Friday, March 20, 2009

Kurosawa's _Rashomon_ and Martin Ritt's _The Outrage_

Warning: I have included considerable information about both films, including the endings.

As anyone who has visited Fred's Place might guess, I'm fascinated by Kurosawa's Rashomon, his great film that appeared in 1950. In two previous posts, on October 24, 2008 and December 12, 2008, I traced the ancestry of the film back to 12th century medieval Japan. Well, I finally caught up with its descendant, Martin Ritt's The Outrage, which appeared in 1964. As far as I can tell, this is the only descendant so far. If anyone knows of others, I'd appreciate the information.

Martin Ritt directed this remake of Rashomon. It is quite close to Kurosawa's version, with several significant revisions. One is the setting: The Outrage is moved from medieval Japan to post Civil War southwestern United States, near the mythical town of Silver Gulch. The setting is an abandoned railroad depot, at which trains seldom stop. One reference in the film is made to Tucson, so one might assume either southern Arizona or New Mexico. Silver Gulch is a dying town because the silver mines are played out. In southern New Mexico, one can find Silver City, a town that sprang up because of the silver mines, which are now shut down.

This is in keeping with previous remakes of Kurosawa's films, The Seven Samurai which became The Magnificent Seven, and Yojimbo which was remade as A Fistful of Dollars, with Clint Eastwood, and again as Last Man Standing with Bruce Willis, all of which were set in southwestern US or Mexico.

The samurai and his wife are now a Southern plantation owner and his wife, played by Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom, who have lost everything in the Civil War and are now looking for some place to start over again. Just what they are doing in a one-horse buggy out in the middle of the Sonoran desert with little or no luggage is beyond me.  The bandit, of course, is now a Mexican bandit, Juan Carrasco, played by old blue eyes himself--Paul Newman. In the Japanese version, the husband's body is discovered by a woodcutter; this becomes a prospector, played by Howard Da Silva.  The Buddhist priest has been transformed, naturally, into a Christian clergyman, and the actor selected for this part is probably best known for his role as the indomitable Captain Kirk of the Starship Enterprise, a very young William Shattner.  The thief becomes a con man, a swindler, a seller of patent medicines which are as likely to kill as the condition they are supposed to cure. Edward G. Robinson was selected for this role.

A second change is that of the role of the shaman. In the Japanese version, the shaman goes into a trance and contacts the spirit of the dead husband, who then can tell his version of the events leading up to his death. This would never be accepted in an US court, so the husband's story was told by a medicine man who came along just as the husband was dying and heard his version.

Ritt also changed the ending. In Akutagawa's short stories, the reader was left with the three opposing stories, indicating that several, if not all, were lying. Kurosawa added a fourth version, that of the woodcutter whose version came closest to the bandit's tale, death in a duel. Ritt then changed Kurosawa's ending, and the prospector's final version also focused on the duel, but the husband tripped while carrying a knife, obviously not holding it point downward, and fell and stabbed himself.

Major problem: in spite of the considerable talents of the cast, I couldn't find them convincing in their roles. I always knew it was Paul Newman and Laurence Harvey and Claire Bloom playing a part. I found Robinson's supposedly hearty and cynical laugh irritating and forced. The cast generally struck me as just walking through their lines. The only one who really came alive was Claire Bloom at the end when she taunts and goads her reluctant husband and the equally reluctant bandit to fight over her.

Overall Comment: Akutagawa took two medieval Japanese tales and a short story by Ambrose Bierce and created two short stories that went beyond the source material. One could see the seeds in his versions, but he added his own insight to the stories. Kurosawa did the same when he melded Akutagawa's short stories into his film. The germs of the originals are there, but again he took the material a step further. Ritt did not do this. His adaptation was a more or less faithful rendering into a western setting in which most of the changes were demanded by the new setting. The most significant change was not necessary and weakened the film--the ending, in which the prospector says the husband was killed by accident. There was no reason for that change.

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