In 1963, Italian director Sergio Leone saw Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo, several times, if the reports are to be believed. Leone was so inspired by this film that he decided to make a western (his favorite genre of Hollywood movie), using its story as the jumping-off point, a film that would not only revolutionize the Italian Western, but also the Western as a genre. That film, of course, was A Fistful of Dollars (1964), a film so influential that it effectively spawned an entire industry of European Westerns. Without putting too fine a point on it, Leone remade Yojimbo without getting Kurosawa’s permission, and had to subsequently pay for it, but in many respects the two films could not be more different. Aside from the obvious setting and country of origin, the tone and cultural politics of essentially the same actions are worlds apart and the motivations of the films’ respective “heroes” are equally different. What makes the two films so different?
Here’s the trailer for Yojimbo.
And here’s the trailer for A Fistful of Dollars.
Well, before looking at the differences, let’s take a look at the similarities. Both films tell the story of a dangerous rogue (Toshiro Mifune’s Sanjuro and Clint Eastwood’s Joe) who happens upon a secluded town beset by two warring criminal families, in Yojimbo it’s silk merchants and sake brewers, and in Fistful it’s liquor smugglers and arms dealers. The rogue works for both families, usually to the detriment of the other. In both films, the rogue’s only allies are three peasant workers, a coffin maker, a tavern keeper, and a town crier. During the course of his dealings, the rogue rescues a kidnapped woman from one of the families and returns her to her husband and son thus leading to the rogue being beaten and tortured. The stronger family demolishes the other family, killing nearly everyone and taking control of the town, only to have the rogue return, after a period of recuperation, and decimate the remaining baddies, “freeing” the town and leaving it in ruin.
That’s what’s the same; that’s the plot. There are a few other touches throughout that are the same or similar in both films, but the differences are much more important and interesting. Yojimbo has a much stronger focus on the day-to-day politics of this town. When he first arrives, Sanjuro asks a peasant couple for some water. As he drinks, he hears the husband and wife bicker about the state of the town, with all the horrible criminals who come through. Later, when he meets the tavern keeper, he hears about how the two criminal organizations totally have the town in fear. Most of the citizens keep their shutters closed up at all times for fear of accidentally upsetting someone. There’s a very funny scene in which a government official is coming through town and the criminal families have to put their differences aside so as not to draw the attention of the official, and so they walk through the streets telling all the folk to open up and look like nothing’s going on.
A Fistful of Dollars does this all differently. The town in this film is all but a ghost town from the start. With the exception of the man and his son, the tavern keeper, the town crier, and coffin maker, there seems to be no one at all living there save the two sets of baddies and their dozens of henchmen. There’s no mention of how the two families affect any part of the town’s infrastructure because there isn’t one. There is a similar scene to the government official arriving in the form of the cavalry coming through with something secret in a coach, but the villains almost immediately steal it (it’s gold) and kill all the cavalry, so there isn’t the reverence to authority, or fear of it, by the criminals like there is in Yojimbo.
The hierarchy of the two criminal families is also drastically different between the two films. Both have the basic setup, with one family being run by three brothers and the other being run by a husband, a Lady Macbeth-like wife, and a foolish son, but they’re treated much differently. In Yojimbo, there is a person who runs or operates the legitimate business, sake brewing and silk making, and either they employ or have teamed up with these criminal factions. The silk merchant is also the mayor of the town, which affords him the ability to do whatever he likes. They seem to be unrelated, but have instead made a business deal. The criminal families then employ grungy, rather stupid thugs, all of whom seem to be marked for execution by the governors. Later, all of the thugs get fired and all stand around lamenting their bad luck. The families are all greedy and power-hungry but neither is particularly better or more dangerous than the other.
This stands in sharp contrast to the families in A Fistful of Dollars, who are much more straightforward. The Baxters are gunrunners and the Rojos are liquor smugglers, two activities that are already illegal. There is also an implied racial tension between the two, with the Baxters and their men almost completely Anglo-Americans and the Rojos and their men almost totally Mexican. The Rojos even refer to Joe as “The Americano,” giving them an instant mistrust of him. John Baxter is the sheriff of the town, meaning they can all essentially get away with everything and anything. The Rojos are immediately pegged as the more powerful family, and, indeed, most of the plot’s action follows their exploits and has the Baxters reacting more than taking charge in any way.
