Known fact — Clint Eastwood is a badass. In fact, I never really understood why Chuck Norris got all of the attention, when everybody knows that Eastwood is superior in every way.
While Inspector “Dirty Harry” Callahan might be his most famous role, I much prefer the character that Eastwood used to propel himself into Hollywood superstardom — The Man With No Name. I recently rewatched all three movies in Sergio Leone’s fantastic Spaghetti Western trilogy starring this character (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly), and while The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly is clearly the best of the three movies (albeit a bit too long, in my opinion, clocking in at nearly three solid hours — I mean, was the “blowing up the bridge” sequence really that critical? Just get to the damn shootout at the cemetery already!), I must admit that I have a genuine soft spot for A Fistful of Dollars.
First, it’s because Fistful is Eastwood’s film and his film alone. No Lee Van Cleefs or Eli Wallachs to steal the spotlight here — it’s nothing but Eastwood being Eastwood, which is pure, unadulterated awesomeness. Second, the movie has a very solid cinematic and narrative foundation, mostly because it shamelessly rips off some very excellent source material — Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, starring the always exciting Toshiro Mifune as the Samurai With No Name. Now, it’s not quite a Gus Van Sant’s Psycho, but it’s damn near a scene for scene remake of the original jidaigeki samurai piece. Which definitely isn’t a bad thing, since Yojimbo is a hell of a fine flick.
Granted, since Kurosawa Yojimbo was more or less an homage to the Hollywood Western, it wasn’t much of a stretch to replace the Japanese actors with Americans and Italians and swap out the katanas for pistols. It’s still the same dusty town, the same shootouts on the desolate streets. Whether it’s cowboys or samurais, it all adds up to one excellent cinematic experience.
But the real question is … which film is superior? A Fistful of Dollars or the O.G., Yojimbo? Buckle up, kids, it’s time for some science!
When comparing these two films, it really only boils down to one question — Eastwood or Mifune? Which film god reigns supreme?
Man … is it actually possible to pick one over the other? I mean, Clint Eastwood is Clint Friggin’ Eastwood — quick on the draw, rocking an awesome poncho, and staring a hole through his opponents with his rock-hard glare. He’s not a very talkative character, but you know he’s gonna whoop some ass when the time comes.
Mifune’s Sanjuro Kuwabatake (a fake name, of course) is a bit more laid back that Eastwood’s Man With No Name. He likes his rice and sake, sports a pimpin’ kimono, and is more likely to pause and think things through before taking action. But like Eastwood, when the time come, he can carve suckas to shreds with the best of them.
However, it seems that Mifune’s lone ronin has a bit more character to him that Eastwood’s mysterious cowboy. He’s not just some guy out to make some easy cash — he’s at a crossroads in Japanese history and is attempting to make a new life for himself. Due to his samurai past, it’s clear that he has a sense of right and wrong and a strong code of honour. But hey, if he can make a few ryo while cleaning up the town’s scum and villainy, well, why not?
Still, can you argue with that look? It’s the squint that launched a thousand ships. A true movie icon. While Mifune’s character is more well-rounded, Eastwood is much more memorable.
So let’s call it a draw, shall we?
Of course, no villain could ever hope to stand up to power of Clint Eastwood or Toshiro Mifune. But hey, somebody’s gotta try. Ramon Rojo and Unosuke are decent villains, I suppose, but aren’t all that special. They are both the brother of the gang leader and ultimately the meanest, cruelest, and smartest members of their respective gangs, but that’s about it.
However, there is one big difference between Ramon and Uno that tips the scales in Yojimbo‘s favour — weaponry. In A Fistful of Dollars, it’s supposed to be a big deal that Ramon is an excellent shot with a rifle, and he emphatically states that in a duel between a man with a pistol and a man with a rifle, the man with the rifle always wins. It must be one hell of a rifle then, because I’m pretty sure Eastwood mowed down four dudes in about half a second with his revolver when he first walked into town. Yet we’re supposed to believe that one guy with a rifle is gonna be pose a major threat? Sorry, but I ain’t buying it.
But when you bring a gun to a swordfight … well, that changes things considerably. It doesn’t matter how badass Mifune is with his katana — Unosuke has a gun, and that makes the audience truly reconsider Mifune’s strengths and advantages over his rival. After all, how can a sword beat a gun?
