing a job for pay versus doing it because it's the right thing to do--that is just a matter of script details and a little space on the moral compass of the film. The titular seven are not mercenaries, in it only for the cash. Even Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) who is stuck on the idea that there is some treasure trove to be had at the end of this job--even he seems to be involved for the spirit of that adventure more than the prize at its end.

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