Posts Tagged ‘Akira Kurosawa’

First Review by Adam-Troy Castro

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo; 1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, and Luciano Vincenzoni. Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; also Luigi Pistilli. 177 minutes. *** 1/2.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (original title: Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom; 2008). Directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Screenplay by Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ji-Suk. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung. 139 minutes. ***

This much needs to be said.

To cover these two films together, we stretched the definition of “Remake” almost to be the breaking point. There is no legal connection between them, no shared source material that inspired both. They have completely different stories and even completely different tones, though the Korean film borrows its title, the power dynamic between its three main characters, and even much of the staging of the final showdown from the original, and would likely not exist were it not for the creative urge to evoke the Italian-American one; it is a tribute, certainly, but is it remake?

We err on the side of yes. After all, these aren’t the first two films linked conceptually, but – at least at some point during production — not legally. Some examples: despite a changed title, changed character names, and different vampire lore, the vampire film Nosferatu was such a de facto attempt to film Dracula that Florence Stoker successfully sued the makers for plagiarism. Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars was such a clear remake of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo that legal threats earned Toho studios a nice hunk of change and an official acknowledgment in the credits of the later film. We covered the many ways that the seriously-intended Zero Hour was aped for the parody film Airplane!, but the makers of the latter were new at the business and originally thought they could make their spoof without paying the owners of the Zero Hour copyright a dime – a misapprehension for which they soon learned they would have to make good. So it is for The Good, The Bad And The Ugly and The Good, The Bad, The Weird. The connection is so clear that it’s visible to the naked eye. We will call it a Remake and sort out the bodies later.

Each film involves a trio of dangerous men, living in dangerous, war-torn times, who find themselves embroiled in a quest to track down and claim a fabulous treasure. Each trio includes as its viewpoint character (“The Ugly” or “The Weird”), an unkempt, accident-prone clown of dubious morality, who kills at the drop of a hat but is so cruelly treated by fate and the other two that the audience cannot help forgiving him his sins. Both place him in uneasy partnership with a professional bounty hunter (“The Good”), the closest thing to an actual hero either of these movies offer, who kills just as easily and is frankly not much more virtuous, but from time to time betrays enough additional humanity that his various abuses of the clown figure emerge as increasingly funny. Both place these two in contention with a professional killer (“The Ugly”), who is charming, dapper, and in some ineffable way that could only make sense in this amoral universe more hissably evil than either of the others. Both films take pains to set the treasure hunt against the fate of nations; and both end with the all three, the last left alive at the site of the booty they have killed so many others to find, each betting everything on a three-way quick-draw duel fought on a circular playing field. They’re both brutal, funny, operatic in scale, driven at times by masterful use of soundtrack music, and more fun than any ten other movies, but the stories they tell are otherwise so very different that it’s possible to watch both films for the first time, one after the other, note the resonance, and not feel either plot spoiled.


The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966)

The Clint Eastwood character in this film is often referred to as “The Man With No Name,” as it’s the last and most elaborate of three films marketed in the U.S. under that blanket title. But he really isn’t. His name is Joe. He is also frequently called by the nickname Eli Wallach’s character gives him, Blondie, but his name is Joe. Moreover, internal evidence establishes that he is absolutely not the same man as Eastwood’s character in A Fistful Of Dollars and For A Few Dollars More; he just isn’t, even if moviegoers prefer to believe otherwise. One can only conclude that in the universe of these films, there was an entire ethnic strain of tall, blondish, squinty-eyed and cheroot-chomping men, otherwise unrelated, wandering around uttering catchphrases while shooting people; and that they were slightly more numerous than a similar strain of homicidal gunslingers who looked like the star of two films in this trilogy, Lee Van Cleef. (Eastwood, knowing a good thing when he saw it, later made a couple of subsequent westerns also featuring men with no name, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider, and, again, moviegoers tend to treat these as de facto sequels, but the fact remains that internal evidence disputes this. The so-called Man With No Name is not just a different character every time he appears, but also not actually a man with no name. Sorry.

The film is set during a mysteriously far-west campaign of the Civil War, at a time when Eastwood’s bounty hunter Blondie has enlisted Wallach’s outlaw Tuco in a deadly con-game; the two travel from town to town, with Tuco as Blondie’s prisoner, so Blondie can collect the reward prior to using his marksmanship skills to scatter the townspeople and free Tuco from the noose, thus earning Tuco an even greater bounty on his head. That there about a dozen serious logical problems with this scenario, including the unlikelihood of Tuco agreeing to it in the first place (if he even knew that this was the deal he was making), or the physical reality that the era’s firearms were simply not even close to accurate enough to ensure that even a prodigy could make such shots consistently, is a small matter; the conceit establishes the film as a kind of myth, a fairy tale if you will, that is not to be taken seriously, thus preparing the audience to be slammed with more brutal realities later on. The relationship sours upon a spectacular, even murderous betrayal by Blondie (justifying a big laugh when he is immediately identified on-screen as “The Good”), making the two men bitter enemies who must subsequently team up when circumstances provide each with half the secret location to a hoard of stolen Confederate gold.

With its prequels, the film provides much of the foundation for Eastwood’s permanent state of super-stardom, but – we have to note – his performance here is little more than a brilliant, instant parody of itself. He squints and growls and projects menace and sometimes suffers and once in a great while smiles, but his character is by design an enigma, somebody whose humanity is hinted at, and revealed in small doses. We don’t have any problem understanding why it contributed to his fame, but it’s still the performance  of an star icon, and not a star actor. Even director Sergio Leone said this, in ungracious contemporary interviews, which for all we know may have contributed to the star and the director never working together again. Eastwood became much more interesting as an actor, and as a well-rounded artist, as he aged. For our money, the film’s true star performance belongs to Eli Wallach, whose Tuco is a profound comic creation: a man utterly devoid of positive qualities, who is nevertheless deeply ingratiating; a man who is not very bright, but nevertheless profoundly cunning; a man who is bullied and mistreated on a regular basis and yet as deadly as a viper; a man who shoots people dead and then compulsively crosses himself afterward, as if that makes it okay. He’s a man who from the evidence available on screen probably smells like the inside of a bowling shoe that somebody has stuffed with fish, whose greedy practicality so completely insulates him from most human concerns that  he looks downright puzzled when Blondie shows disgust at the ravages of war. It is an emotion alien to him.
This is not the same thing as saying that he’s not human at all, which is why it’s so great that we get an interlude at the mission run by Tuco’s estranged brother Father Pablo (Luigi Pistilli), the angel to Tuco’s fallen sinner, who has just returned from the funeral of their father and is not at all pleased to see the ne’er-do-well bandit he has not seen for ten years. The story stops completely dead to show us this confrontation, which suddenly invests the film with the first indication that it might have a soul; and it is riveting, especially given that Tuco really does seem to think that he would be greeted with loving arms, and Father Pablo really does clearly wish he’d shown his brother more than contempt, once the time for reconciliation is past. Once this scene is done we know exactly why Tuco is the way he is, and what follows is a splendid return to his version of normalcy, as he boasts that his brother loves him, and his ally-turned-enemy-turned-ally Blondie (who has witnessed the whole thing), refrains from contradicting him. The camera focuses on a tight close-up of Tuco’s face as he processes his hurt, focuses on the quest ahead, and then, improbably, smiles. He has a brother he loves, who has rejected him; and he has a man he hates, who has just shown him a moment of understanding. Here is a relationship he can comprehend. The gold is ahead. He is home.

We cannot stress this enough. The entire Father Pablo scene, and its aftermath, advances the actual narrative not at all. With the movie running as long as it does, it would be the first interlude a modern-day distributor would cut out, the first scene that would make a modern-day test audience squirm with discomfort. (And we can not stress this enough, either:  fuck test audiences.) But it serves the story. It lets us know exactly who this scuzzy little bandit is.  Eastwood’s Blondie, designed as an enigma, doesn’t get anything nearly as revelatory, unless you count the powerful moment late in the film where he makes a point of comforting a mortally-wounded Confederate (another that would not survive a modern-day cut). There are others, before and after, playing the brutal search for bounty against a sweeping backdrop of the horrors of war; a not-exactly historically-accurate backdrop, but nevertheless one that makes everything around it play on an epic level.

