clock menu more-arrow no yes mobile

Filed under:

Why Hollywood keeps coming back to Seven Samurai

The new Magnificent Seven owes everything to Akira Kurosawa’s samurai epic. It’s not the only one.

Side-by-side of Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven (2016)
Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (left), Antoine Fuqua’s new remake of The Magnificent Seven (right).

The most surprising thing about The Magnificent Seven is how unsurprising it is.

The movie, a remake of the classic 1960 John Sturges Western of the same name, starts when a villainous robber baron, Bartholomew Bogue (Peter Sarsgaard), threatens a small mining town and the villagers vow to resist. Lacking the ability to fight back themselves, they decide to hire a gunman, a bounty hunter named Chisholm (Denzel Washington).

Chisholm rounds up a half-dozen more men of varying talents and personalities, and they form a team determined to protect the town. There’s an initial encounter between Chisholm’s men and Bogue’s, and then a period of waiting and preparation before Bogue and his army of thugs return, which they do. There’s a final guns-blazing shootout, and the town is saved, though not everyone makes it out alive.

That’s it. That’s the whole plot, the complete story. There are no twists or turns, no reversals or reveals, no complex backstories or hidden motives. Everyone in the movie is exactly who he or she seems to be from the outset, and everything happens exactly as you expect it to happen.

It's one of The Magnificent Seven’s strengths, though you can't quite credit the movie itself, because that's also almost exactly how everything happened in the 1960 Sturges film. It’s also how the story went in Seven Samurai, the 1954 Akira Kurosawa samurai epic on which the Sturges film was based.

Seven Samurai established an elegant, primal cinematic template

In each version of this story, many of the details have been changed — the location, the particulars of the villain’s plot, the mix of characters who make up the team of protectors — but the bones remain the same: A bad guy threatens a small town; the villagers hire a wandering protector who gathers a motley crew of fighters; the fighters fortify the town; there’s a protracted assault; some of the fighters die; the village is saved.

It’s primal and elegant, a story so simple that it works almost at the level of myth. And like many myths, it’s a story that can be told and retold in almost any setting, with almost any set of characters, like a classic cocktail that allows for practically endless variation.

That combination of durability and flexibility is a big part of why Kurosawa’s beloved and widely imitated film has remained so influential for so long. And it is a reminder, as Hollywood plots have grown both flimsier and more complex, of the virtues of a simple, straightforward story told well.

Kurosawa’s structure allows for heavy themes without sacrificing momentum

The clarity and simplicity of Kurosawa’s plot belie Seven Samurai’s elemental grandeur. Clocking in at nearly three and a half hours long, the film is an epic in every sense: Its $500,000 budget made it the most expensive film ever produced in Japan up until that point, and filming took 148 days, far longer than initially planned. The extended final fight between the samurai and the bandits was shot in the depths of winter, with the sandaled cast slogging painfully through nearly frozen mud.

The difficulty of the shoot, and the sheer will it took to make it through, is evident in the final film, which plows through its extended running time with an intensity that is both brutal and measured.

It takes nearly an hour to get the team together, with each of the seven swordsmen given a leisurely introduction that displays his character and competency. After the samurai form their team, the middle of the film is devoted to exploring their growing relationship with the villagers, as they train them to become a defensive fighting force and slowly bond. The movie’s action is spread over the course of seasons, allowing Kambei (Takashi Shimura), the samurai leader whom we first encounter as his head is being shaved, to slowly grow back his hair, providing a physical reminder of the passage of time.

Still from Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai
It’s hard out here for a samurai.

Along the way, Kurosawa carves out space to explore themes of love and loyalty, justice and vengeance, individualism and community identity. As he prepares the village to defend itself against the bandit assault, Kambei tells residents that the “nature of war” is that “by protecting others, you save yourselves.”

At the end, after the final battle, one of the surviving samurai surveys the carnage and declares that “in the end, we lost this battle too. Victory belongs to these peasants.” The movie, itself a product of an arduous and exhausting production process by Kurosawa and his crew, acts as a parable about the triumph of community and collective action.

