Wednesday, 28 November 2018
Reflections on “The Treasure of the Sierra Madre”
Directed and written by John Huston
(based on the book by B. Traven)
Starring Humphrey Bogart, Walter Huston and Tim Holt
A video presentation of this material is available here.
“The Treasure of the Sierra Madre” opens in oil-rich Tampico in Mexico in the 1920s, a place and time which attracted many due to the lure of readily available natural resources and the presence of enterprising businessmen all too willing to seek their fortunes by plundering these resources.
Unfortunately for Fred Dobbs and Bob Curtin, by the time of their arrival the major oil field had all but dried up and we witness Dobbs forced to beg in the streets in order to survive.
Dobbs (and by extension, Curtin) are reduced to the level of beggars and have thus, apparently, reached the bottom of the barrel. They may be viewed as desperate, worthless and unworthy of respect. But they have not resorted to criminality. They may lack money and social standing but they retain a modicum of self-respect as they remain honest and seek work in order to get by. Indeed, within the fraternity of the impoverished there is evidence of human compassion, understanding and sympathy despite, or perhaps exactly because of, their shared hard times.
Dobbs is approached to buy a lottery ticket by a young Mexican lad. He is initially unpleasant to him and gruffly rejects the boy’s sales pitch. However, the boy accepts Dobbs’ rough treatment of him and persists in his attempt to make even a small sale, indicating his desperation. After reflection, Dobbs buys a lowly part-share in the lottery ticket almost as a way of helping the boy survive, suggesting Dobbs’ fundamental humanity despite his situation, frustration and anger.
Dobbs and Curtin consider themselves the dregs of society and are grateful to receive offers of work from Pat McCormick. However, Mr McCormick represents a section of society which is without scruples and is willing to take advantage of Dobbs and Curtin’s situation, desperation and willingness to work. He scams them (along with several others) of their pay, showing no remorse or compassion and is willing to advance self-interest at the expense of others. Dobbs and Curtin may have hit an all-time low, but they would not sink to these depths.
Eventually, they catch up with McCormick and demand what is theirs. There is a vicious fight and when Dobbs and Curtin emerge the victors, they take their spoils. However, they take only what was due to them. Anything more would have been theft and that is clearly against their honest natures.
Next, they meet Howard who offers an alternative to financial struggle and dependence on others for survival. He is a gold-digger and he presents a less traditional and less society-dependent way of getting by – seeking gold. He embodies spirit, hope and determination while readily recognising the awful consequences on men of seeking and finding gold – a lack of trust in others and increased selfishness – though he appears willing to live with these consequences if it means he can access wealth by way of gold.
And so, they form a team and set off in search of their fortunes. They travel a considerable distance across Mexico and leave behind “civilisation”, society and the social structures they impose. Large social groups involve complex frameworks which allow their members to co-exist, support one another and eventually become interdependent. They come to rely on one another to provide services but also a source of income, a means of getting by and even fraternity. This dependence on one another requires trust and reliability – they need one another to survive, especially financially. The gaining of excessive wealth removes the fundamental need for such structure and dependence on others, and may lead to distrust and suspicion as the wealthy become protective, self-centred and unwilling to share.
Thanks to Howard’s experience and hard-won knowledge they find their gold and gradually Howard’s warnings of loss of trust and selfishness come true. Dobbs is particularly distrustful, perhaps because he felt shame at his circumstances in Tampico and has no desire to return to that social position and so becomes highly protective of his finds, and he makes accusations which do little to build or retain any sense of fraternity and confidence between the men.
Thus, Dobbs, Curtin and to a lesser extent Howard (who knew to expect this consequence of finding wealth) have a taste of independence, yet they realise they remain reliant on one another’s honesty. Alone and in the wilderness far from social niceties of morality and laws, trust evaporates and they start to lose sight of one another’s principles and are increasingly aware of criminal possibilities.
Curiously, they remain fundamentally honest at this point as they merely express distrust in one another and wish to protect their own gains. They do not seek to take what isn’t theirs – it is not a question of personal greed but rather suspicion of greed and dishonesty on the part of the others.
