Not long after the release of Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954—during which it sold more tickets than any other Toho-produced film that year and ranked at #3 on Kinema Junpo’s annual “Best Ten” list1—Toho began searching for an international market for this extraordinary film about poor farmers hiring samurai to defend their village.
Questioning whether a 207-minute subtitled film would sell in the Occident, the studio opted to cut the picture down to 155 minutes before submitting it to the Venice International Film Festival in September 1954. There it won the Silver Lion Prize but nonetheless went home without a distributor. Kurosawa wasn’t shocked, as he recalled the studio edits had done catastrophic damage to the movie’s first half, resulting in a confused narrative that didn’t pick up until the more action-heavy second half, which had only been slightly trimmed.2 The film eventually opened at New York’s Guild Theater in late 1956, after having been re-edited again (this time to 160 minutes), and was exhibited under a new title, The Magnificent Seven. And this was the title United Artists/The Mirsch Company decided to use when they remade the Japanese film as a two-hour western in 1960.
Directed by John Sturges, colorful and entertaining, with one of the most memorable film scores in cinema history, The Magnificent Seven has rightly earned its place as a minor classic, spawning three sequels, a television series, and a remake of its own in 2016. Many of those involved in the 1960 film worked with sheer veneration for Kurosawa’s original. Supporting actor James Coburn recalled seeing Seven Samurai twelve times in twelve days, taking everyone he knew to see it in the process. Leading man Yul Brynner, who’d been one of many parties racing to get remake rights of Kurosawa’s film, stated: “I felt it was one of the great westerns of all time, only it was made by the Japanese in the Japanese idiom.”3 And director Sturges, while fully aware that he was copying another filmmaker’s story, at no point pretended he could surpass the majesty of the original. The immense popularity of both movies has only flourished in the years since, overshadowing the legal trouble that arose in their wake.
The writers of Seven Samurai (1954)
Left to right: Shinobu Hashimoto, Akira Kurosawa, Hideo Oguni.
In 1973, Kurosawa and his co-screenwriters on Seven Samurai—Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni—filed a lawsuit against Toho, arguing that the American remake (and its sequels) had been improperly authorized. Their complaint was based on the fact that they’d written the screenplay of Seven Samurai independent of Toho, and that the studio had merely produced the 1954 film; therefore the script was the writers’ intellectual property and Toho was not in a position to approve any third-party remakes without their consent. The Tokyo District Court agreed with the plaintiffs, determining in 1978 that Toho had signed a “one-picture license” with no remake/sequel rights included.4 For this, Kurosawa, Hashimoto, and Oguni were granted a sizable portion of the money Toho acquired through their deal with United Artists.
This would not be the end of the legal scuffles. In 1991, a few years before moving ahead with the television series version of The Magnificent Seven, MGM (having taken over copyright ownership from United Artists) brought a lawsuit of their own against Toho and Kurosawa’s production company, arguing they still had the rights to produce remakes and sequels to Sturges’ 1960 film. Kurosawa countersued, and the dispute was eventually settled out of court in 1993. Toho ended up paying $50,000 to MGM, and new rules were set regarding ownership. Per the new agreement, Kurosawa and his fellow screenwriters retained ownership of their script; Toho retained ownership of Seven Samurai the 1954 movie; MGM retained ownership of The Magnificent Seven and its franchise; and the American studio also retained the right to continue producing remakes/sequels “but only in the Western genre.”5
Any other Seven Samurai remakes would have to be cleared through Kurosawa and his screenwriters (and apparently nowadays through the heirs of Kurosawa Production, who’d authorized another remake to be produced by The Weinstein Company, with a director and a writer attached by 2011;6 that project, it would seem, has faded into oblivion).
As for the Japanese screenwriters and their views on the 1960 The Magnificent Seven. Kurosawa called it “entertaining”7 and was by all accounts very amiable with John Sturges when they met;8 however, he disputed that Sturges’ western was a true version of his film. In 1980, speaking about all the times Occidental filmmakers remade his period films as westerns, he remarked, “Gunslingers are not samurai.”9 Shinobu Hashimoto claimed never to have watched The Magnificent Seven. And Hideo Oguni recalled only the time he met Yul Brynner on a return flight from Paris, during which Brynner gave him a bottle of Napoleon brandy as a souvenir.10
- Galbraith, Stuart, IV. The Emperor and the Wolf: The Lives and Films of Akira Kurosawa and Toshiro Mifune. New York: Faber & Faber, 2002, p. 190. The magazine’s #1 and #2 spots were respectively occupied by The Twenty-Four Eyes and The Garden of Women, both directed by Keisuke Kinoshita.
- Kurosawa Akira. Translated by Donald Richie. Seven Samurai and Other Screenplays. New York: Faber & Faber, 1992, p. 67
- Guns for Hire: The Making of The Magnificent Seven. October Films, 2000.
- Cox, Dan. “MGM, Kurosawa Settle ‘Seven.’” Variety, 12 January 1994.
- Galbraith, p. 196
- “Helmer Rolls a Seven.” Variety, 4 May 2011.
- Cardullo, Bert (ed.) Akira Kurosawa Interviews. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 2008, p. 42
- A popular story goes that Kurosawa gave Sturges a samurai sword as a gift after seeing The Magnificent Seven. Sturges biographer Glenn Lovell repeats this story in his book, additionally claiming the American director’s present also included a kabuki doll. Source: Lovell, Glenn. Escape Artist: The Life and Films of John Sturges. Madison: The University of Wisconsin Press, 2008. Kindle edition.
- Waggoner, Dianna. “In Homage to the Master, George Lucas and Francis Coppola Unleash Their Clout for Kurosawa.” People, 27 October 1980.
- Galbraith, p. 195