Uncle Sam-Urai

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ANDREW BILLEN on a magnificent rip-off of Kurosawa's masterpiece

As a plot, The Magnificent Seven's was so magnificent that it came near to replacing all others in the genre for ever. From Battle Beyond the Stars in 1980 (which starred Robert Vaughan, one of the original seven) to A Bug's Life 18 months ago--not to mention the entire Star Wars cycle and minor league players such as the BBC's Blake's 7--it sometimes seems as if there is no action-adventure that does not star a bunch of good guy mercenaries saving a pusillanimous outpost from a rather larger bunch of bandits. Should Sierra Leone ever sort itself out, expect a movie called The Magnificent Sandline.

Notwithstanding that, by the end of it, just three of the original seven were left standing and one of them opted for a quiet life as a farmer, John Sturges's masterpiece spawned three official sequels, too. After a decent interval of six years came Return of the Magnificent Seven, which retained the services of Yul Brynner; then came Guns of the Magnificent Seven, which didn't. The less happily titled The Magnificent Seven Ride rode to a final sunset in 1972. On 13 May, Channel 4 (which is showing them all in celebration of the 40th anniversary) made a bit of a fuss about transmitting the original in prime time, and followed it with a documentary, Gunsfor Hire: the making of The Magnificent Seven. Brynner and Steve McQueen may be long dead, but the M7 industry is alive and well in Horseferry Road.

But if The Magnificent Seven is one of the most exploited movies of all time, it is also the all-time movie rip-off. In a slick session of compare-and-contrast, Louis Heaton's s documentary made it plain not just that it was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, but that it was a scene-for-scene and, often, a shot-for-shot remake. Lou Morheim optioned the rights, for $250, from Kurosawa, who, as a John Ford fan, saw the potential immediately and acclaimed the final version. It was a steal so obvious that Brynner, who originally planned to direct it before going in front of the camera as Chris, also claimed to have spotted it. James Coburn, who played the knifeman Britt, said he had seen the Japanese movie 12 times by the time he was cast. You wonder how many foreign movies Russell Crowe and Bruce Willis watch.

Everyone wanted a piece of this action movie, and they were willing to fight for it, too. Anthony Quinn, who had been slated to play Chris, sued Brynner and lost. Morheim used Walter Mirisch, who had taken over the production, and had to settle for an associated producer credit. Even the real writer, Walter Newman, ended up without a name-check, having proudly refused to share his with the script doctor, William Roberts. …