Thrice Told Tales


Yojimbo (1961)
A Fistful of Dollars (1964)
Last Man Standing (1996)

People talk about how they hate when Hollywood remakes a movie, or some band covers another band’s songs, but remakes and retellings have always been around. 

Those folk stories told ‘round the campfire didn’t always stay the same. There were changes due to forgetfulness and changes due to creative inspiration. Even today, retold jokes sometimes get screwed up and sometimes get improved. 

And with films, if we really think about it, no one would be happy with no remakes whatsoever. What if the only film adaptation we had of William Shakespeare’s Hamlet was the 1921 silent German version? What if the only Frankenstein we had was Edison’s 1910 version which perhaps didn’t capture all the nuances of the story at a whopping 16 minutes long? And believe me, you are glad Hollywood didn’t stop at the 1931 telling The Maltese Falcon without the artistry of John Huston and Humphrey Bogart.

This little feature is called Thrice-Told-Tales, and we’ll look at stories told on film at least three times. We’ll consider whether it was worth the effort, starting with film adaptations of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest. Maybe.

We’re starting with Akira Kurasawa’s Yojimbo. Kurasawa said he borrowed from the 1942 film adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key, but since Kurosawa’s classic 1961 film came out, people have pointed to the fact that its plot resembles the plot of Red Harvest: a stranger comes to a small town where he plays two rival gangs against each other.  But even if the plot was borrowed, the Japanese master filmmaker made something utterly new.

Westerns commonly had a stranger coming into town to clean up the bad guys (think Shane), but it was always very clear that the stranger was a good guy. When the samurai comes into town at the beginning of Yojimbo, we don’t know whether he is a good guy or a bad guy. There hadn’t ever been a character like Sanjuro Kuwabatake (Toshiro Mifune).

A sidebar: This character does have a name, as seen above. Even though people refer to Clint Eastwood’s character in A Fistful of Dollars as “The Man with No Name,” he has a name, too. Joe. And Bruce Willis in The Last Man Standing calls himself “John Smith.” Sure, these aren’t very colorful names, but all three do have names.

Mifune’s samurai is a rather slovenly guy. His kimono (to these American eyes) looks like a ragged bathrobe. Sanjuro slouches and scratches himself in a rather unheroic fashion. Long before I saw this film, I had seen John Belushi in skits on Saturday Night Live that I realize now were obviously modeled on Mifune’s character. 

As we, along with Sanjuro, first see the town in Yojimbo, a dog runs down the street with a human hand in its mouth. We can guess already that the town contains depths of depravity. (In A Fistful of Dollars, a dead horse lies unattended in the streets. There is nothing quite comparable in Last Man Standing.)

Sanjuro, “The Samurai,” learns about the town’s two rival Yakuza gangs. He soon begins to pit the gangs against each other, offering his sword (and thus his services)  to the highest bidder. He picks off one man after another and tricks the gangs into destroying each other until there is one last weakened gang he must face on his own.

There are innocents (at least relative innocents) in the town who Sanjuro grudgingly assists, always at a personal cost to himself. He seems always to do the right thing in the very worst way possible.

The film is a classic and one of my personal favorites. So obviously there was no reason to remake it. 

But the great Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone did, just three years later.

One smart thing he did was to set the story in the Old West rather than rural Japan. The story felt new and brought about the boom in Spaghetti Westerns (Westerns made in Italy by Italians.) A great new element was the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone who would prove to be one of the great composers of the 20th Century.

But it wasn’t a new story. Toho Studios successfully sued the international production company that made the film and were reimbursed financially. (Fortunately, for the sake of cinema, they didn’t request the removal of the film from the market.)

In 1996, the talented action director Walter Hill told the story again, but this time as a prohibition-era gangster film in a small town in Texas, called Last Man Standing. Hill credited Kurasawa’s Yojimbo and paid the appropriate parties upfront.

The film has some excellent action sequences, as one would expect from the writer/director Hill. And there is very good camerawork by Lloyd Ahern. But there is one great, unforced, error in the film: the use of the vocal narration by Bruce Willis’ character, John Smith. In Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars, the leads are men of mystery. You’re never sure of their motives, and you always wonder if the motives are perhaps sinister. John’s voiceover always assures the audience he’s a good guy, rather like John McClane of Die Hard or David Addison of Moonlighting

Another odd flaw in Last Man Standing is the lack of a key obstacle in the third act. In Yojimbo, there is a thug named Ushitora with a gun. How is the swordsman going to deal with firepower? In A Fistful of Dollars, Ramon has a rifle and taunts Joe saying, “When a man with a 45 meets a man with a rifle, the man with the pistol will be a dead man.” How will Joe deal with the long-range weapon? There’s no equivalent weaponry challenge for John Smith in the finale of Last Man Standing, except he’s facing Christopher Walkin, which is arguably a unique challenge on the acting level for Bruce Willis.

