Warning: SPOILERS ahead for Seven Samurai, The Magnificent Seven (1960), and The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Japanese filmmaker Akira Kurosawa is the definition of a seminal auteur. His 1958 film The Hidden Fortress was cited by George Lucas as a major inspiration for Star Wars. His 1961 film Yojimbo was directly (and illegally) remade by Sergio Leone into 1964’s For a Fistful of Dollars, which catapulted Clint Eastwood’s career into the stratosphere. However, no Kurosawa film has had quite the impact of his 1954 classic, Seven Samurai. It is critically regarded as one of the greatest films of all time and has been called one of the most remade, reworked, and referenced films in history. The first, and still most noteworthy of these remakes is the 1960 American Western, The Magnificent Seven.
A remake of The Magnificent Seven hit theaters last week, reteaming director Antoine Fuqua with star Denzel Washington following their work together on Training Day and The Equalizer. It’s not the first time that Seven Samurai has been re-re-booted.* In fact, an entire textbook could be written on Seven Samurai‘s legacy and the differences between its various adaptations, but for a simple comparison of differences between that formative classic, the original Magnificent Seven, and this week’s reboot, you’re in the right place!
PREMISE & SETTING
Seven Samurai and all its various adaptations revolve around a group of mercenaries who accept a seemingly impossible job. A small, poor, and defenseless village’s well-being is threatened by a large antagonistic force and needs the assistance of seasoned fighters for defense. Being poor, the village cannot pay these fighters what they are worth, and so those who sign up do so for reasons more than money.
The original Seven Samurai takes place in 1586, a time in Japanese history defined by near-constant military conflict between the nobles of separate regions. At the time, the Emperor was merely a religious figurehead, and unable to keep the peace. Many of the Samurai in this period (like the majority of the titular seven) had become masterless ronin, wandering jobless and hunted. But the most helpless were the peasants, simply trying to make a living in a chaotic world. The film begins as a villager from a poor mountain town of farmers overhears a group of bandits planning to raid their home for food after the barley harvest. The town elder decides their only hope of survival is to hire samurai. When the villagers point out that all they would have to pay them with is rice, he responds “Find hungry samurai.”
The Magnificent Seven (1960) changed the details of the premise and the setting but is otherwise faithful to its source material. No specific date is given, but it is insinuated that it occurs during the tail end of the American “Old West.” The story primarily takes place in a small Mexican village bordering the United States. Bandits casually enter the town, taking food and goods, and shooting a farmer who tries to protest. This has happened periodically, and the bandit leader promises it will happen again. With no other choice, the village elder convinces them to hire gunslingers from a nearby border town for defense with what little money they have.
The 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven similarly takes place in an “Old West” setting, but possibly a bit earlier in 1879, a little over a decade post-Civil War. This version takes place entirely in Northern California, nowhere near the Mexican border, in a town called Rose Creek. Established by humble homesteaders, the town is quickly being overrun by an aggressive gold-mining organization. Faced with the threat of being violently pushed out of their own town by hired thugs, two homesteaders take it upon themselves to hire backup.
The antagonistic force in Seven Samurai has a leader played by Shinpei Takagi, but he isn’t a fully fleshed-out character. In many action-based movies, the dehumanization of the enemy allows us to take joy in the deaths of faceless henchmen. But, in this case, the bandit horde is a force of nature. The impending raid on the helpless villagers isn’t personal – it simply is. It makes the threat all the more terrifying, knowing that no showdown with a big bad will put an end to the conflict. The raid will continue until every bandit has been defeated or the village is razed.
The Magnificent Seven (1960) personifies the threat with Calvera, played by Eli Wallach. (In The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly, he plays “The Ugly”.) An odd contradiction of a man, he greets the villager Sotero with a hug before stealing goods from his shop and explaining to him how unfortunate the world has become, now that people have turned away from religion. Calvera sees his responsibilities towards his bandit horde as a father’s to his children and he sees the bounty on his head as an unjust inconvenience. Despite his humanization, he sees himself as a force of nature and his job a part of the natural order of things. “If God didn’t want them sheared, why did he make them sheep?” he asks. He also seems to feel that there’s no need to be unpleasant about his theft (unless the weak get out of line). Calvera’s twisted worldview makes him a fascinating villain, though his chummy generosity may occasionally take some of the bite from the threat he poses.
