One of the most influential films of all time, its impact still felt among film enthusiasts and film-makers, is also one of the best ever made. Akira Kurosawa’s The Severn Samurai (Japan, 1954) is one of the most powerful historical adventure dramas in the history of film. The story is complex, so I can’t really do justice to it here. A small farming village is threatened by a group of forty bandits. The village decides to put up a battle and hire five down on their luck samurai, one samurai apprentice, and one renegade who wants desperately to achieve the respect of a true warrior. The samurai get enmeshed in the lives of the villagers, but ultimately remain alien to them. After brief skirmishes, a final battle decides the day. Only three samurai remain standing. But it’s not their victory, the lead samurai remarks – the victory always belongs those who belong and continue. The samurai don’t belong.
Some time ago, I was talking with a young man intending to get into film school, and of course, hoping to go on to make masterpieces of action adventure films which would earn him millions. He ran by me a plot of one of the films he was planning – a grand epic concerning an embattled planet that hires a handful of mercenary space rangers to defeat a marauding band of interplanetary outlaws. “Oh,” I remarked, “Like the Seven Samurai?”
He frowned in bewilderment. “What’s that?” he asked. I told him about the film, and he dismissed it. “That’s old stuff – no CGI back then!”
I was reminded of this recently when considering some movie trailers now available at Youtube. Avengers: Age of Ultron; Superman vs. Batman (or is it the other way around?); Ant-Man; Fantastic Four; what, no new Transformers movie this year?
The summer blockbuster season is soon to arrive in movie theaters everywhere, threatening to overload our senses with explosions and super-powered fistfights and roller-coaster rides through special effects, unenlivened by any but the most ponderously histrionic declamations of banal dialogue rarely rising above the level of advertisement cliches.
I am tired of commercial filmmakers preying on the young by obscuring the fact that, as filmmakers, they have nothing original to say or do, by chewing up the past and spitting it out again with “new, improved” special FX. It is hard to believe that film was once considered an established art form, capable of bringing rich experience of other worlds and other peoples to local screens, along us enjoyment of the infinite humor and deepest drama of which humans are capable – as well as sheer, exhilarating adventures. Of course, there was always a lot of garbage – Film is a business, after all, and Hollywood is famous for its vultures, vampires, leeches, and other creatures of the capitalist menagerie of greedy beasts. But now there seems to be almost nothing more than garbage splashing across our big screens these days.
I once believed that if more were attuned to the history of film, they would make greater demands of their contemporary film-makers (and their producers and investors), and that the quality of all boats would lift in response to the demand. But I don’t think this anymore.
The sad fact is that many young viewers are not only ignorant of film history, they earnestly wish to remain ignorant.
What could possibly be gained by a surrender to one’s own ignorance. An ignorant man has to be told what to do and what to think. Simply rejecting the advice of one’s elders does not constitute freedom of thought – it is exactly when we reach a decision contrary to that of our peers that we discover what it may mean to become an individual.
This means, of course, that statistical arguments concerning the uselessness of history are wholly unconvincing. to say that ‘most people agree with me on this point’ doesn’t say that the point is well-made; possibly everyone in agreement with it is simply wrong.
To assert one’s independence and then turn around and say that the ‘majority agree’ is self-evidently contradictory. To abide by such statements despite evidence and reasonable disproof, is not simply exposing ignorance – which can be corrected through education – it is simply stupid.
Furthermore, since an ignorant person has to be told what to think, it follows that such a person is a victim waiting for a crime to happen. Such people seem proud of their ability to thumb their noses at people who reach out to help – but they easily and quickly fall victim to con-artists, who usually know how to make such people feel good about the victimization.
Knowledge of history means: not getting scammed for want of it. It means deepening one’s awareness of the strengths and faults of those we admire. It means that we learn the tricks used to produce something of value, thus making it easier to find and judge value.
In film it is also well to bear in mind that good film-makers are precisely those who have studied film history the most. This gives them a stock of film-techniques developed by others on which to draw for increased effectiveness of their own films. I find it unclear, why it is young viewers of today wish to remain in ignorance of where contemporary film-makers draws inspiration.
This fact blasts away the commonly proffered assertion, ‘we do things better now than anything they did “back when”‘. If that were true, then the film-makers of today would not need such inspiration; but they do.
Finally, it is simply a fact that those who profess ignorance – as a desirable quality – are simply incapable of saying anyone might be able to learn. They always get basic facts wrong.
I have actually seen reviews of the film that argue that, being an action film, the character development in the Seven Samurai is unimportant -it slows the film down; ‘get to the sword-fights – it’s a sword-fight film, after all!!’
But the Seven Samurai is not an action film; it is a period adventure film with both action elements but also, and more importantly, elements of serious drama.
The importance of the character development in the first half of this film is that some of us happen to like human beings and want to understand better: what makes them do the things they do – and what makes some of their actions mistakes – sometimes fatal mistakes.
As the remarks of the lead samurai at one point imply, the biggest mistake these men made was becoming samurai. But that being the hand life has dealt them, they need to play it out as best they can – and as gracefully as they can.
Hemingway once remarked that what truly made a man was ‘grace under fire’ – and I seem to recall he admitted that he had heard of this as a volunteer with the Italian army during the first world war, that this was the quality the Italians admired most about Americans.
Well, that’s what the Seven Samurai is about – not the action, but the ‘grace under fire’ that the samurai learn about themselves, and also teach the villagers – or those villagers willing to be taught. When someone is not willing to be taught, that one is not worthy of teaching – in which case bandits can rape, rob, and slaughter them, and no one would care.
Finally one must point out the tasteless ignorance of insisting that a film is weak because – heaven forbid – it’s not in color. That’s wholly irrelevant to any movie whatsoever. A good director can handle color well – but he or she can handle black and white lighting and composition equally well. A bad director can have state of the art technology and still come up with a mind-numbingly childish exercise in cinematic shite.
There is hardly a wasted frame in the Seven Samurai. And there are some stunningly beautiful and haunting images – in glorious black and white.
If you care about film, you owe it to yourself to see the film; had it never been made, neither would any contemporary films that you enjoy today, or that you may enjoy tomorrow.
The Seven Samurai is still one of the best films in the history of cinema, and still a film necessary to see and appreciate.