Week 5: Come for Money, Stay for the Vigilantism

Welcome to week 5 of the “Only at the Point of Dying” film and lecture series.  You have just watched John Sturges’ “The Magnificent Seven” and soon we will watch Ivan Reitman’s “Ghostbusters”

What is so impressive about the “The Magnificent Seven” is how it is almost exclusively about what it is to be a western style hero.   It’s not about the frontier, or American/Indian relations, or even the struggle of the pioneer, although each of those things plays a part in the narrative.  It is specifically about what it means to be an honorable man.  This came directly from its un-ignorable source material, 1954’s “Seven Samurai”, one of the best films ever made and widely hailed as the finest Japanese film of all time.  It is also considered the first modern action movie.  Yul Brynner, fresh off his 1956 “King and I” Academy Award, and his further desire to continue playing a badass, made this remake happen and everyone in Hollywood wanted in.  This film was the start to the film careers of Charles Bronson,  James Coburn, and Steve McQueen, the former being a string that ties the heart of this series together with lead performances in next week’s, “Once Upon a Time in the West” and week 9’s “Death Wish”.

Sacrifice and helping your fellow man is always a theme of westerns, even when the protagonist is inherently greedy or violent.  The latter is staple of Sergio Leone’s “Man with no Name” Trilogy, films noticeably absent from this series.   This film, however, is about honor and what honorable men need to do for money, and additionally what they need to do without regard from money.

The characters of the film are truly notable this week.  Each character is individually complex, but only when they operate as a team is each truly effective.  The one-upmanship in the cast really comes through in the film, and apparently this is something director John Sturges egged on, even to the detriment of the personal relationships between the actors.  Brynner was instrumental in the casting of Steve McQueen and in the end their rivalry turned their friendship toxic.  This rivalry toward a greater good is similarity with the Ghostbusters staff:  men familiar with each other who garnered a working relationship of trying to outdo each other on set with the best adlibs, most of which ended up coming out of the mouth of the films romantic lead Bill Murray.

I try not to talk too much about the second film, but this week I think the film is enough of a staple that I don’t think I will be giving anything away to new viewers. I am going to take this moment to talk about the archetypes of Ghostbusters, but not in the terms of western morals.  Ghostbusters is an allegory to the human condition with each character taking on a role of the human physical being; Dan Aykroyd’s Ray Stanz is the soul, Harold Ramis’ Egon Spengler is the brain, and Bill Murray’s Peter Venkman is the voice.  As the film progresses, the group flounders as novices until the entrance of the body, Ernie Hudson’s Winston Zeddmore.  When they gel, they end up against all of the ills of the modern world, including bureaucracy, government, and their own personal anger.  In the end, they find the truth in their search for life’s meaning, and reaching a total balance between risks within science and faith (crossing the streams) they save the benefits of culture and business savvy(Sigourney Weaver’s Dana Barrett and Rick Moranis’ Louis Tully).  The PHD may be forthcoming on that one.

With regards to the western archetypes we touch on each week, Yul Brynner is the hero of this story and Eli Wallach’s Calvera is the films villain.  The whore is Harry Luck, who even in the end is in it only for the money.   The mother this week is a mixture of Steve McQueen’s Vin Tanner and Charles Bronson’s Bernardo O’Reilly, as they are the moral compass of the group, mother to both the nearby children as well as the other gunfighters.

“The Point of Dying” this week is that moment when they all decide it is better to risk losing their lives then to keep their lives and walk away.  This is the other connection with “Ghostbusters”, an extremely broad comedy that builds its whole plot on the commitment and honor of the group of protagonists.  The “crossing the streams” moment is a strange event in the film as at that moment it becomes clear that the film is beyond just being a weird genre comedy.

In tracking our history of violence each week: this week we finally come to “blood”.  As this is a “fun” and exiting family picture, partially made evident by Elmer Bernstein’s constant joyous music, it is strange to have such vivid descriptions of violent human deaths, in particular, axes and knives to the back.  This is also the first film in which some of our hero’s die, true consequences for our unstoppable heroes have finally arrived.

Next week we will be watching Sergio Leone’s sweeping epic ode to westerns “Once Upon the Time in the West” and silly and outrageous ode to superhero films, “Kick-Ass”.

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