Kurosawa packed Seven Samurai with solemn themes, but the structure ensures that it never loses its momentum. The threat of violence hangs over every scene, the coming conflict with the bandits looming inevitably in the background. Despite its running time, the movie is masterfully paced — a long, slow build to a chaotic, bloody, and inevitable showdown. Once set on track, its narrative engine never derails.

The Magnificent Seven dresses up Seven Samurai as a Western, but its bones are the same

The simplicity and sturdiness of Seven Samurai’s plot accounts for much of what makes it so powerful, and so adaptable: It never strays off on tangents in search of the sort of quick narrative highs that can make more labyrinthine plots so appealing.

You can see how well the same structure works in a different environment in Sturges’s Western remake, released just six years later. At just over two hours long, The Magnificent Seven lacks the epic scale of Kurosawa’s film, but the bones of the movie, despite the change in setting, are almost exactly the same: It is the story of a community coming together to fight off an external threat with the aid of a band of lone warriors.

This time, the movie serves as a vehicle for Sturges’s razor-sharp action scenes and grand Western vistas, as well as a showcase for a handful of iconic American movie stars and stars-to-be, including Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, and Charles Bronson.

Still from John Sturges' The Magnificent Seven
Same story, different seven.

The remake nods to some of the same themes as Kurosawa's original, with Brenner’s gunslinger commenting at the end, “Only the farmers won. We lost. We'll always lose.” But overall it’s more of a straightforward action movie, a crowd-pleasing shoot-’em-up that barrels toward a satisfying, violent showdown. What holds it all together is the primal simplicity of the plot, in which a threat is made by an evil person and a band of warriors must defend the defenseless.

The same goes for this year’s remake. Directed by Antoine Fuqua, who specializes in competent but utterly conventional action films, it’s a contemporary exercise in tension, violence, and retribution. Fuqua’s contribution to the formula is the diversity of the cast, now led by Denzel Washington as the bounty hunter Chisholm, but otherwise the structure remains essentially the same.

This story is eternal, and Hollywood knows it

This new Magnificent Seven is fine, but not great. Yet there’s something comfortable and friendly about it. It’s a tale you’ve seen told over and over again before, one whose inherent satisfactions are eternal.

Part of the reason the new version feels so familiar is because the plot elements that drove the original pair of films have been recycled so frequently over the years: Pixar’s early animated feature A Bug’s Life relies on almost exactly the same story as Seven Samurai, with numerous scenes and shots replicated using CGI ants instead of actors. The 1980 Roger Corman production Battle Beyond the Stars was basically a cheap, cheesy sci-fi remake of The Magnificent Seven; it even starred one of the Sturges seven, Robert Vaughn.

But beyond the direct references, Seven Samurai’s team-building device, in which a leader gathers a diverse group of allies to go on a mission, is now an incredibly common trope: You can see versions of it in films like The Blues Brothers, Ocean’s Eleven, and Inglourious Basterds.

And this is far from over: Batman v Superman director Zack Snyder has said that his upcoming superhero feature Justice League — about a team of superheroes recruited by Batman to save the world — will borrow from Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven. It’s more evidence, not that we needed it, of the strength and infinite mutability of Kurosawa’s story structure, whether it’s applied to a samurai epic, a gunslinging Western, or a modern superhero adventure.

Promotional Justice League artwork
Zack Snyder’s Justice League, a magnificent six.
Warner Bros.

While it’s nice to see Hollywood drawing from such excellent source material, it’s with the caveat that filmmakers should first take stock of why Seven Samurai worked so well in the first place: Kurosawa's film is long, but it never gets tangled in unnecessary plot complications, never tries to outsmart its audience or jolt them with a big surprise. Instead, it introduces its characters, sets them on a clear and comprehensible journey, and then follows them until the bitter end.

In the age of franchise sprawl, where movies must juggle stories and subplots that cross over multiple films and where filmmakers are always trying to stay one step ahead of online fans with shocking plot developments, that’s an art that’s largely disappeared. But the timelessness and influence of Seven Samurai is a reminder that simple stories haven’t lost their power or relevance: Sometimes the most satisfying stories are the ones that don’t surprise you at all.