Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island

Samurai III: Duel at Ganryu Island
Rating: ***** (Essential)
Origin: Japan, 1956
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Source: Criterion Collection Blu-Ray

This is the final film in Inagaki’s epic trilogy adapting Eiji Yoshikawa’s biographical novel of the early life of Musashi Miyamoto, the exemplar of Bushido. It leads up to the inevitable duel between Musashi (Toshiro Mifune) and his arch-rival Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Tsuruta), introduced in the previous movie. But more than that, the purpose of this film is to draw a contrast between the vainglorious Kojiro and the increasingly humble and thoughtful Musashi. It does this from the very beginning, the first scene showing Kojiro at a waterfall, a location of great natural beauty, ignored by the samurai who sees a passing swallow as nothing more than a challenge to his sword-skill, as he brings it down with a single lightning stroke. Musashi, on the other hand, when challenged by a boastful spear-wielding monk, declines to draw his own sword, and instead neutralizes his opponent by grabbing the end of his spear and using his own strength against him.

This sort of thing continues: Kojiro defeats his adversaries in flashy duels, burnishing his reputation, while Musashi avoids a brawl with a gang of thugs in a famous scene where he awes them with his skill by using chopsticks to grab flies on the wing. Though Kojiro has never lost a duel, neither has Musashi; realizing that only Musashi is a match for him, Kojiro challenges him, but Musashi temporizes, putting him off for a year “to train further.”

Musashi’s idea of further training is to return to the simple life of the soil. He becomes a farmer at a village where the peasants, repeatedly raided by bandits, are giving up in despair. But the complications of his old life pursue him into the countryside: Otsu (Kaoru Yachigusa), who’s loved him since he was a youth, shows up at the village, as does the bandits’ moll Akemi, who also pines for Musashi. Jealous of Otsu, she calls the bandits down on the village, and Musashi must fight to defend the peasants.

Finally the reckoning with Kojiro can be put off no longer. Inagaki’s depictions of the fights in this film are impeccable, but the final duel at dawn on the beach at Ganryu Island is a thing of beauty, a ballet of light, water, and weaponry, a few simple elements the director combines into a scene both elegant and unforgettable, exemplifying all that’s gone before. I think I’ll go watch it again.

 

Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue

Rob Roy, The Highland Rogue
Rating: ***
Origin: USA / UK, 1953
Director: Harold French
Source: Amazon streaming video

Rob Roy MacGregor (1671-1734) was a Scottish outlaw who took part in two Jacobite rebellions against the English, was in and out of trouble his entire life, and seems to have been a pretty tough customer. Romanticized accounts of his exploits began appearing in the popular press as early as 1723, in his own lifetime. He became a hero of Scottish legend, and even the title character of a novel (1817) by Sir Walter Scott. This Disney live-action film follows that tradition, presenting a lively though highly-fictionalized account of the outlaw’s career. It was mostly shot in the gloomy grandeur of the Highlands, which suits the tone of the picture, darker than that of most Disney adventure films. It fact, it was a disappointment at the box office, due I think to this somber tone, and to the portrayal of the hero by star Richard Todd, whose hard-bitten Rob Roy is a bit too grim and vengeful to be truly sympathetic.

The story is the time-honored tale of the doughty but disorganized Scots, brave with their swords and shields, beaten again and again by the perfidious English with their serried ranks of muskets and bayonets, not to mention their horse dragoons and artillery, the big cheaters. The victorious English oppress the Scots, the clansmen exact reprisals, and the cycle continues. The Scots here are mostly broad caricatures, hard-fighting and hard-drinking, the camera dwelling on their colorful celebrations of marrying and burying, the pipes skirling at every opportunity. To be fair, the wicked English are cartoon parodies as well, their bewigged officers taking snuff and curling their lips, sneering in contempt at the barbaric Scots. The halting English of their imported German king, George I, also comes in for its share of mockery, so no nationality goes unscathed.

In truth, the only sympathetic and three-dimensional people in this thing are Glynis Johns, lovely and heart-breakingly earnest as Rob Roy’s lady-love Helen MacPherson, and the massive James Robertson Justice as the Duke of Argyll, a Scottish noble seeking to find an honorable way to end the ongoing bloodshed. Whenever he shows up, his commanding presence dominates the screen, and we know he’s going to win in the end by dint of sheer moral authority. But not before we’ve had the requisite number of ambushes and escalades, pursuits and escapes, and pitched battles with howling swordsmen and roaring cannon. Scotland Forever, I guess.

 

 

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple

Samurai II: Duel at Ichijoji Temple
Rating: *****
Origin: Japan, 1955
Director: Hiroshi Inagaki
Source: Criterion Collection DVD

For a movie less than two hours long, there’s an awful lot going on here. As the second film in a trilogy, this one has to do the heavy lifting of supporting the central arch of the hero’s character development, as well as shuffling the story forward and setting up the climactic final movie, and it does all this with clarity, economy, and finesse. And that’s important, because this is the part of the story where the legendary Musashi Miyamoto, played once again by Toshiro Mifune, must evolve from an angry and arrogant bully into a humble and honorable samurai warrior.

As far as Musashi is concerned, the story is a succession of fights separated by encounters with surprising mentors—a caustic old monk, an accomplished geisha, a reverent sword-polisher—who teach him how to look within to find himself. For the rest of the ever-burgeoning cast, it’s a frantic dance of deceit, adoration, conspiracy, rape, greed, ambition, calculation, and murder, in a carefully orchestrated flow of short, sharp scenes that keep the story moving so deftly you can almost ignore its series of mind-boggling coincidences. All the characters introduced in the first movie return to be joined by an equal number of new faces, most of whom make it to the end of this film with their plots still unresolved. The most important new character is Kojiro Sasaki (Koji Suruta), a wry and cynical young swordsman who seems to dog Musashi’s every footstep, showing up whenever there’s trouble, sometimes fomenting it, sometimes defusing it, but always with an eye toward how everything points toward an inevitable showdown with Musashi.