So the movie can be credited with having a soul, if not consistent logic. This viewer always cringes at the scene where Blondie and Tuco discuss the river up ahead, are captured by Union soldiers, and brought to a major military encampment that they somehow failed to detect even though it was literally only about five steps ahead of them. I also wonder how come Tuco’s escape from a train goes unnoticed by a flatcar covered with soldiers, in plain sight and in broad daylight; and how come, in the aftermath of a major battle, new recruits Blondie and Tuco are conveniently left behind in their sleep, when everybody else bugs out without waking them. (Gee. That was convenient.)

The logical questions are unimportant, though, next to the sheer narrative verve, Leone’s trademark huge and oddly beautiful unflattering closeups of sweaty and unshaven men, set design that accentuates the ugliness and the primitiveness of the outposts of civilization the three antagonists travel, and the series of reversals, hair’s-breadth escapes, and unlikely acts of gunplay that make this one of the best tall tales in the genre’s history. Leone was a master of the intensely slow scene that reeked of impending violence, that focused on the terrified faces of desperate men who knew that they were about to be killed; and such scenes are compelling when they arrive at the rate of one or two per film, but can sometimes run afoul of the law of diminishing returns when they come too many times per film. It is for precisely this reason that, while Leone’s followup, Once Upon A Time In The West, is likely a far better film, it still can’t match this one for sheer entertainment value.

And then there’s the music.

Oh, the music.

Ennio Morricone’s most famous movie score is a remarkably memorable and powerful series of orchestral pieces that somehow synergizes with all of the movie’s great set-pieces to create a kind of magic. I’m not even counting the main title music, which becomes Blondie’s theme and provides us with that ridiculously addictive refrain whenever Eastwood does something particularly cool: doody-oodie-ooh. Waa-waa-waa. That is admittedly great stuff, one of the best movie themes of all time, one so inherently terrific that it’s been covered in every style from heavy metal to ukelele:

No, I’m talking about such compositions as “The Ecstacy of Gold,” which here illustrates Tuco’s frantic race through a military cemetery for the one grave which contains a fortune.

It is one of the most purely movie moments the film possesses, an absolute wonderment, and the best thing I can say about it is that, as good as it is, it is followed by an interval that is even better: the three-way gun duel between the titular three.

It is hard to imagine how any remake, even an uncredited one, could possibly provide us with as compelling a mixture of music and image.

Except that 42 years later, the climax of the next film in our discussion came pretty damn close.

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (2008)

Kim Ji-Woon’s version of the tale is about half an hour shorter, and more dominated by action setpieces; though it retains a historical subtext, relevant to Korea, it nevertheless leaves out almost all (but not quite all) sense of historical tragedy and almost all (but not quite all) depth of character, satisfied to dazzle the eyes and set the heart to racing. It is a much shallower piece of work, as well a far more lighthearted one. It achieves what greatness it has by sheer audacity.
It is an “Eastern,” which is to say that it translates the western tropes of the original to an equivalent period in Korean history: here, the no-man’s-land of the Manchurian desert in the early 1930s, after Korea’s been occupied by the Japanese and the cast of desperate gunfighters has migrated to that lawless frontier, where they can live out of the outskirts of civilization. Dialogue late in the film evokes the heartbreak of having one’s country occupied, and the treasure that provides the narrative its McGuffin will turn out to be a very modern resource with important implications for the military future of the region, but these concerns are not central to the tone of the film, as they are in Ugly; they are invoked to provide context, and to provide yet another heavily-armed set of antagonists, but viewers will find little here to match Tuco’s confrontation with Father Pablo, or the heartbroken band playing ballads to cover the beating of prisoners of war. The movie simply doesn’t have much on its mind, beyond kinetic thrills.

But what thrills! Take this opening scene – the second after a brief expository scene we can safely ignore in order to make this point. I don’t know about you, but the second the hawk does what it does, I turned toward my seat companion and declared, “This movie has me at hello.” And so it did.

The three main characters are designed to provide the very same dynamic as the one established by the leads of the 1966 film. To wit: the viewpoint character is Yoon Tae-Go, an unkempt, unwashed, amiable but deadly outlaw, widely regarded an idiot but possessed of his own brand of cunning; a man who nothing ever seems to work out for (Yoon Tae-Go, “The Weird”; played by versatile actor Song Kang-Ho, who even possesses the approximate body type that Eli Wallach did in 1966).  (Kang-Ho has given terrific performances in other Korean movies worth checking out, which include the vampire movie Thirst and  the police procedural Memories of Murder;  you could honestly do worse than check out those two minor masterpieces, as well as this one, right now). To counter him, there’s  Park Do-Won (“The Good,” played by Jung Wo-Sung), an almost supernaturally gifted gunfighter and bounty hunter who for most of the film disavows all interest in the treasure; and Park Chang-Yi (“The Bad,” played by Lee Byung-Hun), a man who seems to kill for the sheer point of killing, as well as the acquisition of treasure. The chemistry between these three is very precisely modeled on the one between Wallach, Van Cleef and Eastwood, down to our affection for Tae-Go and the grim lack of concern for his well-being shown by the nominal “Good.” It is, again, not as deeply realized a relationship as that in the 1966 film, but it scarcely matters, as the movie’s true intent is providing us with one over-the-top action scene after another, and in fiendishly arranging for all the parties intent on intercepting Tae-Go on his way to the treasure, a number that encompasses among others desert tribesmen, hired killers and the freaking Japanese Army, to all converge at the same point, a raucous chase and battle across the Manchurian desert.

And here, all critical standards prove irrelevant. Never mind the fallacy of the shotgun with infinite ammunition or that of the army that cannot outshoot a lone man. This is simply one of the very coolest chase scenes in movie history. It is on a par with the climactic battle of Stagecoach, the climactic battle of The Road Warrior, and the truck chase in Raiders Of The Lost Ark; moreover, the melding of the score by Dalparan and Jang Yeong-Gyu and the highly unlikely but intensely cool sequence where Park Do-Won takes on vastly superior forces in a solo ride to the rescue, is pure action-movie orgasm. I dunno about you, but I could honestly watch this scene ten times in a row and still want to see more.

It all culminates in another three-way gunfight, which ends substantially differently, with all three leads apparently killing one another (though an unpersuasive coda insists, against all odds, that the two we want to survive not only did survive but also made it back to civilization and resumed their old habits). I don’t entirely buy it myself. But the movie has me at goodbye, as well.

 The Treasure, Found

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly: a superior adventure film, filled with classic set-pieces, and passages of genuine feeling, marred by some woeful logical gaps; The Good, The Bad, The Weird: not quite the sum of its parts, let alone more than the sum of its parts, but a kinetic wonderment, the kind of movie action fans will want to see again and again.

And now, the wife narrows her flinty gaze, while a mournful chorus goes “Waa-waa” in the background….


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (original title: Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo; 1966). Directed by Sergio Leone. Screenplay by Age and Scarpelli, Sergio Leone, and Luciano Vincenzoni. Starring Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach, and Lee Van Cleef; also Luigi Pistilli. 177 minutes. ***

The Good, The Bad, The Weird (original title: Joheun nom nabbeun nom isanghan nom; 2008). Directed by Kim Ji-Woon. Screenplay by Kim Ji-Woon and Kim Ji-Suk. Starring Song Kang-Ho, Lee Byung-Hun, Jung Woo-Sung. 139 minutes. *1/2

As I may have said before, I’m no great fan of the western genre.  Not thrilled by cowboys and injuns, seeing horses abused and maimed doesn’t set my heart astir. Don’t care if the stagecoach got robbed.  All I want is a good story, told well.

