The Magnificent Seven, in remaking Seven Samurai, borrows so much DNA from its source, it’s surprising to consider how much less impactful it is, while still being a classic in its own right. Kurosawa’s Western influences made a relocation from feudal Japan to a Mexican border town in the Old
West a natural fit, and while most of the characters and plot beats are carried over, what was lost in translation was all the majesty and profundities of Kurosawa’s samurai epic.
Some alterations were made, and one character in particular was given a great deal of focus and dramatic flair on the American production. These are two stories that investigate and champion heroism in their leads, and so it is of vital importance that we root and fear for their victory. They must face a credible threat. This brings us to each film’s villain.
In Seven Samurai, apart from the physical terror of the bandits, the antagonists to our heroes are forces beyond their control. As the farmers battle their social standing to escape persecution, the samurai face the inevitability of the passing of time. History has washed away the place of the samurai as stately servant to lords with unquestionable authority, and the seven cling to their roles by embodying the values of bushido. The bandits are an outside, almost elemental evil, arriving cyclically in time for the harvest, like a dreaded monsoon. They are an uncontrollable, unpredictable menace to the villagers; the hellish mirror-image of the all the power and presumed station above the peasants of the samurai, but without any of the ideals of the bushido.
As such, the characters are treated impersonally: we hardly see them outside of battle, they barely speak, and we, as viewers, know nothing of them beyond what the protagonists surmise. This treatment is perfect for the story at hand, but it does leave the bandits and their leader, by necessity, relegated to the back burner.
The Magnificent Seven has a much more memorable villain, he even has a name: Calvera, the bandit chief. He’s a menacing egomaniac, played by an electrifying Eli Wallach, who gets up-close and personal with the downtrodden villagers. His spite and cruelty are apparent (as opposed to the absolute anonymity of Kurosawa’s bandits), and this pushes us to root for the gunslingers despite their flaws not only because they are paragons of collective good, but also avengers. Calvera is palpable, and we are eager to see him stopped.
The Magnificent Seven does have a more creatively written, three-dimensional antagonist, with a more personal rendering that involves the audience in looking forward to his downfall, but the villainous presence in Seven Samurai is ultimately put to greater effect. Remakes present interest writing-experiments; most often we look to the differences and similarities between the films to determine why (typically) the original works and the remake does not. It’s very rare to see a remake with so much in common with its source, where the alterations are damn near improvements.