It doesn't happen very often when a re-make of a classic film becomes a classic in its right. Much depends on the qualities of the original film, the quality of the re-make's script, the abilities of the cast and crew, and so on. As a remake of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, John Sturges' film The Magnificent Seven still stirs up controversy among Kurosawa scholars and cinema fans. As an example of the Western genre, however, it is widely acknowledged to be a seminal -- and popular -- motion picture.
Kurosawa's Seven Samurai is often referred to as "the Original Magnificent Seven." This is literally quite true: when the film was first screened in New York in 1956, the English-language title was The Magnificent Seven. (Apparently Toho did not believe that American audiences would know what samurai were.) Although the version shown was substantially cut -- from 207 minutes to under 160 -- its power still made film studio executives consider doing a remake, and Kurosawa's use of film-Western techniques, particularly those of John Ford, had them re-imagining the movie in that particular genre.
Producer Lou Morheim purchased the remake rights from Toho Studios for $250 U.S. This sum was ridiculously low, even by 1950s standards; perhaps Toho did not believe a successful film re-make was possible, especially one by a gaijin (non-Japanese) studio. (Several years later, a Tokyo court ruled the sale illegal; see below for details.)
Morheim first offered to sell the remake rights to actor Anthony Quinn; Quinn in turn brought in actor Yul Brynner, who would possibly direct Morheim's remake (Brynner was already an accomplished photographer) and maybe play a supporting role. Quinn and Brynner jointly bought the remake rights; but during the film's pre-production Quinn was dropped from the project.
Since Brynner was an unproven commodity as a director, he recruited Martin Ritt to direct the film. (Ritt would later direct another Kurosawa remake, transforming Rashomon into the Western The Outrage, starring Paul Newman.) Ritt commissioned Walter Bernstein to write a treatment, but once it was completed Ritt had to leave the project. Morheim then talked to independent producer Walter Mirisch, who became the film's executive producer and brought in Sturges as a director. (Sturges wanted, and got, credit as sole producer and director; after a court battle, Morheim was listed as an associate producer.)
Sturges rejected Bernstein's treatment and brought in a new writer.The Magnificent Seven's screenplay was written by Walter Newman; during filming, script revisions were performed by William Roberts. During post-production, a Writer's Guild hearing decided that Roberts had done enough work to receive a co-credit on the screenplay. Newman was angered by the decision and withdrew his own credit from the film.
The film was shot completely in Mexico, avoiding the complications of an actors' strike in Hollywood (the cast had been signed before the union deadline).
Synopsis (With a Few Differences)
The plot remains the same: a desperate farm village hires a group of fighters to protect them from a gang of bandits. The details in execution and other variations, however, are quite interesting.
- The village is in Mexico, while the fighters are from America. (This basic script premise caused problems with the Mexican film censors on the set, who intially believed to hiring of outsiders to be denigrating to the Mexican people.) Newman set the screenplay in the late 19th century, when the American West was for the most part already tamed, while in Mexico the regime known as the Porfiriato had a poor reputation for maintaining law and order, especially in its rural areas. This setting is the closest the screenwriters could get to the Japanese Sengoku era.
- While Kurosawa treated his bandit leader somewhat impersonally, the Newman/Roberts script expanded upon Calvera, the film's bandit leader, played by Eli Wallach (1915- ). Jovial, hedonistic, quick to anger, loyal to his men yet contemptuous of his victims, Calvera's personality is quite memorable, and Wallach's performance is a definite precursor to his turn as the outlaw Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966).
- Both films introduce their leaders by having them perform selfless acts. Kurosawa's leader impersonates a priest to rescue a child hostage, while Sturges' leader drives a hearse carrying an Indian corpse into a "whites-only" cemetery guarded by armed bigots. (While the two situations are not comparable today, it must be remembered that the American civil rights movement was just picking up steam at the time this movie was being shot; the dignity of native peoples was a hot-button issue.)
- In both films, the farmers betray their protectors. With Kurosawa, the betrayal takes the form of a revelation: that in the past, the farmers killed fleeing samurai for their armor. With Sturges, the betrayal happens in the film: the farmers allow Calvera and his gang to take over the village and expel the fighters.
- In each film, four of the Seven die. Kurosawa spaces out his deaths over a three-day period, while Sturges has his fighters die within the final battle. This is a good example illustrating the differences between the Japanese and the Western approaches to storytelling, although in this case the difference can be attributable to time constraints.
The Seven (And Their Counterparts)
|Name||Played by||Japanese Counterpart||Notes|
|Chris||Yul Brynner (1915-1985)||Kambei Shimada (Takashi Shimura)||Chris does not share Kambei's humility, but retains the leader's informal manner and ability to get along with the farmers. |
At no point in the film does Brynner take his hat off.
|Vin||Steve McQueen (1930-1980)||Shirochiji (Daisuke Kato), with some of Kikuchiyo (Toshiro Mifune) thrown in||Vin becoming a grocery clerk is a parallel of Shirochiji working as a peddler; he also has some of Kikuchiyo's womanizing attitude. Vin assists Chris in driving the Indian corpse to the cemetery; in the final battle he is wounded in the leg but survives. |
McQueen's fiddling with his hat is an on-camera technique to get the viewer to notice him whenever he shares a scene with Brynner.