To conclude, Yojimbo is a better film than A Fistful of Dollars which is a better film than Last Man Standing. But I’m glad a good Western and a diverting gangster film are available in the world alongside a masterpiece of a Samurai film.

Published in Entertainment
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There are 11 comments.

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  1. Hugh Member

    I like all three.  I prefer this kind of remake.

    Thanks for the analysis.

    • #1
  2. MisterSirius Member

    The relation between Yojimbo and Red Harvest is complex, or it is relatively simple.

    Red Harvest is, IMO, a bumpy novel, and I think a big part of this is that it was serialized in four parts. IMO it starts to lose steam toward the end, and the conclusion is not so satisfying (which is probably the grimly noir point).

    Yojimbo takes the initial scenario, streamlines everything for a three act structure, puts in a lady to save, makes the protagonist a true loner rather than an agent of a larger group, and builds the story to a satisfying cinematic last-boss fight.

    (Re: the name “Sanjuro,” IIRC it is an obvious pseudonym, meaning/implying “thirty years old.” IIRC, the name for Clint’s character is ambiguous; the name for Bruce’s character looks to be a pseudonym.)

    (Re: “the man with no name,” Hammett’s Continental Op really has no name.)

    • #2
  3. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald

    Eustace C. Scrubb: A great new element was the soundtrack by Ennio Morricone who would prove to be one of the great composers of the 20th Century.

    The Last Man Standing soundtrack by Ry Cooder was great too. I watched the movie in a new theater that was so proud of their powerful sound systems, they advertised showings with reduced volume.

    When I heard the soundtrack I immediately knew who the musician was.  While the closing credits rolled, Ry Cooder’s rumbling bass guitar with the bass saxophone was probably the best sound I’ve ever heard in a theater.  Great, Gritty Stuff!



    • #3
  4. Eustace C. Scrubb Member
    Eustace C. Scrubb

    YOJIMBO Trailer (1961) – The Criterion Collection – YouTube

    • #4
  5. Mad Gerald Coolidge
    Mad Gerald

    Before Last Man Standing, Walter Hill had also used a Ry Cooder soundtrack in Southern Comfort.  Another favorite.

    • #5
  6. Doug Watt Moderator
    Doug Watt

    Akira Kurosawa, a brilliant film maker:


    • #6
  7. The Reticulator Member
    The Reticulator

    You know how to review films in a way to make even me want to see them. These films, anyway. 

    • #7
  8. TBA Coolidge

    Odd that Shakespeare productions usually suffer when set in different time periods but Yojimbo does not. 

    • #8
  9. Tex929rr Coolidge

    Mad Gerald (View Comment):

    Before Last Man Standing, Walter Hill had also used a Ry Cooder soundtrack in Southern Comfort. Another favorite.

    The best Ry Cooder soundtrack, IMHO, is from Streets of Fire – also Walter Hill.  I just watched Last Man Standing the other day.  The speech by the Texas Ranger is particularly good.  

    • #9
  10. MisterSirius Member

    Re: the puzzling reference to Hammett’s The Glass Key. Well, I admit that I am always puzzled; and the OP captures the way the linkage is generally presented as a puzzle. (One is tempted to speculate that Kurosawa was using this as a dodge to avoid having to make payments.)

    To remind myself, and possibly assist others, I offer the following.

    It looks like a puzzle because it is an examination through the lens of “plot,” where the plots of Yojimbo and The Glass Key are not as similar as the plots of Yojimbo and Red Harvest. But if we switch the lens to “character motivation,” then it becomes crystal clear what Kurosawa is talking about, and it makes plain the genius of his Hammett synthesis: he has taken the character motivation of The Glass Key and applied it to the opening scenario of Red Harvest. (Kind of like taking the cylinder from one pistol and putting it into another revolver to make a superior pistol; but that’s a different spaghetti Western.)

    In Red Harvest, since the outsider hero is a “good guy” agent, there is tension about him going “blood simple” (to make another movie reference) and going too far into the dark side; in The Glass Key the guy is a member of the society, but his motivation remains unknown. Kurosawa makes his hero a true outsider with unknown motivation, turning the “Shane” scenario into a rolling escalation that ends in a small town apocalypse.

    • #10
  11. Headedwest Coolidge

    Just to add a thought: if you’ve never read Red Harvest, you should. It’s a gripping novel, and the end is downbeat but appropriate in my opinion.

    It’s a relatively inexpensive e-book: Red Harvest

    • #11
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