In a rare dream team match up that arguably has no equal, original James Bond helmer Terence Young directs this French-Italian Western where three great icons of international action cinema converge for the first and only time. Future DEATH WISH star Charles Bronson is a betrayed train robber reluctantly teaming with a samurai bodyguard (Toshiro Mifune) to Japan’s first ambassador to the U.S. to track down a fellow train robber (Alain Delon) who has made off with the loot and a prized ceremonial katana. To top it off, RED SUN features smoking screen siren and former Bond girl Ursula Andress as a witchy saloon prostitute.
RED SUN is a fascinating film, not so much for what happens on screen but for the uniqueness of the casting and the ultimately wasted potential of the talents involved. The film was obviously tailored to the onscreen personalities and less regard was paid to making a quality Western that stands on its own. Without the big name stars involved, the film would easily be forgotten alongside a long list of B-grade international Westerns trying and failing to replicate the genius of Sergio Leone.
Director Terence Young was a former British paratrooper born in Shanghai of all places. He had been enjoying modest success as a film director since the end of World War II until he was attached to direct DR. NO (1962), the first of many highly successful James Bond films. He followed it up with the very best of Sean Connery’s Bond films, FROM RUSSIA WITH LOVE (1963). Unfortunately, it was all downhill from this point with the exception of his final Bond film, THUNDERBALL (1965).
RED SUN was Young’s only foray into the Spaghetti Western genre and it was his second feature with Charles Bronson. Liberal use of genre clichés and a slow-moving plot with no surprises suggests that Young was competent in shooting a movie but had nothing to offer to the Western genre.
Ironically, it was Bronson who could have become the first international Italian Western superstar had he accepted Leone’s invitation to headline A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). After turning the role down, it went to Clint Eastwood. Bronson made up for that monumental mistake by portraying “Harmonica” in Leone’s all-star epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE OLD WEST (1968) but not before getting his first top bill casting in Jean Herman’s modern-day crime thriller ADIEU L’AMI (1968) alongside French superstar Alain Delon. This is the film that really kicked off Bronson’s career as he subsequently starred in a series of French productions with RED SUN being the second to last before he found his stride in Hollywood with the hit revenger DEATH WISH in 1974.
Suave, sophisticated and possessing sharp looks frequently compared to James Dean, Alain Delon had already established himself as one of France’s top leading men, most notably for starring roles in three of Jean-Pierre Melville’s highly influential crime thrillers, UN FLIC, LE CERCLE ROUGE and LE SAMOURAI. Hong Kong movie fans may know Delon best as the prototype for Chow Yun-fat’s famous screen persona created by John Woo in A BETTER TOMORROW.
As a French dandy, Delon looks a little out of place among dusty desperados in RED SUN but does provide an excellent contrast to the rugged, everyman persona of Bronson. But still, that pales in comparison to the contrast that a noble samurai in the Old West provides.
This was not Toshiro Mifune’s first foray into international acting gigs. As Japan’s most famous actor, thanks to iconic roles in THE SEVEN SAMURAI and YOJIMBO, Mifune was cast in John Frankenheimer’s racing drama GRAND PRIX (1966) and the exceptional anti-war drama HELL IN THE PACIFIC (1968) opposite Lee Marvin. His role in RED SUN doesn’t compare but it does give us a rare and improbable opportunity to see Mifune as a feudal-era samurai warrior battling gunfighters and Comanche rebels in the American Old West.
The high point of RED SUN is the evolving relationship between characters played by Mifune and Bronson. Mifune represents the high ideals of Bushido and it eventually rubs off on Bronson who learns to respect this foreigner and his devotion to duty, rather than self gratification and material gain. The script is rudimentary in its handling of this central theme yet remains respectful of Japanese martial culture. I’m willing to bet that Mifune and his handlers had considerable say in how his character was portrayed. Despite repeatedly bringing a “knife” to a gunfight, he is able to hold his own. He even romances a Caucasian woman, albeit she’s a prostitute and so is Bronson’s onscreen gal pal.
