Seven Samurai Still Gritty and Great at 50

By Arnold, Gary | The World and I, October 2004 | Go to article overview

Seven Samurai Still Gritty and Great at 50


Arnold, Gary, The World and I


Gary Arnold is a writer for The Washington Times.

The most persuasive argument for film preservation in my lifetime has been the continuing enhancement of Akira Kurosawa's Seven Samurai, which has returned to some theaters across the country for engagements marking its fiftieth anniversary.

The last booking of this majestic historical-martial-social epic, the most intimate and stirring of all cinematic adventure spectacles, revealed an unexpected bonus: freshly colloquial and eye-opening translation of the Japanese dialogue, sometimes commensurate with an R rating.

Given the context of the story--a vividly gritty celebration of self- defense set in the sixteenth century, when impoverished farmers succeed in recruiting a band of samurai mercenaries to protect their next harvest from marauding bandits--the previously obscured verbal bluntness and pungency were not out of line.

However, parents may want to take it into consideration when introducing older children to this superlative movie. They'll be reading a more outspoken movie while seeing an eyeful of heroic conflict and sacrifice.

I first saw Seven Samurai in its original 160-minute import version when I was in high school. By this time, more than four years after its Japanese premiere, the movie already was a revival attraction, one of several foreign-language landmarks that came to my attention while frequenting the long-gone Berkeley, California, storefront theaters the Cinema Guild & Studio, managed at that time by Pauline Kael.

Both the auditoriums and the screen sizes were cramped, to put it kindly, so quite a few years went by before I saw a suitably magnified Samurai.

Columbia, the U.S. importer, also had renamed it The Magnificent Seven, the title of 1960's durably appealing John Sturges-directed Western homage to Kurosawa's prototype, which costarred Yul Brynner and Steve McQueen.

Film historian Donald Richie prepared the groundwork for an eventual restoration of the complete Seven Samurai in his 1965 critical study, The Films of Akira Kurosawa. His appreciation was shadowed by a provocative caveat: "Nevertheless, Seven Samurai has, outside Japan in 1954, never really been seen. This is one of the major cinematic tragedies."

Americans weren't the only ones who had been shortchanged. A later historian, Stuart Galbraith IV, chronicled the careers of Kurosawa and his pre-eminent leading man, Toshiro Mifune, in a volume titled The Emperor and the Wolf. Galbraith wrote: "Because of its extreme length, the complete Seven Samurai . …

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