The “main villain” in each film is one of the brothers in the families. In Yojimbo, this is Unosuke (Tatsuya Nakadai), and in Fistful, this is Ramon Rojo (Gian Maria Volonte). They are both absent at the beginning of the film and return later on. However, Unosuke doesn’t arrive on the scene until about halfway through the film, where Ramon appears after about 15 minutes. Both are cocky and hotheaded, all around not-nice chaps, but Ramon is a sadistic homicidal madman who is first seen mowing down cavalrymen with a Gatling Gun. They both also have a specialty weapon that sets them apart. Unosuke has a pistol he obtained somewhere, the only gun in the story. Ramon is a master with a Winchester rifle, hitting the heart every time he fires. While Unosuke’s proclivity to pistols isn’t really touched upon, Ramon’s love of the Winchester becomes a major story point. Sanjuro doesn’t seem to have much trouble dispatching Unosuke, despite him having a longer range weapon, but Joe has to use his head to overcome Ramon and only his own speed with a Colt .45 gives him the edge.
Also totally different is the music used in both films. Masaru Sato’s score for Yojimbo is highly percussive and uses traditional film-scoring instruments in non-traditional ways. The score accentuates the utter absurdity of the proceedings and punctuates the off-center nature of what Sanjuro is doing. There are jazz-type horns as well, giving the score an anachronistic feel. There are big orchestral swells when the mood calls for it, and every set piece is scored. This stands in contrast to Ennio Morricone’s score for A Fistful of Dollars, which used non-traditional instruments, such as the electric guitar, whistling, and chanting, guttural voices, but attempted to approximate music of the time, like the use of the trumpet to signify an oncoming showdown. There is also much more emphasis on themes and motifs that creep in to announce a gag or alert of danger. This is very much a pop-inspired score, whereas Sato’s is not.
Perhaps the biggest difference in the films is the depiction of their enigmatic lead characters, Sanjuro and Joe. Both are clearly expert technicians at killing people and they spend their time traveling from place to place, but for very different reasons and purposes. Sanjuro is a ronin, a masterless samurai. In feudal Japan, to be a ronin was one of the lowest things possible. He is referred to by the angry wife at the beginning of Yojimbo as trash, and he seems to be looked down upon culturally; however, his proficiency with a sword makes him eagerly sought after by both criminal factions. Sanjuro is pushing 40, meaning he has passed his prime for being a warrior and he is seen as dirty, unkempt, and only interested in money to buy sake. Though his actions appear to be selfish at the beginning, he proves later on that he has been playing the two sides against each other in order to rid the town of both of them. At one point early in the film, Sanjuro starts a fight with the silk merchants on behalf of the sake dealers, making both sides square off, and then bowing out before any fighting takes place, even saying after the fighting doesn’t happen that he’d hoped they’d all kill each other so he wouldn’t have to. Though masterless, Sanjuro has a very definite code of honor.
Joe is completely different. He is a total mystery, a cipher from start to finish. Other than the fact that he is an American, he has nothing about his person or garb that would put him in any social class or occupation. He’s also young and spry which Sanjuro certainly was not. Though they are willing to pay him, both the Baxters and the Rojos are suspicious of Joe and throughout the film Joe has to be wary that at any moment someone will probably try to kill him. Unlike Sanjuro, there is nothing noble about his motives as he is in it strictly for the money. He does nothing without getting something in return, with the exception of helping the innocent family to escape, something he seems to do out of pity rather than honor. There is always a wily twinkle in his eye as though he were twelve steps ahead of everyone else. It’s in this way that Leone’s character truly differs from Kurosawa’s. Though played by an American, Joe is very much a Roman character, a harlequino, a trickster.
When it comes right down to it, the real difference between Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars is that Yojimbo isn’t an action film. It definitely has elements of one, with strong violence and fight scenes, as well as the stoic tough-guy lead, but Yojimbo is actually a classist social comedy. The villains in the film are all ruled by hierarchy and bureaucracy and are shown to be buffoons. While Sanjuro is a lower class than the bad guys, he is shown often with a puzzled or bemused look with regards to their ridiculous actions. The higher-ups are there to be made fun of and the one rather disheveled samurai makes short work of the lot of them.
A Fistful of Dollars is pure bravado. It’s a movie about men with machismo to spare matching wits and brawn to find out who is the toughest. Everything is amped up in Fistful, taking the themes and scenarios from Yojimbo and adding bodies and gunshots left and right. When Sanjuro saunters away in Yojimbo, the town is utterly a burnt-out wasteland where the greed of the two families destroys the fabric of the small society. When Joe says “So long” at the end of A Fistful of Dollars, the town is littered with bodies, but it’s quiet again, and happy. Greed is a tool of the hero, not the downfall of the villain. This proves that in the hands of master filmmakers like Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone, two films with the exact same plot can tell two totally divergent stories. But Leone still totally stole it.