|Chico||Horst Buchholz (1933-2003)||An amalgamation of Kikuchiyo and Katsuhiro Okamoto (Isao "Ko" Kimura)||Chico combines Katsuhiro's apprentice-in-training eagerness with Kikuchiyo's peasant origins and attitude. Inexperienced and somewhat of a hothead, Chico nonetheless proves himself an asset to the Seven, first by breaking the villagers' initial fears and then by spying on the outlaw gang. Like his counterpart, Chico performs well in the final battle and survives it; unlike him, he is able to settle down with one of the village girls.|
|Harry Luck||Brad Dexter (1917-2002)||Gorobei Katayama (Yoshio Inaba)||Harry has very little in common with his Japanese counterpart, although there is a similarity in the scenes where they are introduced: both refuse to fall into traps laid out by the leader as a test of their skills. Harry is a confident mercenary, always on the hunt for treasure. Despite this, he assists in training the farmers in the use of firearms and takes part in the initial gun battle. He is the first of the Seven to die, attempting to rescue Chris and Vin from a tight spot during the final battle.|
|Bernardo O'Reilly||Charles Bronson (1921- )||Heihachi Hayashida (Minoru Chiaki)||As with Heihachi, we meet O'Reilly chopping wood for his breakfast (and he also moves his weapons away from the strangers about to recruit him). While more grumpy than his Japanese counterpart, O'Reilly retains some of Heihachi's geniality, especially when he finds himself adopted for hero worship by the village's children. He is the last of the Seven to die, herding the children away from the battle scene, but helping them to recognize their fathers' bravery with his dying words.|
|Britt||James Coburn (1928-2002)||Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi)||Britt is the most faithful adaptation of a Kurosawa character to the Western screen. Coburn, an enthusiastic fan of the original movie, made a conscious effort to emulate Miyaguchi's performance as a master swordsman, with great success. Britt is the third of the Seven to die, overwhelmed by the bandit gang's numbers; his final act is to toss his jacknife into an adobe wall, echoing a similar scene in Seven Samurai where a dying Kyuzo throws his sword away.|
|Lee||Robert Vaughn (1932- )||None||The only character who does not have a counterpart in the Kurosawa movie, Lee is an expert gunfighter who recently suffered a shock so severe, he is paralyzed by nerves during battle. Cultured and soft-spoken, Lee succeeds in rescuing the village leaders and conquering his own fears in the final battle, before dying from a stray bullet.|
Perhaps the most memorable part of The Magnificent Seven is not a scene -- but a sound. Specifically, the score composed by Elmer Bernstein.
Bernstein's main title, influenced by the work of his mentor, Aaron Copland, infuses the film with an energy and power that would otherwise be lacking. It has become a modern cinema classic among movie soundtracks.
The score's iconic power was recognized by tobacco manufacturer Philip Morris, who licensed the music for use in commercials for the Marlboro brand of cigarettes. Marlboro television commercials featured the Marlboro man, conducting his business and smoking his Marlboro cigarette with variations of the Bernstein music playing in the background.
Release and Aftermath
The Magnificent Seven was released by United Artists in 1960. The initial release resulted in a small profit, but a second, worldwide release was far more successful, cementing the film's iconic status.
The subsequent success of the film resulted in three sequels released during the 1960s and early 1970s. Although Brynner reprised his role of Chris in the first sequel, the only element in common in these follow-ups was the Bernstein score. The sequels were less successful than the original. As well, a television series based on the original film aired on the CBS network from 1998 to 2000.
Kurosawa himself was somewhat ambiguous in his opinion of the film. In 1980 he was quoted in People magazine as saying, "Gunmen are not samurai." While not an endorsement, neither is this statement a condemnation of Sturges' film. Studio publicity claims that Kurosawa had sent a katana sword to Stuges shortly after the film's release, expressing his appreciation of the film. There are reasons to doubt this story: the same publicists also claim that Seven Samurai won the Academy Award for Best Foreign Film in 1955 (it didn't; the award went to Samurai, a.k.a. Miyamoto Musashi), and years later executive producer Walter Mirisch recalled that the gift was a Kabuki doll.
The Legal Status of the Seven
As mentioned earlier, a Tokyo court ruled in 1978 that the original sale of Seven Samurai's remake rights was illegal. This was the answer to a lawsuit by Kurosawa and his screenwriters Hideo Oguni and Shinobu Hashimoto, who had never been paid royalties for Toho's subsequent re-releases of the film. One of the ramifications of this decision was the statement that United Artists (which by now had merged with MGM) never had the right to make the three Magnificent Seven sequels, and thus owed Kurosawa more money.
MGM counter-sued Toho Studios and Kurosawa Production in 1991. Two years later, in an out-of-court settlement, Toho paid MGM $50,000 to settle the original error, and MGM gained from Kurosawa Production the remake rights to Seven Samurai -- but only if the re-make took place in the Western genre.
This decision has future ramifications for any studio wanting to remake Kurosawa's film. In 2002, Miramax Films announced plans to re-make Seven Samurai, having bought the rights from Kurosawa Production. If Miramax chooses to re-set the film as a Western, then MGM would have be accommodated, either by financial compensation or by production involvement.
Certainly as a cinematic achievement, The Magnificent Seven cannot compete with the accomplishment of Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, but nonetheless of all the films which remade Kurosawa's work, this movie stands among the best of them.
The Magnificent Seven is currently available in VHS and DVD from MGM/UA Home Entertainment. Among the DVD extras is a documentary, "Guns For Hire: The Making of the Magnificent Seven," and audio commentary by Walter Mirisch, assistant director Robert Relyea, Eli Wallach and James Coburn.