Regarded as some of the greatest films of their genres, Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven both hold a special place in their respective Japanese and American cinema. Akira Kurosawa’s 3-hour samurai epic debuted in 1954, and was re-worked into the 1960 Western that audiences loved. (It’s worth noting that The Magnificent Seven will be remade later this year, starring Denzel Washington and Chris Pratt.)
Having heard a lot about the two movies, I recently watched both for the first time. I enjoyed them deeply, however I recognize Seven Samurai as the better of the two. They were both well-made, with a slow-to-a-boil rising action which leads to a powerful climax, rife with exciting action sequences. Amongst the two, there are two wonderful ensemble cast. Samurai, being the longer film, had more time to focus on the different characters. In one case, Magnificent actually takes two separate story lines of different characters and combines them into one. In Samurai there is Katsushiro (the young one who has to prove himself) and Kikuchiyo (the eccentric one of humble origins) are compiled into Chico, who carries both of these character’s stories. Out of the ensemble, these were two of my favorites, so to see them thrown together was a tad disappointing. To Magnificent‘s credit, it shows us more of the villain. Seven Samurai‘s bandits are nondescript, and at most, bark commands. They have no real personality. In Magnificent, the bandits have a leader with a name and some notable characterization. What we get is one of the better villains in the Western genre, brought to life by The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly’s Eli Wallach.
Both movies feature genre-based folk heroes. Cowboys play a similar role in America’s national mythology that Samurai occupy in Japanese culture. (While samurai are a portrayed as a slightly proud but ultimately well-intended bunch, it’s worth noting that cowboys have a greater capacity for evil, since “cowboy” is a bit of an ambiguous term that can apply to ranchers, bandits, bounty hunters, and sheriffs alike. Magnificent simply refers to its characters as “hired guns.”) They are relics of a bygone era. America doesn’t have cowboys anymore, and Japan doesn’t have Samurai. These folk heroes also take on the essence of their nation; to show good-hearted cowboys can be a representation of American resolve, just as good-hearted samurai can show the courage of the Japanese people.
The defender of the people is a hugely important cultural archetype. So many great characters are such defenders; Robin Hood, Zorro, the Lone Ranger, 13 Assassins, just about any superhero… All of these are part of the same cultural mythology as Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. They’re all defenders of the people. This is a crucial cultural mythology that enriches the audience.
That’s what makes these movies so significant. This is shown by the fact that Seven Samurai told a story so great it was remade only 6 years later, in an entirely different culture. It says a great deal about the importance of the story, and the universal qualities that inspired it. In recent years, there’s been a trend of morally ambiguous antiheroes; watching these movies took me back to a time when good-old-fashioned moral heroes were the norm. And it’s refreshing. The seven heroes are characters to look up to. They seek justice and strive to help the helpless. They are cultural heroes at their most noble.