British Director, Terence Young, brought together three movie icons, Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon, alongside Bond-Girl, Ursula Andress, in the 1971 Euro-Western, Red Sun.
Long before Quentin Tarantino unleashed his ‘Grindhouse-homage’, “Kill Bill(2003),” starring Uma Thurman and David Carradine, with its mesmerizing mixture of (among other genres) Westerns, Martial arts films & Samurai cinema, British director, Terence Young, had attempted an east-meets-west, genre-bending, samurai\Western “Red Sun(1971).” Director, Young could be considered the father of the modern Action film franchises (or even the modern mainstream action film, period!). He was instrumental in launching the very popular & trendsetting James Bond Franchise – adapted from the novels of Ian Fleming – in collaboration with star Sean Connery and producers, Harry Saltzman and Albert R. Broccoli. He helmed three out of the first four films in the franchise: “Dr. No (962)”- the first, “From Russia with Love(1963)”- the best and “Thunderball(1965)”- the most successful. Post-Thunderball he never made another Bond film, and would diversify into other genres like thrillers, dramas and war films, but he never again achieved the success he had with Bond; not only that , he also helmed some notorious disasters like “Inchon(1981).” Young made only one Western in his career: the French-Italian Euro-Western, Red Sun (1971) aka “Soleil rouge.” The film, a truly weird, but very entertaining, action-packed Western, brought together three of the most iconic stars from three separate continents: The American star, Charles Bronson, who was a huge international star (except in America) at the time; French star, Alain Delon, arguably the biggest star in Europe at the time; and Japanese actor, Toshiro Mifune, most famous for his collaborations with the great director Akira Kurosawa- especially “The Seven Samurai” and “Yojimbo.” Many of Kurosawa’s Samurai dramas were inspired by Westerns, especially that of great Director, John Ford, and Hollywood would later pay tribute to Kurosawa by remaking many of his Samurai films into Westerns. So it was natural that somebody would think up an idea to mix both Western and Samurai film genres, as the plots used in these genres are very similar. Also, when “The Seven Samurai’ was remade by director, John Sturges as the Western, “The Magnificent Seven(1960),” Charles Bronson would play a role in the film. So in that way too the team up of Bronson and Mifune is special. Alain Delon had achieved stardom by playing tough gangster characters in films like “Le Samourai,” and he had made a winning team with Bronson in the very successful French production “Farewell, Friend.” So throwing Delon into the mix with these two older stars – whom the young Delon looked up to – was a a very clever decision. For an added dash of exotica, Young cast his “Dr. No” Bond-girl, Ursula Andress, as the female lead of this very masculine drama. So this is a truly unique Western: shot mainly in Spain, with a British director at the helm, financed by French & Italian money, and with a cast of actors from America, France, Japan and Switzerland.
One should give props to the writer and director for inventing a very believable premise for accommodating Toshiro Mifune in a Western. The year is 1870, and Mifune plays Kuroda, a Samurai employed as a guard in the protection of the Japanese ambassador on his way to Washington. The Japanese delegation is travelling through the old-west by train, and they are carrying a ceremonial tachi, a gift to the American president, Ulysses S. Grant. Link Stuart (Charles Bronson) and Gauche (Alain Delon) are the ruthless co-leaders of a gang of bandits operating in the west, who specializes in train robberies. The film opens with Link and Gauche mounting a daring robbery on the train carrying the Japanese ambassador. They not only steal $400 thousand worth of payload from the train, but Gauche also steals the sacred Tachi, and kill one of Ambassador’s guard when he tries to stop him. On top of that, Gauche double crosses Link as well: trying to kill him in a dynamite blast, and then taking off with his men and the stolen money. But Link survives, and he’s recruited by the Ambassador to help Kuroda in retrieving the Tachi. If the Tachi is not recovered in 7 days, both the Ambassador and Kuroda will end their lives by performing the ritualistic Hara-kiri- having lost their honor in allowing the sword to be stolen and the samurai’s death to go unavenged.
Link is reluctant to help Kuroda because he wants to find Gauche first and take his share of the stolen money. He knows that Kuroda will kill Gauche the first chance he gets. But Link is unarmed and hence, is forced to go along with Kuroda. But throughout their journey on foot (because they have no horses), Link does his best to elude Kuroda, only to be thwarted by the irrepressible samurai. Soon, the duo come across a ranch that has been taken over by some gang members, and in a brief battle kill them all and take their horses. Link, now armed with guns taken from the gang, can no longer be threatened into doing Kuroda’s bidding. He rides away from Kuroda, but has a change of heart and returns to him, having grown to respect the strict bushido code by which Kuroda lives. Realizing that chasing after Gauche is useless, Link decides to track down Gauche’s prostitute girlfriend, Cristina (Ursula Andress) in the town of San Lucas. After locking up Cristina in her room and spending the night at the brothel, the duo is accosted by Gauche’s men the next morning who have come there to pick up Cristina. After a tense gunfight, all the members, except one, is killed by the duo. The surviving member is sent back to Gauche with the message that the duo will be waiting for Gauche at an abandoned mission nearby, and they’re willing to exchange Cristina for the money and the Tachi.
After that, The threesome of Link, Kuroda and Cristina set forth for the mission. Upon reaching the mission, Cristina tries to escape, but she runs into a party of violent Comanche, who assault her and leave her to die. But Link and Kuroda reach there in the nick of time and saves her. They return to the mission, only to walk into a trap set by gauche and his men. Gauche, who has the sword with him, tells one of his men to shoot Link, disregarding Cristina’s appeal not to do so. Just then the Comanche attack, which forces Link, Kuroda, Cristina and Gauche (and his men) to join hands in fighting off the Indians. The defenders successfully repel the attacks, first on the mission, then, after it is burned down, in the surrounding cane fields. But once the Indians are dispatched, old resentments resurface. Now it’s Gauche & Cristina on one side facing down Link & Kuroda on the other.
