It’s a good time to be in the coffin-making business. The village is in a state of lockdown as two rival gangs vie for control. Then a stranger appears, ambling his way right into the middle of the conflict. An exceptionally skilled warrior, and shrewd besides, he hatches a plan to hire himself out, first to one side, then the other, secretly sabotaging them both until they destroy each other. The plan works to perfection, at least until another fighter arrives to upset the balance of power once again.
The reader will recall last month’s Double Feature post, in which I showed the similarities in the plots of Invasion of the Body Snatchers and A Nightmare on Elm Street with a paragraph summarizing their common aspects in — admittedly — vague terms. I didn’t need to be so vague this time. In fact, this month’s films have pretty much exactly the same story, occasionally down to precise details. Is Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars a ripoff of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo? A successful lawsuit on the part of the latter would suggest it is, and to this day A Fistful of Dollars bears the sobriquet “unofficial remake.” However, Leone argued that both stories had antecedents in literature, making his own film just another adaptation of a classic story idea. It can’t be denied that both directors were profoundly influenced by the American cinema. Kurosawa’s film might be called a Samurai Western, so it’s no surprise that the remake would be in the same genre — only this time, a Spaghetti Western.
Watching these movies back-to-back offers an excellent opportunity to study the unique impact of the director. The plots are simple enough not to demand much concentration anyway, but by the time you get to the second movie, you’ll see every development coming and can concentrate on how things happen. This double feature might be a perfect way to begin a study of directors, because these two gentlemen have potent, unmistakable styles. Their signatures are all over these films, and they don’t even need to tell unique stories to stand out.
Yojimbo is at least partially concerned with shifting power structures in a changing Japanese society. Like Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai (which was also remade into a Western, The Magnificent Seven), it chronicles the fading of the samurai class (not entirely dissimilar from the extinction of the gun-slinger in the American west, as a technological revolution created a new socioeconomic reality — but let’s not push it; these are two very different cultures). Sword-fighters are suddenly confronted with guns, making their tragic defeat inevitable, even if they survive in the short run. With Yojimbo, Kurosawa displayed his usual command of composition and visual depth, placing a variety of characters in any given frame and letting the viewer’s eye follow them as they interact. Some of his signature touches include a pounding rainstorm and a puppetmaster matriarch whose steely resolve outmatches some of the male leaders.
A Fistful of Dollars was the first of Leone’s five Westerns, but already his distinctive spin on the classical Hollywood genre was in full evidence. The sustained close-ups of dirty faces, the editing style that heightened the tension of the gun fights, the dusty widescreen landscapes, and lots and lots of dynamite — each of these would become even more pronounced in subsequent films, but they’re already memorable here. As is typical with the Italian cinema’s “Spaghetti” Westerns, the story takes place near the U.S./Mexican border, allowing Italian actors with darker skin to stand in for Mexicans. Much of the cast didn’t speak English, but the entire film was dubbed into that language, definitely with American audiences in mind. It has the effect of making the film one nation’s commentary on another’s traditional heroes, villains, and stories.
It’s also true that Kurosawa and Leone had some things in common, or else they wouldn’t have both been attracted to the same kind of story. Kurosawa made a lot more films than Leone, but some of his work is just as notable in its treatment of violence, showing both its beauty and ugliness. Each director was fortunate enough to find a legendary actor with whom to work on these films (or was it the other way around?). Toshiro Mifune and Clint Eastwood command the viewer’s attention every second they’re on screen. They can be either funny or stoic, and sometimes both. Their figures are so imposing that the incredible feats they perform are easy to believe. For all their masculine bravado, they also allow a bit of conscience to show through. Mifune claims to have the town’s best interests at heart — if the two gangs are removed from power, the town can start fresh. Eastwood is more opaque; his character is “the Man with No Name,” but he would even more accurately be called “the Man with No Past” were it not for a single line of dialogue: “I knew someone like [the people he’s currently helping] once, and there was no one there to help.” These characters may be anti-heroes who kill a lot of men, but those men had it coming.
There are plenty of other ways to contrast these two films, but I’ll leave it to the reader to judge which approach is better — I love each of them (almost) equally. A Fistful of Dollars is about eleven minutes shorter. Yojimbo‘s plot gets delayed by the aforementioned rain and a visit by a government inspector that causes the gangs to pretend they’re not fighting until he leaves. The other film has the momentum of a freight train, but Leone’s subsequent films seem to have learned from Yojimbo the value of sitting and waiting before an outbreak of violence. Yojimbo also boasts a much more interesting supporting cast. There’s the giant thug with the hammer; the gang leader’s dimwitted brother; and of course Tatsuya Nakadai playing Mifune’s nemesis, the only man in town with a gun. Even the great Takashi Shimura appears in an almost negligible role. Mifune and Eastwood are equally iconic, but Eastwood was the one who had to carry the whole movie by himself, and he succeeded. To conclude with the obvious, Kurosawa’s black-and-white film sheds blood in black sprays, in contrast with Leone’s splotches of bright red.
I might even suggest watching A Fistful of Dollars first, as a way of balancing the knowledge that most of the things it does well had already been done. But unfortunately, these movies just can’t compete on a level playing field. Eastwood is an American legend, of course, and Spaghetti Westerns in general are at least somewhat familiar in this country, commemorated in films like Rango and Django Unchained. Maybe the language barrier explains it to some extent, but Kurosawa isn’t really a household name except among cinephiles. This is bonkers. Not only did two of his films serve as direct inspiration to films already mentioned in this post, but a third, The Hidden Fortress, inspired a Space Western made in 1977 that still holds a dominant place in our culture today. In other words, he’s great. But Leone’s great too. So here I am, smack dab in the middle between two competing auteurs. Allow me to pull a Mifune/Eastwood, leaving as quietly as I came, in a swirl of dust.