A Fistful of Dollars for the Last Man Standing: Yojimbo and the Postmodern Western by Melody Ayres-Griffiths.
In Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), a roaming samurai arrives in a small town where competing gangsters make money from gambling (Richie; p147; 1998). He convinces each crime head to hire him for protection from their rival, and then plays them off against each other leading to their mutual destruction.
Yojimbo was both inspired by, and created several western archetypes – the man with no name; the helpless, terrorised town. Kurosawa has conceded that Yojimbo was born out of a love for Westerns such as Shane (1953) (McVeigh; p172; 2007). These elements were taken further by Sergio Leone’s remake A Fistful Of Dollars (1964), of which Kurosawa wrote to Leone, ‘It is a very fine film, but it is my film’ (Verevis; p89; 2006).
In Fistful, ‘The Man With No Name’ (Clint Eastwood) is an American gunfighter who wanders into a Mexican town only to find it split into two warring factions, each supplying guns and alcohol to whiskey traders (Walle; p168; 2000). He is aided by a local barkeep and the local undertaker in his efforts to both profit off of, and destroy the two sides. He has an odd sympathy for Marisol (Marianne Koch), a woman kept from her family who, along with her kin, “serve both functions of the ‘terrorised victims’ motif, first as a setting, and then as a motive when (he) decides to liberate her – though his reasons are left enigmatic’ (Fridlund; p28; 2006).
Fistful provided the template for Leone’s style in later films (Fairbanks; p125; 2005), utilising sharp contrasts and recurring visual and audible motifs. It moves Yojimbo forward, taking the elements of a film that was inspired by the Western genre, and returning them back into the genre itself, as Roger Ebert notes: “Ironic, that having borrowed from the Western, Kurosawa inspired one.” (Ebert; 2005)
In this sense, Last Man Standing (Hill, 1996) is a remake of Fistful and not Yojimbo in that Walter Hill, a Peckinpah protégé, borrows heavily from Leone’s refinement of the Western archetypes, and not Ford’s as Yojimbo does (Giannetti et. al; p207; 2009). Standing is to Fistful what Fistful is to Yojimbo – the story is the same, but the way in which it is told follows a natural progression from one film to the next.
Is this enough to classify Last Man Standing as a western? Certainly, A Fistful Of Dollars typifies the postmodern Western (Ewell; p327; 2004), but can Standing, with its revised time period (the 1930s) and gangsters (instead of cowboys) be called a Western by extension? McCarty (1993; p12) describes the gangster film as ‘the modern continuation of the Western – a story the Western had grown too old to tell,’ but Standing is more of a fusion, somewhere in the middle, whose protagonist is ‘more akin to Western or noir heroes than gangsters’ (Larke-Wash; p191; 2010).
Like Yojimbo, Standing is set in a dusty, semi-abandoned 19th-century town – ‘Jericho was a jerkwater town … dirt streets, ramshackle buildings. One thing for sure, you couldn’t find it anywhere on the map’ (Hill; 2006). There is an old ruin of a Spanish church, obvious Western iconography, in which the ‘Man With No Name’, in this case John Smith (Bruce Willis), recovers following the beating the common Yojimbo plot demands, and where the ‘damsel in distress’, here named Felina (Karina Lombard) prays so that she can spend time away from her gangster captor.
The iconography and archetypes are what is of the highest importance here – Gene Autry’s films are classified as Westerns although they tend to be set in the 1930s (Stanfield; p78; 2001), and involve villains who are often not cowboys, but they have a certain mise-en-scene which Last Man Standing appears to share in equal measure, a ‘Western-in-disguise’ (Fhlainn; p107; 2010). Indeed, Chris Holmlund in his ‘Impossible Bodies: Femininity and Masculinity at the Movies’ classifies Standing as a ‘nouveaux western for the 1990s’ (Holmlund; p59; 2002).
