SEVEN SAMURAI AND ITS REMAKES
RELEASED IN 1954, Seven Samurai is one of cinema’s elastic classics: it’s been stretched, twanged and jerked into countless contortions. How a movie set in feudal Japan can re-materialise in space one minute, an ant-hill the next, is down to its universal three-act blueprint: all the films here feature an under-siege community, a gathering of heroic misfits and a Pyrrhic victory over impossible odds. So, here we go. Seven versions: 13 hours of the same story, again and again.
Akira Kurosawa’s epic spawned numerous men-on-a-mission imitators, but its remorseless mood remains unique. Get this for desolate: the Seven Samurai aren’t in it for glory; they’re fighting for food. Add crop-stealing bandits to a world that hostile, and any heroics hit all the harder. Paced like an approaching war-drum, here’s a film drenched in jeopardy that peaks in a hellish Somme of muddy slaughter. Toshiro Mifune’s arse-flashing, volatile maniac is rightly celebrated, but the film wouldn’t work without Takashi Shimura’s shrewd, weary ronin. Mifune’s the movie’s guts. But Shimura’s the heartbeat.
After three-and-a-half hours immersed in Kurosawa’s bleak, stormy nihilism, John Sturges’
The Magnificent Seven, the first official remake, coming six years after the original, feels bizarrely lightweight. Translated to a lawless frontier of gun-slinging vigilantes, the setting fits the story, but any complexity’s lost to the Western’s simpler macho code. Yul Brynner’s all-stars sacrifice themselves for the hell of it. Still, you can’t knock the coolly rugged cast (Mcqueen! Coburn! Bronson!) or Elmer Bernstein’s score.
1980 was blessed with two Samurai clones, both under the spell of Star Wars. Battle Beyond
The Stars swaps swords for spaceships as John Saxon’s galacto-nazi threatens to vaporise the planet Akir. Cue an unholy casserole of alien warriors, space Vikings and the late Robert Vaughn riffing on his mercenary from The Magnificent
Seven. It’s vintage cheddar, surprisingly faithful and throbbing with dodgy innuendo. Also from 1980: Hawk The Slayer. Given they share similar quest-recruit traits, a dungeons-and-dragons
Samurai makes perfect sense, but the result is Tolkien staged as regional panto. This time, we get Mr Slayer enlisting a dwarf, an elf, a witch and a giant to protect a nunnery from Jack Palance’s scenery-gobbling mega-bastard. That distant whirring sound? Kurosawa, spinning in his grave.
The format’s now so familiar it’s crying out for parody: enter ¡Three Amigos! (1986). In John Landis’ comedy Western, Steve Martin, Martin Short and Chevy Chase rescue a village from Mexican bandits. Or at least, pretend to — they’re actually film stars on holiday by mistake. Not all the gags land, but the casting’s innately funny: every cowboy cliché gets skewered by the Amigos’ gormless naivety. Especially notable for Chase getting upstaged by a singing bush.
Next up: Seven Samurai on six legs. Pixar’s audacious, underrated A Bug’s Life (1998) shrinks the story into an ant colony menaced by Kevin Spacey’s grasshopper. It’s packed with in-jokes and callbacks to previous incarnations: pill bugs Tuck and Roll look suspiciously like mini-mifunes, all shaggy eyebrows and samurai-armour shells.
Antoine Fuqua’s recent reboot retools the story as a capitalist allegory — razing a town for the sake of a gold mine, Peter Sarsgaard’s robber-baron is the One Percent personified. The movie’s USP, however, is its multi-ethnic mercenaries — Comanche Indian, fiery Latino, Korean knife-thrower, Denzel Washington’s badass cow-bro... I’m all for diversity, but it’s used as character shorthand here — there’s no depth to the Seven, or Fuqua’s direction, who quotes so many classic Westerns it wanders into nostalgia tourism. Fuqua’s film is a quick-draw remix: it goes in one eye and out the other.
THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN IS OUT ON 23 JANUARY ON DVD, BLU-RAY AND DOWNLOAD