Monday, April 6, 2009

The Great Movies: "The Seven Samurai"

The Seven Samurai
Akiro Kurasawa, 1954

This film is the epic tale of how a group of farmers threatened by bandits hires a group of seven cowboys -- oops, I mean samurais -- to defend their village. It is a big, sprawling adventure movie, entertaining and pleasant to look at.

By "sprawling," I mean "more than three hours long." More than an hour is spent just on the recruitment of the motley team of cut-rate warriors that will defend the town. Once the action starts, it's not just one fight scene, but a series of battles fought over several days of screen time. No, ha! ha! Just kidding. The battles take place over several days of time in the story, but only take an hour and a half of screen time.

By "entertaining" I mean that this is a film that deploys the elements of good old fashioned spectacle to good effect. There are good guys and bad guys, but with enough personality and ambiguity that you don't feel talked down to. There are elaborately choreographed fight scenes. There is a romantic subplot, occasional yucks, and a basically happy ending tempered by enough sacrifice and loss that you feel like you've earned it. And for those who like some thinkin' with their action-adventure, there are some nice bits about the relationship between the farmers and the warrior caste which could be read as an analysis of the workings of power in a class-based society. I mean, if you are into that sort of thing.

Now, you know how much I hate to be persnickety. And really, The Seven Samurai is an awesome movie. But, I feel compelled to enter a quick rhetorical question into the record here. Let's say you are the leader of a gang of ruthless, battle-hardened, heavily armed bandits. You make your living by sacking defenseless villages and pillaging their food stores. Now one day, you find that one particular village has been armed and trained to defend itself by a cadre of professional soldiers. Would you (a) continue to launch attack after attack on this fortified village, losing a tenth or so of your troops every time? Or would you (b) ride a few miles over to sack some other, more vulnerable village?

Yeah. Me too.

Plot: Knowing they will be attacked once the barley harvest is in, a village in medieval Japan enlists an eccentric group of samurai who are willing to defend them for no pay. Then they harvest the barley, and all hell breaks loose.

Visuals: Quite nicely choreographed and shot. Like in The Seventh Seal last week, in The Seven Samurai the life of a medieval village is brought to life with plausible realism.

In a movie with battle scenes, the trick is always to help the viewer understand the terrain: where everyone is, who is in danger, who is attacking from where, and generally what the hell is going on. Samorai does a good job with this, spending some time establishing the layout of the village so we'll know what's happening once the chaos starts.

This is, not to put too fine a point on it, a movie about people killing each other. Yet although we see a lot of on-screen death, it is not of the grizzly variety. When a bandit is killed by the repeated spear thrusts of a dozen villagers, for instance, we mostly see the dozen villagers thrusting their spears, not the gore or agony of the bandit. Through image, music, and script, the international cinematic formula for the worth of human life is strictly adhered to: the death of a samurai is a tragedy, the death of a villager with a speaking role is a bummer, the death of a village extra is scenery, and the death of a bandit is fun.

Dialog: In Japanese. Dialog serves the purpose of establishing the samurais’ various personalities, and of demonstrating the distinctiveness of their profession and their way of life. As with most movies about professional warriors, this film is at pains to imbue its characters with a stoic, world-weary sense of honor. Whether mercenaries in real life are so brimming with silent wisdom, I really couldn't say.

Prognosis: For anyone who can handle black and white, subtitles, and 207 minutes of running time, this movie will be both interesting and quite enjoyable.


elaine said...

But wouldn't a movie of the "grizzly variety" involve bears? A grisly thought... (Exit, pursued by a bear.....)

Unknown said...

we screened this at the museum this winter. i had all the best intentions, but... yeah, fell asleep. nice long nap, though!

Eversaved said...

We (of course) watched this one in a film studies class. It ranked middleish on my list- somewhere above Psycho or Alien but probably below Blood Simple, Network and All About Eve.

Maybe you have explained this before, but how are you choosing which movies to watch?

Chance said...

You people are all Philistines. Protopathic Philistines.

The bandits considered it a matter of honor by the time they realized what they were up against.

Michael5000 said...

Elaine: not a Philistine. She made a "Winter's Tale" reference, for crying out loud.

Becky: SO not a Philistine. She's a friggin' art historian. That's like an anti-Philistine.

Eversaved: not a Philistine. Strives valiently and selflessly to teach the Spanish language to oversexed young people.

michael5000: A Philistine. Or so he was deemed by his friend Helen, when he announced that the painstaking rebuilding of Exeter Cathedral after the Blitz was "silly" in that "there are cathedrals all over the place in this country."

Michael5000 said...

@Miss Saved: The movies come from the Roger Ebert book "The Great Movies." There's a link in the sidebar to the first post, which laid out the project.

@Chance: Just because something is a Matter of Honor doesn't mean it ain't Dumber Than Shit. Indeed, in my experience, the two concepts very often walk hand in hand.

Elaine said...

Thank you, M5000, for defending my honor. ha ha.

Chance said...

M5K, Good point! I owe you a doughnut.