It’s funny how fish-out-of-water concepts make their way on to films. Specifically, when characters and cultures find themselves literally on foreign soil. For instance, East meets West tales have been almost a staple in television and film through the decades here in the United States. One well-worn path in such tales will have a lone protagonist — one the audience lives through — struggle his/her way through a foreign culture as a method of discovery or exposition in the yarn.
This was effectively done in the Kung Fu TV series (circa 1972-75), and the 1990 film Quigley Down Under. You’ll note that my examples purposely looked at the western ilk. I know it’s not a genre with universal appeal these days, but it remains a favorite of mine through the years.
While I’ve wandered into crime/mystery literature of late, I feel that style of writing has a kinship with the western. Like the venerable oater, crime fiction shares similar core motifs of “love, danger, and death.” Honor and a code of ethics can also be attributed to both. Each of these categories has a tremendous versatility in their morality plays to express a point of view and comment on history and injustice.
It also can display the commonality among societies and peoples. For me, those parallels make another very effective reason Joss Whedon’s short-lived ‘space’ western series, Firefly, was so damn good…and why the Fox Network canceling it seems so dimwitted years later. In fact, some of the great fiction writers of recent time have penned great stories in both the crime and western sets — Elmore Leonard and Robert B. Parker would be two of the very best.
An additional avenue for East vs. West encounters allowed the protagonist to use the clash of cultures to build one more dynamic into the makeup of the story. Referred to as that most “uniquely American genre of cinema“, it is none other than the tried and true buddy movie. And it was in full glory in a forgotten film that has only re-surfaced, outside of VHS and badly matted DVD’ in North America in the last few years. Red Sun (1971, originally titled Soleil Rouge) was a great example for this genre. As well, almost three full decades before Shanghai Noon ever arrived in movie theatres.
Though technically classified as a spaghetti western, this early 70s film was superbly crafted by the great British director, Terence Young — notably, the veteran of such early James Bond classics like Dr. No, From Russia With Love, and Thunderball. I could be wrong, but I think this was the only western in his filmography. He acquitted himself quite well, in my opinion. Charles Bronson led the film’s international cast, and was at that time hitting his stride and gaining worldwide popularity.
This was Bronson’s pretty successful European film period. But as much as the film followed his Link Stuart character, the story’s center is solidly in the East with this western. The great Toshiro Mifune (as Kuroda Jubie) is the samurai thrown into the hostile West as the one tasked to retrieve a stolen and priceless katana sword — one meant as the Japanese Emperor’s gift to the U.S. President. Of course, the predicament is all care of Link’s treacherous band of thieves, who also try and kill their own leader. And failure was not an option for this feudal retainer, not with honor and seppuku in play.
Even after the steady march of time, Kuroda’s and Link’s character, and cultural, interplay remains the best aspect of this film. Now, more than 40 years after its U.S. release, Red Sun retains a distinct charm. With no disrespect to comely co-stars Alain Delon and Ursula Andress, the film’s core remains with these two characters. Mifune, one of the giants of Japanese cinema, never really got much of a chance to properly show U.S. audiences his skills in the few American films he was cast as an actor during this earlier period. That would change, but it would occur years later.
Only with his supporting role for the 1980 miniseries, Shogun, did American audiences finally see an older Toshiro Mifune really shine, IMO. But in this ‘foreign’ western, you could indeed glimpse the on-screen charisma and acting ability that brought this extraordinary actor international fame. Incidentally, Red Sun was lensed in the same desert landscape of Tabernas, Spain, which was known as the shooting location for Sergio Leone westerns, among others.
I don’t think those that originally saw this film appreciated the pairing at the time. Bronson and Mifune matched perfectly in this their only film together. It’s interesting to note, both played in what could be thought the same film earlier in their careers, though, in different productions. Toshiro Mifune starred in Akira Kurosawa’s Seven Samurai in 1954 while Charles Bronson co-starred in its American western remake, The Magnificent Seven, just the next decade over. Still, this western brought a good deal of positives when it finally arrived in the U.S. of 1972.
The fact that this movie has not be available here in the States in anything close to a good disc release for a long time is practically a sin for western and samurai film aficionados.
This Terence Young film, one of the really fun adventures in that troublesome decade, told its tale of a cowboy and a samurai along historic cultural lines. And it used that time of change for a coming-of-age America and an ancient Japan to great effect as the prime foil of the yarn. Thanks to two very iconic actors, the time-honored pairing of contrasting characters made for an unlikely and unique partnership onscreen. As well, Red Sun clearly had a heart. By the time Link, and the audience, arrived at that final scene — one where the filmmakers produced a truly moving cinematic image through the wonderful framing of a lone, majestic sword — it attains a special quality only a few westerns ever achieve.
Here’s to you, buddy.