The new version of The Magnificent Seven arrives in theaters Friday, with Denzel Washington, Chris Pratt, Ethan Hawke, Vincent D’Onofrio, Byung-Hun Lee, Manuel Garcia-Rulfo and Martin Sensmeier filling the saddles of the seven cowboys who made the 1960 movie of the same name a Western classic.
The 1960 version was, per TIME’s critic, the best movie in that genre to be released in that year:
The Magnificent Seven (United Artists) suggests that, after many a disappointment with Hollywood and television westerns, U.S. reviewers and distributors are so saddle-sore and range-blind that they cannot tell a ring-tailed snorter from a bucket-foot mule. Greeted by a flurry of inattention from the critics, this western has been hastily remaindered into the neighborhood circuits in the hope that it will soon get profitably lost in the Christmas rush. The loss will be bearable: Seven is not a great picture—not nearly as good as the Japanese Magnificent Seven (TIME, Dec. 10, 1956), the brilliant episode of chivalry, directed by Japan’s Akira (Rashomon) Kurosawa, from which it is adapted. Nevertheless, it is the best western released so far in 1960, a skillful, exciting, and occasionally profound contemplation of the life of violence.
In the Hollywood version of the Kurosawa story, the seven samurai become seven Texas gunmen (Yul Brynner, Steve McQueen, Horst Buchholz, James Coburn, Charles Bronson, Robert Vaughn, Brad Dexter). One day, Bravo Brynner is approached by some Mexican farmers who offer him everything they have if he will protect their village from a bandit chieftain (Eli Wallach). Unexpectedly moved, he accepts their minuscule fee, recruits the other six, and together they ride out on their errand of mercy.
But it wasn’t as good as the original original—the 1954 Japanese film that was released in the U.S. in 1956, originally under the title The Magnificent Seven. As Seven Samurai, the English title it’s known by today, it is not just a great example of one genre in one year, but rather a great movie, period. TIME’s 1956 review explained why:
Arms and the men have seldom been more stirringly sung than in this tale of bold emprise in old Nippon. In his latest film, Akira Kurosawa (Rashomon) has plucked the epic string…
The story is set in medieval Japan, when the common people groaned beneath the rule of outlaw and disorder. A village in a valley is its hero and its theme. Loud are the wails of its inhabitants when a farmer who has overheard some bandits plotting on the hill comes down to tell the village that it will be raided as soon as the rice is cut. But one man, Rikichi (Yoshio Tsuchiya), whose wife was carried off in the last raid, does not wail; he resolves to fight. And the wise old man who lives in the mill reveals to the villagers a way to fight: hire soldiers to fight for you. But how can poor farmers possibly afford to pay soldiers? Let them be hungry soldiers, the sage explains, and pay them with rice.
Not that the film was perfect: “In The Magnificent Seven, as in Rashomon, Kurosawa has provided a feast of impressions, but has skimped on some of the more essential vitamins,” the critic noted. “The characters are clearly written and admirably played, especially the leader of the Samurai (Takashi Shimura). But only rarely does the story seem to drop through the floor of everyday reality into the moral hell that war really is.”
But either of them, and likely the new version too, could still be proud to be better than yet another version of the story: the 1966 sequel, Return of the Seven, which TIME called a “ludicrous reprise” of the subject matter.