IT SEEMS FOLLY to remake one of the greatest films ever made. That's what happened in 1960, though, when director John Sturges remade Akira Kurosawa's 1954 masterpiece Seven Samurai, turning the 16th-century jidaigeki into a rousing American western, with the samurais' swords transformed into six-shooters, their hachigane helmets turned into ten-gallon hats.
Sturges' The Magnificent Seven is far from a perfect movie, but it perfectly embodies the American character. It's a pompous, superficial adventure with an imperialist, benignly racist worldview; its suspense is minimal and its action is cheery, almost swashbuckle-y. That's Yul Brynner as the leader of the Seven, a crack shot dressed in black and chomping a long, thin cigar. In the movie's funniest unintentional joke, Brynner's badass is named, of all things, "Chris"—although, come to think of it, perhaps that's a reference to Toshiro Mifune's Seven Samurai character, a loose cannon with a girl's name: Kikuchiyo ("chrysanthemum of a thousand years").
Magnificent's pleasures are broad and simple, and it's most significant for what its cast of upstarts (Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, James Coburn) would do in later years—and the wonderful theme by Elmer Bernstein. Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, however, is infallibly brilliant, an epic work of art with boundless pleasures packed in joyous density. From the photography—which manages to contain both dazzling kinetic energy and a documentary-like realism—to its warm, humanistic storytelling, not a note of it rings false. It's moviemaking at its most enrapturing.
The opportunity to see both films the same weekend has been provided by the NW Film Center as part of their ongoing Samurai Cinema series. It's worth remembering these films came in the immediate decades after Pearl Harbor, long before the cultural love affair between Japanese and American cultures that flourished in the '80s and continues through today. These stories, separated by continents and centuries, earn remarkable resonance in the pairing, examining the nature of human conflict and emphasizing the value of earned heroism. We're not so different, in the end.