Now, we are presented with a Western made in Italy and an Eastern made in Korea. 

Neither one is unwatchable or gives me the twitches, but neither one tells me a really good tale.

The Weird focuses on murdering thieves who happen to realize that they have a map that everyone wants. They is an intricate dance of who’s actually after who and a few good fights, but I had a tough time following the so-called plot.  If it hadn’t been for this column, I would have abandoned it way before the climactic chase.  Now is it a chase that can elevate this film into even an extra 1/2*? NO!  It was overblown and ridiculous.  One man can not do what this schmo was supposed to do.  I couldn’t suspend belief, because I had no feelings for the characters.  No suspension, no fun.

Now the “classic” Italian Western that saved a genre has a bit more going for it than the Korean remake, but not by all that much.

I could believe that the “good” is actually a vicious, money grubbing, murderous (when needed) thief.  But what makes him any better than the other two?  They are all low life scum trying to scratch out a dishonest living on the fringes of the Civil war.   And being a great shot with a rifle does not immediately translate to being an incredible pistol man too. 

In this classic film we have a few of my least favorite tropes.  If an extra is shot, he dies quickly.  If a star or plot point is shot, he not only dies slowly, but with enough clarity to pass on his secrets.  Oh and speaking of shooting…If a man on a roof or at a window takes a steady bead on our hero, he misses, but is shot  dead from a hastily drawn hip gun after a spin around and no sighting at all.  And most of all, the star must win and the evil must suffer.  So so so…..painful.

The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly was one of those films that formed my dislike of westerns.  Not all of the films in the genre have generated my disdain. There are many fine tales and character studies set in the rugged west.  But this and its counterparts have permanently left a sour dusty film in my mouth.



First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ****

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa,  Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others.  128 minutes. ***

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, *

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai.  Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. **

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.


The citizens of a tiny, isolated village eking out a living from the land suddenly find themselves threatened by bandits who plan to swoop in, just a few short months from now, and take everything they have. The villagers are bereft. They are outgunned, outnumbered, and not used to fighting. But perhaps it is possible to mount an effective defense. Perhaps they can send representatives abroad, in search of warriors willing to fight for them – warriors who will fight for little pay other than their own subsistence and a chance for a meaningful death. Hungry warriors, who just might also be great warriors, able to defend a largely ungrateful village against a far superior force.

This is the germ of what many, including myself, consider the single greatest motion picture ever made by the single greatest movie director of all time, Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai. (It is sometimes referred to as The Seven Samurai, but the vagaries of translation and the absence of a Japanese equivalent for the word The render both titles equally accurate for English speakers. I usually include The because it’s a more natural way to say it, but omit the article when I have a second or two to think about it.)

Seven Samurai casts an enormous shadow, and not just because it was imitated by many of the action movies that followed it. It is, among other things, the first movie where a disparate team of fighting men are gathered one at a time for an impossible mission, and – given that we first see the lead samurai  helping a village rescue a hungry child from a kidnapper  – quite possibly the first film ever to introduce an action hero by first showing us how effective he is in an unrelated adventure. It was a key film in the careers of director Kurosawa, whose collaborations with his frequent leading man Toshiro Mifune encompass many of the greatest movies ever made; and for international star Mifune, whose performance as the clownish but effective warrior known only by the clear alias Kikuchiyo is quite possibly the best of his own career. It was the most expensive Japanese movie made up to that point, made by a studio that was also filming Godzilla at the same time and almost went under due to spiraling costs. It is so terrific a film that its first remake, the western, isn’t even half as good and still emerges as a classic; so memorable that it has been remade, unofficially or otherwise, in multiple  media ranging from comic books (a two-part Justice League story taking place on an Earth menaced by alien invaders, and featuring the various DC superheroes as the titular superheroes), to the Stephen King novel Wolves Of the Calla (very much a Samurai homage), episodes of Kung Fu and Star Trek (an episode of Deep Space Nine entitled “The Magnificent Ferengi”). Yet another remake, set in a backwater region of Thailand and featuring a motley crew of unemployed military contractors in the roles of the Samurai, has been announced for 2014, and the sheer awe people feel for the original film can be measured by how many people, temporarily forgetting the number of different eras and backgrounds to which the essential plot has been transplanted, angrily label the very idea as blasphemous. Seriously. C’mon. That ship has sailed, and I suspect the 2014 version might not entirely suck.

Seven Samurai (1954)
The most important thing any non-Japanese viewer need to know about the original Kurosawa film is that not all of it translates.
Oh, it’s very easy to understand in its broad strokes. A village is threatened by bandits who intend to arrive at harvest time and take all their food, leaving them to starve. The villagers can muster no defense by themselves. The old man who serves as the local repository of wisdom tells a delegation of citizens that they need to find samurai warriors to protect them. The villagers protest that they don’t have any money to pay samurai, except possibly in food. The old man says, simply, “Find Hungry Samurai.” This the villagers do, in large part because Kambei (Takashi Shimura), a respected but impoverished samurai of many years experience, puts his own persuasive skills to the task. Counting Kambei, six samurai are varying skills agree to go; as does a mysterious, filthy, and downright clownish derelict, Kikuchiyo (Mifune), who is no samurai but claims to be one. As the battle begins, Kikuchiyo turns out to be something the others never suspected: not just an able killer and useful comrade, but also a fine leader of men and a pivotal bridge between the samurai and the villagers who fear them.

These are some of the things that don’t translate.

For example, we first  see Kambei, having his head shaved so he can pass for a monk and therefore get close enough to a cornered thief to kill the man and rescue the child he has taken hostage. Much is made of the shaving of his head. Westerners may not understand that this is not just an aesthetic cost but also a social one; samurai of his rank traditionally wore their hair in top knots, and Kambei’s temporary sacrifice of his demonstrates among other things his willingness to descend to lower social strata if the need is urgent and the cause just. For the farmers who have traveled to the city to recruit samurai but been rebuffed by many, this is no small consideration in their decision to approach him with their life-and-death problem.

Secondly, westerners may fail to realize that samurai is not just a profession, but a social class; people were born to that exalted rank, and took deep pride in having a master to serve (one reason why being a ronin, a “masterless samurai,” is considered such a despicable fate). Understand this and Mifune’s character, Kikuchiyo, makes a lot more sense. Not only has he never been a samurai, but he will never be an samurai, and never could be a samurai, despite his evident skill with a sword. It is significant that he takes his name from a birth certificate that the others clearly recognize as stolen; it is also significant that – in a touch few westerners will understand – the name Kikuchiyo is mispronounced and misunderstood by him, and according to some sources might even obviously be a girl’s. It is also not just splendid slapstick but a very sensible point of character that he proves hopeless when it comes to handling horses; as peasant stock, he certainly would not have had any experience as a rider. Kikuchiyo picks at lice and scratches his unclean body and both worships and disdains the samurai simultaneously, all acts of a man eager to be accepted by the class that didn’t just oppress his own, but – as is revealed in one powerful scene – orphaned him.

(Kikuchiyo steals the movie outright, which here qualifies as grand theft.)
Thirdly, there’s the matter of the four samurai who die in the course of the mission to save the village. None die from arrows or swords. They’re all shot with one of the small handful of muskets possessed by the bandits, each one of them falling to what is – in a very real sense – the future. Even the most skilled samurai, Kyuzo, dies from a musket wound; it is profoundly powerful that when Kikuchiyo is shot and mortally wounded in the last few minutes of the film, he survives just long to stagger toward his murderer, a look of infinite rage on his face, and return the favor with a sword-thrust. There’s more going on, in that moment, more resonant history than a good guy killing a bad guy, a character we love killing one we have reason to hate. It’s the samurai code holding off the future for a few minutes longer, and Kikuchiyo becoming every bit what he pretended to be.

