Toshiro Mifune in RED SUN (1971)

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-WWII 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.

While John Wayne made a name for himself as a star of popular westerns often directed by John Ford, Mifune became best known for his convincing portrayal of samurai warriors in Akira Kurosawa’s films. Many of Kurosawa’s samurai epics were broadly influenced by Ford’s westerns, while Mifune’s performances often shared a similar swagger and assertion with John Wayne.

As author Richard D. McGhee points out in his book John Wayne: Actor, Artist, Hero, both Wayne and Mifune were recognizable for their boldness, arrogance and determination. Few actors can turn their back to a camera without getting lost on screen but Wayne and Mifune could effortlessly become part of a film’s landscape. Their performances were organic in the sense that they used their bodies to convey authority and character instead of relying on close-ups and mouthfuls of dialogue to breathe life into their roles.

Two of 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 unique charm.

In RED SUN Mifune plays a samurai guard protecting the Japanese ambassador who is traveling across the 19th century American frontier 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 one 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 in the end.

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 has 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.

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 Mifune and Bronson on the same screen.

Mifune, Bronson and Delon were rarely allowed to show their lighthearted side but they all 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 uncommonly lovely and 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 once referred to the Japanese actor as a consummate professional who was like a “big brother” to him. Both Mifune and Bronson were at least 50 years old when they made RED SUN and Alain Delon was about 10 years younger than both so it’s not too surprising that Delon found himself looking up to his costars. 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 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 Delon and Bronson film memorabilia on display alongside plentiful items associated with Toshiro Mifune. These actors generate the kind of respect that similar shops in Hollywood reserve for actors like John Wayne, James Dean and Robert De Niro.

RED SUN undoubtedly added to Bronson and Delon’s mystique in the land of the 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 1960s and 1970s westerns but it’s a fascinating milestone in 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.

by Kimberly Lindbergs, originally written for Turner Classic Movies and published August 9, 2012