A stranger wanders into town. The town is run by two rival gangs and neither is up to any good. Both gangs run the town with an iron fist and are running the town into the ground. The stranger seems to take a liking to the town for some reason and decides to stay. To show his mettle, the stranger picks a fight with one of the local gangs. In the end, stranger is walking down the street and tells the coffin maker to get busy.
Through a series of double crossing and double dealing, the stranger has both clans at a fever pitch ready to slaughter each other. Added to the mix is a dangerous brother to the head of one of the gangs. He doesn’t trust the stranger and is very vocal about and isn’t afraid to show how good he is with a gun. Things get worse for the stranger when he actually tries to help some good people. Seems the brother is in love with the wife of a farmer he’s swindled. He’s taken the girl as payment for the farmer’s debts and is now holding her hostage.
The stranger should leave the situation alone, but for the first time his conscience starts getting to him. The stranger releases the woman, but in the process gets caught by the brother. The stranger is tortured for his apparent betrayal, but he gets loose. The stranger goes into hiding and goes to face his former captors, which have already gone forward with the elimination of their rivals. In the end, the stranger stands alone against a gang of outlaws. The brother leads the charge against the stranger as he faces down impossible odds.
This is the plot for three different films made for three different genres. The films are a samurai movie named Yojimbo, a western named A Fistful of Dollars, and a gangster picture named Last Man Standing.Typically film remakes are the same film over again with just different actors such as the remakes of Psycho and The Thomas Crown Affair. The transfer of samurai films to westerns was a pretty popular practice in the 50’s and 60’s as works of genius like Seven Samurai and Rashomon were repackaged for American audiences in movies like The Magnificent Seven and The Outrage. The instances where a samurai film has been made into a gangster picture are fewer, with the only other example being the Lone Wolf and Cub Series being the inspiration of Sam Mendes’ Road to Perdition.
In 1961, Akira Kurosawa wanted to make an adventure movie. After directing some of the most influential films of all time such as Rashomon, Seven Samurai, and The Hidden Fortress, Influenced by westerns like Shane and High Noon, Kurosawa made a classic western in a samurai setting. Much like he had done with transplanting Shakespeare’s Macbeth into feudal Japan with his masterwork Throne of Blood, Yojimbo was everything a good western should be without technically being one.
In 1962, Sergio Leone was trying to break free of cheap Italian “Sword and Sandal Epics”. This way out ended up being A Fistful of Dollars, starring a television actor named Clint Eastwood. The movie ended up being a world wide smash and was the genesis for a whole genre of films that include Django and The Great Silence. The film also launched the career of Clint Eastwood into the stratosphere, giving two generations of film goers one of their biggest Hollywood icons.
In 1996, Walter Hill was a film maker a bit down on his luck. After big successes in the late 70’s and early 80’s, Hill had not made a truly successful movie in some time. His sequel to 48 Hours, was not as successful as its predecessor. Hill’s 90’s forays into westerns with Geronimo: An American Legend and Wild Bill were both received poorly. Hill needed a hit in a big way. His next big chance was a remake of films that had that had been extremely successful in the past, A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo. Add to the mix one of Hollywood’s biggest action stars, Bruce Willis, and surely this would be a hit. The results were not what he wanted, as Last Man Standing was a failure with critic and audiences.
There are action superstars and then there are the stars of these films. Only a handful of stars have had true crossover appeal with both international and American audiences. On the shortlist are Bruce Lee, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun Fat, and Toshiro Mifune. Mifune was arguably the biggest star to ever come out of Japan other than a certain huge, green lizard. Mifune’s star power was not just limited to Japanese films as he starred in Red Sun with Charles Bronson, Midway with Charlton Heston and the Steven Spielberg directed 1941. One of the biggest projects that gained exposure for Mifune was the ABC miniseries Shogun. The man was a mountain of charisma and terrific actor. Not only was he a tremendous actor in samurai picture, but Mifune’s work in crime films such as Kurosawa’s Drunken Angel and High and Low show an actor at the top of his game.
If ever there was a counterpart to Mifune in Western Cinema, it would be Cline Eastwood. While Mifune is amazing in Yojimbo, Eastwood took the character and made it his own. In the third film Eastwood played his Man with No Name character, he takes him mythic proportions. The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is an epic film and Eastwood carries the movie to classic status. From there Eastwood’s star shone brighter and brighter with hit after hit in pictures like Dirty Harry, The Outlaw Josey Wales and Where Eagles Dare. In the latter stages of his career Eastwood has tried to redefine himself as an actor and director. Many of his roles have taken established formula characters and turned them inside out such as his performances in Unforgiven and Tightrope. Eastwood has also risen to prominence as one of cinema’s great directors winning the Academy Ward for Directing on two occasions.
What would action cinema be without John McClain? Bruce Willis’ big jump to action movies from his role on Moonlighting created a worldwide splash and created the sub genre of “Die Hard on a …” movies. Willis has also shown himself to be a competent actor with riskier roles in Twelve Monkeys as well as working then unknown directors like Quentin Tarantino in Pulp Fiction and M. Night Shyamalan in The Sixth Sense. Just when it looks like counting out Willis is thing to do, the actor will surprise his critics with incredible character work like that in Unbreakable. Word that a fourth Die Hard film is on the way can only have action fans salivating.
