April 2, 2020

It was 60 years ago that the beautiful and shaven headed Yul Brynner muscled his way onto the big screen in The Magnificent Seven, the best western movie ever made. Initially, at least, the film didn’t do well in the US. But in Europe we loved it. And I particularly loved it — both as a teenager, and even more so as the years have gone by. So much of my politics and theology are distilled in that film.

Watching it again this week, I was amazed by how it also echoes our contemporary political concerns. Over half a century before David Goodhart pointed out the contrasting ‘anywheres’ and ‘somewheres’, The Magnificent Seven dramatised precisely this tension in its depiction of the anywhere gunfighters and the somewhere farmers. The Magnificent Seven strikes me as the post-liberal film par excellence.

If you haven’t seen it, you really should stop reading and go do so immediately. And for those with sketchy memories, here is a quick recap. Bandits, led by the wonderfully slippery Eli Wallach, descend from the Mexican hills to terrorise a village of very ordinary (and rather boring) arable farmers. Unable to defend themselves, the village leadership decides to recruit a number of hired guns to do so on their behalf. So off they go to the local town, without much in the way of money to offer their would-be defenders. And there they meet Chris – played by Brenner. Chris recruits six more misfits, all of them drifters, all of them super cool, none of them able to stay in one place.

Spoiler alert: the alliance of farmer and gunfighter is successful in seeing off the bandits — at the cost, though, of several lives. And the action scenes are terrific. But philosophically, it is this contrast between gunfighter and farmer that I have long found fascinating. And the crucial difference between them is one of mobility.

In Sapiens: A brief history of humankind, Yuval Noah Harari locates the agricultural revolution to a period roughly some 10,000 years ago when humankind, having survived as a hunter and forager for over two million years, began to domesticate various plants and animals, thus to have a better control over its food supply. Harari calls this revolution “history’s biggest fraud” because he believes that what actually happened here is that plants, like wheat, domesticated human beings rather than the other way round, crops turning people into its willing slaves. Humans ended up doing back-breaking work in the fields so that crops like wheat could spread themselves over every corner of the planet.

Of course, the cultivation of crops enabled human beings to produce far more calories per unit of territory than foraging ever could. And this enabled the human population to expand exponentially, thus putting even more pressure on the food supply, thus necessitating an even greater emphasis on agriculture. Alongside this deepening spiral there were other unintended consequences as well. As Harari puts it: “Nor did the farmers foresee that in good years their bulging granaries would tempt thieves and enemies, compelling them to start building walls and doing guard duty.” In other words, the premise of story of The Magnificent Seven is as old as human settlement itself.

The agricultural revolution produced a class of human beings who were, for the first time, rooted — their crops, quite literally — to a particular geographical spot. The metaphor of rootedness is one that had been picked up by the post-liberal moment as key to understanding our current predicament. Sir Roger Scruton told me before he died that Simone Weil’s The Need for Roots was one of the foremost influences upon his philosophy of place. And the lament at feeling “deracinated” — uprooted — is a familiar complaint in contemporary discourse.

But with rootedness comes vulnerability. For to grow crops is to be tied to one place. There is no running away, no moving on when the going gets tough. One’s very survival is staked to a particular geographical patch of land. And staying put, in the face of bandits like Calvera (played by Wallach) requires courage.

Back in the late 1990’s, I was teaching philosophy at Oxford, and I would often encourage my students to watch The Magnificent Seven. So many of them were brilliant at pulling down the philosophical positions of other people without ever proposing a position of their own. I used to call this “gunfighter cool”. They would arrive into a subject, shoot things down and blow things up, then move on. Like the gunfighters, they took no responsibility for anything.

But if you want to impress me, I used to say, try defending territory. Say what it is you stand for, and not just what you are against. And then wait for the bandits that will come over the hill for you. That is intellectual bravery, I would say. Defending territory is the only way to develop ideas, to make them grow.

This story of the vulnerable heroism of the farmer was one that I would draw upon quite heavily later in my life, during and after my troubled time at St Paul’s Cathedral. A few months after I resigned following Occupy, I gave a lecture at the BBC Free Thinking festival in Gateshead. I called it ‘The Magnificent Seven and the Crisis of Commitment’,  and in it I began to develop the idea that the bravery of the farmer, that of being staked to a place, was also a kind of spiritual bravery. There is a sort of “here I stand I can do no other” quality about the spirituality of the farmer. Someone one might even call “belief” – which is to say, something I don’t always know how to defend, but which I know to be the source of deep nourishment nonetheless.

In more recent years, I have come to see my favourite cowboy western as an extended metaphor for the contrast between liberals and communitarians. The gunfighters are all classic liberal individualists. They prize self-reliance, mobility, they hate being tied down, without loyalty to country or town. Their fantasy is of the unencumbered life.

Three years before The Magnificent Seven was released, Jack Kerouac published On the Road, that seminal text of the beat generation that one critic of the described as “a portrait of a disjointed segment of society acting out of its own neurotic necessity”. On the Road was a stunning achievement, the critic argued, “but it is a road, as far as the characters were concerned, that leads nowhere”. The Seven’s gunfighters are cut from the same cloth. They too are drifters, with nothing to pattern their existence other than their immediate desires.

At the film’s end, the youngest of the gunfighters falls for a beautiful woman in the village. He is faced with a choice: follow the two remaining gunfighter heroes to a life of effortless cool, living out of cheap hotel rooms and under the stars, going from bar to bar and fight to fight; or give it all up for decidedly uncool, settled domesticity. Gunfighters make terrible fathers, of course. Because children — like crops — require those who planted the seed to stay put. The gunfighter chooses the girl, symbolically takes off his gun belt, lets it fall to the floor, and settles down to help her with the harvest.

The US was not ready for this message back in 1960. And not for many decades after. Yet for me, it was people like the poet/farmer Wendell Berry that most fully exemplified resistance to the dominant culture of liberal individualism, with its emphasis on continual mobility and disparagement of place. And it is other farmers also — like James Rebanks writing beautifully in UnHerd yesterday — that remain the foremost exponents of this heroic loyalty to place, and from whom we in these lock-down times have so much to learn.

The final scene of the film sums up the message. As the final two gunfighters ride out of the village, the village elder warns them that the gunfighters are always destined to lose. They are “like the wind, blowing over the land and passing on”. The Yul Brynner character agrees. “The Old Man was right. Only the farmers won. We lost. We’ll always lose.”