Akira Kurosawa had a great idea, one realized in two powerful films on either side of the Pacific Ocean.
"Shichinin no samurai"
Reviewed by John Orr
(Click on the images to see larger, promotional versions.)
Over a recent weekend I had the delightful experience of watching Akira Kurosawa's "Shichinin no samurai" ("Seven Samurai") on Saturday, and John Sturges' "the Magnificent Seven" on Sunday.
It was a wonderful and educational experience. "Shichinin no samurai," released in 1954, is considered by some to be the greatest Japanese film ever made, and one of the best made anywhere.
"Shichinin no samurai" is a Samurai film the most popular type of movie for Japanese audiences in the 1950s. "The Magnificent Seven" is a Western perhaps the most popular type of movie for American audiences in the 1950s.
Just as American audiences attached great romance to Western heroes, so did Japanese audiences attach romance to Samurai heroes. Both of these films served up magnificently charismatic performances from their actors.
The story itself translates very well. In both, a farming village is under regular attack by bandits, and is unable to get help from the authorities. The farmers want to defend themselves somehow, but know they need professional help. The townspeople send emissaries to a bigger town to find help. The poor Japanese farmers look for Samurai ronin trained mercenaries who no longer owe allegiance to a warlord. The poor Mexican farmers look for American gunslingers.
The Japanese find Kambei Shimada, played by Takashi Shimura, and he recruits another six, one of whom is a raw but enthusiastic youth. The Mexicans find Chris Adams, played by Yul Brynner, and he recruits another six, one of whom is a raw but enthusiastic youth.
In both films, the mercenaries are greeted with doubt and mistrust by the very townspeople who hired them, which becomes a significant and telling theme. Both scripts include Kurosawa as a screenwriter, and in both concepts of who these mercenaries are, their roots, their lives, are explored and explained.
Neither film is just an action movie; both explore motivation and meaning with considerable skill, thanks to the great idea (Kurosawa's) and the great scripts (Kurosawa and two others for the Japanese version; Kurosawa and one other for the American version).
It is tempting to try to rate one over the other. Most people would say Kurosawa's is the more brilliant, for good reasons, but Sturges' version in some ways outdoes the original.
I am just glad we have both to enjoy.
The significant brilliance of "Shichinin no samurai" is partially in Kurosawa's virtually unmatched visual poetry. In "Shichinin no samurai," the frame composition is exquisite; if the wind is seen to blow, it has meaning; if it rains, a layer of emotion and exposition is added; what is in the frame, who is in the frame, how they are lit, where they are in focus, all add meaning.
On the other hand, Sturges had Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Charles Bronson and Eli Wallach, and got out of each perhaps the best performances of their careers. They all soak the screen in Western charisma; they all bring to every mannerism their facial twitches, they way they walked, the way they rode horses something like the essence of what we'd come to want in a Western hero.
(Yes "Shichinin no samurai" does have its own wonderful, charismatic actors Takashi Shimura, Toshirô Mifune and Seiji Miyaguchi among them.)
But, the script for "The Magnificent Seven" brings something that Kurosawa missed in "Shichinin no samurai" a voice and personality for the bad guys.
In "Shichinin no samurai," the bad guys have very little dialogue. They are a menacing, nasty presence, and the battle scenes are scary. But they are just creeps. No real definition. Shimura and Mifune may as well be swatting bugs, since we have so little reason to think of the badguys as humans.
But Eli Wallach, as Calvera, leader of the Mexican bandits, brings wit, charisma and even humanity to his role he is truly a match for the good guys, not just a target in a shooting range.
And, Elmer Bernstein's score for "The Magnificent Seven" is magnificence itself, and ended up being popular hit on its own. It plays a big role in setting the drama and romance of the American film.
My wife Maria liked "Shichinin no samurai" more she says it has more humor and better action. (Toshirô Mifune is especially funny.) And I like them both a lot. Like I said, I'm glad they both exist.
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