Further, Director Walter Hill made two post-modernist Westerns directly preceding Standing, Wild Bill (1995) and Geronimo (1993) in which he challenged Hollywood’s traditional representation of Western heroism (Allon et. al; p243; 2002) similar to Leone. Thus we conclude that he wrote and directed Standing as a remake of not only Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but of Leone’s Fistful (Santas; p49; 2002) and therefore the author will for the purposes of this comparative essay accept Last Man Standing into the Western genre with the grace of the reader, and compare it with A Fistful of Dollars in terms of gender, audiences, history and authorship.
Tough but not too tough: Portrayals of Gender in the post-modernist Western.
Unlike Gene Autry, who had a sidekick perform in drag to offset his femininity and make him seem more ‘manly’ (Stanfield; p120; 2002), Leone’s ‘Man With No Name’ unravelled the masculinity of the traditional Western, making the postmodern form of the genre feminine (Smith; p87; 2000). Eastwood’s body is as objectified as women in traditional Westerns, with its exaggerated masculinity, and is subject to brutal physical punishment during which ‘Eastwood revels in pain’ (ibid), as does Willis in Standing.
However, although subject to extreme abuse, the powers of the Fistful/Standing protagonist are almost godlike (Merk; p280; 1992) and are unexplained painting a cinematic personification of machismo. To extend this, both Willis and Eastwood’s roles are largely silent, re-enforcing what Laura Mulvey calls their characters’ ‘ideal ego’ (Mulvey, 1975).
Regarding Fistful, it was typical for Italian movies of the time to parody gender stereotypes (Beyer; p36; 2008). Further, the Italian tradition of neo-realism after World War II challenged cliché’s of genre cinema such as gender (ibid.) which in the Spaghetti Westerns led to the replacement of the traditional male-female relationship with all-male bonds (ibid. p42.)
Fistful paints a portrait of the decomposing masculinity of the postmodern man (Smith; p88; 2000), where in contrast Standing’s Willis is more like a James Cagney who ‘has a weakness for any and all dames’ (Holmlund, p59, 2002). However, the all-male bonds are still present in Standing – Smith’s relationship with the hotelier is as equally strong as Eastwood’s “Joe” in Fistful, even though Smith is portrayed in a more masculine fashion, since these bonds are now common in modern American cinema, having itself become neo-realistic.
There is also a sexual component. In “Manhood in Hollywood from Bush to Bush”, David Greven argues that these masochistic portrayals of the male protagonist prey on a repressed homosexual voyeurism on the part of the ‘male’ spectator in what he calls the ‘masochistic gaze’ (Greven, p31, 2009). I would argue that the strong male bonds, and almost paternal female relationships in both films take this concept a step further, rationalising it on-screen.
Women in Westerns usually exist as signs of civilisation, or as a reward men fight over (Beyer; p45; 2008). It is true that in both films, this symbolic character exists as a motivation for the protagonist, although this motivation is non-sexual in nature, and instead more paternal (or maternal) and thus more typical of the ‘masochistic gaze’ in that the object of the audience’s infatuation is never the woman, but the protagonist who cares for her situation. Hill was so struck by this device that in Standing he actually employs it twice – having Smith give one female character money to leave her abusive boyfriend, and another the freedom to return to her family out of an odd, unexplained compassion (Fridlund; p28; 2006).
Indeed, the scene early on in Standing where Smith has sex with a prostitute focuses far more on him than her (Holmlund; p59; 2002) – she is basically faceless and he is undeniably the object of the audience’s gaze in that scene, one which moves from sex to violence in short order, fetishising Willis for the remainder of the film. The gaze is undeniably male, but yet Willis is the one eroticised by it.
Cowboys and Gangsters: The fall of the PCA and the rise of the ultra-violent Hollywood.
The Glass Key (1942), an adaption of a novel by Dashiell Hammett, is a notable influence on the Yojimbo legacy – Kurosawa is said to have been much inspired by the film, in particular the controversial scene where the protagonist is ruthlessly beaten by his enemies (Britannica.com; 2010). During the Second World War, the Production Code Administration (PCA) had temporarily relaxed rules regarding the on-screen depictions of screen violence, allowing striking visual instances such as Alan Ladd’s beaten face in Key (Prince; p151; 2003) to make it through on-screen, and contemporary filmmakers took as much advantage of this as they could.