There isn’t too much for chambara movie buffs to get excited about except for the novelty of seeing a samurai in the Old West. Mifune drops a few judo moves on Bronson and chops down a few gunslingers and Native Americans, occasionally while on horseback. Like Bruce Lee in WAY OF THE DRAGON, Mifune’s character overcomes the ranged advantage of gunmen with the use of hidden throwing weapons. Like much of the action, their use is stylized and highly unreal. Mifune is able to drop several Comanche riding on horseback with these throwing knives. More probable is his ability to sneak up on opponents in confining spaces and strike them down before they can react. He also gets his hands on a bow and is able to show off the potent samurai skill of archery.
Gunplay in the film is standard Western shoot ‘em up action with hollering Indians on horseback and crack shot gunfighters shooting from the hip. One thing I have not seen before is a scene where Bronson’s character shoots down an Indian spear in mid flight as he heads for Mifune. This type of silliness, more commonplace in today’s comic-inspired action movies, is fun but infrequent.
Sometimes random action is spread thin between long and uneventful stretches of overland travel and flimsy, perfunctory exposition. Much of the tension is built around Mifune’s refusal to let Bronson interrogate Delon before killing him on sight. It’s too contrived to be engaging or to give the occasional sparring between the characters any bite.
The worst part about the action is not its infrequency but rather is pointlessness. Action as it pertains to the main plot amounts to very little. There is an opening hold up of a train, a saloon shootout and finally a brief showdown at the end. This plot-driven action ends up sidetracked by a random series of encounters with a Comanche rebel war band, of course, portrayed in the most stereotypical and one-dimensional fashion. It’s like a very poor attempt to create the kind of complex backdrop that Sergio Leone brought to THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY with the Civil War conflict.
Young’s direction of RED SUN is woefully pedestrian, a weak attempt to marry the Italian Western with Akira Kurosawa’s samurai conventions. There are token uses of scene-change wipes, extreme perspective shots, blood sprays, and other stereotypical elements of both genres. This would all look a little less superficial if the plot actually had a purpose. Young does not understand the genre the way that John Ford or Sam Peckinpah did and much of what happens on screen appears to be little more than a thinly veiled attempt to keep the stars busy until the end credits role. It’s a shame the script is so bland and the direction so uninspired. All three of the actors are extremely engaging and possess great chemistry between one another. For her part Ursula Andress adds a touch of unbridled femininity and unpredictability, the latter being something the film could have greatly benefited from in larger amounts.
RED SUN is much like Jackie Chan’s RUSH HOUR or SHANGHAI films, minus the heavy dependence on humor. It’s a frivolous, mildly entertaining movie that relies heavily on its star power and its culture clashing premise. This may actually represent the first East-meets-West buddy film. It is definitely one of the first attempts to meld traditional Western and Eastern action. It was an inevitable attempt given the heavy swapping of ideas and motifs that the Western and chambara genres engaged in throughout the 1960s. For example, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) was a remake of Kurosawa’s THE SEVEN SAMURAI while YOJIMBO was a comedic take on a story ripped from an American Western novel. I’m actually surprised there were not more attempts with Japanese crossovers. Likely candidates to follow in Mifune’s footsteps would have been Shintaro Katsu, Tomisaburo Wakayama, Sonny Chiba, Yoshio Harada, or Bunta Sugawara.
Although Japanese swordplay and judo were the first Asian martial arts to be introduced to the Western genre it was Chinese kung fu that appeared in Westerns the most. Beyond SHANGHAI NOON, there was THE FIGHTING FISTS OF SHANGHAI JOE (1972) which spawned a lesser sequel in 1975. David Carradine’s KUNG FU series, about a Shaolin monk traveling the Old West in search of his family, ran on American television for three years beginning in 1972. Many years later, kung fu movie legend Sammo Hung directed the eastern Western MILLIONAIRE’S EXPRESS and followed a decade later with ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA.
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Alain Delon • Charles Bronson • gallery • judo • Native American • Red Sun (1971) • samurai • Spaghetti Western • swordplay • Toshiro Mifune