This situation should be compared to earlier scenes in which, jobless and taken advantage of, Dobbs is willing to share his good fortune (when he wins a small share of the lottery) to stake Curtin in their gold-seeking venture. They share what little they have after receiving no pay and they are happy and willing to help one another when all are needy and require assistance. Their common needs help them to form a social pact in which each supports the other to the benefit of all concerned.
The arrival of a stranger, Cody, who wishes to throw in with them (on a basis of honesty and fair shares) tips the already teetering balance of morality in favour of self-preservation. Our three seekers of wealth hold a reasoned discussion regarding Cody and they decide they should murder him in order to protect and advance their own interests, pure and simple. They consider this action acceptable if all three share the guilt. This marks a notable deterioration in the view of morality of all three – not only are they willing to take a life merely to advance their own interests, they recognise they will feel guilt (and thus that they are doing wrong) but they are ready to live with it if it means they can have their gold.
They make their way to Cody in order to take his life but encounter a common enemy on the way – bandits who are also willing to do anything to advance their own interests, including taking the lives of our band of gold-seekers. Cody defends himself and his would-be murderers against the bandits but pays with his life.
Having survived the bandit attack and recognising Cody’s contribution, Dobbs, Curtin and Howard discover a letter to Cody from his beloved wife. While previously they regarded Cody simply as a threat to the accomplishment of their mission, the reading of this letter brings home to them that Cody had a past, relationships, responsibilities and a future – he did not belong solely to their present. We are all multi-facetted individuals whose paths cross and exercise influence on others and it is often too easy to see individuals only in terms of their immediate effect on us.
Upon reflection, and having gained a wider perspective on friend Cody and his life, and taken in to account the fact he helped them survive the bandit attack, they decide to share a portion of their good fortune with his family in Texas.
We see that they remain open to empathy and compassion as they are reminded of social structures and warm relationships, but continued isolation, obsession and desperation lead to a lack of consideration and respect for others. Thus, en route toward “civilisation”, Dobbs shows himself willing to kill Curtin as his suspicions and paranoia get the better of him. He has been so focused on gold for so long that he has lost perspective and is now losing the one thing he retained despite everything – his honesty. Even when reduced to the status of a beggar in the streets he held on to his honesty. Now, technically wealthy, he loses his grip on self-respect and morality as he shoots Curtin and takes all the gold. He believes he has killed him but is plagued by guilt and uncertainty, especially when Curtin’s body disappears.
Virtually within sight of a town and the means to cash in on his efforts, Dobbs encounters some of the murderous bandits he has met on at least two previous occasions. In the end, Dobbs is murdered for next to nothing while his fortune in gold dust is not even recognised for what it is (the bandit assumes it is sand and empties the bags containing it on the ground). The few goods for which he is murdered have more immediate value to his murderer than the fortune Dobbs has spent an age uncovering. All that matters to his bandit killer is that Dobbs had something he wanted or needed. The value was of no consequence. Perhaps Dobbs was travelling down the same path toward similar values – he had crossed the line and having lost his grip on morality and his self-respect, he might have been tempted to kill (as he thought) again.
On the way to the mountains our group encountered fierce winds and there were warnings that nature will not be defeated. As they approach the town, winds are once again raised into a violent storm and they whip up sand, soil and gold dust which they carry off, returning it to its rightful resting place. Nature has indeed triumphed over man’s petty efforts to gain from it.
When faced with this devastating loss, Howard and Curtin (who survived Dobbs’ attack) recognise the irony of the situation and concede defeat. They laugh uncontrollably at the ease with which nature has reclaimed that which took several months of hard labour to wrest from the Earth.
They ponder their futures and are not tempted to further pursue apparently easy-gotten wealth. On the way from the mountain, Howard saved the life of a native child through applying what was, for him, basic medical knowledge, but the villagers are willing to adopt him as a sort of medicine man and Howard decides to take them up on their offer.
Meanwhile, Curtin proposes to head to Texas to look up Cody’s wife. Perhaps he hopes to pick up the life Cody left behind.
