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Double feature:

Yojimbo -- 94pts. and its unofficial sequel Fistful of Dollars -- 89pts.

I am a huge Akira Kurosawa fan. I have even seen all of films including his WWII anti-American propaganda film Sanshiro Sugata, Part Two. One of Kurosawa's biggest influences was the American Western with samurai filling in for cowboys. But then a interesting thing happened, the American film industry started making cowboy movies based on Kurosawa's samurai films. The most famous of course was the Seven Samurai which Hollywood remade as The Magnificent Seven. Less known is the remake of Rashomon which was remade as the not terrible The Outrage with William Shatner (as the priest!) and Paul Newman as the Mexican bandito Juan Carrasco (!) 

Yojimbo, 1961, is perhaps the film that shows best Kurosawa's Western influences. His "cowboy" anti-hero samurai, as played by Toshiro Mufune is poorly shaved, shabbily-dressed, itch-scratching wandering ronan who wields a mean "gun" (katana.) I hadn't seen this film in decades and never thought of it at the top of Kurosawa's output, but on rewatching it is quite an amazing film. Full of unique shots, scenes and ideas. The basic story is simple, a stranger comes to town, discoverers that two factions have been locked in a forever war, and he figures out a way to make money from the situation.

In Italy a man who had worked on "sword and sandal" films was looking for his breakthrough project. His idea? To take the Western films that had been adapted by a Japanese director into a samurai picture and turn it back into a Western shot in Europe. I had always known that Fistful of Dollars  was based Yojimbo but until I watched them back to back I didn't realize how much. Not only is about 60% of the movie similar but whole lines were lifted directly out of Kurosawa's film. The result was the introduction of a new major film star, Clint Eastwood, and a major new director in Sergio Leone. The film has many hints of the talents of Leone which would culminate in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and his masterpiece, On Upon a Time in the West

Unfortunately Leone never contacted Kurosawa about the rights to his story. Leone was sued and eventually agreed to a percentage deal for Kurosawa on the grosses of the film. As an interesting note this amount would be greater than any of Kurosawa's own films.

If you have the DVD you can watch a full copy of the rare prologue that was created by ABC for their first network showing of the film. It's about 10 minutes and was made without Eastwood nor Leone. It stars Harry Dean Stanton as a prison warden who offers an unnamed man (whose back is to the camera and is dressed to resemble Eastwood's character) a pardon if he'll go to San Miguel and clean up the town. It was made to create a moral rational for Eastwood's character.

While so-called "Spaghetti Westerns" were already being made in Italy and Spain it wasn't until Fistful of Dollars that they became an international phenomenon. It's also kind of funny since almost the entire film was shot in Spain.

 

 

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