This one’s actually a close one. I’m going to give this one to Mifune over Eastwood because he’s able to project a wider array of emotion than Eastwood does. There’s a moment where he’s been nearly beaten to death and he’s attempting to escape. A friend of his has smuggled him out of town in a coffin. When the coast is clear, Mifune’s Sanjuro stands out of the coffin, bruises adorning his face. His skin is mostly blacked up from the bruises, but then he smiles, thinking of the men he’s about to kill. His friend tells him the smile makes him look even worse when he smile. Mifune then collapses from exhaustion. It’s a blackly humorous moment in the film and an amazing sequence. Eastwood’s Man with No Name is pretty even keel throughout all of Fistful. He doesn’t seem as drained toward the end of the film though, so the outcome doesn’t seem to be as up in the air. Willis is a distant third. His John Smith is brooding enough and there is some decent action at times, but he doesn’t have the iconic performances of the other two. The rest of the cast is firmly in the Yojimbo camp.
The Winner: Yojimbo
2) Better Directing?
Well you’ve got three really amazing directors here. First you’ve got Akira Kurosawa, the director of thirty pictures, including four star classics, Stray Dog, Ran and Throne of Blood. Directors who claim to be students of Kurosawa’s great works are like a laundry list of today’s greatest including George Lucas, Francis Ford Coppolla, Steven Spielberg, Martin Scorsese, and Robert Altman.
Next you’ve got Sergio Leone. Most directors are lucky to have one masterpiece under their belt. Sergio Leone has three masterpieces. The man created a genre, the Spaghetti Western, that’s highest points are two of his own films: The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West. Leone also directed the gangster epic Once Upon a Time in America, which is now a celebrated film as well.
Lastly, you’ve got Walter Hill. While the man’s career isn’t quite as illustrious as his counterparts in this case, he has had a fairly good amount of popular success. Hill’s greatest accomplishment is the cult classic The Warriors. While the film is not a deep look at the human condition or anything, it is a riveting picture with such a great pace that it keeps you on the edge of your seat. Hill is also the director behind the buddy comedy picture 48 Hours and the guilty pleasure Red Heat starring Arnold Schwarzenegger.
With these film’s it’s a contest that really comes down to Yojimbo and Fistful of Dollars. This one is another toss up. When one of the contenders is Akira Kurosawa, it’s hard to vote against him. The problem here is that the competing director is Sergio Leone. I think I’m going to have to declare this one a tie. Kurosawa gives a funnier story and the film is beautiful to look at, but Leone’s shots are operatic with a more mythical-type style.
The Winner: Tie
3) Better Story?
Well really the story is so similar in each of the films that there’s hardly a difference. Kurosawa’s original story is so good, that it’s nearly impossible for either of the other two films to improve upon it. The difference here is the symbolism that Kurosawa has interwoven into the story of Yojimbo. The movie came out in a time where Japan was coming out of an economic depression due to their loss in World War II. The Cold War was beginning to reach a fever pitch. The main character of Yojimbo is a man embodying Japan. He is full of traditions that no one holds dear anymore. He comes to a place where two major powers rule and threaten to bring the entire village down with them. The samurai must use cunning and subterfuge to defeat the two. When he is beat down again, he must literally rise from the dead and defeat his foes in open combat. This type of subtext is no where near the other incarnations of the story.
The Winner: Yojimbo
4) Better Dialogue?
The work by Victor Andres Catena, Jaime Comas Gil, and Sergio Leone to adapt Kurosawa’s film for Western audiences was very fruitful as the screenplay for Fistful does have better lines than its predecessor. Many lines are changed only slight, but they are played to a more comic effect. I also wonder if I could speak Japanese if the Yojimbo would seem greater, but I’ll give this one to Leone’s film for “Get three coffins ready,” and then “My mistake. Four coffins…”
The Winner: A Fistful of Dollars
5) Better characters?
This one is won by Yojimbo hands down. While Mifune and Eastwood are an acting match-up made in action film heaven, the supporting characters in Yojimbo are so outrageous as that they are a hundred times more memorable than Fistful‘s banditos and Last Man‘s gangsters. The only character that comes close to Yojimbo, is Last Man Standing‘s main villain, played by Christopher Walken, but Kurosawa fills his movie with so many over the top cut throats that they look like they would feel right at home with the aliens in the Mos Eisley Cantina as well as in this Japanese village. With characters like a gigantic samurai with a hammer as a weapons and Daisuke Kato’s freakish Inokichi, with his buck-teeth and uni-brow, the outlaws from Yojimbo totally outclass their opposition.
The Winner: Yojimbo
6) More enjoyable?
I believe this comes down to the picture you’ve seen first between Yojimbo and Fistful. The two are so close in tone and themes and pace that each brings a ton of entertainment value with them. It really depends on which film you’re in the mood for and where your tastes lie. Fistful has an absolutely blissful finally and a terrific score, but I still slightly prefer Yojimbo.
The Winner: Yojimbo
7) More relatable?
I’m not sure than any of these films are particularly relatable. Each involve a den of sin, and then seemingly the Angel of Death comes to town. None take place in a current time period or have characters that are particularly normal.
The Winner: The Coffin maker in each film is the only winner here.
8) Movie Vs. Movie Vs. Movie
So in a pretty close race its Yojimbo over its Italian brethren, with Last Man Standing a distant third. The picture just has more to offer in symbolism and I prefer a samurai sword to a six shooter. The entertainment factor is high for both of the first two. The third just gets lost in the muck of depression. You really can’t lose with Yojimbo or Fistful, but if you’re a diehard completist with this sort of thing Last Man Standing won’t kill you.
The Winner: Yojimbo