It is interesting to note that both survivors of this venture opt for futures in society, surrounded by people and in the warmth of relationships rather than pursue gold which, they have seen, can lead to the destruction of relationships, the breakdown of society and unleash an unattractive and amoral independent streak in men.
The script and direction by John Huston are completely assured, engaging and clear. The general atmosphere of social desperation and the gradual descent into suspicion, paranoia and amorality are superbly done and are presented as a natural progression (or deterioration) at a steady pace.
I have to say that for me a couple of the plot developments seemed a little unnatural. The letter from Cody’s wife seemed to trigger too easy a transition to compassion, and Howard’s saving of the native boy and his quasi-mystical induction into the tribe seemed contrived, but both these elements served the purpose of opening up the story and offered social alternatives to the self-centred and obsessive pursuit of wealth.
All the actors acquitted themselves remarkably well, though special mention must be made of Walter Huston’s Academy Award-winning performance. His shrewd but likeable Howard encapsulates the strength, character and spirit of those willing to chance everything but able to pick themselves up if or when they fail.
Humphrey Bogart is simply outstanding as Fred Dobbs. He captures brilliantly Dobbs’ deterioration from the honest, ambitious but failing down-and-out to the suspicious, lost and demented wealthy man who loses everything, including perspective, before he loses his very life.
My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.
I can be contacted at .
Thursday, 22 November 2018
Reflections on “Papillon” (1973)
Directed by Franklin J. Schaffner
Written by Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.
(based on the book by Henri Charrière)
Starring Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman
Part documentary, part social commentary and part drama, this is an adventure story with a difference. Adapted from the vivid, colourful and gripping autobiography of Henri Charrière, “Papillon” dares to challenge the premise, integrity and merit of the French colonial penal system of the 1930s (French Guiana ceased receiving convicts in 1938 and was closed in 1953).
Papillon (the nickname of Henri Charrière), Louis Dega and their companions are all convicted criminals and are to be dispatched to French Guiana for the duration of their sentences (and double it in some cases) as France, they are told, has washed her hands of them. Papillon insists he is innocent of the murder for which he was condemned, though he does not deny involvement in lesser crimes. Dega is a forger and embezzler. Thus, a major issue and challenge in terms of audience investment in the film is sympathy, or lack of it, for the main characters. The source of interest and key to engagement with the film is not indignation at a miscarriage of justice, but rather an investigation into the conditions and treatment of those incarcerated, the appropriateness of punishment to fit crimes committed, and an examination of effects (both negative and, amazingly, positive) of incarceration and treatment such as those meted out at that time.
From the outset it is made clear that these men have lost more than their freedom as a price for their crimes – they have lost their homes, their families, their country, their dignity, their rights and their futures. The relatively naïve and unworldly Louis Dega desperately tries to hold on to trust in his wife and lawyer to extricate him from his predicament, but he is quickly disabused of this notion by the more worldly-wise Papillon. He suggests that from that moment on and in that place (though perhaps also in life in general) it is every man for himself and each must do what he has to do in order to survive. They make a mutually beneficial pact which will form the basis of a long and rewarding friendship for both.
The harsh reality of their circumstances hits home as Papillon defends Dega from murderous thieves, a young fellow convict, unable to cope with his situation, is killed in an apparent bid to escape, and another wounds himself seriously to ensure he is sent to hospital where he will have time to reflect on how best to try to escape. Hopelessness and desperation set in when a fellow convict who has tried to escape once too often is guillotined before their eyes as a warning.
Apparently, washing her hands of these convicts means France is willing to turn a blind eye to corruption, institutional violence, racism, bullying and, of course, deprivation of human rights as guards and staff accept bribes, organise bounty hunters to foil escapes (sharing the bounty), use convicts’ efforts to fill their own pockets and apply pressure by deprivation as a means of “persuasion” to co-operate.
Deprived of hope, rehabilitation and humanity, Papillon and his compadres are driven to take matters into their own hands and set out to escape.