In the post-war period, American filmmakers found inspiration in Italian films, advocating a more honest, less cautious cinema that would give the audience pause to think (Leff et. al; p146; 2001), although PCA chief Joseph Breen dismissed these aspirations, saying, “When these people talk about realism, they usually talk about filth” (ibid, p149). To his dismay, Breen would be challenged with widespread American releases of controversial but popular films such as The Bicycle Thief (1948), and the PCA’s authority was slowly chipped away.
By the mid-1960’s, directors were aggressively testing the boundaries of the PCA (Doherty; p276; 2007). As with The Bicycle Thief, Leone was able to push the violence in A Fistful Of Dollars farther than he would have been able to had he made the film inside of the United States – and hence subject to direct scrutiny by the PCA. Indeed, as a ‘foreign film’, Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer was able to release Fistful to a wide audience while sidestepping the micro-management of the censor. However, Eastwood has since claimed that Leone was unaware of the subtleties of the unspoken rules of the PCA, and never meant to cause such controversy. “You never shot a tie-up shot of a man shooting a gun and another person getting hit. It’s a Hays office rule from years ago, a censorship deal,” (Prince; p105; 2003) he later noted as an example of Leone’s ignorance, even though he himself commented on the protests launched against Leone’s films at the time, defending them, “Freedom of expression is the American way” (Miller; p235; 1994).
Well after the subsequent abandonment of the PCA and the introduction of the modern-day MPAA ratings system, Last Man Standing was produced in the mid-1990s, a time when the boundaries of the contemporary censorship regime were being tested by the likes of Quentin Tarantino in films such as Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), the ‘hippest of the hip new violent Hollywood directors’ (Phillips; p74; 2008). To be commercially viable with a younger audience, Hill would have needed to produce a similarly violent offering, and a modern interpretation of the Yojimbo plotline in the vein of Fistful would have been deemed quite attractive for such a production.
When and when: History of the Yojimbo legacy from within and without.
Yojimbo is set in feudal Japan, where wandering gangs often set upon and terrorised remote villages. A Fistful Of Dollars identified a historical similarity, and moved this setting to Mexico circa the American Civil War/frontier days of the 1860s when rumrunners traded guns and alcohol to the Native Americans, which they brought up from Mexico through towns that they controlled. Last Man Standing is set in Texas of the 1930s, during prohibition when gangsters similarly imported illegal whiskey from Mexico for illicit distribution to consumers inside the United States (Behr; p 85; 1996), in a town similarly under criminal rule.
Direct narrative translations from one genre to another are not unknown in cinema (Langford; p134; 2005). Indeed, Hill’s choice of shifting a story to a similar, but different time period is not uncommon amongst directors – Baz Luhrmann’s La bohème (1994) for example, sets the opera in the Paris of the 1950’s. Of this change, Luhrmann said, “We found the social and economic realities of 1957 were a very good match for the 1840’s” (Shiels; 2002), and the three settings of the Yojimbo legacy share favourably similar historical conditions.
One could not remake Fistful set in the same time period, and with Leone in mind, without fabricating a complete duplication, which is likely why Hill chose to proceed in the direction he did, choosing a setting where the Western and Gangster genres met at a crossroads. In fact, Kurosawa’s Yojimbo is said to have been strongly influenced by the 1929 novel Red Harvest, which ‘linked the detective story to the flourishing popular tradition of the western adventure’ (Cawelti; p116; 2004), and so perhaps Hill was going full circle, fusing the Western and the Gangster once again.
However, he is not the first to set a Western during this time period. Gene Autry set his films in the then-contemporary 1930s (Stanfield; p78; 2001) as well, but he did so as a distraction from the hardships of the Great Depression in an almost anachronistic construct. He brought the cowboy to a modern audience during a period where the wild-west outlaw had become the Chicago gangster – but in Autry’s universe, his enemies were typically criminals who were far less dramatic, typically confidence men or common thieves, not gangsters since the Hays Office had a particular idea of their portrayal in which they generally died in the last reel (Smith; p49; 2005), such as in The Public Enemy (1931).
