The Japanese ambassador is traveling through the Wild West by train, when gangsters hold up the train, to rob a gold shipment. They also carry an ancient Japanese sword the ambassador was carrying as a present for the US president. The ambassador's bodyguard (Toshiro Mifune) will go after them, with the aid of one of the gang's leaders betrayed by his pals.
Featuring Charles Bronson at his anti-hero best and an international cast all getting down and dirty in the Mexican dust, Terence Young’s Red Sun (1971) represented both the last great hurrah for the traditional Western and a nod to the neo-revisionism of the genre that was emerging in such films as Arthur Penn’s Little Big Man (1970) and Ralph Nelson’s Soldier Blue (1970).
This period of dichotomous change in the history of the western – the start of a decade that represented a seismic shift in the Hollywood studio structure that thrived on its traditions, and an American film-going public that didn’t want to hear old men tell old stories – meant that Red Sun was never quite seen as the 'event picture’ its production suggested it would be. Its cast (Toshiro Mifune, Alain Delon, Ursula Andress and Capucine) and director (Young came to the film hot, after four James Bond successes and the Audrey Hepburn hit Wait Until Dark, 1967) were all marquee names, but moreso from an era quickly becoming passé. Red Sun suffered through critical indifference and audience apathy in a year that saw the paradigm-shifting release of Stanley Kubrick’s A Clockwork Orange, Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry, Sam Peckinpah’s Straw Dogs, William Friedkin’s The French Connection, Peter Bogdanovich’s The Last Picture Show and Hal Ashby’s Harold and Maude.
Such ambivalence was particularly shameful given that, on its own merits, Red Sun is a perfectly enjoyable, character-driven adventure. Bronson plays the bandit Link who, with snakey cohort Gotch (Alain Delon), commandeers a train carrying the Japanese ambassador on his way to a meeting with the US President. Having stolen a sacred Samurai sword, Gotch and his Mexican bandidos clan betray Link, who is soon captured and at the mercy of the Samurai warriors guarding the official party. Link agrees to unite with Kuroda Jubie (Toshiro Mifune) to retrieve the artefact and a cross-country trip ensues, in which Andress functions as a feisty hostage used to entice Delon (though little else, sadly) and the Apache natives are reduced to convenient devices to forward the narrative when it slackens.
But if the film suffers under cliché and contrivance, its willingness to examine the largely-ignored multi-culturalism of the Wild West is welcome and well-handled. Also proving particularly satisfying is the interplay between Bronson, a star often undervalued as an actor, and Mifune, one of the greatest that ever lived, all photographed against a majestic widescreen canvas by veteran French cinematographer Henri Alekan (Jean Cocteau’s La belle et la bête, 1946).
Red Sun was not as thematically ambitious as the great films of the period and some have accused it of being little more than an attempt to meld the western with one of the most popular film trends at the time – martial arts movies. (Bruce Lee and the cinema of the East were just starting to make inroads into the US market.) That seems harsh, given the talent involved; perhaps this long overdue DVD release will earn the film some thoroughly deserved recognition.