In the 2016 remake, the threat takes the face of a corrupt industrialist, Bartholomew Bogue, played by Peter Sarsgaard (Green Lantern). Similar to Calvera, Bogue spouts religious platitudes to justify his abuse and capitalistic aspirations, but dissimilarly, he doesn’t actually seem to believe them. Bogue says things to manipulate people and get what he wants. (In one moment, he will proclaim godliness, and in the next burn a church down.) Unlike his predecessors, he’s well off, so he takes simply because he’s evil, not out of a sense of forced necessity. Unfortunately, this is only one way that Fuqua’s vision has stripped the nuance from a story that once explored the moral ambiguity of survival.
In Seven Samurai, the face of the village resistance is Rikichi, played by Yoshio Tsuchiya (Yojimbo). The man has lost much by the hands of bandits and is willing to do anything to fight back. The village elder agrees, much to the chagrin of the other frightened villagers, and Rikichi is sent with companions to recruit Samurai, with only rice as payment. Though it isn’t revealed until deep into the film’s second act, Rikichi’s wife was stolen by the bandits for a horrific life as an opiated sex slave.
With the exception of the payment method, (a meager $20 for each gunslinger), The Magnificent Seven (1960) follows this beat almost exactly. One major difference is that the Mexican village representative, Hilario, played by Jorge Martínez de Hoyos (Cronos), doesn’t have a tragic backstory with the bandits that comes into play later. This robs the role of its import, making Hilario less of a character than a device to bring the “real” heroes into the film.
The 2016 remake actually follows the original Seven Samurai a bit more closely in this regard with Emma Cullen, played by Haley Bennett (Hardcore Henry). In the first scene of the film, Emma’s husband, Matthew, stands up to Bogue, who shoots him dead in the street for his troubles. Like Rikichi, Emma’s involvement moving forward is one of revenge, and she continues to be an active agent in the story. Unlike Rikichi, Emma is nearly as skilled a fighter as the Seven, and serves as a replacement seventh gun when one skulks away from the final battle. Dissimilar to the original tales, Emma and her friend Teddy Q hire the Seven without the knowledge or consensus of their town. This makes it a bit less believable that the homesteaders would accept their leadership, and also raises the question of how two poor homesteaders could afford their help. While the specifics of payment in this film aren’t detailed (Emma merely claims it’s “everything I have”), the money amount does seem to be significant enough to factor in the Seven’s motivation for getting involved.
Kambei Shimada, as played by Takashi Shimura (Throne of Blood), is the man who would become the leader of the Seven Samurai. When Rikichi and his compatriots first come across Kambei, he is cutting the ceremonial top-knot from his head. The literal purpose of the gesture is to disguise himself as a monk so that he can rescue a child hostage from a thief who is held up in a barn. The emotional purpose is to illustrate Kambei’s selfless humility. In feudal Japan, status was everything, but Kambei’s nobility is defined by his compassion and selfless heroism, not his hairstyle. Not only does the deed attract the attention of two other warriors who will join him in battle, it signals to Rikichi that he has found his savior.
Chris Larabee Adams, played by Yul Brynner (The King and I), is the man who would become the leader of The Magnificent Seven. When Hilario and his compatriots first come across Adams, he is volunteering to transport the body of a slain Native American to the town graveyard for burial. This is a trickier task than it may seem since many of the townsfolk take umbrage with the thought of a Native heathen being buried on “their” sacred land. Through a show of magnificent gunplay, Adams disarms and subdues the men in his way. The deed earns him the friendship of fellow gunslinger and gambler, Vinn Tanner, played by Steve McQueen (The Great Escape). It also proves to Hilario that he is a man who will defend the weak, regardless of their race or creed.
Sam Chisolm, played by Denzel Washington, is the man who would become the leader of The (rebooted) Magnificent Seven. He’s “A duly sworn warrant officer from Wichita, Kansas… also a licensed peace officer in Indian territories, Arkansas, Nebraska, and seven other states.” In other words, a bounty hunter. When Emma Cullen first comes across him, he has just collected a bounty through a marvelous display of gunmanship. This deed earns him the amusement of fellow gunslinger and gambler, Josh Faraday, played by Chris Pratt (Guardians of the Galaxy). It proves to Emma that he’s tough, so she offers him money to fight for her. He asks the purpose of the endeavor, and she tells him “I seek righteousness, but I’ll take revenge.” Despite the fact that Chisolm’s actions lie on the side of righteousness, a third-act reveal shows that his motivations are also revenge. The pay and personal gratification Chisolm gets from the job make his action remarkably less heroic than either of his precursors.
