Archive for The Seven Samurai

Vermithrax Laudative

Posted in FILM, Mythology with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 28, 2020 by dcairns

DRAGONSLAYER is pretty good, should appeal to the Game of Thrones/LORD OF THE RINGS people. It’s better than bloody WILLOW or LADYHAWK. It’s interesting to me for the influences it displays, too.

Setting aside the very satisfying priest-frying, which stems from George Pal’s THE WAR OF THE WORLDS, there’s the death of a major character early on, falling out of close-up, then completing his tumble via stand-in) with a match cut that takes us into slomo — clearly a nifty SEVEN SAMURAI swipe. Matthew Robbins, like George Lucas, has learned his Kurosawa lessons well.

But let’s look at the main plot, which forms part of a strange, twisted trichobezoar of influences. Young Galen, the sorcerer’s apprentice, takes his slain master’s place, fraudulently presenting himself as the old man’s equal. He seems to score a success against the besieging dragon, but screws up and makes everything much worse. Then it’s up to him to make things right again. (Since he’s a white male and the hero, he repeatedly gets another chance, and another…)

An incredibly influential film, though you might not think it, is THE THREE AMIGOS, and not just for the title’s role in the Donald Trump impeachment trial. The movie is a comedy spin on THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, which is itself a remake of Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI (this gets more complicated). 3 AMIGOS has three movie stars being mistaken for real heroes by the people of a beseiged Mexican village, and hired to fight off bandits. They screw up, because they’re Hollywood phonies, as Chevy Chase might say, and then they have to put things right…

The guy in the right has been in more Polanski films than anyone

Is it possible that the earlier DRAGONSLAYER (not a hit) influenced THE THREE AMIGOS, perhaps by way of the shared Kurosawa influence? What about GALAXY QUEST, which is EXACTLY the same plot as THE THREE AMIGOS? What about A BUG’S LIFE, which is the same again? MYSTERY MEN is kind of similar too.

Fiona points out that DRAGONSLAYER has very strong female characters, by the way: the virgin who’s been disguised as a boy for her own protection is another SEVEN SAMURAI trope; the spunky princess meets a fate that probably cost the movie the STAR WARS crowd; and the dragon itself lives in a cave entered by a vaginal slit in the cliff face, and has a nest of eggs. Vermithrax Pejorative is a lady dragon. And a really good design! Not just her look, but her way of moving — she crawls like a bat.

A shame the climax is all matte lines, and nobody really being where they’re supposed to be. Thinking about it afterwards, I realized the deeper problem — apart from the sequence just not being exciting — is that it’s all about the execution of a perfect plan, in which the dragon is doomed and the hero once again doesn’t get to be heroic. Most of the time in this movie, its refusal to do the normal pseudo-mythic thing (real myths are much weirder than the Joseph Campbell/George Lucas versions) is thrilling, whereas here it’s flat.

But the political cynicism of the coda is pretty bracing.

DRAGONSLAYER stars Renfield; Simone; Supreme Being; Luro; Lord Halifax; Rory Poke; Diddler; Sarah Churchill; and Emperor Palpatine.

The Frozen Moment

Posted in FILM with tags , , , , , , , , , , on December 4, 2018 by dcairns

I was looking at THE DEVIL’S OWN, the remarkably non-excellent late Alan Pakula thriller, which has a very impressively staged, if overblown and morally indefensible, street battle at the start. Amid all the mayhem, Pakula (and editors Tom Rolf & Dennis Virkler) freeze the action with a quick, beautifully-composed shot of a corpse. It fractures the all-movement flow of the edit and injects an icy feeling that partially redeems the scene from its gung-ho pyrotechnics.

It also rang a bell with me, and I found myself trying to figure out whether Pakula had pinched the idea from some other film I’ve seen.

The first thing that came to mind was this shot from John Milius’s DILLINGER ~

It has a similar look, but it appears at the end of the scene so it has a different, less disruptive effect. I had an instinctive suspicion that there was a common source both Milius and Pakula were swiping from, and I knew that I KNEW that source, if I could but remember it.

I started wondering if, given Milius’s tastes, the answer might be Kurosawa. I remembered these shots, in RAN (another late-ish film, and one ABOUT lateness, old age) ~

Kurosawa intersperses the apocalyptic battle that occurs midway in this film with static snapshots of the slain, their busy, living former comrades hurrying past them in foreground or background. He takes you out of the desperate action and briefly drops you into a more contemplative, restful space. Called death.

But RAN was made some time *after* DILLINGER, so couldn’t be the influence. THE SEVEN SAMURAI seemed a possibility, reminding me that it’s been far too long since I watched it. But I couldn’t actually remember such a shot used in such a way, so that couldn’t be the specific thing I was remembering.

Then I did a class on Orson Welles for my 1st year students, and there it was, in CHIMES AT MIDNIGHT ~POSITIVELY the shot I was trying to remember, coming as a sudden, shockingly still interruption of the hand-held chaos of the celebrated and influential Battle of Shrewsbury sequence. By coincidence, the appearance of THE OTHER SIDE OF THE WIND reminds us that Milius and Welles apparently knew each other at least well enough for the latter to parody the former as a character in his movie-world movie. And I can well imagine Milius and Pakula admiring CHIMES enough to borrow an effect without particularly paying attention to what the effect was FOR.

Welles actually pulls this trick twice. Each time, the shot contains furiously racing characters but our eye goes to the face of the fallen man, and the camera’s stillness puts us in sympathy with him, not those running about madly behind him.

But it’s still possible that this touch is to be found in earlier battles by Kurosawa OR — a distinct possibility, this — Eisenstein. If anybody knows for sure, point me in the right direction.

A Lesson from Kurosawa

Posted in FILM with tags , , , on January 10, 2016 by dcairns


The Great A.K. filmed a fight scene in a wind storm for SANSHIRO SUGATA. Normally the wind would have been produced by wind machines, traditionally aircraft propellers, but this was wartime, and the propellers were all in use, keeping planes in the air to kill us, so he had to wait for real storms. He wrote later that the trouble with filming in inclement weather is that your mind tricks you into believing you’ve got all the coverage you need before you really do. He really struggled to cut the sequence together.

The way I described it today, after filming in rain, snow and icy winds, with no shelter and no toilet facilities and clothing that proved less waterproof than I’d hoped (including the footwear), is that your brain tells you to prioritize getting somewhere warm ahead of all other considerations. The trouble is you then have the rest of your life to look at your film and ask, “Why didn’t I spend five more minute on that?”

Kurosawa says that when you are tired and uncomfortable, the solution is just to carry on and film twice as much material as reason tells you is needed. He applied this lesson to the battle in the rain on SEVEN SAMURAI and his toes turned permanently black from frostbite. Kurosawa was a tough S.O.B. Unfortunately, I am a wimp.


What came to my rescue is another feature of the Scottish climate in January – dawn isn’t until 8.45 a.m. and it gets dark at 4 p.m. So a long day isn’t an option. We filmed as fast as possible, having to make up a new plan since the original wasn’t workable under such conditions, and stopped when we absolutely had to. If we’d had more daylight I wouldn’t be typing now.

My cast and crew are heroic. More than one person remarked that I seemed completely unbothered by the discomfort — that I seemed comfortable, in fact. I am still in agony now, but it’s much easier for the director than for anyone else, because a director is always distracted from the physical conditions. The camera crew are the next busiest, but they have to touch cold metal with bare hands. Anyone who has off-time but no shelter is going to suffer, and this team of stoic, good-humoured young folks, a mixture of pros and students, bore up amazingly well.