Well, as Mifune proves, it’s rather easy, actually, as he uses a throwing knife to get the jump on Uno before rushing in and gutting him with his katana. As quickly as it ends, however, it’s a much better final battle than in Fistful, which requires a little too much from the suspension of disbelief department. To counter Ramon’s deadly accuracy when “shooting for the heart”, Eastwood wears a giant hunk of metal under his poncho and dares Ramon to blow him away. This is acceptable for the first couple of shots, but it gets rather silly as Eastwood shrugs off about a dozen shots and Ramon still foolishly aims for the chest instead of going for, I dunno, a headshot? Sure, Ramon may be proud, but in a life or death situation I doubt he’d act that stupidly.
In the end, I have to give the edge to Yojimbo, simply because the lame gun versus gun dynamic in Fistful really, really bugs me.
Perhaps it’s just me, but I find that Yojimbo can be quite confusing at times (especially the first time you watch it), since all of the Japanese names sound the same, the two gang leaders sorta look the same, and it’s hard to keep track of which guys work for Seibei and which guys are part of Ushitora’s crew. Thankfully, A Fistful of Dollars doesn’t have this problem, as the gangs are easily marked and instantly identifiable — it’s the boring white guys versus the villainous Mexicans.
Unfortunately, the way Fistful draws such a definitive line between the two gangs goes against the very core of Kurosawa’s original. In Yojimbo, Mifune made several visits to both gangs and a good chunk of time is spent on the samurai playing both sides against each other. Both gangs are equally vile, and Mifune knows he will wipe them both out — but you never really know which gang will get the upper hand until actually happens. Fistful, on the other hand, has no such shades of grey (and not just because the movie is in colour). The Rojos are evil, and that’s that. In fact, the Baxters are practically irrelevant and hardly have any screentime at all, making it more “Clint Eastwood versus the Mexicans” than “lone cowboy versus a corrupt town”.
Another problem is that while the Mexicans are easily identifiable, they are all rather generic (with the exception of Ramon). The Japanese gangs, however, had some truly memorable characters, such as the ugly monobrowed son and the giant thug with the mallet, which made the movie a bit more fun to watch.
Gotta give the edge to Yojimbo once again. While their appearances are perhaps played more for laughs (keeping with the overall lighter tone of the film when compared to Fistful), the goons are definitely more memorable in Kurosawa’s film. Plus, the equality of the two gangs actually works within the framework of the plot, which, you know, is a plus.
The Crowning Moment of Awesomeness
Apart from the final showdown, the big scene in each film occurs when the lone samurai / cowboy first arrives in town and wants to make a strong first impression on their potential employers. Naturally, he decides to slaughter a few local homeboys and proceeds to ask the undertaker for some coffins (“… better make it four.”). The Fistful version is ultra cool, simply because Eastwood is at his squinting, scowling, and growling best, delivering the classic lines about how it’s not wise to make fun of his mule before prematurely ending the day of four of Baxter’s toughs.
The equivalent scene in Yojimbo, on the other hand, directly influenced Star Wars:
That severed arm was, and still is, pretty hardcore. Still, Mifune’s lines aren’t quite as excellent as Eastwood’s (the samurai mocks the gangsters, saying that they look cute and probably couldn’t hurt a fly), and the low angle from behind The Man With No Name as he shoots up the Baxters allows the viewer to soak up all of the action as opposed to Kurosawa’s quick, frenetic swordplay.
Let’s call this one a draw, too, as both scenes are equally great.
And so, the winner is …
I guess the scorecards say Yojimbo, and I think in my heart I want to say that Yojimbo is clearly the better film due to its superior characters and narrative … but there’s just something about Clint Eastwood wearing that dirty brown poncho and smoking that cigar to the sweet, sweet sounds on Ennio Morricone’s soundtrack that is the very essence of cinematic awesomeness. It just goes to show that film is an intensely audio-visual medium, and that certain images and characters can burrow their way into our brains and make us overlook the obvious flaws that a movie may contain (such as Fistful‘s absolutely atrocious dubbing and voicework).
Try as I might, I truly can’t pick one over the other. Hmmmm. How about I say that we all win for having the chance to witness two great version of the same story? Unless, of course, you haven’t seen either movie. In that case, you’re clearly the loser of this contest.
Filed under: Movies Tagged: | A Fistful of Dollars, Akira Kurosawa, Clint Eastwood, Ennio Morricone, For a Few Dollars More, Jidaigeki, Man With No Name, Samurai, Sanjuro, Sergio Leone, Spaghetti Western, The Good The Bad and The Ugly, Toshiro Mifune, Yojimbo