I think “patronizing” is the polite term to describe The Magnificent Seven; a less polite one would be “offensive.”
The film is about a village in Mexico where the inhabitants are incapable of defending themselves against a gang of bandits led by Eli Wallach. So what do they do? They go to the USA to enlist a bunch of white Americans who will be better able to protect them! Do you see what I mean about “offensive”? The suggestion seems to be that poor, weak Mexicans need the benevolent, paternal hand of white Americans to save them.
Near the start of the movie, Chris (Yul Brunner) and Vin (Steve McQueen) bury a Native American in a whites-only graveyard against the wishes of the white townspeople. And so the film sets up Brunner and McQueen’s characters as progressive. It’s this action that encourages the Mexicans to ask these benevolent white men to help them.
This reminded me of a recent interview with Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie in Tin House. Here’s a comment made by the interviewer, Parul Sehgal:
I was very moved by your TED talk on the “single story,” in which you describe how dangerous it is for one narrative to be told about a people or place, and how pernicious, in particular, has been the single story about Africa (“a place of beautiful landscapes, beautiful animals, and incomprehensible people, fighting senseless wars, dying of poverty and AIDS, unable to speak for themselves and waiting to be saved by a kind, white foreigner”).
It is this “single story” narrative which defines The Magnificent Seven: the details may be slightly different, but the broad strokes are identical, and equally as pernicious. When the credits roll, the countless and nameless villagers have indeed been saved by the kind, white foreigners.
Sure, you can argue that the movie is a product of its time. And truly, it’s hard to decide whether the movie is blithely unaware of how ooky it is, or if it believes itself progressive (after all, a white man falls in love with a Mexican woman and a half-Irish man dies saving Mexican boys). But none of that stops the whole narrative being deeply problematic.
Given that The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai, the production team had free rein to transfer the setting to anywhere they liked. And yet they chose this particular one. I’m perplexed as to why.