In my last column, I discussed how cinema is essentially a medium that is built upon its own history, with countless directors using their own films as excuses to pay homage to those that inspired them. Whether it come in the form of lifting a particular bit of technical flair like a camera movement or editing choice, or the outright aping of a particular director’s style, almost every film is influenced by other movies in some way. Even the most influential films have their roots in the movies that came before them. For instance, Akira Kurosawa’s epic masterpiece Seven Samurai (1954) was heavily inspired by the westerns of director John Ford, a fact which Kurosawa never denied. At the same time, however, Seven Samurai has gone on to influence countless other films, from outright remakes like The Magnificent Seven (1960) to looser adaptations (for lack of a better term) like Battle Beyond the Stars (1980) and The 13th Warrior (1999). However, this column is not about Seven Samurai, though it is relevant to the discussion. Instead, I am going to look at three films that use of the basic template laid down by Kurosawa’s classic samurai film as a jumping off point, and proceed to tweak it in ways that are both innovative and hilarious.
Directed by John Landis, ¡Three Amigos! (1986) is the story of three pampered actors who are mistaken for the decidedly more heroic characters they play by the oppressed townspeople of a small Mexican village that has been besieged by the infamous El Guapo (Alfonso Arau) and his ruthless gang of cutthroat banditos. Having recently fallen on hard times, silent film stars Lucky Day (Steve Martin), Dusty Bottoms (Chevy Chase), and Ned Nederlander (Martin Short) are elated to receive a telegraph offering them 100,000 pesos to come to the village of Santa Poco and give a performance. At least, that’s what they think the telegram says. In reality, the villagers believe that the three vain and self-absorbed performers are really the brave gunslingers they portray in their films, and they want the Three Amigos to come to Santa Poco and put an end to the reign of the evil El Guapo, a cruel tyrant who has been oppressing the townspeople through intimidation and violence. The clueless Amigos take the gig, but they quickly turn tail when they realize that they’re the only ones pretending to be something they are not. However, when El Guapo ransacks the village and kidnaps the lovely Carmen (Patrice Martinez), Lucky and the boys decide it’s time to man up and save the day. They mount up and ride off to confront El Guapo and his gang. Unfortunately, they soon discover that acting like heroes is a lot easier than actually being heroes, and it’s going to take a lot more than bluster and false bravado to save Carmen and liberate the village. Do the Three Amigos have what it takes to give the villagers a happy ending, or will their most important performance end up being a huge flop?
Meanwhile, directors John Lasseter and Andrew Stanton explore similar ground with A Bug’s Life (1998), a charming and lush film about a colony of ants that is being subjugated by a gang of nasty grasshoppers. Based on Aesop’s fable of the grasshopper and the ant, the film is about Flik (Dave Foley), a misfit ant who doesn’t quite fit in with the rest of the colony, which is led by the determined Princess Atta (Julia Louis-Dreyfuss) and her mother, the queen (Phyllis Diller). For years, the ants have been forced to spend their summers gathering food for the vicious Hopper (Kevin Spacey) and his gang of thuggish grasshoppers. Unfortunately, this year things don’t go as planned, thanks to Flik’s ambition. While testing out a new invention, Flik accidentally spills the offering into the stream that runs next to the colony’s ant hill. To make up for his mistake, Flik offers to venture out into the larger world to recruit warriors who will save the ants from the grasshoppers. Seeing an opportunity to be rid of the klutzy dreamer, the leaders of the colony quickly agree. So Flik makes his way to the big city, where he happens to walk into a bar just as a fight is breaking out. Afterward he approaches the winners, and invites them to come back to the colony with him. What Flik doesn’t know is that these tough bugs are actually circus performers, and they only managed to win the fight thanks to dumb luck. Much like the Three Amigos, the circus performers think Flik is just asking them to come and perform for the ants, and when they find out he actually wants them to tussle with a gang of tough grasshoppers, they quickly run in the other direction. Flik convinces them to stay, however, and together they hatch a plan to scare Hopper and his gang off for good. Of course, nothing is ever as easy as it seems, and Flik and his friends now have to find the courage to stand up to the grasshoppers and free the colony from them.