It could be argued that the penal system itself should be viewed as the principal antagonist, compelling its prisoners to comply, face destruction or defy it and seek escape. Curiously, those who choose defiance discover unknown or untested depths of character in themselves and learn to admire and value aspects and traits of common humanity they may previously have taken for granted or simply not appreciated.
These men are far from innocent and readily admit their wrongdoings but they are driven to greater acts of criminality by a system which pushes them to desperation merely to survive and leaves them with little or no sense of self-worth. Somewhat ironically, facing such hardships and inhumane treatment brings out the best in Papillon, Dega and their fellows as they discover the value of friendship, loyalty, determination, courage, compassion and spirit, all in the pursuit of freedom from what they may regard as punishment out of proportion with their crimes.
Papillon refuses to denounce Dega after the latter supplied coconuts during the former’s solitary confinement, an act of loyalty Dega has not previously experienced, but is much appreciated by him. Dega physically helps his friends escape, showing courage and loyalty of which he never knew he was capable and lepers show compassion by providing a boat for Papillon and his group because he and his friends treat the lepers with respect and consideration.
Those who share hardship and difficulty may share a bond which forges friendship, compassion and understanding, often in contrast to those who enforce regimes that cause such hardship and who may even display some of the qualities and behaviours condemned by legal systems and courts.
I am unconvinced that Henri Charrière learned the lessons depicted in the film or set out to draw attention to the themes developed within it. Dalton Trumbo and Lorenzo Semple Jr.’s script distils and accentuates elements touched upon in Charrière’s much disputed but fascinating account of his adventures.
In passing, I would point out that Charrière’s book was published just over a century after Victor Hugo wrote “Les Misérables” in which he set out to describe the consequences of an inhumane and heartless penal system and how, with a little compassion and understanding, a man’s life can be turned around.
Franklin J. Schaffner took a difficult and perhaps unsympathetic subject and managed to wring sympathy and concern from it by focusing on the harshness of the environment and regime, and the stoicism of his protagonists underpinned by their slow but steady development as flawed human beings, but all tinged with regret and perhaps despair at the sheer waste of life on display.
Steve McQueen and Dustin Hoffman are quite superb in their roles. Hoffman’s nervy, twitchy and downright annoying performance captures perfectly the quirky, awkward and increasingly sorrowful Dega and is in direct contrast with McQueen’s calm, controlled and determined Papillon. Many write Steve McQueen off as just another action hero (albeit a charismatic one) but anyone who ever doubted his acting ability should see his performance here, especially in the scenes of solitary confinement. Sheer heart-rending class.
My thanks for taking the time to read this article. I hope you found it of some value.
Thursday, 27 September 2018
Reflections on aspects of existentialism in “Public Eye” (TV series 1965 – 1975)
Created by Roger Marshall and Anthony Marriott
Starring Alfred Burke as Frank Marker
“Public Eye” was a TV drama which ran for seven series from the mid-sixties to the mid-seventies. It revolved around the investigations of Frank Marker, a slightly down-at-heel but highly principled inquiry agent, usually into low-key, familiar and “realistic” problems and situations.
Produced during the same period as shows such as “The Avengers”, “The Saint”, “Department S” and American shows such as “Kojak”, “Cannon” and “Hawaii five-0”, “Public Eye” represented a significant and deliberate departure from these flashy, highly dramatic and exciting shows. It focused on more human, recognisable and identifiable characters and situations that were nonetheless intriguing and involving, and allowed the viewer to engage with others’ lives and see possible outcomes, problems and complications arising from those lives.
Marker’s inquiries touch upon human relationships, social attitudes, legal and moral challenges and above all the choices people make in their lives and the consequences of these choices. His tales accentuate the fact our lives are interwoven and actions and decisions we take will impact on others.
We all experience problems in our lives and for the most part we turn to friends, family or the authorities for help. Frank Marker is there if these avenues are not readily open. He offers his services to look in to situations and at the same time enables the viewer to do so as well. He is a sort of impartial observer with a voice of reason and objectivity who seeks truth and clarity where emotion, anxiety or anger may cloud judgement.