Despite the similarities in the premise, there are only two archetypes from the Seven that have carried through all the way to the 2016 remake – The Leader and The Master. While the leader organizes the group, the master is the most exceptional warrior, “A man only interested in perfecting his own skill.” In every film, the master is discovered, ready to participate in a duel. The duel is initially harmless and played for sport. In Seven Samurai, Kyuzo, played by Seiji Miyaguchi (Ikiru), is fighting with sticks. In both iterations of The Magnificent Seven, James Coburn (The Great Escape) as Britt or Byung-hun Lee (I Saw the Devil) as Billy Rocks are dueling with pistols, but firing past the other player at a tin cup.
In every film, the challenger insists that he won, despite evidence to the contrary, and demands that The Master fight him “for real.” In every instance, the challenger is effortlessly dispatched as the Master calmly obliges him. The way each film uses the Master after his introduction is slightly different, but Seven Samurai‘s Kyuzo is the only one whose skill truly sets him apart from the others to drive the plot forward emotionally and practically. Most notably, Kyuzo’s epic disappearance into the bandit camp at night, only to return in the morning, having killed two and stolen a musket has unexpected results. (More on that soon.) While Britt from the original Magnificent Seven borrows a few story beats from Kyuzo, he has very little impact on the group emotionally. Billy Rocks from the remake does have a meaningful relationship with Ethan Hawke’s (Training Day) Goodnight Robicheaux, but other than his scary-good skill with knives, there’s little to set him apart from the other fighters once the action begins.
THE LOVER & THE LOON – THE LOST HEART OF THE SEVEN
Like a game of Telephone, the more Seven Samurai has been adapted, the further it has naturally drifted from the themes that defined it. While the feudal system defined Japan for much of its history, Kurosawa purposefully picked a tumultuous period that placed the cultural identity of the nation in question. Noble families were crumbling, samurai were scattered and leaderless, and social chaos was at an all time high. The struggles of crossing the boundaries of class lines is a key theme in the tale, and it’s best illustrated by two characters who can best be described as a Lover and a Loon.
After Kambei publically saves the child and dispatches of the thief, two fighters cut past the peasants to garner his attention. One of these is “The Lover,” Isao Kimura (Ikiru) as Katsushiro Okamoto, a young boy from a noble samurai family who begs Kambei to be his sensei. Despite Kambei’s protests, Katsushiro shadows him and helps arrange for the seven to help the villagers. When the rice that the villagers were using to pay the samurai is stolen, Katsushiro secretly funds the purchase of more to keep the endeavor going. As someone with seemingly no material needs, it’s both an idealistically generous gesture and an oddly manipulative push at a chance to study under Kambei.
Once they arrive at the village, a love affair develops between Katsushiro and a peasant girl, Shino. Katsushiro is a hopeless romantic, and he ignores the class boundaries between the two at his own peril. When the affair is discovered by Shino’s father, he is furious, claiming his daughter has been made “damaged goods.” In a period when women were treated as property and forced to rely on men for care, a daughter’s virginity was necessary for marriage into a good household. Invading samurai were known to rape farmer women, but seldom marry them. Doing so was seen as a shame to their class, and would likely doom them to a life as a meager farmer. Shino’s father feels robbed by the occurrence and his resulting tantrum sets the whole town on edge the night before their final battle.
The other warrior to approach Kambei is “The Loon,” played by Toshirô Mifune. He is a crazed man with a samurai sword who waddles about, staring at Kambei awkwardly, and refusing to speak. After six samurai have gathered to help the villagers, The Loon arrives, drunk and asking to join them. He attempts to prove his samurai nobility by showing them a (stolen) family tree document. The name he indicates, Kikuchiyo, belongs to a 13-year-old. Laughing, the samurai turn “Lord Kikuchiyo” away, but that doesn’t stop him from following them all the way to the village. Despite his lunacy, he proves invaluable in getting the terrified farmers to interact with the samurai. Eventually, it is revealed that he was a child of farmers, orphaned during a similar attack to the one they face now. He had appropriated the samurai guise in an effort to overcome his social weakness but regularly overcompensates for his insecurities.
After Kyuzo’s epic retrieval of the enemy musket, Kikuchiyo is jealous and eager to prove his strength as equal to the master’s. He abandons his post and sets out to capture his own musket. While the endeavor is successful, a breach in the defenses of his post results in a number of casualties, including one of the samurai, sending him into a wave of guilt and despair.
