Wednesday, December 7, 2011

The Magnificent Seven Samurai

If you're a fan of Pop Culture you probably have already heard of The Magnificent Seven. The 1960 Western film was directed by John Sturges. It's one of those movies that people who don't even watch movies know (like The Passion of the Christ or Brokeback Mountain, to use two modern references). The music by Elmer Bernstein is known as one of the best movie themes of all time. But you know what? This classic Western is actually sort of a remake of The Seven Samurai, a Japanese "western" directed by the great Akira Kurosawa in 1954.

Kurosawa was well-known in Hollywood for having directed Rashomon, which won the 1950 Academy Award for Best Foreign Language Film. (And if you haven't seen Rashomon, go out and rent it right now! It's a precursor to all sorts of other point-of-view twisting films and deserves to be seen. You won't regret it.) Likewise, his The Seven Samurai (TSS) was a hit in Hollywood, too. It tells the story of a poor village that knows it is marked for attack by a roaming group of bandits. As soon as their crops are harvested, the bandits will come back and take what they want. Instead of giving in to these bandits, however, the village decide to "hire" samurai to protect them. The Magnificent Seven (TMS) tells the same story, transposing it to a Mexican village whose members ask gunfighters to protect it.

Both films are classics in their respective genres, so I'm not going to spend any time analyzing them....separately. I would like to analyze them side-by-side, as two sides of the same coin.

Spoiler Alert: If you haven't seen one or either of these films, I strongly suggest that you do so and then come back and read this article. I will try not to spoil too many plot points, but a few will definitely be revealed to you. And besides, these are *both* great movies definitely worth your time. And it will be more fun if you actually understand what I'm talking about, right?

The Protagonists

art by Toshihiko Ueeda
Gunslingers and Samurai are similar archetypes, which is why the original Japanese movie could be re-made as a Western in the first place. In fact, when Yul Brynner as the leader of TMS comments about not having any wife, or children, or real home, he could have also been talking about "ronin," the masterless samurai who populate TSS. Toshiro Mifune is the big name for the western audience, but fans of Japanese cinema in general and Kurosawa's films in particular will recognize quite a few familiar faces, especially Takeshi Shimura as leader Kambei. (*note: Shimura is fantastic as the city bureacrat dying of cancer in Ikiru/To Live (1952). If you ever have a chance to see this film, please do. Only a handful of movies have the power to reduce me to tears; this is one of them.) Along with stoic Kambei, the other seven samurai are his old friend, a new friend, an apprentice, a jokester, a man with no ego, and a redneck samurai-wannabe. Although their names are difficult to remember and not used very often, each of the seven are clearly defined actors and characters, and if you've seen the movie you know exactly who I'm talking about, even if you don't know their names. The caricature I found in an old Japanese TV guide captures their essenses wonderfully.

On the other hand, in TMS you have Brynner and Steve McQueen as "the leads," co-equals or nearly. In the Western you also have his old friend, a man with no ego, and a redneck gunslinger-wannabe. The other two? Robert Vaughn (in his pre-Man From UNCLE days) is a spit-and-polish gun-for-hire. In researching this article I read his character described as a coward, a loser, a bounty hunter who has lost his confidence, and a fighter afraid of death. When I watched the film again recently I was not sure how to take him. Was he any or all of the above? For me, this was a failure. Likewise, Charles Bronson is at first shown comically (he is introduced to us chopping wood, the same way the jokester samurai Heihachi is introduced), but then he befriends several children in the village ala Mifune's character, Kikuchiyo. So his characterization isn't fully realized, either, in my opinion. Chico in TMS is a mixture of Mifune's brass and blustering country bumpkin and Katshuhiro, the apprentice portrayed by Isao Kimura. While Horst Buchholz as Chico does an adequate job in his film, when you actually compare the two, TSS with two young characters works better for me. There is one scene in particular where the two youngest men are shown juxtaposed, with Katsushiro praising another of the samurai to Kikuchiyo. This relationship is totally lost in TMS, and that's a shame.