Though it’s an European-made Western, and has such an eclectic cast, and tackles the weird theme of ‘a Samurai in the old-West,’ the film, most surprisingly, works more or less like a traditional Hollywood Western. Except for its roughhewn look – thanks to the Spanish locations – and a muted color palette, the film is very much a Cowboys Vs Indians Western, where the good guys and bad guys are perfectly delineated, and the good wins over the bad in the end. Maybe there’s an immoral streak in Bronson’s character, but it’s not allowed to taint his character fully; also, Bronson plays this character with oodles of humor – way more than what one normally expects from the normally stone-faced actor. Apart from the rom-com Western, “From Noon till three” that he made with his wife, Jill Ireland, this is the funniest Bronson has ever been in a movie. The first half of the film works like a ‘buddy comedy,’ where a pair of mismatched characters tries to one up the other until they find common ground upon which they build a strong friendship.
Mifune is perfectly cast as the noble, stoic, uncompromising and athletic samurai who knows his ‘way of life’ is coming to an end; though here he’s much more subdued than (say) in “Seven Samurai” or “Rashomon.” But his swordsmanship is still lightening fast – making us believe that a guy with a sword can easily takedown an opponent holding a gun- and he is a perfect foil to the outgoing Bronson. The role also showcases a (not too familiar) charming and romantic side of the actor- particularly in the scene when he beds down a prostitute in the town of San Lucas. It also helps that Mifune is not doing anything different from what we have seen him do in his Samurai dramas: he isn’t trying to adjust to American culture or wear American costumes; he keeps fighting with his own sword and wears his Japanese robes and even eating his sushi. Alain Delon makes more of a cameo appearance: he’s there at the beginning and at the end, and just a couple of scenes in the middle. His amoral and slightly psychotic ‘New Orleans’ gambler is the closest the film has for a Spaghetti-Western antihero; with Delon’s trademark cool, sophisticated attitude hiding a mean, violent streak that’s shocking when it’s revealed. Ursula Andress, as expected, is there to lend her glamour and sex-appeal to the movie. This was almost nine years after “Dr. No,” and she still looks gorgeous; she gets to dress up in gorgeous clothes, and also get to undress in a daring topless scenes. For an added dose of glamour there’s also French actress Capucine (from “The Pink Panther” and “North to Alaska”). These principal actors who come from different parts of the world, and who have very different acting styles, blend together pretty well, and does not feel out of place in the film. That’s quite an achievement.
Terence Young does a decent job of directing this film. He is a master of shooting action scenes, and this film too is bookended by two terrific action sequences: the opening train-robbery sequence and the climactic fight involving the four principals and the Comanche warriors. We usually don’t get to see native American tribes in Euro-Westerns, simply because it’s hard to find actors who look like native tribesmen in Europe. This film too suffers in the depiction of Native tribesmen: not just the fact that they are portrayed as no-name, psychotic, murdering savages, but also for the fact that it’s very obvious that they are all white men dressed up as Comanche; they haven’t even tried to hide it with make up, and on top of that their costumes and gear are all wrong. The film also resembles some cheap Spaghetti- Westerns in the complete lack of extras in the background- the town of San Lucas has just one brothel and its inhabitants, and that’s all there is. Same way with the opening train station scene, or the ranch that the Bronson and Mifune comes across; all of them are very sparsely populated. There is also very little by the way of sets; apart from the interiors of the train in the opening sequence, the rest of the film seems to have been cheaply knocked out on standing sets used in hundreds of Euro-westerns. Though the filmmakers have tried to set the film in the background of some picturesque outdoor locations, there’s a cheesy, B-movie feel to it all, and, overall, It’s not a very good looking film- definitely a far cry from Young’s Bond films. One could say that, here, he neither had the budget nor the time he had on those movies, but even if we overlook that fact, at its very basic level, it’s not a well shot (or directed) film. In the hands of a wildly inventive filmmaker like Sergio Leone this would have been a truly wacky and trippy Western.
But the biggest mistake Young makes with the film is in not tightening the narrative. At close to 115 minutes, the film is too bloated. At 90 minutes, this would have be an perfectly entertaining movie- flaws and all. There are lot of clichéd and unnecessary scenes that Young throws into the mix. After a very tightly-paced and entertaining first half – which has a lot of action and comedy, the pace flags once Bronson and Mifune reaches San Lucas. The scenes set in the brothel just goes on and on. From that point on it’s a slog to the finishing line, with the film taking forever for the final confrontation to take place- the narration veering off into unnecessary tangents. The success of the first few Bond films depended a lot on the fast-paced editing of Peter Hunt. I guess this film lacked an editor of that stature, and as seen in “Thunderball,” Young has this affinity for excess- letting scenes go on for more than their worth. But still it’s an entertaining ride, a good dose of escapist fun, thanks mainly to the lead actors, the culture-clash induced Bronson- Mifune chemistry, and the well executed action scenes. Young has paid tribute to Kurosawa in both the editing and scoring of the film. The editing make use of Kurosawa’s trademark ‘wipe’ for scene transitions (just as George Lucas did in his “Star Wars” films); and Maurice Jarre’s orchestral score is heavy with Japanese\Samurai themes. Upon its release, the film was a huge success in Japan and Europe, but not in America, where it was dismissed as just another Euro-western.
One thought on “Red Sun: Charles Bronson, Toshiro Mifune and Alain Delon came together in Terence Young’s unique ‘Cowboys & Samurais Vs Indians’ Western adventure”
Dead on! Totally agree.
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