Uncle Sam-urai

Television - Andrew Billen on a magnificent rip-off of Kurosawa's masterpiece

As a plot, The Magnificent Seven's was so magnificent that it came near to replacing all others in the genre for ever. From Battle Beyond the Stars in 1980 (which starred Robert Vaughan, one of the original seven) to A Bug's Life 18 months ago - not to mention the entire Star Wars cycle and minor league players such as the BBC's Blake's 7 - it sometimes seems as if there is no action-adventure that does not star a bunch of good guy mercenaries saving a pusillanimous outpost from a rather larger bunch of bandits. Should Sierra Leone ever sort itself out, expect a movie called The Magnificent Sandline.

Notwithstanding that, by the end of it, just three of the original seven were left standing and one of them opted for a quiet life as a farmer, John Sturges's masterpiece spawned three official sequels, too. After a decent interval of six years came Return of the Magnificent Seven, which retained the services of Yul Brynner; then came Guns of the Magnificent Seven, which didn't. The less happily titled The Magnificent Seven Ride rode to a final sunset in 1972. On 13 May, Channel 4 (which is showing them all in celebration of the 40th anniversary) made a bit of a fuss about transmitting the original in prime time, and followed it with a documentary, Guns for Hire: the making of The Magnificent Seven. Brynner and Steve McQueen may be long dead, but the M7 industry is alive and well in Horseferry Road.

But if The Magnificent Seven is one of the most exploited movies of all time, it is also the all-time movie rip-off. In a slick session of compare-and-contrast, Louis Heaton's documentary made it plain not just that it was a remake of Akira Kurosawa's 1954 film, The Seven Samurai, but that it was a scene-for-scene and, often, a shot-for-shot remake. Lou Morheim optioned the rights, for $250, from Kurosawa, who, as a John Ford fan, saw the potential immediately and acclaimed the final version. It was a steal so obvious that Brynner, who originally planned to direct it before going in front of the camera as Chris, also claimed to have spotted it. James Coburn, who played the knifeman Britt, said he had seen the Japanese movie 12 times by the time he was cast. You wonder how many foreign movies Russell Crowe and Bruce Willis watch.

Everyone wanted a piece of this action movie, and they were willing to fight for it, too. Anthony Quinn, who had been slated to play Chris, sued Brynner and lost. Morheim sued Walter Mirisch, who had taken over the production, and had to settle for an associated producer credit. Even the real writer, Walter Newman, ended up without a name-check, having proudly refused to share his with the script doctor, William Roberts.

Yet, although the templates were there in Kurosawa's plot and Newman's aphoristic dialogue, the cast made it special. With the deadline of an actors' strike looming, Sturges made a series of bizarre casting decisions. Making a bald foreign actor the lead was eccentric enough, but Sturges also cast a German, Horst Bucholz, to play the young wannabe gunman Chico. For the Mexican bandit leader Calvera, he chose Eli Wallach, so much the Jewish classical actor that he couldn't replace his gun in its holster without first looking down to see where it was.

Having cast them, the egos of these actors were soon in conflict. In the very first scene, the seven literally jockeyed for position as they rode across a creek. To get to the other side, Brad Dexter as Harry did "three acts of Hamlet", according to the assistant director Robert Relyea. McQueen did a couple more every scene he shared with Brynner, whom, he had decided, had been given a bigger shooter than him. Just watch him flap and fiddle in the background: McQueen's was a stetson in constant motion.

Yet between them, the seven made an ensemble movie not about shoot-outs and pistol envy, but about the morality of fighting, its motivations and its sacrifices. You cared about these hard men, and wondered in each case how hard they actually were.

Watching it is still a magical experience and, boosted by reprises of Elmer Bernstein's deeply nostalgic score, the magic kept shimmering through this admirable, if besotted, documentary.

Nevertheless, there was a ghost at the feast: The Seven Samurai itself was absent from the schedules. Since it failed to make it even to the subscription channel, Film Four, I trust that the explanation is that the rights could not be secured - although, given that anniversaries are one of the few certainties in life, you would have thought that Channel 4 had had time to bargain for them.

But, as Philip French pointed out in the Observer, C4 does not like foreign-language films. During one week earlier this month, it showed only two, both at 3am. Michael Jackson, its chief executive, campaigns against privatisation, but he will only win the argument if C4 reminds us every now and then what public service broadcasting actually entails. A tally of subtitling as a proportion of total programming is as good a measure as any - not that "the greatest film ever made", according to the director Laurence Kasdan in the documentary, should need special pleading.

Andrew Billen is a staff writer on the London Evening Standard

Andrew Billen has worked as a celebrity interviewer for, successively, The Observer, the Evening Standard and, currently The Times. For his columns, he was awarded reviewer of the year in 2006 Press Gazette Magazine Awards.

This article first appeared in the 22 May 2000 issue of the New Statesman, Hacking their way to a fortune