When I saw ” The Magnificent Seven” more than forty years ago, I had no idea that it was the Americanized version of the Japanese classic ” Seven Samurai”. All I knew was that I loved it . The All Star cast ( Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn, Robert Vaughan, Eli Wallach et al) turned in riveting perforfances and the music scored by Elmer Bernstein was memorable. When I later found out about Seven Samurai I put off seeing it because I didn’t think it would be a patch on The Magnificent Seven.
That was foolish of me.
I finally saw Seven Samurai last night and understood why it is held in such high regard by cine fans. It is simply magnificent. Of the Kurosawa films that I have seen so far, it is my favorite , ahead of Redbeard, my previous Numero Uno.
For those few that have not seen the movie yet, here is a very brief synopsis : In 16th century Japan, bandits are terrorizing a farming village, stealing the crops , exacting tribute and looting the unfortunate farmers. In desperation , the villagers hire seven masterless impoverished samurai to protect them from the depredations of the bandits.( Will fight for food !) The samurai go to the village, arm the farmers and together they mount a resistance to the bandit horde. It is a simple story but , in the hands of Akira Kurosawa, it is transformed into a masterpiece.
The digitally re-mastered Criterion two- disc edition of Seven Samurai that I viewed runs 207 minutes , almost twice as long as most films, but it is so gripping that I was not aware of how the time passed. The film is perfectly paced, not too fast and not too slow. Kurosawa thoroughly explores not only the character of each of the samurai, he also lets us peek into the character and motivations of the leading villagers. In some cases , such as the buffoonish Kikuchiyo ( played by Toshiro Mifune in one of his early roles) or the unfortunate farmer Rikishi , their characters are revealed to us little by little . Each new revelation piques our interest even as it causes us to change our previous opinions about them.
This ‘layering’ extends to other aspects of Seven Samurai. Far from being a simple story of farmers & samurai versus bandits, it provides insights into several aspects of the Japanese society of those times. Foremost among them is the rigid demarcation between the societal classes and their feelings about each other. It is superbly brought out in one sequence where KIkuchiyo unearths a cache of armor and weaponry and triumphantly lays it out before the other samurai. Far from being glad , the other samurai turn grim because they realize that it has been stripped from the wounded samurai whom the villagers had killed. Our sympathies ,which had been solidly with the villagers, are shaken. Kikuchiyo then launches into a rant about how deceitful farmers are, pretending to be poor but hiding their best possessions, killing helpless samurai who have been wounded, stealing their armor. Then abruptly, he switches tack, asking why they act as they do. He answers his own question by saying that it is because of the samurai themselves. It is samurai , he says , who prey upon the farmers, taking what they want by force and causing the farmers to live in fear. Once again , we switch sympathies feeling sorry for the farmers.
By film’s end we have a very good idea of what it must have been to live in the feudal society of that time. We understand the harshness of life not only for farmers but for samurai and the code they live by.
One of the best things about the film is it’s ending. It is almost poetic as the surviving samurai take stock of what has occurred and of their future which is uncertain in more ways than one. Not only are they once again at loose ends but , with the advent of guns, the samurai code and their very way of life is under threat. Some things , for instance the romance between the youngest samurai, Katsushiro,and the farm girl Shino are not fully spelled out but we can well guess what will happen. Far from being a weakness, this ‘incompleteness’ actually makes the ending more effective.
If there is one criticism I have of the film it is the scene in which Kikuchiyo tries to approach the samurai leader ,Kambei, but cannot bring himself to ask to join in the struggle. His antics are difficult to take and the scene goes on a little too long. In my opinion, except for that one blemish , Seven Samurai is just about perfect— gripping plot line, good acting, sublime direction. If you haven’t seen it yet, you are in for a treat.
I had thought of seeing The Magnificent Seven immediately after I finished watching Seven Samurai. I’ve changed my mind. There is no comparison. The Magnificent Seven is a great movie, one of the best Westerns ever, but it is not in the same league as Seven Samurai.