That is not to say that the cowboy and the gangster did not co-exist in the 1930’s – Hill’s portrayal of the small town beset by bootleggers in Standing has some historical legitimacy, even though the film’s outcome is a bit unrealistic if taken in such a context. However, the updated setting did permit a greater level of violence, and more grandiose weaponry than is seen in Leone’s Fistful, a ‘happy consequence’ of this temporal change in setting that permitted Hill to film scenic Texan vistas whilst racking up a commercially desirable high body count.
Authorship: Leone’s style meets Hill’s substance.
It was not Leone’s intention to make carbon copy Westerns. Instead, he used his cultural background to renew a stagnant genre (Frayling, p181, 2006), making it distinctively his own. Traditionally American Western traits are employed by Leone in fashions that include typically Italian themes and concepts (ibid. p182), such as the link between family life and church iconography.
Hollywood’s annual Western production fell from 54 in 1958 to 11 in 1962-3 (Bondanella; p253; 2001) and would rise to 37 by 1967 due to the success of Leone’s pictures. Leone’s impact stemmed from his departure from the traditional Western formula – a plot typically generated by three forces: the townspeople, outlaws and heroes. Leone instead ‘plunges us into a violent and cynical world’ (ibid; p255) far different than those of Hawks or Ford. The hero acts for personal gain. The town is full of villainy. Women are largely absent.
Although influenced by Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, this is a world in which Leone’s Italian roots plays a heavy part in its existence, and is what makes his ‘Man With No Name’ trilogy so engaging, far more than the mere presence of Eastwood. A review of the film by James Barardinelli states, “The strengths of A Fistful Of Dollars relate to style, not storyline,” and “The element that differentiates [Fistful] from the majority of its predecessors is its gritty, unromanticised view of the Old West.” (Barardinelli; 1999)
TV Guide states, “Leone revitalizes the Western through a unique and complex visual style. The film is full of brilliant spatial relationships (extreme close-ups in the foreground, with detailed compositions visible in the background) … Aural and visual elements together give a wholly original perspective on the West and its myths.” (movies.tvguide.com)
In Adrian Mackinder’s review, he states, “Fistful has all the elements that define Leone’s style of filmmaking; full of unremitting violence, gritty realism and tongue-in-cheek humour. Leone’s direction is taut and stylish…” (futuremovies.co.uk)
Like Leone’s Fistful, Last Man Standing is ‘economic in plot and lavishly shot (with majestic images of the expansive desert landscape)’ (Allon et. al; 242; 2002). Heroism for Hill’s protagonists is about ‘simply being able to survive’ (ibid.) which he also shares with Leone, whose ‘Man With No Name’ must never find true heroism (Smith; p83; 2000). Although Hill has been called an ‘auteur of action’ due to his mastery of chase and confrontation (Huda; p 38; 2004) one finds him channelling Leone more often than not in Standing, placing his own authorship aside to concentrate upon directing a film that is more dramatic and subdued than his usual fare.
Of Last Man Standing, David Statton writes, “Even Hill’s references to classic Hollywood Westerns only serve as reminders that this sort of thing used to be done with a lot more imagination and depth,” (variety.com) and Rob Gonsalves states, “Hill has directed Willis to submerge his personality in tribute to the laconic icons Mifune and Eastwood.” (efilmcritic.com)
Time Out Film Guide states, “Hill’s Tex-Mex version suggests he hasn’t got the Western out of his system yet, and this highly stylised film looks like an uncomfortable exercise in cross-breeding, as if a handful of mobsters had wandered on to the wrong studio backlot.” (timeout.com)
Clearly, the general consensus is that Hill, although at times considered an auteur in his own right, is making no attempt to bring anything new to the Yojimbo franchise in terms of authorship, and here is a simple director, making a movie for the sake of making a movie.
In conclusion, I would suggest that A Fistful Of Dollars and Last Man Standing show a progression in screen violence and homo-eroticism between 1964 and 1996, demonstrate how the same plot can be recycled by setting the same story in different time periods and locales, and provide a fine example of a filmmaker leading, and a director following in Sergio Leone and Walter Hill.
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