None of this is a hundred percent necessary to understand; certainly the same character notes (Kambei’s compassion, Kikuchiyo’s ambivalence toward his companions) are established in broad and subtle strokes, throughout. It is all so much of a piece that the 160-minute international version, for years the only one available in the United States, doesn’t seem to be missing all that much from the 207-minute restoration. (It certainly moves faster, one thing to keep in mind when introducing the film to skeptical friends who’ve never seen it, as I recently discovered when I brought the two-disk Criterion version over to show my friends with the home theatre.)

The movie manages to juggle a great number of character threads, including among them the journey of the young Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who comes to Kambei as an inexperienced student and is distracted during the preparations for battle by, shall we say, the concerns of the young; villager Rikichi  (Yoshio Tsuchiya), who for deeply personal reasons of his own becomes angry whenever his own matrimonial status is mentioned; the timid villager Yohei, who is frightened of everything; and the supremely talented samurai Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), who is the only one of the bunch who you could really call a superhero of swordsmanship. It deals with the very real fear the villagers have for the samurai who have put their own lives on hold to save them, the very real reasons the samurai should fear them back, a love story, low comedy, great battle scenes, and deep sad reflections on the warrior’s lot. It starts slowly but builds in suspense and power throughout, until we get to the final hour, which races like wildfire as the last remaining bandits – evidently a band of slow learners – continue to charge the village that has been slaughtering them. It is beautifully filmed, like all Kurosawa films, and like most of the best Kurosawa films doesn’t permit depth or entertainment to rob from each other. It is considered, by many, the single greatest movie ever made. I happen to concur. Lawrence Of Arabia comes second, Casablanca third, Citizen Kane fourth. Or so goes my math. On other days I’d switch the order of numbers two through three. Nothing ever dislodges Samurai.

The Magnificent Seven (1960) 

When first released in the United States, Seven Samurai went by the name The Magnificent Seven, which was cribbed for a western remake starring a bunch of then-famous or soon-to-be-famous actors whose full roll call would someday fuel any number of trivia challenges. For the record, I post the full list of gunfighters without resorting to notes: Yul Brynner (who came pre-bald, but played the Kambei part, here named “Chris”), Steve McQueen, Charles Bronson, Horst Bucholz, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, and (the one nobody can name) Brad Dexter.

The bandits of the original film were a bunch of faceless outsiders who were for the most part only glimpsed when they came close, but westerns of the time required a sneering villain, and so the first major alteration in the storyline is the addition of one, who styles himself the “friend” of the luckless village he loots every year and shows up in the first scene to kindly announce that he will be back in a few months, to take everything. (He also kills the one guy foolish enough to attack him, thus rendering it clear to even the stupidest member of the audience just what the stakes are.) This stretches common sense a little, as the bandits of the first film aren’t aware that they’ve inadvertently given their group of terrified farmers advance warning and these guys all but dare theirs to get guns and shoot back, but hey: in doing so, it fulfills many of the requirements of the western, and gives us an absolutely dandy villain in the person of Eli Wallach, who gets great lines like – again, typed here without recourse to notes – “If God hadn’t wanted them sheared, he wouldn’t have made them sheep!” What a nice guy.

The shorter running time means that the team is collected a lot faster, which is a good thing, even a great deal of psychological acuity is sacrificed. Here, as in the first film, we get two of the gunfighters, actually two-and-a-half, introduced at once: here by the simple expedient of having the two played by Brynner and McQueen, previously unknown to one another, voluntarily team up to fight a cause no reasonable person could possibly object to – in this case, agreeing to deliver the body of an indian who dropped dead in the street to Boot Hill over the objections of local racists who believe it more proper to let the corpse continue to lie in the street and attract flies. (More nice guys.) The third member of the future band of brothers, Horst Bochner – an amalgam of the Katsushiro and Kikuchiyo characters from the prior film, in that he’s BOTH the callow youth and the ex-farmer, wannabe gunfighter with the reason to hate gunfighters —  follows them on their journey with a big grin on his face,  enjoying the show. (There’s a great exchange during this interval as well. following an exchange of lead: McQueen asks Brynner, “You elected?” Brynner examines the bullethole in his hat and says, “No, but I’ve been nominated real good.”) The subsequent introductions of the Coburn and Bronson characters pretty much echo the introductions of their counterparts in the original film, but Robert Vaughn’s Lee is a fine innovation: an icy-cold killer who has made so many enemies in so many places that a suicide mission to save a bunch of a strangers actually sounds like a form of escape, to him.
It’s terrific Hollywood entertainment even at this point, but some of the changes from the original are already evident. To wit: the seven samurai included a number of guys who qualified as the best Kambei could get; these guys, even Bochner, are all prodigies, deeply dangerous men and dead shots. (Even Vaughn’s Lee, who it turns out has lost his nerve, pulls it together to prove himself an extraordinary talented gunman.)

Other changes: unlike the Japanese villagers, who always knew they needed samurai, the Mexicans only go out in search of weapons and acquire their gunfighters almost by accident; the love story ends happily as the youngest of the gunfighters voluntarily gives up on his life of violence and goes to join the girl; and, most notably, a twist that has never made any sense to this viewer. In this film, the bandits actually succeed in taking over the town, taking the gunfighters hostage; and Wallach’s bandit, believing that the gunfighters have learned their lesson, has them escorted out of town and released. Oh, sure, he says it’s because he thinks they’ll take word of his victory up north…but in that case, a guy this ruthless would simply kill most of them. Here, he lets them all go…and thus gets all his men killed stupidly when Brynner and company return for revenge. There is only one reason for this: namely, that this is a two-hour movie as opposed to a more than three-hour one, and John Sturges does not have the time to have it come down to the last few bandits, as Kurosawa did. So the screenplay gives us an unreasonable shortcut, and hopes we buy it.

It’s overall just about half as good a movie as the Kurosawa one is, but that’s still good enough to render it a classic of its kind, helped along by star power and some terrific dialogue I happily quote now. This is Charles Bronson’s O’Reilly to some local boys who idolize him:

”Don’t you ever say that again about your fathers, because they are not cowards. You think I am brave because I carry a gun; well, your fathers are much braver because they carry responsibility, for you, your brothers, your sisters, and your mothers. And this responsibility is like a big rock that weighs a ton. It bends and it twists them until finally it buries them under the ground. And there’s nobody says they have to do this. They do it because they love you, and because they want to. I have never had this kind of courage. Running a farm, working like a mule every day with no guarantee anything will ever come of it. This is bravery. That’s why I never even started anything like that… that’s why I never will.”
A dialogue between villain Calvera (Wallach) and captured hero Vin (McQueen):
Calvera: What I don’t understand is why a man like you took the job in the first place, hmm? Why, huh?

Chris: I wonder myself.

Calvera: No, come on, come on, tell me why.

Vin: It’s like a fellow I once knew in El Paso. One day, he just took all his clothes off and jumped in a mess of cactus. I asked him that same question, “Why?”

Calvera And?

Vin: He said, “It seemed to be a good idea at the time.

(And, finally, there’s this exchange, which I cheerfully count as the best gunfighter dialogue in the history of the movies.)

Chico: Villages like this they make up a song about every big thing that happens. Sing them for years.

Chris Adams: You think it’s worth it?

Chico: Don’t you?

Chris Adams: It’s only a matter of knowing how to shoot a gun. Nothing big about that.

Chico: Hey. How can you talk like this? Your gun has got you everything you have. Isn’t that true? Hmm? Well, isn’t that true?

Vin: Yeah, sure. Everything. After awhile you can call bartenders and faro dealers by their first name – maybe two hundred of ’em! Rented rooms you live in – five hundred! Meals you eat in hash houses – a thousand! Home – none! Wife – none! Kids… none! Prospects – zero. Suppose I left anything out?

Chris Adams: Yeah. Places you’re tied down to – none. People with a hold on you – none. Men you step aside for – none.

