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(Today’s NaPoWriMo prompt was for a poem dedicated to some other form of art, so I opted for the film Seven Samurai and its many incarnations.)

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In the land of Japan, after warring was done,
An epic and classic of film was begun
By one Kurosawa, director renowned,
Who left cinematic impressions profound.

This film Seven Samurai dazzled the critics
(And still holds a high spot in film analytics)
So Hollywood said, after only six years,
“We’ll do that in English for our Western ears.

“And speaking of western, we’ll re-set the plot
With cowboys and Mexicans. Now that’s a thought!”
So that’s what they did, and it turned out a winner
With quite the ensemble headlined by Yul Brynner.

They didn’t stop there; three more sequels ensued,
But even those westerns were just a prelude.
A Corman sci-fi set the story in space,
Hong Kong made a version with China the place,

And Italy even confused the translators
By making the samurai brave gladiators.
A Bug’s Life was Pixar’s cartoonish conversion,
Then back to Japan for an anime version.

And Hollywood remade the remake it made,
The most recent role that this formula’s played.
Imitation is flattery’s form at its highest,
But would Kurosawa, I wonder, be biased?

MPAA rating for the 1960 version:  Approved (basically PG)
MPAA rating for the 2016 version:  PG-13 (pretty strong on the violence)

I haven’t done one of these Version Variation posts in a while, mainly because I haven’t watched an abundance of remakes lately. Yet I stumbled upon the 2016 remake of The Magnificent Seven, and finding it to be an above average western, had to see how it compared to the more celebrated original (not to mention how it compared to the original original, 1954’s Seven Samurai).

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Of course, Akira Kurosawa started it all with Seven Samurai, the tale of seven disparate but skilled misfits recruited by desperate villagers to fend off invading bandits. The Magnificent Seven is very much the same tale, simply transplanted from feudal Japan to the mythic American West. Certain scenes and plot elements are common to every version, such as the duel that introduces the most deadly of the bunch or the number of the seven who are killed by the end (though which characters die seems to differ).

All three also feature extremely talented ensembles, led by an established movie star. In the case of The Magnificent Seven, that would be Yul Brynner (1960) and Denzel Washington (2016), both dressed all in black and oozing enough self-confidence to recruit six others with minimal effort. Watching the different versions, it was interesting to pick out the parallels between the other characters. Horst Buchholz (who went on to appear in Life Is Beautiful) plays a scrappy upstart in the 1960 version, clearly modeled after Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai, but there’s not really an equivalent character in the 2016 film. As the second recruit, Chris Pratt seems comparable to Steve McQueen’s drifter, while James Coburn’s knife-thrower is unmistakably akin to Lee Byung-hun in the remake. Other comparisons are a little harder, such as Ethan Hawke’s war-haunted Cajun in the remake having elements of both Robert Vaughn and Brad Dexter’s characters in the original.

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One thing that is self-evident about the 2016 remake is its effort to be more inclusive in its representation. While all of the original seven were white, the new seven include three whites, one black, one Mexican, one Native American, and one South Korean (who I guess is supposed to represent the Chinese? I didn’t know there were Korean immigrants in the Old West).  Another difference is that the characters in the remake are given far more colorful names; after all, aren’t “Goodnight” Robicheaux and Billy Rocks cooler sobriquets than Britt or Chris or Lee?

While it makes the character comparisons a little harder, the racial changes aren’t unwelcome and don’t make much difference storywise, aside from a clash between the Native American member of the Seven (Martin Sensmeier) and his counterpart on the bad guy’s side (Jonathan Joss, who surprisingly also played Chief Hotate on Parks and Recreation). Speaking of bad guys, that’s another major change; whereas the original’s Eli Wallach played the leader of a Mexican outlaw band, the remake’s Peter Sarsgaard plays a ruthless businessman aiming to buy out the townsfolk for the nearby gold mine (which is notably not in the original, much to Brad Dexter’s chagrin).

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Perhaps it might have been different if I had watched the 1960 version first, as most cinephiles did, but I think I actually prefer the 2016 version. The 1960 film is a classic, no doubt about that, with Yul Brynner’s man in black standing up as one of the quintessential western heroes. Yet even though that film has its fair share of gunfights, the 2016 film plays out much more like an action movie, tossing out the love subplot and apparent defeat of the original in favor of bigger and more explosive battles. The body count is higher, but the thrills don’t disappoint, in contrast to the original film’s excessive length and occasional boring parts.

That being said, cheating though it may be, I don’t have any problem grouping the two together for ranking purposes, or even grouping both with Seven Samurai. Seven Samurai may be the most artistic and the 2016 film the most entertaining, but all three are worthwhile. (I’ll draw the line, though, at grouping them with A Bug’s Life, which is also basically the same story. I did like how Charles Bronson’s bond with some local kids was recycled for Francis the lady bug in Pixar’s film.) Many may scoff at the mere idea of remakes, often rightfully, but, like A Star Is Born, this is one story that has endured the test of time and excelled in multiple incarnations.

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Best line from the 1960 version: (Vin/Steve McQueen) “It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, ‘Why?’”   (Calvera/bad guy) “And?”   (Vin) “He said, ‘It seemed to be a good idea at the time.’”

Best line from the 2016 version: (Sam Chisholm/Denzel Washington) “What we lost in the fire, we’ll find in the ashes.”


Rank: List-Worthy (both grouped with Seven Samurai)


© 2019 S.G. Liput
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