A lone warrior comes across a town held hostage by two competing gang leaders. He meets the keeper of a local inn who explains the situation and warns him to leave as soon as he can. Our rogue, a man with no name, decides instead to play the two sides against each other and make a quick buck. This description applies to two films released in the early sixties, the latter directly influenced (some would say stolen) by the former.
Written by: Ryozu Kikushima and Akira Kurosawa
Directed by: Akira Kurosawa
A Fistful of Dollars
Written by Victor Andrés Catena, Jamie Comas Gil, Sergio Leone
Directed by: Sergio Leone
Aside from the similarities of plot between these two films, the productions themselves bear a similarity with an iconic actor/director team. Sergio Leone/Clint Eastwood and Akira Kurosawa/Toshiro Mifune are names that are inescapably linked in the history of film. Leone and Eastwood brought a reinvigoration to the western through their Man With No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars 1964, For a Few Dollars More 1965, and The Good The Bad and the Ugly 1966. Kurosawa and Mifune are known for having forged the golden age of Samurai films with films like Rashomon (1950), Seven Samurai (1954), and Yojimbo (1961). To complete the chain of influence, it’s interesting to note that Kurosawa’s films were heavily influenced by early American westerns, and that Leone’s films were heavily influenced by Kurosawa’s samurai films. This leaves us with Leone ripping off Kurosawa in 1964 by (unofficially) remaking Yojimbo into A Fistful of Dollars.
There are many interesting cultural distinctions between the two films. Yojimbo features one of the gang leaders as having a wife who influences some of his decisions. This female presence is erased in Fistful with the same suggestions coming from a different, male, advisor. In Yojimbo, the gang leaders run the Sake and Silk industries while in Fistful its Liquor and Guns. This leads to another major plot change. In both films the two sides agree to cooperate due to government investigation, but in Yojimbo it’s because they want to ensure a soon coming silk fair rather than Fistful’s fear of being caught for a massacre.
This is all fine and dandy, but none of it speaks to the quality of the films. A good place to start here is the weaponry used. Guns were not a big feature in Yojimbo’s Japan, so when our main villain arrives in town with a handgun, there is an obvious distinction between his technology and the homegrown skill of our hero’s sword work. Fistful does not carry this same distinction because our hero is already a skilled gun totin’ warrior. The villain’s use of a machine gun in his opening scene tries to recreate the “technology/skill” debate but fails due to both sides still using a gun to do their dirty work.
To give some points to Leone, we can look at the cinematography. While Kurosawa has some excellent shots obviously inspired by the classic western, Leone takes this style and builds on it to introduce the world to his signature operatic style. Using zooms, pans, tracking, and every camera trick he had to excellent effect, Leone makes the camera an integral part of the film.
The similarities of this film make it difficult to assign a clear winner. Leone and Kurosawa have distinct styles to their films that are impossible to measure empirically. Just based on the style of the films I can’t declare a winner, but there is one narrative element that Leone hits the mark on and gives him the edge overall. The ending of the films come down to classic stand-offs: our heroes alone against the central villain and his gang. In Yojimbo there is an extended sequence of the two sides walking towards each other followed by our hero easily disposing of the villain before going after the gang. The scene is similar in Fistful but is much more memorable (and better) because our hero has a trick up his sleeve. Eastwood’s Man with No Name has a medieval bulletproof vest under his poncho so that no matter how many times his enemy strikes, he just keeps on coming. He then disposes of the gang, challenging his nemesis to a mano-a-mano stand-off. The dramatic tension built in this scene is riveting and provides the necessary closure that is missed in the ending of Yojimbo.
Don’t get me wrong, these are both excellent films and deserve multiple viewings. Both were helmed by masters of their craft and present good examples of their respective genres. However, many will place Yojimbo above either because it was first or because Kurosawa has been comodified by recent film criticism. I’ll take the opposite view. Leone took a story and created an adaptation that was uniquely his. His narrative was stronger and his style was a step up from where Kurosawa had left it. It’s not a knock on Kurosawa to acknowledge that Leone had a better product in the end.