It's epic in length and epic in reputation. Film buffs drop references to it relentlessly. For some people, it defines Japanese cinema. But we are not talking about Godzilla. We are talking about Seven Samurai. Why has it earned such a lofty place in the pantheon of action films? Let's shave our heads and investigate.
The praise: Seven Samurai was released in the United States in 1956, which happened to be the first year that the Academy Awards had a category for best foreign-language film. And, uh, it didn't win. Wasn't even nominated. (Fellini's La Strada won it.) Seven Samurai did get nominations in the set decoration and costume design categories, though, and had won the second-highest honor, the Silver Lion, at the 1954 Venice Film Festival. Much of the film's acclaim came later. It ranked No. 3 on the British Film Institute's 1982 film critics' survey of the best movies ever made. It appears regularly on lists of the best, most important, or most influential films of all time, and especially on "world cinema" lists (i.e., movies with subtitles). A 1979 poll of Japanese film critics declared it the best Japanese movie of all time -- though, to be fair, we should point out that the Pokemon films hadn't been made yet in 1979.
The context: Akira Kurosawa is the artist responsible for introducing Japanese cinema to the Western world. His 1950 classic Rashomon was only the second Japanese talkie ever commercially released in America -- the first had been in 1937! -- and its huge success, in late 1951 and 1952, led directly to more Japanese films being imported.
"More Japanese films" compared to zero, that is. It's not like the floodgates opened. As popular as Rashomon was, only a few more movies from Japan played stateside over the next couple years (including Gate of Hell and Ugetsu). When Seven Samurai opened in New York in November 1956, New York Times critic Bosley Crowther talked about it as though it were Kurosawa's follow-up to Rashomon, when in fact Kurosawa had made The Idiot and Ikiru in between. They simply hadn't been imported to America yet.
Seven Samurai was an even bigger hit than Rashomon had been, a true crowd-pleaser despite its medieval setting and its forbidding length (2 hours and 38 minutes in the United States, cut down from 3 hours and 27 minutes in Japan). Kurosawa had wanted to distinguish himself from Yasujiro Ozu, his colleague and countryman whose films (like Tokyo Story) were slow and ponderous. "I thought I would make this kind of film entertaining enough to eat," Kurosawa said. David Ehrenstein notes that "instead of the slow, ritualistic, and highly theatrical style of the typical 16th-century saga, Seven Samurai moved with the sure swiftness of a Hollywood action epic.... The characters may inhabit historical settings, but their manner and bearing were, often as not, strikingly contemporary."
Japanese audiences were intrigued by this less stodgy portrayal of samurai; American audiences hadn't seen many samurai films anyway and didn't have much to compare it to. But they'd seen plenty of Westerns, and the genres were strikingly similar. Seven Samurai, with its shades of grey between the good guys and the bad guys, bore some resemblance to the modern Westerns (The Searchers, etc.) that were starting to come out of Hollywood.
The movie: In the late 1500s, a Japanese village of farmers is terrorized by marauding bandits. They persuade a handful of unemployed samurai to help defend them.
What it influenced: Damn near everything, that's what. Seven Samurai was directly remade as The Magnificent Seven (which is what Seven Samurai had been called for some of its U.S. promotions). Magnificent Seven spawned numerous sequels and remakes itself, making Seven Samurai a grandfather to, among others, Battle Beyond the Stars, The Seven Magnificent Gladiators, Three Amigos, and A Bug's Life.
Then you get into the genre of movies in which several men -- some experts, some amateurs, some heroes, some scoundrels -- are assembled for a particular job. We could name a dozen films like this just off the top of our head, from Ocean's Eleven to The Dirty Dozen. In his marvelous commentary for the DVD, film critic Michael Jeck asserts that Seven Samurai was one of the first movies to use this formula. Meanwhile, Roger Ebert notes that when we first meet the leader of the samurai, Kambei, it is in the context of him performing a heroic act to save a child -- which establishes his character but has nothing to do with the film's main story. It is now rare for an action film NOT to introduce its hero in such a manner; Ebert wonders if Seven Samurai might have been the first.
Other devices used here, possibly for the first time, that are now commonplace: the fearsome shot of a huge horde of attackers coming over a hilltop, and the use of slow-motion and multiple camera angles for the violent scenes. (Arthur Penn said he was influenced by those techniques when he shot the finale of Bonnie and Clyde.)
George Lucas is an ardent Kurosawa admirer. The first Star Wars is largely a retelling of Kurosawa's The Hidden Fortress (1958), with some Yojimbo (1961) and Seven Samurai thrown in for good measure. C3PO's observation "It seems we are made to suffer; it's our lot in life" is reminiscent of what the farmers in Seven Samurai say about themselves. Lucas has said that the way Yoda rubs the back of his head when he's thinking is a tribute to the wise Kambei, who does the same thing throughout Seven Samurai. "Bounty Hunters," a 2010 episode of the Star Wars: The Clone Wars animated series, is dedicated to Kurosawa and is based on Seven Samurai. So Seven Samurai partially inspired Star Wars, and if you want to get into all the movies that Star Wars inspired, we'll be here all day.
What to look for: The first thing you should look for is a comfortable chair, because the movie is 3 1/2 hours long. Film critic Kenneth Turan writes persuasively about the value of such a running time:
The film's length works in its favor in ways both big and small.... It allows the eternally uneasy bond between the samurai and the villagers, as well as the villagers' martial confidence, to grow believably over time. It also allows us to observe each of Seven Samurai's many characters in the round, from every angle, to view them as individuals with their own backstories, philosophies, martial arts skills, and reasons for being there. We get to know them naturally, the way we get to know our friends: by putting in the time.... When the bandits finally do attack, our hearts are in our throats -- we know the defenders so well, and we can sense that not everyone will survive.
Consider also that while this appears to be a simple story of Good versus Evil, it's more complicated than that. The farmers who have recruited the samurai have previously preyed upon and taken advantage of such warriors, and are coming to them now only in desperation. The samurai must live in the village for several months, yet the villagers continue to fear that they will run off with their daughters. We constantly see the division between the classes, even when the classes are ostensibly trying to help one another. Ebert says, "The samurai are hired, valued, and resented in about equal measure."
What's the big deal: Sometimes you watch an old movie and think, "This seems like one cliche after another." Then you realize that when the movie came out, those things weren't cliches yet. Seven Samurai is packed with such innovations -- and yet, even by modern standards, it's more layered and intelligent than the average action flick. This type of movie is now often rather silly, but you can see how it started out as more than that.
Further reading: All of these articles provide good background on the movie without giving too much away about its plot:
Eric D. Snider (website) can only afford three samurai and some angry hobos, but he thinks that's enough to do the job.