The Original Seven
Yesterday I watched Seven Samurai (1954).
This is not a short movie. I think the Criterion version I saw is three hours twenty minutes and I believe I read somewhere that there was a version that was over four hours long. The first time I saw this movie I was either in high school or college and watched a rented VHS version at a friend's house. I had pretty good endurance for movies back then but the quality of the print it came from and the standard definition made it feel like watching a movie while under water.
Not to be an advertisement for blu-ray or Criterion or Universal, but the newly restored prints but the blu-rays I have watched of older films in the Criterion Collection or the Universal recent releases of Hitchcock movies, there is a clarity and a contrast that add up to an incredible beauty that was lost on me in my VHS rental days. As romantic as those VHS rental days were, rending seven movies for seven days for ten bucks from the local store in Connecticut as I tried to learn a history of film and keep up with the fun movies of the day, I didn't get the full breadth of amazement that I get now.
In law school I had a few weeks of amazement watching Hitchcock movies from a blu-ray box set, and more recently I have been watching a range of older Criterion Collection movies from the likes of John Ford, Carol Reed and Akira Kurosawa. They haven't just been fun movies but they remind me that there is a big world out there with a rich history of artistic technique that is so broad that a lot of it is no longer duplicated.
In the last couple of weeks I've watched the Magnificent Seven films from 1960 and this year before seeing Seven Samurai for the first time in many many years. It was a really fun exercise to see them all. It's not as though I was repeating a story over and over again because there are so many action movies that have taken the exact story of a team of mercenaries saving a group that needs help from anyone against a villainous band. They all have different characters because of what the actors and writers and directors and settings brought to the different movies.
One thing the original film beings that the remakes don't, that any other films I recall seeing don't show is the heavy rain and the practically birds eye view of frenetic action sequences shot from the vantage of the cemetery on the hill. There aren't a lot of characters in this movie, not a lot of people in the villainous band but it feels like crowded battle film as dangerously crowded as the masses of warriors in the Lord of the Rings battle scenes. We are shown maps of the town and diagrams for the battle by the planning samurai.
It's a battle that has a wildness and a danger that we never see on film. On a commentary track I learned that the actors would have a block of wood under their shirts and there would be a professional archer off-screen that would shoot an arrow into the block of wood so that we would not see an arrow hit in a trick of editing.
This is a bit of a mix of two of my favorite movies: The Two Towers and Rear Window. The town was a set built completely for this movie and used for the storytelling of the film, and the action is so dangerous and populated that it is truly a war film of a grand scope. It's a far more grand of a scope than just the town of 20 buildings and the villainous band of 20 or 30 men on horses with single fire guns.