A Fistful of Dollars and Yojimbo

The tropes of the American Western have long been played out in oral traditions, novels, films, and cartoons.  In the 1960’s, a genre of film emerged derogatorily dubbed “Spaghetti Western” by Americans.  These films often depicted tensions between Mexico and the United States- fighting along the border in particular- and were made to look as if they were filmed in the American West.  These “Western all’Italiana” films, however, were directed by Italians in remote, rocky sections of Europe.  Produced in Italy, the films were dubbed over in English when they were released in America (Frayling, 21).  One of the first Spaghetti Westerns to be shown in America was A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone in 1964 and released in the States in 1967.  Starring a relatively unknown Clint Eastwood as the rugged “Man with No Name”, the movie was a huge success.  It became the first in a trilogy with the release of For a Few Dollars More in 1965 and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly the year after that.  The films began Eastwood’s long career in high-profile films.

While the “Man with No Name” or “Dollars” trilogy (both names are commonly used) became the archetype of Spaghetti Westerns, director Leone was drawing his plots from many other sources.  He has cited a pulp novel by Dashiell Hammett called Red Harvest (1929) as one influence for his movie.  In Italian Cinema: From Neorealism to the Present, Peter Bondanella writes; “The plot of the film is derived in part from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) and in part from Carlo Goldoni’s play, The Servant of Two Masters. (Bondanella, 255)”

Director Akira Kurosawa is more critically acclaimed for Seven Samurai, the epic 3-hour 1954 masterpiece. “Yojimbo” translates to “bodyguard”.  It is this similarity to the Japanese film Yojimbo that is so striking about A Fistful of Dollars. Although MGM/United Artists, which distributed the American version, has never mentioned the connection to Akira Kurosawa’s film, A Fistful of Dollars is essentially a frame-by-frame adaption of Yojimbo (BBC). It is sometimes referred to as an “unofficial remake.”

While certainly unofficial (Kurosawa filed a law suit against the film, citing plagiarism, and a year later received 15% of the worldwide receipts of A Fistful of Dollars and over $100,000), just how much of A Fistful of Dollars is borrowed from Yojimbo? Here are the plots of the two films:

A lone ranger-type man enters a seemingly deserted town.  In Yojimbo, this man is a “ronin”, or a samurai without a master.  The setting is 1860’s Japan, and the film is in black-and-white.  In A Fistful of Dollars, the scruffy character is a gunslinger for hire, who arrives in the town because he let his mule lead the way.  Clint Eastwood’s character has no name, and in reference to the film and the rest of the trilogy, is called “the Man with No Name.”  The ronin in Yojimbo (played by Toshiro Milfune) calls himself “Kuwabatake Sanjuro” which translates to “Mulberry Field thirty-year-old”, a name he decides upon randomly after looking off into the distance for a while.

The nameless man befriends the tavern keeper, and comes upon the coffin-maker; there is a turf war going on between two rival gangs, and the coffin-maker is the only man who is making any money.  In Yojimbo, the gangs are comprised of those men behind the silk merchant and those men behind the sake merchant; in A Fistful of Dollars the gangs are comprised of the Rojo brothers and the sheriff Baxter and his men (BBC).  The nameless man sees a great opportunity to make money by playing both sides off against each other.  There is a lot of double-crossing, prowess by the nameless man with a sword (Yojimbo) or a gun (Dollars), and comedic happenstances.  The nameless man frees a woman held hostage.  In the end, he leaves the town after killing nearly every last member of both gangs.

The similarities are far too striking to be coincidences.  Leone has noted that Kurosawa’s film can be traced back to older influences that also inspired Leone, but it is difficult to watch the two films and not see conspicuous kinship.  The question, then, is which movie is better?

This viewer believes Yojimbo is funnier.  Toshiro Milfune’s samurai is a dead-pan raised eyebrow next to the insane side-characters.  However, Clint Eastwood’s embodiment of the Nameless Man has become iconic, and Ennio Morricone’s score for the trilogy is recognizable to movie buffs.  American audiences are more familiar with A Fistful of Dollars for a number of reasons: it is dubbed in English while Yojimbo has subtitles, it is in color, it involves an American actor.  The final quick-draw in Kurosawa’s film, another trope of the Western genre, is more relatable to audiences unfamiliar with sword fighting.  Despite the fact that both films are imported to the US, a majority of Americans prefer A Fistful of Dollars.

Combined with the comedy, the subtle differences in plotting, and the cinematography, I prefer watching Yojimbo. Sergio Leone’s trilogy is strong, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a classic Western, but I’ll take an epic swordfight and the devious tricks of a samurai who sits atop the city and laughs as the bad guys kill each other over the sneering Man with No Name.

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  • […] longer-form essays in place of the shorter blog posts the editors would do.  My post today was on the films Yojimbo and A Fistful of Dollars. You can read pieces on Orientalism in art, various reviews, and rock operas (and more!) on the Side […]

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