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.


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