He walks a dangerous and difficult path as his genuine willingness and desire to help his clients mean that he will become embroiled in their situations. Faced with this existential conundrum, he behaves like a human being – he cannot stand back and allow circumstances to develop if he has some insight or thinks he can offer some positive input. We all muddle through life impacting on one another’s lives but Marker seems willing to recognise and accept responsibility for his actions, sometimes paying a heavy price for his “interference”.
Marker is not driven by ambition or a desire for money but rather a wish to help his clients while seeking truth and clarity. Of course, he doesn’t do it out of the goodness of his heart – he is paid for his services as, like all of us, he has to make a living, but his primary concern is to do his best for his client. His fee is simply a fair recompense for his time and effort. Ultimately, Marker seems to value the help he can offer his clients above personal financial gain, highlighting the importance of personal input and support in society as opposed to mere commercial interaction.
In terms of social interaction, he is fiercely independent, sure of his own ethics and is not at all keen on personal or romantic involvement. His strength of conviction and clarity of thought and perception make the compromise required for a close relationship or friendship very difficult for him.
The show offers insight into the human condition and, generally speaking, the problems and situations of clients are the centre of attention while Marker’s character is cleverly drawn through his reaction to events and interaction with other characters. Marker and, at times, his friend Detective Inspector Percy Firbank, uncover truth which may have consequences but these consequences are always down to choices made by those involved, though Frank and Percy occasionally have trouble living with the influence they exercise as a result of their inquiries.
This show may be the purest exploration of the principles of existentialism yet seen on TV. It examines closely the interwoven nature of our lives, the impact we have on one another and the responsibility we may (or may not) feel for this.
It is beautifully written and produced (given its age), focusing on the ordinary and characters, problems and choices we may all encounter, one way or another. The acting is of a high standard throughout but Alfred Burke and Ray Smith deserve particular praise for their portrayals of Marker and Firbank. Both bring authenticity, sincerity and vulnerability to their roles and Alfred Burke manages to impart, seemingly effortlessly, humanity and genuine soul-searching in his portrayal of the relatively impoverished but highly principled and dedicated Frank Marker.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
I can be contacted at email@example.com
Sunday, 23 September 2018
Existentialism in society today
It seems to me that in the wake of the two World Wars there was a general upsurge in the principles of equality, justice, democracy and fraternity. Naturally, changes were far from instantaneous, but the old order (based primarily on class superiority, assumed authority and position) was challenged and largely overhauled due principally to a spirit of entitlement, openness and impartiality in recognition of the fact that members from across the spectrum of society had defended its fundamental values and then participated in its post-war reconstruction.
This may be viewed as a practical embodiment of the philosophy and values upheld by the Enlightenment Movement wherein the principles of equality, reason and accountability are held paramount.
However, as time passed and the direct threat of injustice and subjugation for all mostly subsided, the intense flames of the fight for freedom and integrity calmed to mere embers and a large swathe of people have come to adopt an almost existential acceptance of political, social and commercial chicanery (perpetrated by those unfettered by a sense of rectitude and responsibility for impacting on others’ lives), provided the quality of their own lives remains intact or is even improved.
Schemes and conspiracies have been conducted behind the scenes, often involving hardship and injustice for many who oil the machinery of such commercial enterprises and political machinations, while maintaining a façade of political and commercial correctness and legitimacy which most are more than willing to accept.
As one-time military and political conquests and subjugations have been insidiously replaced by commercial acquisition and financial control, values and principles once considered worth defending are in danger of being invisibly but steadily eradicated, swallowed by an existential fog of self-centred apathy and abandonment. Careerism and hedonism appear to be steadily replacing professionalism and purpose, yet apparent impassivity, lack of direction and lack of positive action are being recognised and rejected by some and this is evidenced by a trend toward independence and self-determination. This is born of frustration and discontent in the face of apparent inability or unwillingness on the part of governing bodies to tackle ongoing urgent social, political and economic issues, exacerbated by the perception that an influential minority seems to actually gain through their protraction.