Both Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo are defined by their failures to cross the aisle of their preordained social class, an aspect vital to Seven Samurai‘s themes. However, The Magnificent Seven (1960) lost a lot of the cultural exploration of Seven Samurai simply because its setting hearkens to a different culture. Western gunslingers were similarly legendary warriors in their own time, but, unlike Samurai, they were not a class of nobility, attainable only by birth. With no true strife of social boundaries to battle, The Magnificent Seven lost the added layer of sacrifice that the Seven must make to do the right thing. Consequently, the film combined the Lover and the Loon into the character of Chico, played by Horst Buchholz, in an attempt to play the character against his own desires.
Chico is a crazed kid, aching to prove himself as a heroic fighter, but is eventually revealed as the soft-hearted son of farmers. Since social mobility has always been possible in The United States, Chico’s feigned suffering due to a perceived lack of respect is far less earned or pitiable. Fortunately, he gets over himself by the film’s end, settling for a quiet life with the farmer’s daughter. It is a happy ending that Katsushiro is not afforded. In Seven Samurai, the social walls prove too high to surmount, amounting to a bittersweet end.
For better or for worse, in the 2016 reboot, there is no Lover, there is no Loon, and there is no Chico amalgam of the two. The film has a carefully constructed multi-racial crew, with the potential to fascinatingly explore some of the undersung heroes of American colonization. Unfortunately, none of these new characters are used in a way that adds thematic value to a film, which leaves a gaping hole in the core of a story that was originally envisioned to be so much more.
Seven Samurai wasn’t the first historical action movie to come out of Japan, but it did help to recontextualize the country’s concepts of nobility and heroism in the wake of World War II. In the years following the end of Japanese isolationism, leaders in the country were fearful of western colonization. They recalled the values of the samurai – strength, cunning, and loyalty – to create a culture of nationalistic and militaristic values. This eventually escalated into the imperialistic goals that defined Japan’s mindset before the war.
After their WWII loss and occupation by U.S. forces, many Japanese citizens were bitter about the “samurai values” that had led them down such an aggressive path. Movie remakes of the popular Japanese legend, 47 Ronin, were forbidden by U.S. censors, due to its depiction of loyalty to feudal lords, and many Japanese were glad to see that part of their culture gone. But with no set historical values to replace them, the country was going through something of an identity crisis.
Seven Samurai helped to reclaim that lost heritage, but from a new point of view. Kurosawa framed a story with samurai who were noble, not because of their unwavering loyalty to a lord or skillful swordsmanship, but because of their compassion for the weak and willingness to cross social lines to help their fellow men. The film didn’t just reinvent the Samurai film, it helped Japan find the best parts of its own identity and move forward, restored.
VIEW OF HEROISM
In every iteration of the story, four of the seven fall in battle, but their reasons for doing so differ. Kurosawa’s vision of heroism was of exceptional men stepping in to defend people who can offer them nothing. This vision is reflected not only in the script but in the brutal and unromanticized direction of the film’s battle scenes. There is no glory in the deaths of our heroes – just sudden, inexplicable loss. At the end of Seven Samurai, Kambei stands before the graves of his comrades, with a friend that he has survived many losing battles with. “In the end, we lost this battle too,” he says. “The victory belongs to those peasants. Not to us.”
The sentiment is repeated by Chris Adams at the end of The Magnificent Seven (1960), but this is contrasted by the highly stylized, explosive, and revenge-filled 2016 remake. Emma Cullen ends the film reminding the audience that the heroics of her seven guns-for-hire would not be forgotten, but perhaps the seven worth remembering are the ones who had the least to gain.
The Magnificent Seven is in theaters now.
*In 1980, Battle Beyond the Stars was released as an unauthorized sci-fi adaptation of the tale. In 1983, an Italian variant was made, called The Seven Magnificent Gladiators. In 1986, ¡Three Amigos! borrowed the plot, but gave it a comedic twist. A Hong Kong remake hit in 1989 called Seven Warriors. In 1998, Pixar and Disney released A Bug’s Life which straddled the line between spoof of the concept and adaptation as a family adventure. From 1998 to 2000 a television remake of The Magnificent Seven aired on CBS, starring Michael Biehn (The Terminator) and Ron Perlman (Hellboy). In 2004, an alt-history anime series aired in Japan called Samurai 7. In 2008, a direct remake of Seven Samurai was reportedly released by director Hiroyuki Nakano (Samurai Fiction), featuring a soundtrack comprised of Rolling Stones music, but was oddly only made available as a home video prize in Japanese pachinko machines.