Finally, in director Dean Parisot’s Galaxy Quest (1999), the cast of a low budget Star Trek rip off, are mistaken for actual space travelers by the Thermians, a race of meek aliens who are being tormented by a wicked warlord named Sarris (Robin Sachs). Seventeen years after the show went off the air, the Thermians have been receiving transmissions of the show. However, they mistake the program for “historical documents,” and they dispatch a team of their best and brightest (both of which are relative terms in this case) to track down brave Commander Peter Quincy Taggart (Tim Allen) and his intrepid crew. What the Thermians don’t know is that the Commander and his crew are actually failed actors who haven’t had a real gig since the show was canceled, and they’ve spent the last decade and a half keeping their fading stars alive through convention appearances and store openings. So when the Thermians approach Commander Taggart, aka Jason Nesmith, and offer him a job as their savior, he thinks they are simply fans who are offering him an easy gig. After an initial confrontation with Sarris, Nesmith learns that his adventure was real, and he convinces the rest of the cast to return to space with him so they can all play at being heroes. Unfortunately, much like the Three Amigos before them, Jason and his friends learn that being a hero is no easy feat, and the grim reality of their situation quickly settles in. Now, the crew of the NSEA Protector must dig deep, and find the heroes that exist within them. Will they be able to deliver a believable performance, or will they simply end up getting canceled all over again.
Aside from the fact that they are all heavily inspired by Seven Samurai, the main thing all three films have in common is the central conceit of performers being mistaken for heroic warriors. Each film seems to be playing off the notion that audiences often mistake actors or performers for the characters they play on screen, and they are taking that confusion to a decidedly extreme (though somewhat logical) conclusion. Viewers often like to imagine that guys like Robert Downey, Jr. and Tom Cruise are every bit as competent, resourceful, and noble as characters like Tony Stark or Ethan Hunt. The reality is probably much closer to what we see in ¡Three Amigos! and Galaxy Quest; even big name actors are just people, subject to the same quirks, foibles, and weaknesses as everyone else. Admittedly, they are impossibly beautiful and talented people, but that’s beside the point. While there are always exceptions, it would no doubt be more than a little silly to rely on these performers in a life-threatening crisis, and all three films mine the comedy of that premise for all its worth.
More importantly, though, all three films are about weak-willed characters who are confronted with overwhelming circumstances and are therefore forced to dig deep within themselves to find reserves of bravery they never even knew they possessed. Jason and the cast of Galaxy Quest have spent years coasting on their laurels, growing ever more bored and bitter with each embarrassing convention appearance. Similarly, the Three Amigos have grown accustomed to their fame, and have been lulled into a false sense of security thanks to their pampered and sheltered existence. On the other hand, the circus performers in A Bug’s Life love what they do, but they are afraid that their best days are behind them. They’ve spent so much time touring with the abusive P. T. Flea (John Ratzenberger) and plying their trade in front of nearly empty houses that they no longer believe in themselves, and their self-doubt has made them weak and afraid of the outside. In each film, the performers are jolted out of their malaise by the misguided but nevertheless genuine sense of faith the oppressed masses have in them, and it is this belief that allows them to find the heroes that exist within each of them.
Similarly, the villagers, the ant colony, and the Thermians all experience their own type of change by the end of each film. The ants are entirely ruled by their sense of routine, so much so that the unexpected appearance of a falling leaf causes them to panic. By the end of the film, however, they have learned to embrace individualism, but not at the expense of the good of the colony. They have learned how individuals can benefit the overall society, and it is all thanks to the efforts of Flik and his new friends. It’s similar to the way the Thermians learn to stand up for themselves by the end of the film. When Galaxy Quest begins, the Thermians are so afraid of Sarris and his army that they feel they have no choice but to turn to the crew of the NSEA Protector for help. However, thanks to the intervention of Nesmith and his friends, the Thermians discover that they are not simply helpless beings, but that they possess the same capacity for heroic acts and bravery as everyone else in the universe. They simply had to believe in themselves. It’s a lesson that is also learned by the villagers of Santo Poco, who are inspired by the Three Amigos to rise up against El Guapo and his men. By the time the Amigos ride off into the sunset, they have not only helped to liberate the village, but they have assisted the villagers in regaining their self-respect, which is the more important deed in the long run.
There are a number of other themes that run through all three films, and even instances when one film references or pays homage to the others (for instance, ¡Three Amigos! is set in Mexico, while A Bug’s Life has a sequence in which the grasshoppers visit a Mexican themed bar). It would take more space than this column provides to illuminate and explore all of them. However, it is the debt that all three of them owe to Akira Kurosawa that truly unites them, and grants each of them a permanent place in the hall of Cinematic Soulmates.