Rob and Roger #1: Reviewing Ebert’s “The Great Movies”

The Great Movies
 
Film critic Roger Ebert‘s book “The Great Movies” collects his essays on one hundred movies. As Ebert says  “they are not “the” 100 greatest films of all time, because all lists of great movies are a foolish attempt to codify works which must stand alone. But it’s fair to say: If you want to make a tours of the landmarks of the first century of cinema, start here.” 
In addition to the book which collects a selection of one hundred essays, the complete and ongoing series of essays can be found online at Ebert’s website (direct link).
 
Though this site is called “The Cinephile” I must admit I have yet to catch up with a number of these great movies. I plan to correct this and will regularly schedule a viewings of the movies until I have seen (or reseen in some cases) all one hundred movies. I plan to view them in alphabetical order, as they are presented in the book, however there will be exceptions.  
This first selection is also the first exception to the alphabetical plan. 

 

The Seven Samurai
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It is impossible to be a budding cinephile without running across The Seven Samurai. It is ranked 14th on the IMDB ratings and 11th on the Sight and Sound Critics List. The plot is well known even to many who have never seen the film as it has been lifted wholesale by Hollywood on at least three occasions (The Magnificent Seven, The Three Amigos, and A Bugs Life). In 16th century Japan a village is threatened by roving bandits, despair has hit the villagers and all seems lost. Until a thought occurs, the villagers may be able to enlist the assistance of Samurai and fight back. Despite the limited payment available the villagers successfully recruit seven samurai who will fight with them. The samurai return to the village and prepare to defend it against the villagers.
 
My previous experience with Kurosawa has been limited to the Criterion Collection’s DVD edition of The Hidden Fortress. I found that film enjoyable and had a good time looking at the ways it may have influenced Star Wars (the peasants perspective, the princess and warrior characters etc) but I wouldn’t say it amazed me.  

The general consensus is that The Seven Samurai is Kurosawa’s master work so I was happy to see it on Ebert’s list. The film has long been on my “to watch” list but the opportunity to see it had not arisen until a Kurosawa retrospective was announced at the British Film Institute. Here was a chance to see the film in the bext possible circumstances – in the cinema! I jumped at the chance and am pleased to say the print was in fine condition considering the films age. 

The film opens with bold titles presented in striking arrangements, criss crossing the screen like swords clashing and we are immediately thrown into the action as bandits thunder towards a village. The bandits are presented as an almost other worldly menace. It is but the first example of Kurosawa’s skill at quickly establishing character and narrative drive. 

The plight of the villagers is quickly set up and away they go to find their samurai. It is in this section that I started to see the ways in which the film has influenced Hollywood. Consider the scene in which the samurai Kambei is introduced. A mysterious figure about to confront a kidnapper. There is a well known storytelling technique at play here, the hero is being introduced at the climax of one of their adventures rather than at the beginning. This storytelling technique is familiar to modern audiences through such films as Raiders of the Lost Ark and the James Bond series (and is heavily used in television). Ebert speculates this scene may have originated this technique “Did this scene create the long action-movie tradition of opening sequences in which the hero wades into a dangerous situation unrelated to the later plot?)”. Also, the way Kambei boldly confronts the situation and cleverly makes use of deception to fool the kidnapper similarly brings to mind dozens of similar scenes popular in the action genre. I sometimes felt like I was watching a Shane Black playbook, it could almost be a scene from Lethal Weapon.
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Kurosawa imbues each of the titular characters with unique personality. Again these characters will feel familiar to contemporary audiences as their traits appear to have been reused again and again in Hollywood films. I felt the character of Kyuzo, a strong slient type of exception skill was particularly archetypal. I was reminded of Willem Defoes character in Platoon disappearing into the jungles to perform amazing combat feats.
 
Kurosawa’s regular collaborator Toshiro Mifune plays Kikuchiyo. He provides a significant portion of the comic relief, some which I found a little over bearing but on the while he creates a rounded and relateable character.
 
Ebert mentions the films concerns with society and the sub plots involving individuals breaking from the community. Many scenes deal with these themes. One of the samurai falls in love with a village girl, another Hollywood cliche but one that ends somewhat differently here. Here the romance is presented with both light and dark aspects. The girls father is genuinely terrified of the potential outcome of such a romance. The romance ends on a question mark and not an exclamation point as it usually would in a genre film.
 
Kikuchiyo has a powerful speech in which he exclaims the injustice in society;
“What do you think of farmers? You think they’re saints? Hah! They’re foxy beasts! They say, “We’ve got no rice, we’ve no wheat. We’ve got nothing!” But they have! They have everything! Dig under the floors! Or search the barns! You’ll find plenty! Beans, salt, rice, sake! Look in the valleys, they’ve got hidden warehouses! They pose as saints but are full of lies! If they smell a battle, they hunt the defeated! They’re nothing but stingy, greedy, blubbering, foxy, and mean! God damn it all! But then who made them such beasts? You did! You samurai did it! You burn their villages! Destroy their farms! Steal their food! Force them to labour! Take their women! And kill them if they resist! So what should farmers do?”

 

None of the samurai disagree with Kikuchiyo. The society they live in allows samurai a position of privilege and forces villagers into a position of weakness. The situation however suggests changes may be afoot. These samurai have been bought and though they do not see it they are to a certain degree indebted to the villagers who are providing them with payment (albeit fairly insignificant payment). Could it be that a small root of capitalism is taking hold?
 
Further Kikuchiyo’s samurai status is highly questionable from the moment we meet him and we later learn his roots are less than illustrious. Yet he distinguishes himself in battle and earns our respect. Perhaps this too suggests a shift in society as a level of social mobility is displayed. 
 
Ultimately the end of the film allows a certain amount of ambiguity regarding the return to societal norms. Ebert notes… “The villagers do not much want the samurai around once the bandits are gone, because armed men are a threat to order. That is the nature of society. The samurai who fell in love with the local girl is used significantly in the composition of the final shots. First he is seen with his colleagues. Then with the girl. Then in an uncommitted place not with the samurai, but somehow of them. Here you can see two genres at war: The samurai movie and the Western with which Kurosawa was quite familiar. Should the hero get the girl? Japanese audiences in 1954 would have said no. Kurosawa spent the next 40 years arguing against the theory that the individual should be the instrument of society.”
 
The Seven Samurai proves to be an exciting tour-de-force of film making. It’s ongoing influence is clear with it’s action, archetypal characters, and now familiar plot machinations. It’s differences to modern interpretations of these elements are fascinating to see and it excels at offering them is a rich and rewarding way. I highly reccomend a viewing for any aspring Cinephile. Further Ebert does an excellent job at highlighting why it is considered one of the great movies.
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Further Reading:
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