John Sturges’ The Magnificent Seven is Hollywood’s answer to Akira Kurosawa’s hugely popular Seven Samurai. It suffers in comparison, especially if, like this blogger, one watches them in succession. The remake is quaint, chaste, and dated in ways the fairly frank original isn’t. To put it another way, Seven Samurai is a period piece of its 16th Century setting, while The Magnificent Seven is a period piece of its 1960 production.
A remake was inevitable considering the dizzying circle of influence. Kurosawa was a fan of the Hollywood western and especially of director John Ford, all of which directly informed Seven Samurai. Hollywood’s transposition of the story to the American West for The Magnificent Seven was fairly straightforward. Its great success led to three motion picture sequels, a television series, and is to be remade again in 2009.
The original eponymous seven samurai were actually ronin, masterless mercenaries akin to the Western outlaw: morally ambivalent drifters, killers with a personal code of honor. The Western genre is usually about outlaws, for the simple reason that they’re more dramatically interesting than regular plain folk. In both versions of 3:10 to Yuma (1957 and 2007), for example, the villain Ben Wade (Glen Ford and Russell Crowe) is a far more appealing and seductive character than the good guy Dan Evans (Can Heflin and Christian Bale). An exception to the rule is the classic High Noon, in which Gary Cooper plays an honest lawman who prevails under extreme duress. The biggest clue the magnificent seven are not classic good guys: Yul Brynner appropriately sports his trademark black hat. Upping the badass quotient and testosterone levels are no less than Steve McQueen (here getting to drive a real mustang on screen), Charles Bronson, and the very lanky James Coburn.
The basic scenario is similar: seven American gunslingers accept a pittance in order to defend a Mexican village besieged by bandits. But the many alterations beyond this all reflect some very “Hollywood” thinking. In the original, it is enough for the samurai that there be an injustice they are capable of addressing. But in a Hollywood film, there must be individual motivations, which interestingly have the side effect of rendering some characters less heroic. Harry Luck (Brad Dexter) is convinced Chris (Brynner) has an ulterior motive, such as pilfering a non-existent gold mine. The dandy bounty hunter Lee (Robert Vaughn) is also along for selfish reasons; he’s on the lam for an unspecified transgression, and needs to disappear for a while.
The original Seven Samurai is actually technically comprised of only five actual samurai and two pretenders. Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) is a peasant posing as a samurai, and Katsushiro (Isao Kimura) is an earnestly romantic young boy seeking samurai training and adventure. Perhaps to economize the story, The Magnificent Seven combines these two characters into Chico (Horst Buchholz), a former farmer that worships the outlaws and attaches himself to them in order to become one.
So that leaves Chris, Bernardo (Bronson), and Vin (McQueen). In this remake’s best sleight-of-hand, we’re in the dark as to their motivations until near the very end. None of them are young men, and what drives them turns out to be the fantasy of settling down into an agricultural lifestyle. The gruff Bernardo befriends a batch of scrappy kids, becoming a kind of protective older brother if not a father figure. Chris and Vin seal their friendship with the mutual confession that they both hanker for a simpler life (a sort of admission very difficult for two very macho men).
But many poor changes outweigh these aforementioned interesting ones. Being a product of Hollywood, it’s actually less violent, profane, and sexy than the original Japanese film. The Mexican villagers are wise and saintly, compared to the more realistically flawed farmers in Seven Samurai. The threat of sexual violence is whitewashed away; the bandits are not interested in the Mexican women. We see too much of the villains, and the chief bandit Calvera (Eli Wallach) is practically a featured character.
But just as I was beginning to dismiss the remake as inferior to the original in every way, and of historical interest only, the movie darkens and becomes interesting again. The Mexican villagers, like their ancient Japanese counterparts, do reveal a dark side after all. Despite their initial success in beating back the bandits with the outlaws’ help, they have a crisis of faith and betray the outlaws in order to return to the comfort zone of their parasitic relationship with the bandits.
In the old west, an outlaw may very well find a home in a frontier town where no one knows his past deeds (a core theme of the HBO series Deadwood and the situation in which Clint Eastwood’s The Unforgiven opens). But in ancient feudal Japan’s caste system, a ronin could never take a step down and live among farmers. This also proves to be the case in The Magnificent Seven: Chris and Vin mosey on out of town and Chico stays behind, rejecting his pretensions to being a rebel outlaw, and reverting to his destined life as a farmer.