Every once and a while I hear the criticism that The Seven Samurai is too long. While that shouldn't be so daunting in this home video age, where we now can almost expect extended versions of popular movies with nine hours of deleted scenes (and some not-so-popular ones; I hear Oliver Stone is adding yet another forty thousand minutes to Alexander). I know that some people such jailnurse are sensitive to some sort of specialized gamma radiation in black-and-white movies which causes them to fall asleep. This is a shame, as it severely cuts down on the amount of really good movies they can watch. I also know that subtitles turn a lot of people off; I have seen so many subtitled films that I barely even notice anymore (I always remember the dialogue as being spoken in English, too).
However, I have to say that I think in some ways, modern cinema is only just catching up to where Akira Kurosawa was when he made this film in 1954... and that in some other ways, it hasn't quite gotten there yet. Yes, The Seven Samurai is long, but it is long because it has a lot of characters that it establishes and fleshes out so that when the conflict finally breaks out, the viewer is completely invested in the outcome. Despite the simple framework, the period social interactions being observed in the film (see this interesting [but spoiler filled] article that puts the film in historical context) make for a very complex and layered story. Furthermore, while in its second half it certainly satisfies any action quotient you might ask of it (the intense battle sequences have not dated one bit), the first half of the film justifies the payoffs of the second. No character dies without it being a sacrifice for the audience as well as the samurai.
Fumio Hayasaka's score is also particularly noteworthy, with the thundering drums, wordless male choir and that forceful theme. I only have a (fairly generous) suite on an Akira Kurosawa compilation, but I plan on tracking down the score, which I know has been released. I also really enjoyed his score for Rashômon as well. Interestingly, the Dolby Stereo remixed track on the new Criterion disc is a warmer presentation than the mono, and while it has some spread in the front three channels, for the most part it keeps the sound mix fairly accurate to the monaural track, which is, thankfully, also included. However, I found this to be a more satisfying presentation of the film's audio than the original mono, mostly because of how much better the music sounded.
I have to say that the image on the new Criterion remaster is superb... much better than the original issue, which squeezed the whole movie plus extras on one platter and also utilized the old laserdisc transfer to boot; the new set has the movie on two separate discs, with the platter break occuring naturally at the intermission. The combination of the new high-def transfer and the higher bit rate means that the picture is much, much more stable. The retranslation is pretty good, though I do miss the "Sheee-yit" reaction to Kikuchiyo's reappearance that has been rendered as "Oh, hell" on the new disc.
It is interesting how influence can sometimes be a more deciding role in a person's reading of a particular text than the text itself. For example, I appreciate John Ford's westerns best in context of the works, such as Kurosawa's, that were inspired by them. Similarly, while I am generally not a big fan of most American Westerns (although I do respect many of them), I love how that concept was reflected back to the United States through the Italian point of view in the form of the Spaghetti Western - themselves often influenced by Kurosawa's work.
Westerns and the samurai tale have many similarities, of course; they are essentially the same genre with the similar values but with different weaponry (actually, a recurring theme in Kurosawa's work is how technology - usually in the form of firearms - essentially renders traditional codes moot). Clint Eastwood and Toshirô Mifune are usually playing the same antihero role in their respective films; this goes beyond just Joe in For a Fistful of Dollars standing in for Sanjuro in Yojimbo - an interesting element of that 'new' archetype is that it ultimately fulfill the same narrative function as the traditional hero. That stoic darkness often inherent in the screen presence of both actors is an interesting connection between their work.
I only left my apartment briefly in order to get some food (the fact that the Fates decided to hit me up with a hailstorm before I went on my bi-weekly shopping trip has not been lost on me and I plan to be talking to a Wolfram & Hart representative about what action might be possible tomorrow), and it was a really scary affair. Ice was blowing everywhere, and the roads were next to non-navigatable. On my trip, however, John Barry's Zulu popped up because I had just slapped it on an mp3 CD recently when I realized I didn't have a copy of it in my car. That robust, dignified theme inspired The Bronze Mist to persevere through the adverse conditions, and I returned to my parking space just as Richard Burton finished reciting the Victoria Cross roll call and "Men of Harlech" came on to congratulate her on a safe journey.
See? Film music can inspire inanimate objects!
Actually, a car technically can't be called 'inanimate,' as it is, by its very nature, something that moves.
And, of course, correllation does not necessarily equal causation. The fact that all of the more dramatic flourishes in the music corresponded with the gnarlier driving conditions may just have been complete coincidence. And the fact that this score is maybe seventeen minutes end-to-end would account for the fact that it began when I got in the car and ended when I got out of the car. So there's nothing particularly strange about it all, really.
But it was pretty cool while it was happening. Save for the "threat" part of the "life-threatening swerves" that The Bronze Mist was doing while so brashly scored...