Speaking of showdowns, there’s a lot of fighting in this entry, much more than in the previous picture, and director Inagaki shows himself to be a master of the form. But of all the combats in the film, significantly only the first and last are shown from beginning to end, because they bookend Musashi’s character arc; all other fights are only partially depicted, mere links in the chain of the story’s progress.

The movie opens on the first duel, in which Musashi has been challenged by Baiken, a master of the kusari gama (chain and sickle). Musashi, facing an unfamiliar weapon, is unsure of himself, gets caught by the chain, and wins only through audacity and desperation. An aging monk who witnesses the duel tells him disapprovingly that though victorious, he is no samurai, as he didn’t win by art or skill, only sheer force. “You are decidedly too strong,” he says.

Only as events unfold does Musashi begin to glimpse what the monk means. He gets into a protracted squabble with the many swordsmen of the Yoshioka fencing school, whom he repeatedly defeats while demanding a match with the young samurai who has inherited the school’s mastery—a duel which is always denied him, because the Yoshioka students secretly fear their master is no match for Musashi. They keep trying to kill him in failed or mistaken ambushes, and the wrong people die. Meanwhile all the secondary characters pursue their agendas of love and avarice in and around this feud, and hostilities sharpen and harden.

Finally a duel between Musashi and Seijuro Yoshioka (Akihito Hirata) is set for dawn at Ichijoji Temple—but once again the master is diverted, and some eighty of his students set an ambush for Musashi. Forewarned by Akemi, one of the three women pining for his affections, Musashi defies the ambushers and then battles the lot of them in a magnificent fighting retreat, carefully choosing his terrain so they can only come at him a few at a time. After dropping two dozen adversaries, Musashi eventually breaks away into the forest, nearly exhausted, only to be confronted by Seijuro at last. Musashi can barely contain his rage: after taking the measure of his opponent, he defeats Seijuro in a single pass, but then refrains from killing him as all his recent life lessons combine to restrain his hand. And then all the elements are set up to perfection for resolution in the final film.

 

 

Long John Silver aka Long John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island

Long John Silver
aka Long John Silver’s Return to Treasure Island
Rating: ***
Origin: USA/Australia, 1954
Director: Byron Haskin
Source: American Home Treasures DVD

Sure, it’s cheap, and it’s cheesy, but this film’s just chock-full of pirate-y goodness, and pirate-movie fans owe it to themselves to dig up a copy.

How did this thing even happen? Well, back in 1950, Disney made a new version of Treasure Island, which Walt thought was pretty clever because it was a beloved property that was in the public domain, so he didn’t have to pay for it. Jump forward three years and Byron Haskin, who’d directed Island for Disney, realizes that because the source was public domain, Disney can’t stop him from shooting a sequel. (This is a lesson Disney never forgot.) Haskin contacts Robert Newton, who’d made such an impression as Silver in the Disney Version; Newton, who hadn’t handled Hollywood success very well, had fled back to England to escape his debts, so he’s happy to do it. Haskin proposes shooting in inexpensive Australia, where he’d made His Majesty O’Keefe the year before, Newton agrees, and Bob’s-your-uncle.

The winning formula for this production is to recycle elements from Treasure Island, but add more pirates and lots more Long John Silver (Newton, in high form, is in almost every scene). The first third of the movie is set in and around Porto Bello, which is inexplicably under British rule. (They sacked it four times, but never governed it.) Silver hangs out there in a low dive with a crew of sea dogs, and it’s immediately established that, though glib and plausible, he’s just as big a scoundrel as ever. (Huzzah!) All he needs is an opportunity, and it comes when another pirate crew, led by a Captain Mendoza, kidnaps the Governor’s daughter. (It is a genre rule that if the Governor has a daughter, pirates will kidnap her.)

Silver knows Mendoza, and persuades the Governor to let him handle the ransom transfer. He then performs a double double-cross, retrieving both daughter and ransom money, meanwhile pillaging the Governor’s warehouse and blaming it on Mendoza. Not-so-incidentally, he also liberates young Jim Hawkins (Treasure Island’s protagonist, played adequately by Kit Taylor), who should have been enjoying his newfound wealth back in England, but for some unexplained reason was serving as Mendoza’s enslaved cabin boy.

McGuffin time! Jim, who’s still “smart as paint” (requotes from Island are common), has a medallion that holds the key to the location of a second hoard hidden on Treasure Island. The movie veers briefly into farce as Silver tries to trick Jim into giving him the medallion, while avoiding being maneuvered into wedlock by the proprietess of the low dive, but soon Jim, Silver, Mendoza, and two scurvy pirate crews are off across the Caribbean to plunder Cap’n Flint’s second treasure. The last half of the film shamelessly pillages and recombines elements of Treasure Island, unburdened by any tiresome good guys this time except for Jim. It’s a real scoundrel-fest, sudden reversals are the order of the day, and “those who died are the lucky ones.” I won’t reveal how it ends except to say the finale hinges on two words: doubloon grenades!

One caveat: it seems there’s no good restored version of this film available digitally: all the prints floating around are pan-and-scan, and most of them are in terrible shape. Ye be warned!