In the past, when people faced common external issues and threats (crushing social injustice leading to the French Revolution, industrialisation and its attendant social pressures and reforms, and attempted subjugation leading to two World Wars), they united to fight for a cause, for values and for a common purpose, reflecting the spirit of the Enlightenment Movement.
However, after the immediate post-war period there followed a turbulent period in the sixties and seventies, characterised by confrontation over workers’ rights, conditions and wages, social and political upheaval, huge economic pressures and rising unemployment. As a result, there was a return to more conservative policies in the eighties, involving the re-establishment of traditional working practices and an emphasis on market freedom, and the suggestion that the individual should act in his/her own best interests, with the view that this would strengthen society overall. This philosophy was reflected in the famous line “Greed is good” in the film Wall Street (1987).
Today, it might be said the problems we face are increasingly internal as we encounter political, administrative, financial and socially divisive issues. We appear to have lost the perspective of “the bigger picture” and focus instead on individual satisfaction, maintaining our own standard of living or making our way in the society we have built. We appear to be losing sight of values, purpose and the common good, opting instead for a self-centred path toward “success”. This may be said to reflect the spirit of existentialism wherein the existence of God, morality and principles are refuted and we are invited to think only of ourselves and the place we can make for ourselves in society.
This attitude has led to inward-looking and defensive governance, administration and law-making which conceal inaction, indifference and lack of comprehension and empathy and this has, in turn, led to frustration and discontent, causing some to want to break away from traditional and accepted government.
However, as I have suggested previously, existentialism is not the same as nihilism. If we accept responsibility for one another and our impact on one another, we can achieve far more together than if we limit ourselves to what is best for individuals or small groups with shared interests.
Careerism, self-gratification and a blinkered outlook have insidiously crept in to our political and administrative systems and this has led to many sections of society feeling disenfranchised and willing to pursue change, any change, as an alternative to a system they feel has failed them. That is not, however, a reason to reject the structure itself. Structures and systems can be re-invigorated and re-imagined with fresh, practical and positive ideas put into practice by constructive and conscientious personnel resulting in tangible change and improvement for all instead of apparently incessant discussion and pompous focus on procedure and position resulting in inaction and indolence.
Threat and danger have previously united people in a common cause. Today need be no different, but now the threat lies within our society and the loss of perspective we have developed by encouraging members of society to focus on individual success. We need to develop an awareness of and a sense of responsibility toward others if we are to evolve as a society.
Even if principle, morality and values have no celestial authority, the concept exists and therefore we can create, adopt and enforce values when dealing with fellow human beings. Success does not necessarily mean self-serving. While a degree of selfishness may be required to inspire or stimulate action, that action should ultimately serve others if it is to have any lasting value, and that precept may be seen as one of the corner-stones of a healthy and enduring society.
My thanks for taking the time to read this page. I hope you found it of some value.
I can be contacted at .
Wednesday, 18 July 2018
Reflections on “Seven Samurai”
Directed by Akira Kurosawa
Written by Akira Kurosawa, Shinobu Hashimoto and Hideo Oguni
Starring Takashi Shimura, Toshiro Mifune et al.
These notes are based on the 190 minute BFI DVD presentation.
“Seven Samurai” is frequently referred to as the film against which all action films that have followed it should be judged. With its carefully calculated combination of exciting yet emotionally engaging action scenes, exploration and development of character and a storyline that appeals to the heart and mind, “Seven Samurai” was successful not just in its own right but it established a form of template for numerous ensemble cast adventure films in the 1960s, 70s and beyond.
As I settled to watch this action/adventure film for the first time in some twenty years, it struck me that a key element that spans the film and informs the character development so essential to its success is the code by which these samurai live.
Although by tradition social movement between castes and classes was impossible, during the Sengoku period (our film takes place in 1586) there was some loosening of samurai culture and some born in other castes could make a name for themselves as warriors, thus becoming de facto samurai. However, a true samurai was not just a warrior but was one who aspired to live by a code, a code that set them apart, the code of Bushido, and this same code seems to underpin the very structure of “Seven Samurai”.
