Friday, December 3, 2010

Cross-Cultural Story-Telling The Magnificent Seven (1960)

The Magnificent Seven is a remake of Shichinin no samurai, but it is really more of a cultural reinterpretation. They did not merely retell the same story as so many remakes do, but really did adapt the story to a different context. On its own The Magnificent Seven is a great film, but considering these cultural differences adds a whole other fascinating element to the movie.

To begin with, the film shifts the setting from the very iconic Japanese 16th century to a no less iconic American West. This is a good choice, because the audiences in the states do not know the samurai for the mythic figure that it is in Japanese literature. The gunfighter in the old West is a very similar archetype and the cultural translation of the story is well served with this shift. Now the audiences do not need to be educated in historic and mythic background for the story to work.

Another helpful shift is in the message that the story communicates. Instead of attacking caste system and a fatalistic culture that made sense to the Japanese audiences of the original story, the American film tackles a similar but more relevant topic for America in the 1950s and 60s: racism. Whereas the original had the first samurai save a boy by sacrificing his honor, this film has our two main heroes introduced as they risk their lives to deliver a body to the town cemetery for burial. It is a dangerous job because the racist element in town does not want Indians buried there. The rest of the film of course has the seven helping to save a town of Mexicans.

Throughout the film, one is struck by how close they remain to details of the original story while at the same time making adjustments here and there to help the story be understood by its audience. The seven gunfighters are given more distinct and individual traits than the original seven, and some new storylines are added here as one of the gunfighters has lost his nerve and must prove himself again. The young “would-be” gunfighter leaves camp and infiltrates the bandits as in the original, but instead of being reprimanded for exhibiting individualism over teamwork, he gains respect. This film also ends far more hopeful, as the gunfighter who falls in love joins the farmers in the end, while in the original the caste spanning romance is doomed.

Finally, whether it is a cultural demand or not, this film clocks in at two hours instead of three and a half.

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