Entertainment’s golden rule: Whatever worked once may work yet again. Most movie remakes are produced to make money. A few have an agenda.
The past 12 months brought three, all interested in remaking history. Ryan Coogler’s “Rocky” reboot, “Creed,” reversed the original’s racial equation by making the long-shot challenger black and the smug champion white. The new “Ghostbusters” pulled a gender switch, casting four actresses as the quartet of enterprising exorcists. Currently in release, “The Magnificent Seven” altered the earlier version by, among other things, casting an African-American actor, Denzel Washington, in the role originally played by Yul Brynner.
The original movies were all released in presidential election years and left a deep impression on American popular culture — and politics. By attempting to attract the largest possible audience, national politicians and Hollywood blockbusters are players in the same game.
The phenomenal popularity enjoyed by a more comic success story, “Ghostbusters,” in the summer of 1984, complemented an outpouring of patriotic love for the president characterized as Reagan-mania. The movie and incumbent candidate celebrated a new form of “defense science,” deregulation and the private sector, along with a certain insouciance in the face of Armageddon. Reagan’s off-air joke regarding the Soviet Union, “We begin bombing in five minutes,” was a wisecrack worthy of Bill Murray.
In 1976, Jimmy Carter and Rocky (or Sylvester Stallone) were parallel long shots, coming from nowhere to score near-simultaneous feel-good triumphs. (The “Rocky” theme remains an election-year evergreen.)
“The Magnificent Seven” from 1960 was even more uncanny in that it previewed the foreign policy objectives of President-elect John F. Kennedy: American counterinsurgents are hired by a group of oppressed Mexican peasants to overthrow a local despot and bring democracy to their pueblo. For the cultural historian Richard Slotkin, who has written extensively on the frontier myth in American consciousness, the 1960 “The Magnificent Seven” was not only popular but “surprisingly prophetic.” Kennedy’s vision of the New Frontier extended to the third world.
Entering Mexico, the seven gunfighters are not invaders but a force for liberation; providing help and leadership for people in an underdeveloped country, they are precursors to the Green Berets or the Peace Corps. They are also liberals who establish their good-guy bona fides in a Texas border town so bigoted its inhabitants won’t permit an American Indian to be buried on the local Boot Hill. After integrating the cemetery, the seven cross the border to liberate the Mexican village.
Training the Mexicans who have requested their aid, the Seven function as military advisers even as they foster democracy by introducing American-style civic culture. However, in the movie’s key scene, the fearful peons decide that life under a despot might be preferable to death in a failed rebellion. At this point the Seven are obliged to overrule the nascent autonomy they have established for the village in the name of its ultimate independence.
Flattering to American intentions, this scenario proved so compelling that over the next dozen years, there would be three “Magnificent” follow-ups as well as many TV imitations. Elmer Bernstein’s symphonic theme became a quasi national anthem, enjoying a long life promoting Marlboro cigarettes.
That “Rocky” and the 1984 “Ghostbusters” have also been taken as canonical explains the mixed response accorded their reboots. In battling a British opponent, the protagonist in “Creed” was positioned to be as quintessential an American hero as President Obama. Yet for all its commercial success and significance in redressing the racial imbalance of “Rocky,” which was an Academy Award darling, “Creed” conspicuously failed to get any Oscar nominations beyond a sentimental nod to Mr. Stallone for supporting actor.
A box-office disappointment, the female “Ghostbusters” inspired outright animus. The New York Times critic A. O. Scott has described this backlash as “another of those reactionary anti-feminist boy-tantrums that have become a fixture of our culture and our politics lately.” But given the particular abuse directed at Leslie Jones, the movie’s main African-American presence, the antipathy seems racial as well as misogynist — a populist protest against the presumed power of minorities and women echoing that voiced by some irate Donald J. Trump supporters, particularly online.
“The Magnificent Seven” remake has not been widely attacked as a desecration. It is nonetheless a revision that might be difficult to accept for fans like the former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, who has called the 1960 version one of America’s greatest movies. For one thing, the new movie is entirely set in the United States. For another, it is a postwestern western.
After Vietnam and Iraq, and with American troops still in Afghanistan, the interventionist scenario has less appeal than it did a half-century ago. So does the western, which reigned as Hollywood’s supreme genre for most of the Cold War. The cowboy movie used to be the way that America understood itself: Who makes the law? Who maintains order? To whom does the land belong? Even the most primitive examples embodied some sort of ideology.
The genre receded as the antiwar and Black Power movements unraveled the consensus regarding the national past. The new “Magnificent Seven” begins approximately where the most catastrophic of westerns, “Heaven’s Gate” (1980), ended: Peter Sarsgaard, an even more rapacious capitalist than the plutocratic killer Sam Waterston portrayed in “Heaven’s Gate,” takes over a town. Invading the church, he warns the fearful citizens that America “has long equated democracy with capitalism and capitalism with God” and that by resisting his unfriendly takeover they are engaged in blasphemy. Then his men initiate a massacre.
The new “Magnificent Seven” could be described as an Obama western. The protagonist-savior may be the movie’s lone African-American character (although the historical West had many black cowboys), but he is not entirely unique. Three of the remaining Seven belong to minorities — Asian, Mexican and Comanche. “The Magnificent Seven” could also be considered a Bernie Sanders western, suggesting that disenfranchised white Americans make common cause with minorities to overthrow the privileged 1 percent.
“The Magnificent Seven” from 1960 offered a scenario for national greatness. In bringing the third world back home, the 2016 remake critiques that scenario — while providing a utopian political fantasy for this election season.