U.S. remakes rip the art out of foreign films

March 18, 1993|By Stephen Hunter | Stephen Hunter,Film Critic

I hate it when they do that. And they're doing it again: namely, taking a unique foreign film, complete to its quirky attitudes, its alien cultural norms, its very strangeness, and turning it into a conventional Hollywood movie.

It seems to be a staple this year. Already, we've had "Sommersby," a largely respectful but subtly different version of "The Return of Martin Guerre," with Richard Gere in the role made famous by Gerard Depardieu. We've also had "The Vanishing," in which Dutch director George Sluizer actually collaborated in the Americanizing of his own masterpiece and turned it into a big-budget American moron movie and paid the price at the box office.

And tomorrow American remake No. 3 gets here. This is John Badham's "Point of No Return," with Bridget Fonda starring in a remake of the ultracool, ultrahip, ultraviolent "La Femme Nikita" of two years ago, with Annie Parillaud. Some might say: Why bother? "La Femme Nikita" already was an American film. It just happened to be made in France, that's all.

The answer is economic, not artistic or cultural. An art house success, as were "The Return of Martin Guerre," "The Vanishing" and even "La Femme Nikita," measures its audience in hundred of thousands and its box office take in ones of millions, if that. In fact, as bad as Sluizer's American remake of "The Vanishing" was, it was probably seen in a single weekend by more people than saw the original "The Return of Martin Guerre," "The Vanishing" and "La Femme Nikita" together. It's simply a matter of market proportion: That's why there are over 200 screens in the Baltimore area, but only one, and occasionally two or three others, dedicated to art products.

So Hollywood, the story monster, has learned that there's no penalty to be paid for taking a foreign film and shamelessly Americanizing it. It's the nature of the beast, which must -- rain or shine -- create 200 stories a year or die and will shamelessly eat up any form that offers a good tale or even the elements of a good tale: not merely foreign films but also books, comic books, board games, newspaper and magazine articles, true-life adventures and fairy stories, all of which have provided fodder for movies of late.

But when the source is a movie from another culture, the results can be spectacularly revealing. Anthropologists love to study the phenomenon, for the light it sheds on the cultures involved. One of the most famous of these transfers, but by no means the first, occurred in 1962 when John Sturges took the brilliant Japanese film "The Seven Samurai" by Akira Kurosawa and changed it into "The Magnificent Seven," also a brilliant but a decidedly different movie.

The story was great action stuff: In a time of strife, a small village was beset by marauders who annually pillaged the harvest. In despair, the villagers hired seven professional soldiers to train them and lead them in battle. The soldiers come to the village and some are seduced by the quiet ways of agriculture, or by various farm women. When the marauders arrive, war is waged in all its forms; at the end, the heroic soldiers prevail but move on. Only the farmers and the land remain.

It played equally well whether set in medieval Japan, where the soldiers were samurai and the weapons bows and wicked 3-foot slashing swords; or set in Mexico in the 1880s, where the soldiers were American gunfighters and the weapons six-guns and Winchesters. The differences were interesting, however. In the original and far richer Japanese film, Kurosawa (a great director and artist) refused to yield to the pious sentimentality of the "farmers." His villagers were mean and crabby, just as willing to betray the samurai as to fight with them. In the end, their victory was drenched in pathos and irony: One felt that the incredible heroics of the professionals were thrown away on these little people.

That last image -- one of the five or six great images in world cinema -- arrived laden with considerable rue and woe. It was the funeral mound where four of the seven samurai lay buried, their swords plunged point down, a harsh and forgetful wind rushing across them, raising a screen of dust. Kurosawa had no illusions about the fates of soldiers: It is to die for society and be forgotten.

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