To the casual moviegoer, “Seven Samurai” can appear a daunting prospect. A three-and-a-half-hour, 60-year-old, black and white samurai story set in 16th-century feudal Japan – it seems to be the ultimate in film-buff nicheness. The fact that Akira Kurosawa’s 1954 epic features regularly on “Best Films Ever” lists might say more about the kind of people who vote in such polls than the movie itself.
Like the impenetrable later works of James Joyce, it seems probable that many copies of “Seven Samurai” remain unopened. I was certainly guilty as charged — my DVD copy lurked at the bottom of a “to watch” pile for almost a decade.
How wrong my preconceptions of pretension proved to be. More so than its much-touted technical triumphs, “Seven Samurai” first and foremost offers an easily digestible, audience-pleasing tale that gallops along with the pace of an epic adventure, driven by the force of a universal moral fable. This movie is long but never slow.
Besieged by bandits, desperate peasants entice hungry, out-of-work “ronin” samurai warriors to protect them, a gang led stoically by veteran actor Takashi Shimura. Filmed during a year-long harvest, and costing four times its initial budget, the film is more concerned with building unlikely, cross-caste relationships – among and between the outcasts and their suspicious hosts – than the redemptive, rain-and blood-soaked climax.
Much has been written of Kurosawa’s debt to – and influence on – the American Western. This film’s sincere mix of action, heroism, camaraderie and slapstick are certainly straight out of the playbook of director John Ford, Hollywood’s master of the genre. It also mirrors the clear moral dynamic found in early examples of the genre — the age-old battle of good versus evil — along with other elements such as a deep respect for the land and an affecting, affirmative sense of brotherhood. All of this is intertwined with a distinctly Eastern sense of hierarchy and honor, at a time when Japan was struggling to redefine both.
Six years after its release, “Seven Samurai” was successfully remade in Hollywood as “The Magnificent Seven” – the first of three Kurosawa pictures given the Hollywood Western treatment. The original was not only never bettered, it was destined never to be forgotten.
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