After a little research, I found Inazo Nitobe’s list of eight principles of Bushido – justice, honour, benevolence, courage, manners, honesty, self-discipline and loyalty. The closeness in number between the eight values of Bushido and the seven samurai (on top of which you might include the farmers they defend) was quite irresistible to me and as I watched the film I tried to identify connections between the two.
Eventually, I reached the conclusion that although our seven display nearly all the virtues, six samurai seem to lack at least one of the virtues and the seventh allows one of them to take precedence over the others. In the course of defending the village, each will have the opportunity to embrace that which is lacking or consider that which overwhelms him, and we witness the resultant changes in the individual and benefits for the group. The farmers provide the cause for which our seven fight but they also learn to defend themselves and in so doing embrace the qualities personified by our seven.
Our seven are in fact Ronin (or masterless) and so lack the element of loyalty. Loyalty to one to whom you owe a debt (usually a member of the Shogunate) seems to have overridden all other principles of the samurai code and thus led to the committing of many crimes against common humanity in the name of extending one’s master’s influence and power.
When Kikuchiyo uncovers weaponry stolen from defeated and murdered samurai, the farmers are accused of being underhand, cunning and murderous. However, Kikuchiyo defends them, saying they have been made this way by the samurai themselves and their own acts of theft, rape and murder all done through blind loyalty to their Shogun masters who ruled by force and only exercised humanity on a whim or if it served their own purpose. The remaining six samurai are stunned and shamed as they are forced to face the injustice of samurai acts and recognise they have behaved in much the same way as the very bandits they have been hired to confront. Although they had collectively found purpose in defending the farmers against marauding bandits, they are now united in a cause for justice (while perhaps righting their own injustices) and this may well be seen as filling the gap left by their loss of loyalty to a master.
In a way, losing loyalty has allowed them to follow a different path based on other virtues such as justice, benevolence and honour. And then there is the possibility of a new-found loyalty they develop toward one another.
Although this change affects all seven, it is perhaps best personified by Gorobei who initially gets involved in the scheme purely because of Kambei. He pays little heed to the whys and wherefores of the venture – he shows faith in and devotion or loyalty to Kambei alone, but he goes on to discover the value of fighting for fairness, helps plan the defence of the village and even loses his life while fighting for a cause rather than for a potentially unscrupulous individual to whom he felt he owed a debt.
In the case of Shichiroji, there may be some doubt about his sense of honour. He is an old friend and former lieutenant of Kambei whom Kambei thought lost. When asked how he escaped in a previous conflict, Shichiroji replies that he hid in a ditch as the castle collapsed around him. This may reflect a perfectly sensible and practical attitude toward survival but this, along with the fact he fails to answer Kambei’s next question about whether he is ready for another fight, rather suggests we are being led to doubt the importance Shichiroji attaches to honour.
However, emboldened and heartened by the cause for which they are fighting and perhaps the unity of spirit in the group, Shichiroji makes no attempt to conceal himself when the going gets tough and he dies making a spirited defence of the village.
Heichachi, the spirited and enthusiastic woodcutter, suggests in a conversation that one can’t be expected to kill all one’s enemies and if one is outnumbered by 20 or 30 bandits, it is perfectly reasonable to run away. Once again, this may be viewed as a survival reflex but I think we are being invited to doubt Heichachi’s courage in the face of adversity.
Once again, however, strength due to belief in a cause, combined with unity of spirit, enable a potential weakness to be overcome and allow Heichachi to willingly participate in a raid on the bandit encampment where the bandits greatly outnumber our heroes. He dies but has proved himself worthy of the term samurai and the code they follow.
Kyuzo, the stone-faced swordsman who initially turns down Kambei’s invitation to join them because he simply wants to perfect his skill rather than kill, may be viewed as lacking the virtue of benevolence. It appears that martial skills are everything to him, to the point where he kills a man to prove his mastery (though he was severely provoked and threatened by the man he eventually killed), and so the others are surprised when he joins them, and he offers no explanation for his change of heart.