Lee: Insults swallowed – none. Enemies – none.

Chris Adams: No enemies?

 Lee: Alive.

Chico: Well. This is the kind of arithmetic I like.

Chris Adams: Yeah. So did I at your age.


Battle Beyond The Stars (1980)

It’s embarrassing to note this, but this – not officially a remake, but come on — is the first version of the basic story that I ever saw; and back then I kind of liked it, though it has aged horribly (or I have), and it is in its 105 minutes far more interminable than the 207-minute Samurai.

It was produced by Roger Corman, who did occasionally make some commendable contributions to cinema but much more frequently – I hate to say this to his many fans, but it is true – seemed less interested in making good movies than in making movie-shaped objects that people could somehow be fooled into buying tickets for. This, a knockoff of Star Wars, is one of them: a film in which one representative of peaceful planet beset by angry world-conquering types led by a megalomaniac named Sador (b-movie fixture John Saxon) recruits warriors to fight for it.
The special effects are awful, by today’s standards, but it’s a given that they would be. More to the point, the screenplay (by John Sayles, of all people), is largely a collection of colorless declarative sentences. It’s the kind of science fiction that uses the word “galaxy” to describe every possible unit of interplanetary distances, even when they’re really only talking about solar systems. And the performances are almost all terrible, even when they come from people like Richard Thomas and George Peppard who normally can be expected to deliver better. Darlanne Fluegel, as the female lead, is particularly awful, but Sybil Danning is even worse. She wasn’t always. But she was terrible, here.

We need not take up much space with it, except to note that a key scene from both prior films – in which the hired mercenaries show up in the village they’ve agreed to defend, only to discover everybody hiding from them – here ends pointlessly as the villagers just pop up and say, hi, whoops, we didn’t realize you were the good guys. This is ludicrous. In both prior movies, the antipathy of the villagers is part of the point; here, it’s a scene included only to provide the narrative parallel. We’ll also give the movie reasonable credit for its few good ideas, among them representatives of a race that communicates in degrees of heat and which is seen, at one point, acting as the “campfire” the humans utilize to cook weiners. That’s pretty funny. But alas, so is the alien makeup used by several others, worst of a bad lot being the pancake makeup and forehead-eyes worn by one race, of which it needs to be said that whoever thought this stuff would survive a close-up should have been shot.

Does anybody survive this mess unscathed? Well, yes…and here we get to one of the neatest bits of movie-geekery, ever. Robert Vaughn plays Gelt, a killer who we first encounter hiding in darkness, from the price on his head.

Gelt: I could buy your planet ten times over with what I’ve gathered in this room: plutonium, cadmium, quanine crystals… I’ve been very well paid for my work.

Shad: I’m sorry; I’ve wasted your time…

Gelt: NO… WAIT… Listen to the rest of it. I sleep with my back to the wall, when I CAN sleep. I EAT SERPENTS, seven times a week. There’s not a major city in this galaxy where I can show my face, or spend my wealth. Right now, your offer looks very attractive to me… A meal, and a place to hide. Agreed?

If any of this sounds familiar at all, it is because this is the same motivation professed by his character from The Magnificent Seven, twenty years earlier.  He had only sixteen lines in that first film and probably fewer here, but was memorable in both – and it started a cycle of self-reference that continued with a 1993 episode of Kung Fu: The Adventure Continues where he played a version of the same character, a third time. Nor is Vaughn finished with this. He’s wrapped a UK film set for release in 2012, The Magnificent Eleven, which turns the samurai into a neighborhood soccer team and casts him as the head of the “bandit” team they are gathered to defeat. Vaughn’s riffs on this one story now span more than fifty years, and counting. Impressive.

Three Amigos (1986), A Bug’s Life (1995)

Neither of these films are “official” Samurai remakes either, but it’s worth noting that the resemblance between their plots and the plots of the original film are very much deliberate. In the first, a Mexican village beset by a bandit called El Guapo seeks mercenaries to fight him off, and winds up with the titular idiot silent-movie stars; in the second, an animated Pixar film,  a colony of ants recruits makes the same request of the seven members of a flea circus, to protect their own harvest from a swarm of predatory grasshoppers. Three Amigos is a comedy grab bag, that doesn’t bother much with narrative consistency once it sets up its premise (and is funny only fitfully), but A Bug’s Life owes a lot to Samurai, especially in this speech from the lead villain, Hopper: “You let one ant stand up to us, then they all might stand up! Those puny little ants outnumber us a hundred to one and if they ever figure that out there goes our way of life! It’s not about food, it’s about keeping those ants in line.”

The Warrior’s Code

Seven Samurai, a world classic and one of the greatest films ever made. The Magnificent Seven, one of the top twenty westerns. Battle Beyond The Stars, a reeking embarrassment. Three Amigos: Fitfully Amusing.A Bug’s Life: Also a classic of its own kind.

And now, the wife sounds the alarm.


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

{The} Seven Samurai (1954). Directed by Akira Kurosawa. Screenplay by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto, Hideo Oguni. Starring Toshiro Mifune, Takashi Shimura. Various Cuts from 160 minutes to 207 minutes exist. ***1/2

The Magnificent Seven (1960). Directed by John Sturges. Screenplay by William Roberts, Walter Newman, and Walter Bernstien (latter two uncredited), from the earlier screenplay by Kurosawa, Starring Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, James Coburn, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter, Eli Wallach, others. 128 minutes. ***1/2

Battle Beyond The Stars (1980). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by Jimmy T. Murakami. Screenplay by John Sayles (!), from a story by Anne Dyer. Starring Richard Thomas, George Peppard, Robert Vaughn, others. 105 minutes, 1/2

Three Amigos (1986). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Landis. Screenplay by Lorne Michaels, Steve Martin and Randy Newman. Starring Chevy Chase, Steve Martin, and Martin Short. 104 minutes. (can’t rate as I’ve never forced myself to watch)

A Bug’s Life (1995). Not an official remake of Seven Samurai. Directed by John Lasseter. Screenplay by Andrew Stanton, Donald McEnery, and Bob Shaw, from a story by Lasseter, Stanton, and Joe Ranft. Starring Dave Foley, Kevin Spacey, Julia Louis-Dreyfus, others. 95 minutes. ***

Other Related Films: Multiple sequels and a TV series for The Magnificent Seven; too many homages and tributes and outright ripoffs to list.

I’m probably going to anger a few purists, but I happen to like both Seven Samurai and The Magnificent Seven about equally.  Both films carry the same energy and tell the same basic tale.  The transposition in time and place doesn’t affect the basic story or moral codes.  And, while the story presumes to play off the good versus evil, neither absolutely states that the lesser evil is better (only safer).

So, since this was so good twice, someone figured let’s do it again.  Only this time let’s set it in outer space, and use our new special effects to make It REALLY good!  (Small pause for sarcasm snarfs!)  OK, breathe easy.  Battle Beyond the Stars, 105 minutes of my life lost to one of the most poorly written, directed and conceived remakes ever!  Were any of the actors really even trying, or was this just a quick (I know Corman schedules) paycheck?  George Peppard pretty much meandered through his part, and Richard Thomas just attempted to un John-Boy himself and lost that fight. Robert Vaughn just hit replay, and I’m still not sure what the hell Sybil Danning was attempting, but porn acting is as close as she got.  Seriously, this could have been so much more, but it was just pieces and ideas stuck together with dry bubble gum.  No look or feel, just unending boredom, where even my bathroom break couldn’t have come fast enough.

Now, back to the good stuff.

( I’m skipping Three Amigos because I haven’t watched it, and recently having seen Martin Short perform live, really have no desire to see that movie.)

