"The farmers have won. Not us."
― Kambei, Seven Samurai
"Only the farmers won. We lost. We always lose."
― Chris, The Magnificent Seven
By 1960, the great American Western was all but dead and buried in the Hollywood’s Boot Hill. The grand landscapes and bigger-than-life heroes of John Ford’s cinema seemed out-dated and ill-fashioned for America’s changing culture, but that didn’t stop John Sturges from blasting his own The Magnificent Seven into the movie houses and collective consciousness of America. In 1960, his tribute to John Ford’s cinema legacy would bring American mythology back for one last ride into glory—it just took a story originally set in feudal Japan to do it.
It isn’t so strange to think that filmmaker Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai would transition so easily into the American myth of the Wild West—filmmakers would remake several of his other feudal stories into traditional [and not-so-traditional] westerns. After all, Kurosawa himself was known as “the most Western of all Eastern filmmakers” and cited John Ford himself as a huge influence on his own storytelling.
Ford’s ability to mythologize the cinema influenced everyone from Orson Welles to David Cronenberg. His simple filmmaking was designed to make the audience forget they were watching a movie, and it was this feature, along with his ability to use broad brush strokes to showcase the landscape [and violence] of the West, that changed cinema at home and abroad.
The Western, in terms of storytelling, offers a unique perspective: it uses its status as period drama to showcase the historical and national character of its land. It is a morality play set to national scale—its heroes are frontiering avengers that stand up for the helpless and use a pioneering violence to resolve conflict. This is not so different from the “jidaigeki” style of samurai films Kurosawa would be known for. In Kurosawa’s film, the samurai are battle-worn swordsmen who need one last thing to fight for in a world ruled by chaotic injustice.
Sturges’s players are gunfighters in much the same way—they’re looking for meaning from a life plagued by meaningless violence and loss. The heroes in both films are martyrs—outsiders who must remain outsiders to society so that they can save its inhabitants from themselves. As McQueen states in the film, “Home - none. Wife - none. Kids - none. Prospects - zero.” We see the changing ideal of the hero in both films; there is a cynical view, a guilt, of what remains after you fight to civilize society and are left with the burden of meaninglessness that follows.
Kurosawa introduces his first heroic outsider, the samurai using a monk’s disguise to save a child from a robber, while Sturges’s heroic outsiders are first presented volunteering to take a dead man’s body up to Boot Hill under threat of violence. Why? Because the dead man is, unfortunately, not white—and only white men can be buried in a “civilized” town. In the chaos of a lawless west, just like in the chaos of a feudal and lawless east, morals become muddy. But our heroes are outside such social constraints—all they know is what is good and just. The Western hero is a mythological stand-in for changing American ideals, and these ideals were changing in Hollywood too.
No longer could a Western get away with blatant racism in the Hollywood system. The Magnificent Seven shot in Mexico, and Mexico was not about to have another Hollywood film depict their people as dirty savages in need of civilizing. The Mexican government had people on set at all times, making sure that their image was not perverted for the sake of some American mythologizing. Hollywood was moving toward something more progressive—it even shows in their casting and costuming. No farmer in the film has dirty clothes as these common stereotypes were no longer being tolerated.
These changes are apparent in the casting of Sturges’s grand American myth. He cast an actor from the Far Eastern Republic [?] as his heroic gunslinger, a German as the inexperienced Mexican youth, a Jewish-Polish actor from Brooklyn as the Mexican bandit, and even featured a character of mixed race who explains that he’s “Irish on one side, Mexican on the other, and me in the middle.” Of course, there were no African Americans headlining Sturges’s film, but the casting of Denzel Washington in this year’s remake is addressing that a mere 56 years later.
The Magnificent Seven is a movie that says so much about race and the promotion of the individual in the social order of America that it seems rather out of touch with the reality of 1960s America. Kurosawa’s focus on birthright and the lack of movement between social classes was realistic in its inflexibility for the Japan he depicts. Arguably, Sturges is idealizing American culture and a sense of national character that was not grounded in reality. In this way, Sturges’s film is more about promoting a national character more based on fantasy than that of Kurosawa.
And yet, for all these differences, the Eastern and Western versions of this story are surprisingly co-existent. Their basic myth is the same: a group of social outsiders restoring social order. The means for these outsiders to restore social order is the same: violence. It can be through the samurai’s sword or the gunslinger’s six-shooter, but either way, violence is both their tool for conflict resolution and the perpetuating force that keeps them excluded from society. The characters in both films understand this: they are alone and purposeless, all suffering from that same old mythological existentialism that has them searching for personal meaning. For both gunslingers and samurai here, defending the helpless is the last gasp of a purposeless life; violence is their sword of justice. As Robert Vaughn’s character says in response to McQueen’s lamentations on a gunslinger’s life: “Insults swallowed - none. Enemies - none.” Violence is power to the gunslinger, something the inexperienced Chico aspires to—but this glorification is also an empty lie. Vaughn’s character is crippled by his failures as a gunfighter and his existential fear of death—in fact, he becomes literally crippled by it during the first gunfight. For all the good a life of violence may have done, it leaves them all the same: waiting for the final bullet.
The last defense of the farmers against the bandits then is the same for either film—the fulfillment of purpose for its heroes. The differences between the Eastern and Western films is not as significant then as its stunning similarity—across the cultures, the same story is being told. Mythology is a human concern here, not a cultural one. The restoration of social order goes beyond culture and beyond history into the mythology of mankind—it has existed from Beowulf, to King Arthur, to Hamlet, to Luke Skywalker. Samurai and gunslingers work as heroes in the same way because they are outsiders that restore social order by helping the unfortunate fight injustice, all while understanding that the virtue of their actions will not allow them to rejoin the social order they are fighting to maintain. This is why both films end the same way: the hero understands that the farmers, representative of the social order, have won and order is restored. Nevertheless, the heroes will never be a part of that restored order. Ultimately, they have lost, just as they always do. Nations, politics, and cultures may change the decoration of the myth, but the story remains the same.