Yet, after seeing Katsushiro share his rice with Shino and offer to find food for other hungry villagers, it is Kyuzo who offers to do without his own share of rice in order to help the villagers and he later volunteers to enter the enemy camp in order to retrieve one of their guns. Clearly then, Kyuzo has been influenced by the company and purpose of his fellow samurai and has gained the virtue of benevolence, benefitting both the villagers and his comrades in arms.
Katsushiro is the youngest of the group and he displays many of the principles of the samurai code but he lacks self-discipline. On a number of occasions, he is directed or advised by Kambei and the others as his enthusiasm and willingness to take action may not be the best option. It is, however, in a matter of the heart which overflows into social politics and the mixing of castes that Katsushiro reveals his lack of self-discipline. Katsushiro and Shino yield to temptation and fear to make love shortly before the final battle. This causes considerable social strife among the conservative farmers who think of this as an act of dishonour and social disgrace. Katsushiro learns to put aside his guilt and personal feelings for Shino to make a valuable contribution to the final battle, displaying discipline while fighting for justice.
It should be noted that Shichiroji (already associated with honour) points out that it is, perhaps, preferable that Shino should have been “dishonoured” (so to speak) by a samurai than by a bandit, inviting Manzo (Shino’s father) to keep events and his attitude to honour in proportion. It should also be noted that at the end of the film it is unclear whether Katsushiro will pursue his association with his new-found friends or a relationship with Shino. Perhaps he will value love more highly than a career as a samurai.
Kikuchiyo is perhaps the most interesting, engaging and entertaining of the samurai. He is also the one with the most complex background and the one least likely to qualify as a samurai.
When Kikuchiyo witnesses Kambei’s actions at the start of the film, he is clearly deeply impressed and, making something of a noisy fuss, he runs up to Kambei, presumably in an attempt to engage in a friendly conversation or perhaps even to suggest accompanying him. However, Kikuchiyo doesn’t have the verbal skills to put into words his feelings and he is even angered when Katsushiro expresses himself eloquently, doubtless expressing the very sentiments he himself would have liked to communicate. Reacting badly and with some anger and frustration, he incites distrust and caution in Kambei and Katsushiro. Kikuchiyo appears to be lacking in the virtue of manners. He finds it difficult to judge the feelings and reactions of others and he has some difficulty communicating his own feelings.
On top of this, Kikuchiyo lacks another virtue – that of honesty. He makes quite a fuss of the scroll he carries, a scroll that validates his family claims and background, but which the others quickly and easily disprove. Interestingly, it is shortly after this truth has emerged that he finds acceptance among the others as he also angrily reveals the truth about the farmers’ attitudes, the guilt of the samurai in creating these attitudes and his own farming background.
His deep-felt and long-harboured bitterness and resentment concerning the treatment of peasants by Shogun and samurai alike feed an eloquent and perfectly reasoned speech after which the samurai are shamed into seeking justice and Kikuchiyo can rightfully take his place among them. Honesty has thus led to greater compassion and clarification of purpose and motivation among the seven. It has also given Kikuchiyo greater confidence in terms of self-belief and occasionally abrasive communication as he combines training the farmers with entertainment and compassion, showing a genuine understanding and regard for their situation. He has thus gained the two virtues he lacked and this benefits the group as a whole.
Kambei may be viewed as the virtual embodiment of samurai principles though he himself points out he is a Ronin. When freed from subjective loyalty to an individual, Kambei is able to recognise and commit to objective justice. His actions and manner near the start of the film suggest he possesses all the values of Bushido and his benevolence in taking on the farmers’ cause, combined with lack of loyalty to a master, lead him to a reinforced adherence to justice, if only as compensation for injustices he is forced to recognise by Kikuchiyo.
At the end, with four of their number dead and Katsushiro tempted to join Shino in village life, Kambei concludes that they have in fact lost once again. With their land, the farmers are the victors and not the samurai who defended them. The cause may have been won, but the combatants have gained little or lost everything. The farmers have retained their physical legacy of eternal land (representing growth and development) and have undoubtedly gained in spiritual strength through their collaboration with the seven, while the defenders must content themselves with the knowledge they have preserved the intangible but elemental values by which they live.
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