With the latest incarnation of a cinematic classic set to hit screens, fans of its magnificent heritage are getting nostalgic
It has become something of a film cliche: A group of men hired by poor villagers or townsfolk to defend them against evil marauders. The movie that made this cliche famous was The Magnificent Seven.
While a new version, released this week, is a remake of the classic 1960 western, it is not widely known that the original The Magnificent Seven was also a remake. It was based on the Japanese film The Seven Samurai, directed by Akira Kurosawa, who was actually inspired by American westerns.
Born in Tokyo in 1910, Kurosawa was introduced to films at six by his teacher father, who believed movies had educational merit. Kurosawa’s older brother, Heigo, later worked as a benshi or narrator for foreign silent films, but committed suicide when the silent film era ended. Akira, failing to make a living as a painter, in 1935 answered a film studio ad that called for an assistant director.
He later said he learnt his craft studying American director John Ford. Born in 1894, Ford also had an older brother in the film industry, who inspired him to work in film production in 1914. Ford’s first full-length feature was the 1917 western Straight Shooting.
In the sound era Ford broadened his repertoire to action, drama, comedy and historical epics, but his westerns had special appeal for Kurosawa.
During the war both men made propaganda films. In 1946 Ford, who was in Japan with the American occupation forces, visited Kurosawa’s set. Kurosawa never knew Ford had been there until they met in London in 1957.
In 1946 Ford made My Darling Clementine, in which Wyatt Earp, played by Henry Fonda, becomes marshal of Tombstone, defending the town against the lawless Clayton family gang, ending with a climactic gunfight at the OK Corral. It was one of Kurosawa’s favourite films. The idea of a hero reluctantly taking on the job of bringing law and order influenced Kurosawa.
Looking for a new idea for a film in the ’50s, Kurosawa read about ronin (masterless samurai), defending villagers against marauders during the 16th Century civil wars. Initially he planned a film about a single samurai, but after more research a story formed about seven samurai, sought out by desperate farmers to defend them against bandits. Most only reluctantly take on the job and in the process confront personal demons about their profession.
It took a year to make, and the film studio, Toho, shut down production twice when it ran over budget. Kurosawa persisted, the film premiered in 1954 and was a success in Japan and overseas.
Seven Samurai introduced many westerners to Japanese cinema. Among those engrossed by it was American screenwriter Lou Morheim, who envisaged a remake with guns instead of swords, so he secured the rights.
Morheim pitched the idea to actor Anthony Quinn, who then interested Yul Brynner.
Brynner cast himself as the lead gunfighter Chris, a man disillusioned with his lifestyle. Initially the film was to be set during the American Civil War, but after script revisions the action was moved to Mexico. Villagers go across the border to hire American gunfighters, down on their luck or suffering personal crises, like Kurosawa’s samurai.
Director John Sturges tried not to slavishly imitate Kurosawa’s film and shot in colour to emphasise the difference. While Kurosawa’s film is often dark and brooding, Sturges’ is flooded with light. Elmer Bernstein’s famous, catchy, Oscar-nominated score is also more upbeat and heroic.
When The Magnificent Seven premiered in 1960 reviews were mixed, some derided it as another action flick, but others saw depth in the gunfighters deconstructing the western myth. Audiences loved it and it would spawn three sequels, a TV series and dozens of imitators.
Kurosawa would later say that it was “a disappointment” and not a version of his film. Yet he is said to have been impressed enough to have given Sturges a ceremonial Japanese sword. The Magnificent Seven opens today
Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt in a scene from The Magnificent Seven.