It's a remake of Akira Kurosawa's The Seven Samurai
, but of course you all knew that. Kurosawa liked it too. After seeing it, he gave John Sturges a sword in appreciation. What's more, it's arguably been even more influential than the Japanese original, simply because as a star-studded Hollywood western I'd guess more people have seen it these days. It's rightly regarded as a classic too, after all. It ended up getting three sequels and a TV series, not to mention innumerable remakes of its own.
Most obviously, it's a less intimidating film. No matter how legendary its director, you're not going to get the world beating down your door for three and a half hours of Japanese. The Magnificent Seven doesn't feel dated at all, but instead has an immediacy and life that most modern movies would give their right arms for. It certainly doesn't feel anything like the period piece that you'd imagine a black-and-white foreign-language movie from 1954 to be, despite the fact that only six years separate them. You can cut that down further if you think about the lead times involved in making movies and the fact that The Seven Samurai
wasn't released in America until November 1956. They must have been on the phone to Japan for the rights practically as they walked out of the cinema. Mind you, the film was cast quickly to beat an actor's strike.
Is it better? Is it worse? Search me. I don't think it's helpful even to look for an answer. It's the best kind of remake, one which gives us an interestingly different take on the same story. The main point of similarity is the Seven themselves, who are remarkably faithful to the originals. Two samurai have been combined into Horst Buchholz's character, making room for Robert Vaughn, but otherwise they're the same people as before, in the same situation. Obviously they're cowboys now. They're utterly grounded in their Wild West world, but there are remarkable similarities between cowboys and samurai. Both are idiots. Both are anti-social loners. Both get themselves killed for sometimes no reason at all and are practically suffocating in their own pride. Both are ridiculously violent. Then finally of course both have tremendous potential for nobility, heroism and generally being an iconic inspiration to an entire nation, so are revered as such even today.
The Magnificent Seven's cowboys are more interesting than Kurosawa's samurai, though. That's mostly down to the script and it's also not true of all of them, but...
1. Yul Brynner vs. Takashi Shimura = first blood to Kurosawa. Shimura was one of the greatest actors of his generation and a regular collaborator of Kurosawa's. Yul Brynner on the other hand isn't very good. He has the screen presence, but I didn't always believe that his character had thought processes. He's still very effective in the role, mind you. He's good at being cool and impassive. His character works. However it says it all that Brynner apparently had a problem with Steve McQueen supposedly trying to upstage him. He'd hire an assistant to count how often McQueen would touch his hat during someone else's lines, or alternatively built a little mound of earth to stand on in their shots together. Yul Brynner wanted to look taller than McQueen, you see.
In fairness, McQueen does indeed upstage Brynner... by being a FAR BETTER ACTOR. He's knock me down awesome. Steve McQueen astonished me. He can have intensity at the most surprising times, yet he's also hilarious. This is a funny and even sweet film and most of its laughs are McQueen's, often finding jokes out of nowhere. He's superb. Really. It's clearly the best performance in the film, better even than Horst Buchholz. I love what the latter is doing as Chico, but that's a much meatier part. You could mention McQueen in the same breath as Toshiro Mifune, that's how good he is.
Apparently McQueen wanted to act in this film but couldn't at first because of the schedule of his TV series, Wanted: Dead or Alive. He got around this by crashing a car and then while "out sick", shooting this movie. I have a new hero.
2. McQueen vs. um, whichever one's his counterpart. Daisuke Kato, I think. 1-1.
3. Horst Buchholz vs. Toshiro Mifune. Bwahahahaha, 2-1 to Japan.
4. Horst Buchholz vs. Isao Kimura. Back to level pegging, although Kimura's very good too. Buchholz just gets more to play with, with Kikuchiyo's pride making a natural combination with Kyuzo's inexperience. He's interesting. Proud almost to the point of mental deficiency, but he learns. He's great when haranguing of the villagers, although I missed Mifune's counterbalancing rant at his fellow samurai. Buchholz is also adorable in his pretend-bullfighting cameo.
5. Charles Bronson vs... okay, not Bronson. I wasn't wild about Bronson in this. They've given him some wonderful business with the local Mexican children, but he's oddly anonymous in the role. He looks like a hard guy though and that's one of the key things this film gets right. You completely buy these people as rough, weatherbeaten gunslingers, living on the edge and bad people to cross. They're good people, but also convincingly tough guys. I believed in them. Bronson is, well, Bronson. Big, tough, strong, doesn't react much. He also looks incredibly iconic in his introductory scene. Japan takes the acting gong almost by default, but I prefer the Western version for what's on the page.
6. Seiji Miyaguchi vs. James Coburn. Now that's a challenge! They're both tough as nails and twice as memorable, but Coburn here is just the coolest man in the world. Miyaguchi is subtler, though. At first I thought Coburn would go through the film completely mute, but it turns out he's just laconic. He only gets eleven lines in the film, but I love him to bits. "Nobody throws me my own guns and says run. Nobody." The entire film had been building up to that moment and boy does he sell it.
7. Brad Dexter vs.... wow, who's left? Either Yoshio Inaba or Minoru Chiaki. It says a lot for the acting that even the weak links in the cast are excellent. Brad Dexter is wonderfully natural and real as Harry Luck, but I think in doing so he underplays it. He should have been funnier. He doesn't sell either the comedy or the character turning points. However he's the only non-star among the gunslingers, so in a way that wasn't such a shock.
8. Robert Vaughn vs. ...okay, there isn't a counterpart for his character. That's partly because his journey is all about fear, which is somewhere you simply couldn't go with samurai. In the end he's proving to himself. Oddly enough though, Vaughn played him twice, once here and once in Roger Corman's 1980 SF remake, Battle Beyond the Stars. He also starred in the Magnificent Seven TV series, playing Judge Oren Travis.
However the big difference is with the bandits. The Mexican villagers are pretty forgettable and were never going to come close to their Japanese counterparts. Apparently the Mexican censors were demanding, for instance requiring the peasants always to have clean clothes. However the bandits and in particular the Eli Wallach character are completely new. Kurosawa's bandits were mostly faceless. Here instead we have bad guys, both personalising the threat and giving a contrasting point of view in discussing the themes. The message of Kurosawa's film is still here, but the emphasis is different. This movie is just as interested in the image of the gunfighter, how people see them compared with how they really are. Yes, they're cool. Chico is in love with the myth. The villagers have the wrong idea too. Even Eli Wallach's Calvera can't see what's in front of him, to the extent that he ends up dying because he can't even believe in viewpoints other than his own.
Their introduction surprised me too. These are bad guys whose predations fuel the whole plot and end up yielding a bloodbath... but in that opening scene, they're friendly. Jovial, even. Calvera simply seems to think it would be morally wrong of him not to rob villagers. He has enough pride and anger to keep you wondering if he'll do something stupid, but for him basically it's business. He has mouths to feed, in particular his own.
Oh, and this film's Act Three is all-new as well, again taking the story and character work a big step beyond the original. You could hardly accuse The Seven Samurai
of being plot-heavy.
This film is epic, but also charming and funny. It's less powerful than the Kurosawa version, but it has some great acting and one of the all-time greatest film scores of all time, from Elmer Bernstein. Kurosawa handled his own themes better, but this film also has some new ones and I approve of the message. "You think I am brave because I carry a gun?" Yes, farmers are indeed better than fighters. Westerns are great and this is one of the best of them. It's both peaceful and violent, cool as all hell while also deconstructing its own coolness. It stands up to being compared with one of the most important films ever made, that's how good it is.