TFS: A (Not So) Odd Couple

Trent Film Society will be making its foray into the Western genre with John Ford’s Stagecoach (1939) on January 22 and Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) on January 29 (each showing at 8PM). It is perhaps accurate to state that of the two films, Stagecoach more obviously fits the bill as a Western—after all, it is arguably the archetype for the entire genre— but the Samurai film Yojimbo and its Japanese director Kurosawa are both incredibly important to any consideration of the role this quintessentially American film genre has played in other nations around the world.

Many critics and academics have noted that, compared to other revered Japanese auteurs such as Yasujiro Ozu or Kenji Mizoguchi, Kurosawa’s directorial style was very much influenced by American filmmaking. Indeed, Kurosawa himself acknowledged John Ford as having a foundational impact upon his own work, referring to him figuratively in interviews as his ‘father’. The Western stylistic and thematic elements of Kurosawa’s Samurai films make it understandable that Seven Samurai (1954), perhaps his greatest film, was later directly remade into an American western, The Magnificent Seven (1960). However, the extent to which Kurosawa’s work interweaves with the Western genre is hardly limited to that single example.

Many Trent cinephiles may have already seen Quentin Tarantino’s latest film, Django Unchained (2012). Tarantino has been openly candid about the significance of the Italian Spaghetti Western genre, not only to Django (which he cheekily dubs a “Southern”), but also to previous of his films, particularly Kill Bill (2003-04) and Inglourious Basterds (2009). The most celebrated director of Spaghetti Westerns was Sergio Leone, and the first film of his famous “Dollars” trilogy was A Fistful of Dollars (1964), which, to bring us back to Kurosawa, was a direct remake of Yojimbo. The title character of Kurosawa’s film, played by the great Toshiro Mifune, was the basis of the now legendary ‘Man with No Name’ from Leone’s series, who was portrayed by Clint Eastwood, the most iconic Western figure of the past 50 years.

Of course, the greatest Western icon of the cinema’s first 50 years was John Wayne, and Stagecoach is the film that made him that icon. Before this film Wayne had no place in the acting firmament and had worked predominantly in little seen B-Westerns. However, John Ford, who would go down as arguably the greatest auteur of the American Western, decided that he would make Wayne into a star. Viewers should bear this fact in mind when they witness the manner in which Ford first introduces Wayne’s character in Stagecoach. I will not spoil it here, but it is my single favourite shot in a film filled with extraordinary ones.

The great American filmmaker Orson Welles named Stagecoach as the single biggest influence on his style of filmmaking, particularly with regard to Citizen Kane (1941). He claimed to have watched it 40 times in preparation for making his own film. The most apparent indicator of this influence would seem to be the manner in which both filmmakers framed shots. The particulars of image composition were essential to Ford (as they would be to Welles), and one noteworthy example of commonality between the two was that both filmmakers composed interior shots that included the ceiling, something very few other filmmakers shooting on studio lots attempted. This may seem an insignificant thing to some, but it was a noteworthy technical achievement as including the ceiling carried significant implications for lighting strategies, and again, both filmmakers were noteworthy for the manner in which they implemented lighting.

The Western is the most significant film genre in the history of American cinema, and because of Akira Kurosawa (with an assist from Sergio Leone and other Italian directors) it is one that made an atypically strong impact abroad. It would be impossible to gain an adequate perspective on the genre from any two films, but if limited to two, there are few better choices than Stagecoach and Yojimbo. Offering a taste of the genre at its most iconic, and as it was adopted by other nations, Trent Film Society offers viewers a useful point of entry into a wonderful filmmaking tradition.

Trent Film Society screenings take place at Artspace, 378 Aylmer St. N (between Hunter St. and Simcoe St.)