Red Sun – 1971

Director Terence Young
Screenplay Denne Bart Petitclerc, William Roberts, Lawrence Roman
Starring Charles Bronson, Ursula Andress, Toshirō Mifune, Alain Delon, Capucine

Red Sun is a Franco-Italian gimmick film made on the cheap. It seemed like a great idea, I suppose. Mifune’s move to making American films always feels gimmicky. Race relations had evolved only to the point where one used cheap lines for the first part of a film, then showed a grudging admiration by act three. Terence Young had garnered a large portion of his fame for directing three of the Connery Bond films. Mifune had starred in the most influential foreign film. Bronson had featured in its American remake. The recipe seemed like a winner. It is not.

The story pits Bronson and Delon as partner train robbers who happen upon the train carrying the ambassador of Japan and his Samurai guard contingent. The party is on its way to Washington D.C. in order to meet the president, and they’ve brought a valuable gold sword along with them as a gift. Bronson, who’s a jerk, but not that big a jerk, only takes their money. Delon takes the sword and kills one of the guards. This is too far.

We’ve already seen much brutality brought upon the passengers and workers of the train. Some of the passengers is a troop of the U.S. military. The heist is actually kind of clever, and all apparently par for the course for everyone involved.

The presence of Mifune is the wild card that we’re supposed to care about, though. He and his ambassador have both been dishonored by the robbery and murder of their countryman. This means that that they must recover the sword from Delon and kill him within a certain number of days, represented by knots on a rope carried by Mifune. If not, then both will commit ceremonial suicide. It’s a trope, acting like an analog version of the L.E.D. countdown for the film.

Delon also screwed over Bronson, leaving him for dead after the big robbery. Bronson, who is an enlightened thief, doesn’t care about the sword, or that he was just nearly killed. He just wants his money back. When he’s brought back from his slumber, he’s ready to go catch up to Delon. Mifune must convince him to bring him along.

The second act is all about the chase. Bronson tries to ditch Mifune several times. Mifune’s mission differs from Bronson’s, and it’s stupid that this even comes up. Mifune wants to kill Delon outright then get the sword. Bronson knows that the cash will be hidden, so he wants to force Delon to tell him where it is, then Mifune can kill him. Mifune will not budge on this. What Mifune will do if Delon has stashed the sword as well as the cash is never discussed, presumably because just avenging the murder is most important.

Watching Bronson as a lead has always been unbearable for me. He was one of my father’s favorite actors and I just never understood that. The respect he gave my mother just didn’t gibe with the concept of being a Bronson fan. He has the emotional range of a dollar store squirt gun. He looks dangerous, but he also looks super sleazy. In that period of time of social revolution in the 60’s through its cinematic counterpart of the 70’s, Bronson fit the bill of the anti-hero who didn’t seem to care about hugging, learning or morals.

The film hits a snag the moment we see more women in the second act. There are the women at the farmhouse who see their father die. They’re just victims in the world of Bronson films. Then the women at the saloon, including Bronson and Delon’s girlfriends (Capucine and Andress). He sleeps with the first, kidnaps the second. He’s going to hold her hostage in order to convince his old partner to give up the cash.

There’s nothing more disgusting than watching Bronson, with his world weary wisdom, explain to Andress that she’s just a whore, and that is all she’ll ever be. That she’s in the midst of changing, then trying to seduce him while he is saying this doesn’t help. It does, however, give us the opportunity to see him clearly enjoying the situation.

Watching the whore with sleazy delight

The film misses an opportunity to show Mifune in a better light during this time. We know he probably came from a more enlightened place, but the filmmakers’ view on women pervades as he allows a woman to serve him as well. This film is seriously dated in its views on women, when trying to show a crude enlightenment on race.

Mifune is given a few opportunities to shine here. A better director would have made it more enjoyable and believable. The one moment that works best for me is when Bronson makes a run for it down a hill, tripping and falling most of the way. Mifune marches right down the hill with him, only he maintains his balance.

In a true measure for how clueless this story is, a few scenes later, Bronson pushes Mifune down another hill, and he falls horribly. The missed opportunity and, lets be honest, a real disservice to Mifune’s character is that they don’t have him once again maintain his balance. It’s like the person filming the second scene hadn’t seen the first.

The ugly truth about those early Bond films is, aside from Connery, they’ve aged horribly. That at least makes Young consistent in his directing ability. He shows the ability to hit the notes that need a lighter touch with a thud. His treatment of the pending brotherhood between the two leads is clunky and has no amount of resonance. The scenes where growth happens feel accidental. These building blocks are countered with betrayal from Bronson’s side so frequently, there’s no way Mifune should ever have trust him. Still, there they are, in the climax, fighting side by side, sometimes feet on shoulders, using all of that unearned loyalty while killing scores of poorly disguised fake natives.

Speaking of aging poorly. There is nothing quite as condescending as having a bunch of guys whose nasal ridge looking like Andy Pettite dressed up in bad wigs and horrible clothing representing Native Americans. That it is filmed in another country makes it feel a bit like rendition during the Bush era of the war on terrorism. It just shows that they were giving good tax breaks and lots of opportunities during the Spaghetti Western era even less discriminantly than they did in the States, so long as you hired local acting talent. It’s the hardest thing to watch a film attempting to show us the light in race relations to have a standby race that is still okay to use as cannon or samurai sword fodder.

I feel bad for Mifune in this film. Originally, the film had Clint Eastwood in the Bronson role. If he had been here, perhaps it would have been better. If they’d had better than a studio hack directing, it may have been a good film. His career deserved better representation in the Western Culture than films like this.

I know this isn’t an official Criterion release, but it feels even below the level of the Criterion Channel.

(* out of *****)

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