Posted by Kimberly Lindbergs on August 9, 2012
During Toshiro Mifune’s impressive career in front of the camera he was often referred to as the “John Wayne of Japan.” Like Wayne, Mifune was a powerful and commanding screen presence and one of his country’s biggest box-office stars. His rugged good looks and macho posturing seemed to represent a distinct kind of masculine ideal that post WW2 film audiences found particularly attractive. Both Wayne and Mifune often played characters that were tough, strong-willed, courageous, self-sacrificing and more than willing to carry the weight of the world on their shoulders. They also shared a sense of humor and natural confidence that allowed them to occasionally take on challenging roles that threatened to tarnish their universal appeal.
Two of Toshiro Mifune’s most iconic film appearances can be found in Kurosawa’s SEVEN SAMURAI (1954), which eventually became the inspiration for John Sturges’ THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) and YOJIMBO (1961), which inspired Sergio Leone to make his first spaghetti western, A FISTFULL OF DOLLARS (1964). But it would take another seven years before Mifune would star in his own genre-defying western, Terence Young’s RED SUN (aka Soleil rouge; 1971). While RED SUN might not be as renowned or skillfully executed as John Ford’s or Akira Kurosawa’s best films, it does possess its own kind of charm.
In RED SUN Toshiro Mifune plays a samurai guard protecting the Japanese ambassador who is traveling across America to meet President Ulysses S. Grant and bring him a special katana (Japanese ceremonial sword) as a gift. When bandits overtake their train and a ruthless outlaw named Gauche (Alain Delon) steals the sword, Mifune is forced to team-up with Charles Bronson to get the sword back, but there’s a twist. Mifune’s character only has a week to return the sword to the ambassador or he’ll be forced to commit harakiri (aka seppuku – a Japanese form of suicide) for dishonoring his country. Mifune and Bronson set out on a cross country adventure playing reluctant compadres who end up leaving a trail of dead bodies in their wake before they finally encounter Gauche again. In a spectacular finale involving Gauche’s love interest (Ursula Andress) and a small army of Comanche Indians, the three leading men fight for their lives and the missing sword but only one of them is left standing.
British director Terence Young often seemed to approach filmmaking with his tongue firmly planted in his cheek. RED SUN never takes itself too seriously and the jokes fly almost as quickly as the bullets. Unfortunately some of the humor falls flat and the direction occasionally feels uninspired. Young had made a name for himself shooting exciting action and adventure films, including the wildly successful James Bond pictures, but RED SUN was his first and only western and that probably didn’t work in his favor. The film relies too heavily on Maurice Jarre’s limited score to generate ambiance and it’s been criticized for its thoughtless portrayal of women and American Indians, which seem dated today but it was undoubtedly a tough film to manage. Both the cast and crew were international and four different writers compiled the script while countless studios handled the film’s distribution. This jumble of different cultures, languages and ideas combined with a restricted budget was apparent in many spaghetti westerns of the period and RED SUN had to overcome similar obstacles.
Minor faults aside, Young was able to assemble an impressive cast for his movie that brought together two stars from SEVEN SAMURAI and THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN for the first time. This was a wise move and makes the film an unprecedented treat for western buffs who probably never thought they’d see Toshiro Mifune and Charles Bronson in the same picture. Mifune, Bronson and Delon were rarely allowed to show their lighthearted side on screen but they seem to be enjoying themselves during the making of RED SUN and it’s just plain fun to watch the actors exchange humorous barbs and off-color jokes. Delon’s performance is surprisingly chilling at times and to his credit he was able to use his ‘ice-cold angel’ persona to make Gouche seem like a real threat. Bronson delivers a solid performance playing a character that he was undoubtedly all too familiar with and Ursula Andress is effective as Gouche’s unpredictable girlfriend. But in the end it’s Mifune who ends up being the most memorable character in the film. His stoic stance as he tries to maneuver through a world that’s not particularly friendly and downright confusing at times is admirable. The Bushido code doesn’t seem to have a place in the wild west but Mifune makes us believe that it should. He also has the best love scene in the film with a prostitute (Monica Randall) and he effortlessly executes every sword fight and judo chop like a champion.