The achievements of Akira Kurosawa have made me a lifelong admirer.  Not a fan, but I do enjoy almost all of his work that I’ve seen.  For Seven Samurai, his clear vision is seen in every nuanced detail.  From casting to sets and locations, each decision is that of a master artisan molding his clay.  And, he has never gotten more out of his leading man, Toshiro Mifune, than in this film.  The matching brilliance of man, part and direction proves that no film is just the actors in it.  Maybe, current filmmakers could take note and try to remember how a good film will last well beyond its meager shelf life. My only problem with this classic, is that in its full length, it’s a tailbone buster. The pacing of the longest version tended to slow a bit much and left me time to think of other things.  The shorter lengths always kept me rapt.

As to The Magnificent Seven.  Wow, what can I say.  I Hate Westerns, but this is one of the group that I say isn’t just a Western.  This isn’t a cowboys and injuns shoot out at the ranch.  This film has bad men, searching for anything, worse men looking for a free ride, and good men, caught in the middle of a pincer trap.  The best compliment that I can pay to any  Western genre film, is to say that it really isn’t one.  This film is about people and good films of this type are few and far between.  The characters  here have become recognized as hero archetypes rather than caricatures.  The Magnificent Seven paid perfect homage to its revered predecessor.

Finally, I’ll touch on A Bug’s Life.  We included this one at my insistence.  I love this film.  It’s a perfect introduction for anyone to the Seven Samurai mythos.  The crew who worked on this are known as film buffs, and Stanton’s script and Lasseter’s shot direction clearly show their love of the earlier films. Both films have scenes adapted to this lighter version of a hard tale.

If there’s a tween film lover in your life, get them to watch A Bug’s Life, then a few days later, hit ‘em with The Magnificent Seven, and a week or so later, finish the education with Seven Samurai.  The discussions should prove fun.

A Remake Chronicles Extra by Adam-Troy Castro

Based on a story outline and abandoned by Akira Kurosawa (who was never quite able to make it work, and thus moved on to other things), and directed by russian emigree Andrei Konchalovsky (who, from evidence available on-screen, seems to have had a limited command of english and, for all his masterful use of visuals, couldn’t be trusted to reject the takes where actors placed emphases on the wrong words in sentences), it was filled with wonderful / awful performances, with both qualities sometimes evident in the very same speech. Also, the central problem? As the climax makes perfectly clear, the convicts and female railroad worker trapped on the titular uncontrolled vehicle never were doomed; there was a quite simple way to save themselves, visible from early on, that would have saved them quite a bit of trouble if they’d just thought of it as soon as they realized what their situation was.

None of this matters. It is a splendidly visual feast, and a resonant melodrama, with thrilling action.

The scene you’re about to see is one of the best in the career of Jon Voight (who, I contend, gave what was simultaneously his best and worst performance). The younger runaway convict played by Eric Roberts has just told Voight’s mad dog that he’s gonna go back to civilization, get himself some fine clothes, and go out night-clubbing with all those fine bitches. Voight’s character gives him a reality check: one for the lifetime-achievement highlight reel.

* We* are the music makers… and *we* are the dreamers of dreams.


First Commentary by Adam-Troy Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others.  100 minutes.  ***

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. * 1/2

Let’s get this out of the way, right at the beginning.

Despite a lifetime of voluminous reading that began in childhood, I have never actually picked up Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. I have read some of that master’s short stories, notably the grisly and often-filmed modern “Lamb To The Slaughter” and “The Man From The South,” but I have never actually read Charlie.  I therefore come to Willy Wonka’s factory with no preconceptions, no fidelity to a version that exists between pages. Anything I might say about one version’s faithfulness to its story is knowledge I might have picked up by osmosis. Unlike  our previous two part essay on films starring the Three Musketeers, this one will not and cannot refer to a ‘definitive’ take, based on the characters originally portrayed in a beloved book; it can only talk about what works best on screen.

There is, as we’ll see, enough to note on that basis alone.
Both Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory and Charlie and the Chocolate Factory deal with the adventure of an impoverished young boy named Charlie Bucket, who lives in a hovel with an extended family that includes two sets of bedridden grandparents, perpetually sharing the same king-sized mattress in an arrangement that must lead to any number of broken noses whenever one of them kicks suddenly in the middle of the night. Charlie is a paragon of virtue, given his circumstances; he works to support his family, endures a ridiculous host of deprivations, and never complains, mever even seems to think of complaining.

Then one day, the reclusive but world-famous candy maker Willy Wonka, master of a factory that continues to churn out delicious confections decades after firing all its workers and shuttering its doors, announces that he will open his doors to five children lucky enough to find the golden tickets that have been inserted into five Wonka bars, worldwide. Each child will be able to take one adult family member and each one will win a lifetime’s supply of chocolate. The first four tickets go to kids who are all truly rotten, for one reason or another; the fifth lands in Charlie’s hands, and he takes the tour along with the other winners, their equally terrible parents, and his own suddenly – one would almost say ‘suspiciously’ — ambulatory grandfather.

(Watching the film as an adult, reality intrudes and it’s hard not to feel suddenly angry at Charlie’s grandpa, who has been lying in bed for years, while his family rotted in poverty and his grandson grew up eating weak cabbage soup for every meal. Talk about lazy bums who needed to go out and get a job. This is not a profitable train of thought, though, any more than it’s profitable to despise Willy for firing all the local workers and bringing in a tribe of little people willing to live in the factory and be paid in cocoa beans. Right there, you have both the rationale behind Occupy Wall Street and the response of the opponents who tell the demonstrators to stop whining. In either case it’s not something you want to think about very much. As we’ll see in our discussion of the first film, this is a fable, that exists in an isolated moral universe.)

In any event, all of Charlie’s fellow winners, and their parents  and the other winners, are driven by their own individually awful brands of awfulness to meet whimsically horrific fates in a factory that has certainly never been inspected by OSHA. And in the end, it turns out to all come down to Willy’s desire for a deserving heir, to carry on his confectionary work.

Both films stick to this skeletal plot very closely, but in practice they couldn’t possibly be more different.


Two Willy Wonkas

The key difference is in the character of Willy Wonka himself.

He makes no sense viewed in grown-up terms. A genius businessman who lives by himself in a factory that seems to run on whimsy, its only current employees a diminutive race of men who sing germane songs while they work, he is clearly a fantasy figure, a magician, a wizard whose magic manifests as chocolate instead of bright bolts of light. Any real attempt to deconstruct him makes about as much sense as trying to reverse-engineer the Easter Bunny.

The key to recognizing why one Willy works and why the other does not is examining the context.
In both films, Willy Wonka exists in a universe where access to his factory is the most important thing in the entire world. It’s just about the only thing that anybody talks about, the only issue that matters. The first film has some fun establishing that this extends, to a ridiculous degree, to adult society, where one newscaster confesses that there must be stories more important than Willy’s contest but that he honestly cannot think of any; where an auction house sells off the last box of Wonka chocolate in England at a highly inflated price; and where a woman whose beloved husband has been kidnapped needs to think before giving up his box of Wonka chocolate bars as ransom. This is absurdity, but it’s absurdity that sets up the laws of its fantastical universe, that establishes Willy Wonka as, really, the most important man who ever lived. In this context, he’s not just some rich guy, exploiting the workers and running a scam contest. In a child’s terms, he’s not Donald Trump. He’s Santa Claus: the god, or perhaps Mephistopheles, of chocolate.

On the story’s chosen level, it therefore makes more moral sense that he should damn well act that way,

And while both Willy Wonkas are colorfully-clad eccentrics with childlike priorities, strange hair and an impatient streak that sometimes bubbles over into cruelty, they otherwise couldn’t be farther apart.

