WHEN "The Films of Akira Kurosawa" was originally published in 1965, movie historian Donald Richie lamented that Western audiences had never seen the epic adventure spectacle "The Seven Samurai" in its entirety. This was a form of deprivation Richie seemed to consider total deprivation: "One of the major cinematic tragedies," he called it. The original version was reputedly 200 minutes long.
Now, Richie's exaggerations seem to have paid off. The latest revival of "Seven Samurai," now at the Dupont Circle for a limited engagement of three weeks, appears to be the complete one. More than complete, as a matter of fact. The distributor, Landmark Films, has struck new 35mm prints that run 208 minutes. The bonus eight minutes can evidently be accounted for by the opening credits, now quite extensive and backed by an ominously expectant drumroll theme, and by a minute or so of intermission at about the two-hour mark.
I doubt very much if art-house patrons who saw "Seven Samurai" in the 160-minute version (retitled "The Magnificent Seven,") ever felt cheated by the experience. Even in its truncated form, the picture remained a titanic fragment. One of the overwhelming thrills of a moviegoing lifetime, it left you feeling at once elated and exhausted.
As the restored version now demonstrates, "Seven Samurai" was subjected to nagging trims that tended to distort, obscure or curtail certain aspects of Kurosawa's formidable tapestry--the story of a farming village defending itself against a horde of bandits. The peasants hire seven warriors to guard the village against the 40 marauders who have vowed to come back when the crops are ripe.
The filmmaker envisioned a heroic epic rich in characterizations, social tensions and the texture of life endured by peasants and mercenaries in Japan at the turn of the 17th century. Given the magnitude of Kurosawa's conception and achievement, the cuts were too minor to harm a majestic production, and now at last they've ceased to be even a minor nuisance.
The restoration incentive that has finally brought us a complete edition of "Seven Samurai" probably got its initial impetus in the late '50s, when Jean Renoir's "Rules of the Game" was reconstructed and reissued in its original 1939 version. A notorious failure when first released, the Renoir film was severely cut by the distributors and then banned entirely by the Vichy regime. The original negative was destroyed during an Allied air raid on Boulogne. But ultimately, Renoir was able to reassemble the movie from providentially spared odds and ends of film and soundtrack.
In subsequent years the Orson Welles' thriller "Touch of Evil" and the Sam Peckinpah adventure epic "The Wild Bunch," a movie obviously influenced by Kurosawa, have also regained sequences trimmed soon after their initial releases. And when restructuring his two "Godfather" films for network telecasting, Francis Coppola not only put all the material in chronological order but also added sequences cut from the theatrical versions.
In some cases, the additions have been wrongheaded. Steven Spielberg's so-called "Special Edition" of "Close Encounters of the Third Kind" would have been more satisfactory if he had simply restored scenes he hated to lose the first time around. Instead, excessive tinkering resulted in the sacrifice of some scenes from the original and the addition of a newly shot, poorly conceived insert at the denouement. In fact, the restoration trend has gone so far that it's become a joke in certain respects: TV networks now restore material to movies for the sole purpose of filling out a time slot. This new incentive to pad the content no doubt explains the sluggishness of certain TV epics--like "The Winds of War" and "The Thorn Birds"--which cry out for compression.
Time never hung heavy in the 160-minute version of "Seven Samurai," and it's remarkable how incisive and compelling the exposition remains when expanded by 25 percent. It appears that only one very minor character was eliminated by the cuts--a disgraced, weakling samurai whose main purpose seems to be as an object of ridicule.
The cumulative effect of the restored scenes is to add weight and dignity to a nobly envisioned and realized spectacle. The frailties and virtues of the characters; the tangle of obligations, suspicions and fellowship that link the peasants with their hired warriors in an agonizing but triumphant effort; the social codes, psychological wounds and concepts of personal honor that influence group and individual behavior--all these elements are now played out in greater detail and depth on a field of action that remains extraordinarily vivid. Kurosawa's battle scenes were always a stunning pictorial and kinetic payoff, but now they seem to resolve even more carefully prepared and fully developed matters of human interest.
The costars, Toshiro Mifune as the rashly magnificent Kikuchiyo and the late Takashi Shimura (he died last year at the age of 78) as the calm, sagacious leader of the seven, Kambei, had played leading roles for Kurosawa for several years. An ideal contrast here, they embody martial heroism and leadership at extremes of beauty--from impetuous but stirring bravery on the part of Kikuchiyo to restrained, battle-wise intelligence and skillfulness on the part of Kambei. Mifune's performance remains one of the most inventive and satisfying flamboyant characterizations in the history of the screen. A feral, funny swashbuckler, Kikuchiyo evokes so much elemental appetite, zest and fury that one begins to think of him as a missing link, a peculiarly awesome and endearing image of savage nobility.
"Seven Samurai" became justly celebrated for the immediacy and tactility of its imagery, especially in the battle scenes, where an extensive and, at the time, innovative use of telephoto lenses seemed to plunge spectators into the squalor, terror and exhilaration of the fighting. In retrospect, the film seems even more charged in a pictorial sense than I'd remembered. The images are so concentrated and alert to movement, either by the camera or the performers, that you get a surging, restless sensation from much of the composition.
No picture has ever intercut moving images of characters on the dead run with more exciting effect; you have the illusion of being slingshotted out of your seat at such moments. Frequently, the imagery seems to seek more breadth, height and depth than the picture frame can accommodate. For example, there are several curious moments in which shots achieve a borderline three-dimensional effect: Kikuchiyo's sword swinging across the foreground seems about to poke viewers in the eye, and when Mifune plays straight into the camera in his biggest rhetorical scenes, you may feel an alarming nose-to-nose intimacy with the brute.
The movie's critical reputation has increased steadily over the years. Although an immediate popular success in Japan, it met a rather hostile press, according to Richie, perhaps because the production had been long, costly and arduous, riddled with rumors of impending disaster.
The contemporary estimate is quite different, of course. "Seven Samurai" was named the best Japanese film of all time in a 1979 critics' poll. In the most recent survey by the British periodical Sight and Sound of "the top ten films of all time," a poll updated every 10 years, "Seven Samurai" had vaulted into a comfortable No. 3 position. The availability of the complete version can't possibly harm this already lofty regard. It confirms that the greatest action movie of the modern filmmaking era generates that action out of a richer human and social texture than even ardent admirers had been able to recognize.