Ever notice that every blockbuster movie has the same fundamental pieces? A hero, a journey, some conflicts to muck it all up, a reward, and the hero returning home and everybody applauding his or her swag? Yeah, scholar Joseph Campbell noticed first—in 1949. He wrote The Hero with a Thousand Faces, in which he outlined the 17 stages of a mythological hero's journey.
About half a century later, Christopher Vogler condensed those stages down to 12 in an attempt to show Hollywood how every story ever written should—and, uh, does—follow Campbell's pattern. We're working with those 12 stages, so take a look. (P.S. Want more? We have an entire Online Course devoted to the hero's journey.)
The ordinary, in this case, is a pretty awful place. Chaos running rampant, bandits raiding villages with impunity, and once-noble samurai reduced to wandering aimlessly as ronin. That's no good for anyone involved: a scene that definitely needs changing. In this case, the whole world may be too much for any single hero (or even seven of them) to alter it, but for one small corner of it… yeah, maybe they can get something done.
Call to Adventure
The call comes in the form of the farmers, who decide to hire samurai to stop the marauding bandits. As with a lot of stories, the specifics get a little vague here. With seven samurai, we can't always be sure who the heroes are, and in some ways, the peasants themselves might be the heroes, since they're the ones leaving their comfort zone. But one thing is clear: the bandits gots to go, and that means summoning some folks capable of handling them.
Refusal of The Call
The seven samurai themselves don't actually refuse the call. If they did, they wouldn't be in the movie, and in fact we see at least one samurai who says, "nuts to this" when he hears the specifics. But while none of the heroes refuses to call, they do infer what might happen if they do. They're wandering aimlessly, working at menial jobs for food and living a completely unmoored life. Refusing the call will resign them to that life, while responding to the farmers' plea for help will at least get them back in the game and remind them of what it feels like to be real samurai again.
Meeting the Mentor
Things get a little tricky here, in part because we're never quite certain who the main protagonist is. But if we look at the movie as a coming-of-age story, then Katsushiro becomes the hero, and he meets his mentor with Kambei. The older samurai grudgingly takes him under his wing and shows him the ropes. And true to Campbellian fashion, said ropes get a little hairier than our young man expects.
Crossing the Threshold
There's an interesting reversal here. Technically speaking, Rikichi and the other farmers crossed the threshold when they left their home to find samurai. But to the samurai, that rollicking border town was the gateway. So while the farmers are returning home, the samurai are actually crossing the threshold, where the real adventure begins.
Tests, Allies, Enemies
Allies they got: six of 'em, plus the villagers on occasion. Enemies? We got them too, in the form of the bandits they presumably came here to stop. (We also get some not-so-subtle hints that the farmers might turn into enemies too if things don't pan out as planned.) All that's left to do is prep for the fight, which leads to a number of tests and trials. Kyuzo and Kikuchiyo each steal guns. A trio of samurai are dispatched to burn the bandits' fortress down. Various attacks are repulsed, and they even have to keep the peasants from losing their nut and panicking over any number of issues. Yeah, it's gonna be a long campaign, boys…
Approach to The Inmost Cave
The inmost cave represents final victory, which in this case means killing those pesky robbers once and for all. The samurai have lost two of their companions in the battle thus far, so they've definitely paid the price. But as Kambei notes, they hit the bandits hard too. And since the bandits are as desperate as they are, they're gonna come back for one final rumble in the rain. Gut check time.
Did we say "rain?" It's really more like a monsoon as the bandits hit the village with everything they've got and the surviving samurai make their final stand. Things get muddy and bloody and thoroughly chaotic. Keeping score gets awfully hard when you're waist deep in mud and a bunch of guys trying to kill you are barreling around the corner.
Reward (Seizing The Sword)
The reward in this case is very simple. Dead bandits means happy village that doesn't have to live in fear anymore. The samurai finally grab that prize when Kikuchiyo, gut-shot and dying on his feet, still manages to corner the bandit chieftain and run him through. It's a big win for the good guys, though four of them aren't alive to enjoy it.
The Road Back
In this case, there's no road back, at least not in the Campbellian sense. Once the village is saved, the surviving samurai don't have to return anywhere to deliver their reward to them. They simply have to survive to the end and let the farmers get back to work.
In fact, in this case "the road back" is a reversal from the classic Hero's Journey. They're going back where they came from all right: a featureless wandering existence with no hope of redemption, taking random demeaning jobs just to get a bed of straw and a little food at night. In the village, they could be samurai again. But now that time is over and they have to go back to being plain old honorless mercenaries.
No resurrection for our heroes. To follow our previous line of reasoning, the resurrection came when they first arrived at the village, and their past lives as tactical soldiers returned to them for the first time in a long while. But now that dream is over, and since fate denied them a heroes' death, they have to go back to the grim and empty reality they left behind. No wonder they look so resigned.
Return With The Elixir
That's the samurai's fate. For the peasants, however, life is golden. No more bandits means no more fear of dying, at least until the next crisis arrives. Until then, it's all songs and dancing as they go about their time-honored task of planting rice. The samurai have earned the elixir, but the peasants get to enjoy it, as Kambei's resigned final lines let us all know.