One last word about the "wannabe" heroes. It seems that both versions are terribly annoying, don't you think so!? Is this because I find both roles too big and splashy, or is it because the actors don't do the roles justice? I know Mifune played "crazy" well (reference Throne of Blood, if nothing else) and I have no idea who Buchholz is. Still, I kept finding myself wondering what some of the other characters were doing when we kept the camera on Kikuchiyo or Chico. I think a little less on both of them and a little more on some of "and others" would have been a better thing, ya know?
Winner: Swords

The Antagonists
Something TMS definitely got right was the idea of making a character out of the bandit leader. In TSS he doesn't even have a name, let alone any personality. In TSS the bandits are simply a force, like the rain or the wind shown so often. (This is an interesting thesis, comparing the bandits to a force of nature, but I'm not going to get into that here!) I prefer my villains as flesh and blood. Eli Wallach does a great job balancing his evil with a touch of humanity. You want to hate Calvera, but yet, somehow you can't.
Winner: Guns

The Villagers
When I watched the "making of" documentary of TMS the staff talked about how the Mexican censors insisted on certain things, such as the villagers could never be shown dirty. (!) My first thought when I watched TMS was, "Why was it set in Mexico?!" After watching the "making of" documentary, I would really like to know, haha! Surely there could have been a small town somewhere in Arizona or Colorado that would have worked just as well if not better? Maybe an Indian village, if Sturges was intent on having some racial underpining. Moving the story to Mexico raises all sorts of US-Mexican issues while muddying the message of heroism. In TSS, on the other hand, since all the characters are one nationality, it can comment on class (farmers-samurai) and sex more clearly.
As characters go, only a handful of villagers are given any personalities at all, so it's basically a draw on that score. On the other hand, we do learn a little bit more about one or two of the Japanese villagers, so I'll give this to TSS.
Winner: Swords 

The Plot
The biggest difference between these movies is how the good guys fight the bad guys. It's simple, really: the samurai are armed with swords and the cowboys are armed with guns. In fact, the samurai are wary because the bandits have a rifle or two that they do not have. Both movies spend their first halves establishing the situation and the stars. The second half of TSS is comprised of several individual skirmishes, as the bandits on horses try to attack the samurai on foot. TSS culminates in a last-ditch effort by the bandits to take over the village. TMS, on the other hand, has only two gun battles, both of which occur because each sides make fatal tactical errors. When Calvera allows the Seven to leave the village unharmed, I couldn't believe he could be so stupid. Then when he actually gives them their guns back after they are escorted (!) out, I was shaking my head in disbelief. Maybe I'm jaded; it's possible. As a plot device, however, it seemed false. I think it would have worked better if TMS had stuck closer to TSS plot: the bandits don't give up and continue to try to get into the village. The fights are longer and perhaps more suspenseful, and then Calvera makes one last desperate attempt to raid the village. It just seems like TSS plot was better thought out.
Winner: Swords

Things That Bothered Me
1. The leader in both films says at the end, "We didn't win. We never win. The farmers won." This seems odd to me. They were out to help the village, right? The bandits were defeated, right? So what's the problem? Samurai and gunslingers aren't in it for the glory, so I don't understand the point. What am I missing?
2. The young guy and the local girl relationship is totally different in the two films. In TSS it should be obvious that Katsuhiro and Shino have sex. In TMS, it's not as clearly implied that Chico and his girl, do, too. Is that one of the reasons he is allowed to live and stay with her at the end? Because TMS combined the two youngest protagonists into one character, the powerful death scene of Kikuchiyo is lost. And instead of having a bittersweet ending with Chico and his girl similar to Katsuhiro not staying with Shino, there's a "forced" happy ending with Chico settling down to farm again. Yet, think about it. This is the character that wanted most desperately to be a gunslinger. Especially after Brynner's speech about having no ties anywhere, do you really think Chico is going to be happy as a farmer? It just doesn't seem  true to his character. And in TSS, would it have been impossible for Katshuhiro to stay in the village? There is the whole scene with her father screaming about samurai and farmers not being able to mix. This is more a judgment on (Japanese) society than the "happy ending" allowed us in TMS. Imagine if the young gunslinger hadn't been Mexican...would a bi-racial couple have been allowed to live in a 1960 Hollywood movie?

In Conclusion
Three Swords beat One Guns, meaning that to me, The Seven Samurai is a better film. Acting heroically is its own reward; this message transcends cultures. However, in the Japanese version you feel a sense of stoicism in the survivors that I didn't feel in the Western. I believe that losing the second younger character loses the point of view of the hero-worshipping audience; when the hero with no ego whatsoever is killed in both films, there is true sadness in TSS because we have been shown just how much the young apprentice idolized him. His tears go a long way to show how much these characters "matter." You just don't have that emotional depth in TMS, and that's partly because Kurosawa spends more time on his characters, and partly because TMS lacks the younger point of view.
I just read that there is going to be a remake of this movie/these movies, with a possible release by 2014. The story I read says that it will be redone with SEAL-type militiamen protecting a jungle village. It will be interesting to see if these genres can be updated to include military protagonists, and which of these films the newest version will most closely resemble.

This is the first article in a series I am going to call The Magnificent Seven. I am going to look at "My Seven Favorite (......)" and write about them, hopefully on a semi-regular basis.  I hope you enjoy them! :-)

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