There’s long been plenty of cultural exchange between that most American of cinematic genres, the Western, and Japanese ‘chambara’ or samurai action movies. Japan’s greatest director (and the world’s, come to think, of it) Akira Kurosawa was an admirer of John Ford’s widescreen horse operas; later, American and Italian filmmakers repaid the respect by remounting some of the Little Master’s films as Westerns.
The revered Toshiro Mifune starred in Kurosawa’s immortal epic, Seven Samurai, in 1954. Charles Bronson starred in John Sturges’ remake, The Magnificent Seven, in 1960. It would be 11 years later that audiences would get to see these two titanic tough guys go head to head in 1971’s Red Sun, from James Bond director Terence Young.
History will surprise you if you don’t keep an eye on it, and the idea of sword-swinging samurai existing contemporaneously with the gunfighters and bad men of the Wild West might seem unlikely, but the numbers add up. US Commodore Perry opened up Japan to trade with the West in 1858 and the modernisation that characterised the Meiji Restoration period was a long process, with members of the samurai class still cleaving to tradition in the face of industrialisation, increased commerce and cultural exchange.
Which means a canny screenwriter can hit upon the idea of a gang of outlaws robbing a train and finding a delegation of samurai, top knots, swords and all, which is exactly what bandits Link (Bronson) and Gauche (Alain Delon, who starred in Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime drama Le Samourai four years earlier, for extra resonance) discover. A few tense moments later, one of the samurai is dead, Gauche and the gang have ridden off with the loot including a golden tachi sword intended as a gift for the US President, and Link has been betrayed and left behind. He’s forced to team up with a surviving samurai, Koroda (Mifune), to track down Gauche and retrieve the sword. The catch? They have one week, and if they fail Koroda must commit ritual suicide – but not before killing Link.
Now, who doesn’t want to see that? A weird but plausible Western from one of the fathers of modern action cinema, with a stacked international cast that also includes Ursula Andress and Capucine as Gauche’s former and current lover, respectively? Speaking of casting, a young John Landis, years before making Animal House, The Blues Brothers, and An American Werewolf in London, was a production assistant on this, and makes a cameo as a mook who gets slaughtered by Mifune.
Shot in the Spanish desert like so many Spaghetti Westerns before it, Red Sun has the bleached, rough-hewn visual aesthetic common to that corner of the genre, and the action is fast and brutal, but Red Sun’s big appeal is the interplay between Bronson and Mifune, the latter’s stoic, almost silent performance (he spoke no English at the time) contrasting against Bronson’s more amiable, sardonic turn.
Given his onscreen reputation as a blank-faced killer in dozens of cheap ‘70s and ‘80s actioners it may be hard to picture Bronson as comic relief, but he gets all the film’s funny one-liners and proves, along with a few other films from around this period, that he was a funny guy when he wanted to be. Delon’s saturnine backstabber is like a rattlesnake in human form, clad in black and dispatching those who wrong him with a nifty reverse quickdraw. Andress and Capucine are mostly called upon to look sexy or angry or both and understand the assignment completely.
We’ve had a few examples of the Eastern/Western subgenre over the years: Shanghai Noon, The Last Samurai, The Good, The Bad, The Weird, Tears of the Black Tiger, even a pretty great remake of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven that moves the action to Meiji-era Hokkaido and swaps in Ken Watanabe for the lead role. Red Sun leaves them all in the dust. It’s a muscular, gritty adventure with a surprising streak of humour and fantastic turns from a cast of absolutely iconic screen stars – make time for it.
Red Sun airs at 9.30pm Thursday 7 October on SBS World Movies, and will be available at SBS On Demand for 30 days.