What is brave?

I recently watched for the very first time an extremely famous Western, “The Magnificent Seven.” It was excellent from beginning to end, but, as those who’ve seen the film (most of you, I expect) it is precisely the ending which both infuriates the audience and makes the film so special.

See, after they heroes talk themselves into going back into town to help the peasants and kill the bandits, Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen ride off into the sunset, leaving the town. What’s frustrating about this is that only minutes before they had both been vowing to give up their gun-slinging and settle down in the town as farmers themselves. It was this dream which seemed to motivate their odds-defying reengagement with the bad guys. So why the course reversal?

Well, one answer is that in the end, these “real men” realized they were just that, masculine archetypes who know at some level that they are unfit for the effeminate domesticity of farming and will never be fully satisfied outside a good fight. So the one temporary (and dubious) member of their posse returns to his agricultural roots and settles down, the four others die fighting, and these two ride off to further future do-goodery. “After all,” the audience is invited to wonder, “aren’t their services going to be wanted elsewhere? The world needs good cops, right?” But this interpretation misses the entire point of the movie and woefully demeans it in the process.

Who in this movie is a hero? Who is brave? Who is a man?

Although the answer seems obvious, it turns out to be exactly the opposite of what it would appear. And this isn’t idle speculation by some film critic me. Embedded within the movie is everything we need to solve the riddle, and solve it we must or risk seeing this as merely another reluctant-American-warrior-saves-the-day epic.

At one vital point in the film, the three young boys who (not coincidentally) have settled on Charles Bronson as their masculine idol come to him bemoaning their sad fate as the children of cowards. Their fathers, you see, have decided to cut a deal with the bandits in exchange for avoiding the risk of an all-out gun battle whose outcome is uncertain but will inevitably mean many peasant casualties. And so the boys want Bronson (the real man) to take them away from such a humiliating society. His response to their plea is swift and stern.

He smacks them around and adjures them to never call their fathers cowards, and then launches into a soliloquy contrasting the apparent courage of gun-fighting with the true courage of fatherhood. Their fathers, he explains, are the truly brave ones who make themselves vulnerable to the needs and the tremendous responsibilities of caring for their families. Gunslingers by contrast are cowards who neither attach themselves to anyone nor make themselves responsible for anyone. “You think I am brave because I carry a gun? Well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility! For you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And 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. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do this because they love you and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage! Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee [that anything] will come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that. That’s why I never will.”

The clear implication is that the men who decide to lay down arms and swallow the bitter pill of looking weak or cowardly because it is the prudent thing to do are in fact the brave ones. Reinforcing this point is the earlier speech Brynner makes when Horst Buchholz tries to duel him in the bar, saying that it is the foolish pride of young men that leads them to die so frequently over matters of honor. Clearly, the pride of the Magnificent Seven isn’t much better in the end, and all the fine speechmaking about settling down in town afterwards was merely a persuasive ruse toughs use on themselves to reenter the fray. They would rather die (which most of them do) than run away and live to fight (or farm) another day. That their ego-drivenness happens to benefit the villagers in this case is mere good fortune.

So in the end, this is a film which actually inverts the standard thinking about machismo in an entirely Christian and family-values sort of way, even daring to reveal the adrenalin thrill-seeking behind the thin veil of faux heroism. In this way, the Magnificent Seven is in a far subtler precursor to something like “The Hurt Locker” than to any of the less honest modern “hero” films.

But having seen all of this, one significant question lingers for me…a question which isn’t just about which way to come down on assessing a historically important film. The question, if the film’s embedded morality is true, is whether all those men (and women) who deliberately refrain from having children, for all their sincere-and-responsible-sounding reasons, aren’t at heart just cowards unwilling to participate in the world’s oldest and most terrifying mission of courage: parenthood.