There’s long been plenty of cultural exchange between that most American of cinematic genres, the Western, and Japanese ‘chambara’ or samurai action movies. Japan’s greatest director (and the world’s, come to think, of it) Akira Kurosawa was an admirer of John Ford’s widescreen horse operas; later, American and Italian filmmakers repaid the respect by remounting some of the Little Master’s films as Westerns.
The revered Toshiro Mifune starred in Kurosawa’s immortal epic, Seven Samurai, in 1954. Charles Bronson starred in John Sturges’ remake, The Magnificent Seven, in 1960. It would be 11 years later that audiences would get to see these two titanic tough guys go head to head in 1971’s Red Sun, from James Bond director Terence Young.
History will surprise you if you don’t keep an eye on it, and the idea of sword-swinging samurai existing contemporaneously with the gunfighters and bad men of the Wild West might seem unlikely, but the numbers add up. US Commodore Perry opened up Japan to trade with the West in 1858 and the modernisation that characterised the Meiji Restoration period was a long process, with members of the samurai class still cleaving to tradition in the face of industrialisation, increased commerce and cultural exchange.
Which means a canny screenwriter can hit upon the idea of a gang of outlaws robbing a train and finding a delegation of samurai, top knots, swords and all, which is exactly what bandits Link (Bronson) and Gauche (Alain Delon, who starred in Jean-Pierre Melville’s crime drama Le Samourai four years earlier, for extra resonance) discover. A few tense moments later, one of the samurai is dead, Gauche and the gang have ridden off with the loot including a golden tachi sword intended as a gift for the US President, and Link has been betrayed and left behind. He’s forced to team up with a surviving samurai, Koroda (Mifune), to track down Gauche and retrieve the sword. The catch? They have one week, and if they fail Koroda must commit ritual suicide – but not before killing Link.