Cinematic Soulmates: Ran and Once Upon a Time in the West

Sometimes, the connections between two films are obvious, but there are other times when a little digging is required to find a common thread that links them.  This can often yield even greater rewards, as it can open up entirely new ways of looking at both films, and can unlock things that you didn’t even realize were there.   That brings us to this installment of Cinematic Soulmates, which focuses on a pair of films that at first may not seem in any way similar, but nonetheless share a number of themes and ideas in common.  A quick warning before we get started; there may be some mild spoilers contained within this article, but I’ll do my best to keep those to a minimum.  However, if you’ve never seen either movie, you may want to proceed with caution.

Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) is widely regarded as the culmination of his entire filmography up to that point.  It is the film in which all his particular obsessions come together to create an operatic Western fable that is every bit as big as the desert vistas against which it unfolds.  Similarly, Akira Kurosawa’s late period masterpiece Ran (1985) can be considered the ultimate capper on the director’s long and illustrious career (never mind that he made three movies after this), a film that encapsulates all of his themes filtered through a lens of age and experience.  It may appear as though this notion of finality or summation is the only thing that connects these two completely disparate and distinct films, but the similarities run much deeper.

Each film is primarily concerned with the idea of entropy; there is a sense in each film that we are witnessing the end of an era, the end of a dynasty, and the end of life.  They each serve as a sort of eulogy for a particular way of life, and seem to reinforce the notion that the old ways must come to an end in order to make way for the future.  In Ran, a longstanding dynasty falls so that another may rise in its place, and we watch as the once great Ichimonji clan is torn apart through madness and bloodshed, corrupted from within by greed and treachery.  Lord Hidetora (Tatsuya Nakadai) has grown old and feeble, and he can no longer control his headstrong sons (or their cunning and willful wives, for that matter).   Now the empire he has presided over for so long is destined to crumble along with his sanity, and we watch as both are attacked from within and without until they both go up in flames.  When the smoke clears, the only thing left standing is blind Tsurumaru (Mansai Nomura), and his presence seems to indicate that there is still life among the ashes and another dynasty could rise from them at any moment.

Once Upon a Time in the West, meanwhile, chronicles the death of an entire culture.  Progress is rapidly encroaching upon the lawless frontier, and now the ruthless gunfighters who ruled the landscape for so long are being forced to ride off into the sunset to make way for a supposedly more enlightened future that seems to want no part of them.  The railroad cuts across the land, bringing civilization along with it, and there is simply no place for men like the heartless Frank (Henry Fonda), vengeful Harmonica (Charles Bronson), or world-weary Cheyenne (Jason Robards).  As Cheyenne says, they all have something to do with death inside of them, and that is what sets them apart from the rest of the civilized world.  As such, they either end up with a bullet lodged in their guts, or galloping off alone, leaving a bustling new town in their wake.

Death is not the only thing that connects both films; Kurosawa and Leone are known for making films that focus mainly on men, with the female characters often being either ignored, underwritten, or simply overshadowed by the men (Leone is far more guilty of this, and was often accused of being something of a misogynist).  Ran and Once Upon a Time in the West each have the distinction of featuring what are arguably the strongest female characters to spring from the mind of either director.  In the case of Ran it is the  slyly devious Lady Kaede (Mieko Harada).  She looms large over the entire film, and pretty much sets the entire plot in motion as it is her scheming brings about the eventual downfall of the Ichimonji clan.  The character is far from a shallow one-note villain, though; she is a complex, fully realized character who is imbued with a sense of deep purpose and pathos, making her sympathetic despite her loathsome deeds.

On the other hand, Once Upon a Time in the West features the lovely Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a strong and independent woman who simply wants to put her scandalous past behind her and start fresh.  She makes her way out west to join her new husband and his children, only to discover that they have all been gunned down, and she goes from wife to widow in record time.  Jill is determined to make a go of it on her own, though, even if it means going toe to toe with some of the most despicable and brutal men in the West.  Leone occasionally threatens to undermine the character, however, and there are times when she is almost reduced to a mere sex object.  This is most notable when Cheyenne playfully smacks her on the backside as she is going out to bring water to the men building a new town on the plot of land she has inherited, and he tells her, “…if one of them should pat your behind, just make believe it’s nothing. They earned it.”  However, the expert writing combined with Cardinale’s iconic performance ensures that Jill remains one of the most enduring characters in the genre.

Both Leone and Kurosawa were inspired by the Westerns pumped out by Hollywood in the early days of cinema, and while only one of them explicitly directed Westerns himself, both men still explored much of the same thematic territory due to their exposure.  Both were inspired by the legend of the Old West, and used their status as outsiders to explore it in different ways.  Whereas Kurosawa was aping the style of Hollywood directors like John Ford, and then filtering it through the lens of his own cultural perspective, Leone was content to use his films as a way of deconstructing the American myth.  With these two films, however, both men are treading much of the same thematic ground, and approaching the material from a perspective of experience that only comes with old age.  It is the exploration of these timeless themes that links Ran and Once Upon a Time in the West, despite a number of stylistic and aesthetic differences that initially make them appear very dissimilar.

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