Both Bronson and Delon had worked together before on the entertaining crime thriller, FAREWELL, FRIEND (1968) and the two actors became close during filming. Their friendly banter seems natural and unaffected in RED SUN and this feeling is echoed in the way they interact with Mifune. Delon has spoken fondly about his working relationship with Mifune on the set and has referred to the Japanese actor as a consummate professional who was like a “big brother” to him. Both Toshiro Mifune and Charles Bronson were at least 50 years old when they made RED SUN and Alain Delon was about 10 years younger than them both so it’s not too surprising that Delon found himself looking up to his costar. Delon had also developed a personal interest in Japanese culture during the making of LE SAMOURAI (1967) and that undoubtedly added to his deep admiration for Toshiro Mifune.
When RED SUN opened in the US it quickly left theaters and the critical response was lukewarm at best. But the film was a hit with international audiences particularly in Japan and Europe. That’s not too surprising because Mifune, Bronson and Delon were much more popular with Japanese and European filmgoers than they ever were here in the states. I found this out for myself during a trip to Japan. While roaming around various film memorabilia shops in Tokyo I was astonished by the amount of Alain Delon and Charles Bronson film memorabilia on display alongside plentiful items associated with Toshiro Mifune. These actors generated the kind of respect that similar shops in Hollywood reserve for actors like James Dean, Marlon Brando and Robert De Niro. RED SUN undoubtedly added to Bronson’s and Delon’s mystique in the land of rising sun because Japanese audiences could appreciate the film in ways that were lost on American viewers. Today RED SUN is a minor cult favorite among fans of ‘60s and ‘70s westerns but it’s a fascinating milestone in Toshiro Mifune’s impressive career. If you want to see the “John Wayne of Japan” ride a horse and sit around a campfire while he fights off banditos and hostile Indians, RED SUN is your answer.
Unfortunately RED SUN isn’t airing during the Toshiro Mifune ‘Summer Under the Stars’ celebration on TCM but it’s readily available on DVD. In the meantime you’ll find plenty of great Mifune movies to watch on TCM today. Last but not least, I hope you’ve enjoyed this weeklong Movie Morlocks’ blogathon devoted to Mifune and with a little luck it will encourage some readers to seek out more of the actor’s films.
MovieMorlocks.com is the official blog for TCM. No topic is too obscure or niche to be excluded from our film discussions. And we welcome your comments on our blogs and bloggers.
See more: facebook.com/tcmtv
See more: twitter.com/tcm
3-D Academy Awards Action Films Actors Actors' Endorsements Actresses animal stars Animation Anime Anthology Films Art Direction Art in Movies Asians in Hollywood Australian CInema Autobiography Avant-Garde Aviation Awards B-movies Beer in Film Behind the Scenes Best of the Year lists Biography Biopics Black Film Blu-Ray Books on Film Boxing films British Cinema Canadian Cinema Character Actors Chicago Film History Cinematography Classic Films College Life on Film Comedy Comic Book Movies Crime Czech Film Dance on Film Digital Cinema Directors Disaster Films Documentary Drama DVD Early Talkies Editing Educational Films European Influence on American Cinema Experimental Exploitation Fairy Tales on Film Faith or Christian-based Films Family Films Film Composers Film Criticism Film Festival 2015 film festivals Film History in Florida Film Noir Film Scholars Film titles Filmmaking Techniques Films About Gambling Films of the 1960s Films of the 1970s Films of the 1980s Food in Film Foreign Film French Film Gangster films Genre Genre spoofs HD & Blu-Ray Holiday Movies Hollywood history Hollywood lifestyles Horror Horror Movies Icons independent film Italian Film Japanese Film Korean Film Literary Adaptations Martial Arts Melodramas Memorabilia Method Acting Mexican Cinema Moguls Monster Movies Movie Books Movie Costumes movie flops Movie locations Movie lovers Movie Reviewers Movie settings Movie Stars Movie titles Movies about movies Music in Film Musicals New Releases Outdoor Cinema Paranoid Thrillers Parenting on film Pirate movies Polish film industry political thrillers Politics in Film Pornography Pre-Code Producers Race in American Film Remakes Revenge Road Movies Romance Romantic Comedies Satire Scandals Science Fiction Screenwriters Semi-documentaries Serials Set design/production design Short Films Silent Film silent films Social Problem Film Sports Sports on Film Stereotypes Straight-to-DVD Studio Politics Stunts and stuntmen Suspense thriller Swashbucklers TCM Classic Film Festival TCM Underground Television The British in Hollywood The Germans in Hollywood The Hungarians in Hollywood The Irish in Hollywood Theaters Thriller Trains in movies U.S.S. Indianapolis Underground Cinema VOD War film Westerns Women in the Film Industry Women's Weepies