Why is "Seven Samurai" considered one of the greatest films ever made? I'd answer that by telling you to go watch it right now, but you probably don't have 3 hours and 27 minutes free at the moment. (It goes by super fast, though, which is one of the reasons the movie is great.)
One reason is simply the movie's vast influence. Released 60 years ago this week in Japan (on April 26, 1954), Akira Kurosawa's epic has had an incalculable impact on adventure filmmaking for six decades. Some of your favorite movies owe a huge debt to "Seven Samurai," and you may not even realize it.
The movie's plot has proved simple but durable: The residents of a farming village are beset by roving bandits until they hire a septet of ronin to defend them. Despite the lengthy running time, that's pretty much it, plus a lot of character development so that you actually care about the individual townsfolk and the warriors who agree to help them.
We could examine the film for that richness of character, or for its exploration of multiple themes (class, honor, duty, loyalty, teamwork), or for Kurosawa's brilliance at composition and his fluid staging of action (a tremendous influence on such directors as Steven Spielberg and George Lucas, and therefore, on pretty much all mainstream action filmmaking today). But let's just stick to plot.
That plot is basic yet indestructible. It works so well that it's been copied countless times, in several different genres. Everyone knows about "The Magnificent Seven" (1960), an explicit Hollywood remake of "Seven Samurai" set in the old West. Indeed, there have been a number of Western variations on the plot, such as "The Wild Bunch" (where the heroes are outlaws, and the suicidal nature of their mission is much more apparent) or "High Plains Drifter" (where, instead of hiring a whole team, the town just recruits Clint Eastwood). Or there's "The Road Warrior," essentially a post-apocalyptic Western, with Mel Gibson instead of Clint Eastwood (or a team of mercenaries). The desperate townsfolk and the ruthless bandits, however, remain much the same as in Kurosawa's original story.
But there have also been "Samurai"-influenced World War II movies, from "The Guns of Navarone" to "The Dirty Dozen" to Spielberg's "Saving Private Ryan." Indeed, any movie where a team of unlikely heroes is assembled to attempt a seemingly impossible mission can be said to echo "Seven Samurai." You could say the recent "Avengers" film borrows the "Seven Samurai" plot, and you wouldn't be wrong.
The mission doesn't even have to be an honorable one. Look at "Ocean's Eleven," both the 1960 original with the Rat Pack and the 2001 remake with George Clooney and Brad Pitt. In the original, they're all war veterans, but they're assembled for a heist. So it is with the remake and its sequels, which are a lot more interested than the Frank Sinatra original was in exploring character, as Kurosawa was.
Starting in the mid-1980s, we saw a comic variation on the "Seven Samurai" plot, with several movies where the hired guns were merely entertainers who thought they'd been hired to put on a show and didn't realize that their adversaries were real and lethal. The first of these was "Three Amigos," with spangled silent-film Western stars Steve Martin, Chevy Chase, and Martin Short brought to a Mexican town to fight real bandits.
A decade later, in Pixar's animated feature "A Bug's Life" (1998), the comic premise played out with ants hiring a motley group of insects from a flea circus to defend their colony from rapacious grasshoppers. A year later, in the sci-fi spoof "Galaxy Quest," meek aliens recruit the actors from a "Star Trek"-like TV series to defend them against a genocidal extraterrestrial foe. As in "Three Amigos," the circus bugs and the TV actors are called upon to display for real the heroism they've only pretended at before, confronting the bad guys with little more than bravado and showbiz razzle-dazzle.
The most recent example of the comic showbiz variation on the "Seven Samurai" plot came in last year's "Oz the Great and Powerful," in which harmless Munchkins and other defenseless Oz creatures enlist a carnival magician to save them from a pair of wicked witches. While he does develop a willingness to put others' needs ahead of his own for the first time in his life, he saves the day largely through his talents for stage fakery, misdirection, and deception. In other words, he saves the kingdom primarily through his lack of character.
Of course, once we're playing out the scenario in a fantasy world populated by porcelain children and flying monkeys, we're an awfully long way from feudal Japan. So, that's how far the influence of "Seven Samurai" extends, and why all the imitations should lead you back to the original 1954 epic. Which you should watch right now. Go ahead, we'll wait.