Click here 5  stars

Shichinin no samurai The Magnificent Seven

Magnificent Two
Akira Kurosawa had a great idea, one realized in two powerful films on either side of the Pacific Ocean.

"Shichinin no samurai"
"The Magnificent Seven"

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.

DVD notes: "The Magnificent Seven"

MGM has come out with a beautifully transferred special edition of "The Magnificent Seven" that includes, among other treats, a brand new documentary about the making of the film, with interviews with Eli Wallach, James Coburn and others. There are lots of great stories about making the film in Mexico, including concessions made to the government censors. Ever wonder why all those Mexican farmers looked so clean? It was because the government of Mexico demanded they be clean, despite working in the dirt. There is an audio commentary by Wallach and Coburn over the film, if you want to hear it, original theatrical trailers and a gallery of stills. A wonderful DVD.

"The Magnificent Seven" — based on "Shichinin no samurai" — came out six years later, in 1960, and is considered one of the best Westerns ever made.

"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.

DVD notes: "Shichinin no samurai"

The Criterion Collection version DVD for "Shichinin no samurai" I saw had a beautifully restored image and soundtrack. It's in Japanese, with subtitles in English.

The DVD includes a demonstration of the difference the restoration process made, which was mildly interesting, and the original U.S. trailer.

What was especially wonderful was an optional audio overdub of commentary by Michael Jeck, an expert in Japanese films. Watching it is like taking a course in film aesthetics and Japanese film history. Jeck notes Kurosawa's technical prowess — the hows and whys of composition, editing, etc. — and places the film in the context of what the Japanese audience for the film would know and expect. It's delightful.

"The Magnificent Seven," by comparison, is usually no better framed than a pretty good TV show.

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.

Theater or Video?
Definitely catch either on at a revival house if you are lucky enough to find them in one. Barring that, get DVDs.

DVD of "Shichinin no samurai" at Amazon.com.
VHS of "Shichinin no samurai" at Amazon.com.

DVD of "The Magnificent Seven'' at Amazon.com.
Wide-screen VHS of "The Magnificent Seven" at Amazon.com.

See cast, credit and other details about "Shichinin no samurai" at Internet Movie Data Base.
See cast, credit and other details about "The Magnificent Seven" at Internet Movie Data Base.