Gene Wilder’s Willy Wonka is, among other things, an adult. He is charismatic, and he is charming. He is enough of a showman to enter with a painful limp and then reveal with a flourish and somersault that he’s just kidding.. When the contest winners enter his gates he is friendly enough to share introductions with both the children and their guardians, and to give them all the benefit of the doubt until they rapidly prove themselves to be a bunch of intolerable creeps. Even though disaster repeatedly strikes along the way, there is never any doubt, at any point, that he’s ever in less than full control. When he assures Charlie, at the end, that the kid who drowned in chocolate and the kid who went down the chute to the incinerator and the kid who was turned into a giant blueberry and the kid who was shrunken to infinitesimal size will all be restored to full health, there’s no doubt that he’s telling the truth, and that there was never any real danger, to any of them, at any point. The sense is that he was always testing Charlie, and – though this is not stated aloud, it is my personal interpretation – that he somehow arranged for Charlie to get that last golden ticket in the first place. We trust and like that Willy Wonka. It’s a happy ending, for Charlie to end up with him.

Johnny Depp’s Willy Wonka is not only manifestly not an adult,  but he’s a pale, nervous, infantile, disturbed, broken caricature of a man, twisted by childhood trauma, and so asocial that he nervously resists being introduced to the various kids  who have come to tour his factory. There are times when he seems downright evil. Some of this is actually fun – it’s amusing, for instance, that he always accuses Mike Teavee of “mumbling” whenever that boy points out something that doesn’t make logical sense. But the movie doesn’t seem to be able to make up its mind whether this Willy Wonka is taken aback when disaster befalls the various nasty children, takes pleasure in it, or has maliciously planned it. There’s a genuine qualitative difference between Wilder’s Wonka, a man who doesn’t dwell in the real world but who seems to exist on some plane superior to it, and Depp’s Wonka, a man who has retreated from that real world in fright. Wilder’s Wonka is the ultimate prize Charlie wins: a magical friend, an understanding father. Depp’s Wonka is a good reason for a restraining order.

Nor is this a subtle thing. Tim Burton’s Chocolate Factory  builds up a substantial amount of good will with its visual wit and flawless pacing, up to the moment that the contest winners enter the factory. It is, to this essayist’s eyes, actually a substantially better film than the original for as long as the opening act lasts, in that it’s better at establishing the mystery of the factory, smarter when it comes to dramatizing and visualizing the squalor of Charlie’s everyday life, more impressively photographed, and – though this may get some hate mail – more merciful in sparing us a couple of songs that are difficult to sit through today. It seems poised to enter classic territory. Then Willy Wonka enters and opens his mouth. And he’s so bloody wrong, less P.T. Barnum than Boo Radley…if Boo Radley were not, at heart, a good neighbor, but a predatory one…that in less than a minute, the quality trajectory is recognizably steered toward the abyss. It’s hard to remember the last time a great actor sabotaged a film so quickly. Unless you remember, let’s say…Jack Nicholson and that previous Burton film, Batman.

The history of movies is a history of great directors who have forged lasting partnerships with great actors, and who did their best work with those actors; partnerships where both were better together, than they usually were apart.  John Ford made classics with John Wayne. Akira Kurosawa made more than a dozen all-time classics with Toshiro Mifune. Martin Scorcese had such a partnership with Robert De Niro and has started another one, almost as fruitful, with Leonardo DeCaprio. Tim Burton’s actor of choice is Johnny Depp. And though it has been profitable for both, the sad fact is that it has also been intensely limiting for Depp, in that Burton seems determined to always cast him as twitchy, pale-faced, freakish child-men…and that, between his collaborations with Burton and his success in the Pirates Of the Caribbean series, Depp has made a disproportionately large number of films where he played cartoons and disproportionately few where he played recognizable, nuanced human beings. It’s repetitive, and disappointing…and in this version of the Wonka story, downright unpleasant.

But that’s not even the main problem.

The Quality Differential In Oompa-Loompas

Roald Dahl’s original book was subjected to charges of racism because of its Oompa-Loompas, who were specifically African pygmies, and therefore by implication slaves being exploited in Wonka’s factory. (Dahl therefore changed a few things, in subsequent editions.)

The Oompa-Loompas of the 1971 film are little orange men with green hair, a visual design that happens to have two benefits. First, it frees them of any accidental insulting similarity to an existing race. Second, it eliminates their humanity. Some lip-service is given to them being an isolated tribe from Oompa-Land, but that might as well be Oz; what they are, really, is a magical race  like elves or dwarves; why not put them to work in a factory? They’re not serving mammon, they’re serving Willy’s perverse take on virtue.

The 2005 film makes the mistake of showing the Oompa-Loompa tribe in their homeland and dramatizing the contract negotiations where Wonka arranged to have them stay in his factory and be paid in cocoa beans. They all have a recognizable human skin tone and they are, in close-up at least, recognizably people. The racism is subtly restored.

(And while we’re on the subject, let’s be clear on this. In 1971, it was just barely acceptable that all the children who found golden tickets were white. In 2005, that story element is significantly more uncomfortable. If it can be forgiven at all, that’s because it’s hard to imagine any race feeling slighted in not having one of their own cast as one of the other, awful alternatives to Charlie. How racist would it be to have a fat black kid as Augustus Gloop, or a Japanese kid obsessed with video games as the Teavee brat? Let us shudder, and move on.)

The means the two films use to bring their Oompa-Loompas to the screen are also completely different.

The 1971 film made do with a bunch of authentically little men in costumes. The 2005 film used CGI to multiply actor/musician Deep Roy into dozens of simulacra of himself, performing in synchronized dances. It’s an impressive trick, but a grotesque one, in that the 2005 Oompa-Loompas are not little people but shrunken ones, who look disconcertingly unreal whenever they are made to appear beside actors of normal dimensions.  There are also, as a result, any number of scenes where the film seems more interested in showing off the cleverness of the technique than in serving the needs of the story. This is nowhere more true than in the scene where obese kid Augustus Gloop is sucked into the transparent tube; dozens of little Deep Roys perform an Esther Williams water ballet in the chocolate river around him, which is a) deeply unfunny, b) intrusive on the actual meaning of the moment, and c) a pop-culture reference so dated that it’s designed to sail over the heads of not only the kids watching the film, but also their parents and in some cases their grandparents. (It’s, as we shall soon see, a pervasive problem.) Six orange Oompa-Loompas popping up and down on their knees has infinitely more charm than dozens of CGI Oompa-Loompas performing overelaborate production numbers that only serve to make an already noisy film even noisier. It’s one of the many places where the advances in technology and the deeper pockets of the production actually betray the 2005 film. (The extended sequence aboard the glass elevator would be another.)

But that, also, is not even the main problem.

Another Problem: Overindulgence in In-Jokes and Self-Referential Humor 

The 1971 Chocolate Factory was the product of a less cynical, less media-savvy age, and exists entirely within its own universe. No other pop culture intrudes. No winking intrudes.

Since then we have have had pop-culture spoofs and Shrek movies and any number of other films that congratulate the audience on its familiarity with pop-culture precedents (though, of course, that knowledge is ankle-deep, as the references only rarely flag stuff more than a decade old). And it is now common, indeed almost expected, for a movie to step away from itself and comment on the action, in effect reminding us that it’s a movie, which in effect diminishes it.
This is why the 2005 Chocolate Factory has dialogue pointing out that the Oompa-Loompas seem to have a song pre-written for every occasion, and how forced this is. That is also why the Teevee brat gets to snarl, “Why is everything (in this factory) completely pointless?”, a line of dialogue of the sort that resonates deeply in any movie that has long since outstayed its welcome.

That’s why Tim Burton includes that parody of an Esther Williams water ballet, which is a fine thing if you think the kids in the audience will point and hoot, “Look! A parody of an Esther Williams water ballet!”

This is why there’s dialogue talking about how unlikely it is that the Oompa-Loompas have songs pre-written for every occasion. (Ha ha. A musical, pointing out how ridiculous musicals are. Ha, ha, ha. That is hilarious. Actually, it can be. See Urinetown. But it’s just forced, here…and it comes off as the movie, trying to be superior to itself.)
That’s why there’s a painful joke involving the supposedly world-traveling young Willy Wonka parading proudly past a montage of flags of the world, that suddenly becomes literalized when we are told that it’s not filmic shorthand but actually the young Willy, marching through a museum exhibit of flahs of the world. (Ha-ha.)

