Alec Nevala-Lee

Thoughts on art, creativity, and the writing life.

My ten great movies #9: Seven Samurai

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As I’ve mentioned before, this is my favorite screenplay of all time, a story so organic, simple, and rich with possibility that it’s astonishing that it took half a century of cinema for a great director to discover. At well over three hours, this is a long movie, yet it never seems padded or excessive: every scene flows naturally from the premise, until it becomes a film that feels like it could go on forever, like life itself. And yet the ending, with its miraculous montages of men, mud, horses, and rain, remains one of the most satisfying ever shot. Like many great works of art, from the plays of Shakespeare on down, Seven Samurai has it both ways: we’re both exhilarated by its vision of the samurai code and keenly aware, in the end, of the emptiness of the ensuing victory. “Again we’ve survived,” Shimura says to his companion, only to add, in the very last scene: “And again we’ve lost.”

It also boasts one of the deepest supporting casts in all of movies. Figures glimpsed only for a moment—like the merchant who tries to sell buns to the farmers, then ends up grimly eating them himself—are vividly sketched with an almost Shakespearean depth and economy, and the major characters manage to be both archetypal and endearingly human. Mifune, deservedly, receives most of the attention, but when I think of this film, my thoughts turn first to Takashi Shimura’s Kambei, wise enough to know that this is nothing but a fool’s errand, yet still strangely drawn to the joy of war and combat. Only a year separates his performance here from Ikiru, a range great enough that it makes you wish for a study that would do for Kurosawa and Shimura what The Emperor and the Wolf did for Mifune—although the core of their collaboration is already visible onscreen, unforgettably, whenever Shimura runs a hand across his newly shaved head.

Tomorrow: The most enduring of all Hollywood films, and a bittersweet reminder of what might have been.

Written by nevalalee

November 29, 2011 at 10:00 am

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