Winks like this have a way of destroying a story. They don’t always. After all, Tony Curtis’s Cary Grant impression doesn’t ruin Some Like It Hot. But they work best when they’re organic, when they can be glossed over, when they’re functioning parts of a tale that doesn’t stumble over them as if they were speed bumps. The knowing humor in Tim Burton’s film constantly deflates the story being told.

Nowhere is this more obvious than in the scene in the 2005 film, in many ways a remake of a scene from the 1971 film, where Wonka demonstrates the invention that transports chocolate via television. As apes from 2001: A Space Odyssey cavort around a monolith on the TV image, the soundtrack plays “Also Sprach Zarathustra” and a huge candy bar becomes a monolith, itself. Ha, ha, ha. As if parodies of the 2001 monolith and evocations of Also Sprach Zarathustra hadn’t become clichés by 1969; as if 2005 kids were going to say, “Ha-Ha, 2001!”; as if many of their parents  were going to get the reference and that most of them weren’t also going to be bored by it; as if this is particular joke (or a subsequent joke about the Psycho shower scene), weren’t less about telling the story than about Tim Burton the film buff evoking movies that were much better than this one – or for that matter any he has made.

(Rule of thumb: don’t quote a great movie in your less-than-great film. Especially don’t show us a scene from that movie. The audience will resent it when that much better movie goes away…that is, if they recognize it all.)

The impression this device leaves is that film buff Tim Burton is bored by the movie he’s actually making and had to find some other way to amuse himself. This is never a good impression for any moviemaker to make.

But that is also not the main problem.

Nor is the main problem something the Oompa-Loompas allude to, in the song they sing after Mike Teavee is shrunken to miniscule size; they moralize about how TV brutalizes the imagination, immediately after a film that literalized so much at such high volume that it brutalized the imagination pretty horrifically itself. Though it’s never good for any movie to accidentally critique itself, the problem lies elsewhere.

Other Issues

There is much in the 2005 version worth admiring. The design of the Bucket house, for instance. The performances of such worthies as Helena Bonham Carter and Edward Fox. The performance of its Charlie, who unlike the original actually can act.  (Actually, all the kids were better.) Some of the lines of dialogue. Some of Willy Wonka’s bits of business. The staging of the sad fate of Violet.  2005’s “Bad Nut” joke is no substitute for 1971’s “Bad Egg” joke, but hey, kids in 2005 may not have heard the phrase “bad egg” and something had to be done.  The grandfather does not have the charm of Jack Albertson, but brings his own. And unlike the first movie, which is as flatly and unimaginatively staged as any beloved film can be, it shows a genuine sense of visual flair, though that seems to be Burton’s great skill and is no real substitute for skill at storytelling.)
Some of the 2005 version doesn’t work nearly as well as the original. Willy’s chocolate wonderland from the 1971 film is a practical set and not the vast CGI-enhanced locale of the 2005 version, but works about twenty times better. (It, too, represents the difference between teasing the imagination and clubbing it.)

The real problem comes at the point of the story where, in 1971, Charlie has every reason in the world to betray Willy Wonka and decides instead to be true to himself and not go for the quick payday. That’s the key moment of the 1971 story; everything else leads up to it. It is a moment of karmic justice that kids and adults can appreciate. In 2005, Charlie has a much easier decision: not abandoning his family by agreeing to live with this rich but profoundly dysfunctional man instead. It’s a much easier decision, poor as his family is; we can see that they have always loved him, and only a terrible kid who valued money or everything else would turn his back on them.
Missing this, the entire point of the 1971 version, the 2005 version decides to hinge on how exposure to this profoundly decent kid improves the broken Willy Wonka for the better; and thus goes on to explain how Willy reconciles with his son-of-a-bitch father (Christopher Lee). But there’s a major problem with that. Lee projects so much stern evil in the prior flashbacks that, frankly, it’s hard not to conclude that this was one of those families that was better off estranged. Christopher Lee may improve any movie he’s in just by standing there, and it may be a real hoot to posit him as Willy Wonka’s Dad, but he’s better, in this film, projecting villainy than he is when reconciling with his wayward, peculiar son.
The whole movie leads up to an emotional catharsis it honestly has not earned.

And that’s the fatal problem, the one that ultimately turns it into a colossal bummer.

The River Of Chocolate

Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory, a minor classic that soars in the performance of its star, Gene Wilder. Charlie And The Chocolate Factory, a movie that for a long time also seems poised for greatness until the moment its star walks on screen. I’ll see Willy again, gladly; I don’t think I’ll ever want to take another run at Charlie, which earns most of its star grade for its excellent staging of everything that happens before Willy Wonka shows up. Sorry, but that’s the way it is.

And now, eight miniature orange versions of the wife march in singing, “Oompa-Loompa, Oompaty-Ooh, I’ll Critique This Movie For You….”


Second Commentary by Judi B. Castro

Willy Wonka and The Chocolate Factory (1971). Directed by Mel Stuart. Screenplay by Roald Dahl (and an uncredited David Seltzer), from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Gene Wilder, Jack Albertson, Peter Ostrum, Roy Kinnear, others. 100 minutes. ***1/2

Charlie and the Chocolate Factory (2005). Directed by Tim Burton. Screenplay by John August, from the novel Charlie and the Chocolate Factory by Roald Dahl. Starring Johnny Depp, Freddie Highmore, Christopher Lee, Helena Bonham Carter, James Fox, Deep Roy, others. 115 minutes. *

Yippee!!!   This set of reviews gave me the grand opportunity to be as annoying to my hubby as he has been to me while rewatching films for these columns.  How so you may ask?  Well, Adam is a lot like those wonderful folks in the theater who already know the story, they don’t exactly give it away, they just throw enormous hint boulders at you. “OOh watch what happens here, you’ll never believe it”.  This time I got to sing along and speak the lines all through the viewing of the 1971 film.  I was sooo darn happy.  Now, he too got into the Oompah Loompah songs, but not nearly as effusively as me. For you see, I have always loved this film!

Now, when the 2005 Tim Burton film was announced, I was a bit worried , but very hopeful.  In the years between, I had read the Charlie books and knew that some differences were to be had from the sweet/slightly frightening Gene Wilder portrayal to the Wonka of the books. I wondered how the overwrought genius of Edward Scissorhands would rework the seminal figure.  YOWCH!!

What Burton and Depp wrought was a savage, over psychological mess.  This man/child twitches and tics his way through his half of the film and leaves the audience wondering why he was so beloved by past employees.  Sure the man makes great candy (not the stuff at out stores, the imaginary stuff of the film), but I can’t see how he could run an internationally recognized snack food corporation with his mind ripped to shreds by parental abuse issues.

What Burton did right was the visualization of Charlie’s impoverished family. The look and feel of the Bucket homestead are nearly perfect. The familial warmth as good as the 1971 film and the feelings evoked from the books.

He ruins the factory by overdoing it.  The initial welcome scene tells the audience that the tour is a nightmare come true, not the dream they are hoping will be.

And, must I mention the horrid Oompah Loompah.  Singular, not plural.   Does Tim Burton dislike little people,  that he could only abide one on set? Or, was this a cost cutting measure gone horribly wrong?  Having one man play an entire tribe of overeager, happy slaves just blew the magic apart of the happy little lessons “they” sing.  I can recite the lyrics of the 1971 Oompah lessons, but I can’t even remember the tune to hum it for the 2005.  Not the best move for posterity there.

Okay, so I’m obviously prejudiced  in this matter.  But I need to assure you, I don’t hate the Burton/Depp mess, I just don’t like it all that much.  And, if you ask me to show a child the movie made from the Dahl books, Well…figure out which I’ll grab every time.