Film review: Rashomon (1950) and The Outrage (1964)

Rashomon is the classic 1950 film by the then unknown but later highly acclaimed Japanese director Akira Kurosawa, that first brought him to the attention of the western film world. It won the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival and an honorary Academy Award (Oscar) for the most outstanding foreign language film released in 1951.

The story is set in 11th century Japan and is about the death of an aristocratic man and the rape of his wife by a notorious bandit in a secluded grove in a remote area of Japan. The events are told in a series of flashbacks, by a bewildered woodcutter and a priest to a cynical thief they meet while huddled for shelter in an abandoned and dilapidated building during a fierce rainstorm.

Their stories recount the testimonies given to a court or tribunal by four people: the bandit who raped the woman, the woman, the dead man (speaking through a medium), and the woodcutter himself, who was also the one who found the dead body. These testimonies are spoken directly to the camera, placing the viewers in the position of the unseen and unheard judges.

But the testimonies don’t quite match, leaving the viewer at the end uncertain about exactly what happened and, more importantly, about the motives of each person. Kurosawa himself talked about the film this way:

Human beings are unable to be honest with themselves about themselves. They cannot talk about themselves without embellishing. This script portrays such human beings–the kind who cannot survive without lies to make them feel they are better people than they really are. It even shows this sinful need for flattering falsehood going beyond the grave—even the character who dies cannot give up his lies when he speaks to the living through a medium. Egoism is a sin the human being carries with him from birth; it is the most difficult to redeem. This film is like a strange picture scroll that is unrolled and displayed by the ego.

The trailer for the film captures the atmosphere well.

The Outrage is a 1964 remake of the Kurosawa film, except that it is shifted to the US west in a time just after the Civil War. It has an all-star cast of Paul Newman, Claire Bloom, Lawrence Harvey, Edward G. Robinson, and a young William Shatner (before he took over the helm of the Starship Enterprise)

The director Martin Ritt had worked with Newman before in such films as Hud, The Long, Hot Summer, Hemingway’s Adventures of a Young Man, and (later) Hombre.

Given the proven quality of the director and the cast, why did the remake end up (in my opinion) to be so bad? It was not because Ritt had broken a cardinal rule of remakes, which is that you should never remake a good film because you can only end up looking worse. That rule does not apply when it comes to remaking foreign films where few people in the west are unlikely to have seen the original. After all, Kurosawa’s 1954 film The Seven Samurai was also remade by director John Sturges as that excellent 1960 western The Magnificent Seven. Similarly Kurosawa’s (1961) Yojimbo was also successfully remade as the 1964 western A Fistful of Dollars, directed by Sergio Leone, that catapulted starring Clint Eastwood into stardom.

So what went wrong here? There were many problems with the Rashomon remake, starting with the casting.

Paul Newman was simply over the top as a brutal and coarse Mexican bandit. Grimy, with a drooping mustache, speaking in bad guy clichés with a broad accent that reminded me of Chico Marx, it was a performance that reinforced all the stereotypes one might have about Mexican baddies. At least the film was in black and white so we were spared the further incongruity of Newman’s famous ice-blue eyes. Newman is one of my favorite actors and I desperately wanted him to succeed but I just could not take him seriously. By contrast, in Rashomon, another fine actor Toshiro Mifune played the bandit as almost animal-like in his wildness, and while his performance too occasionally risked crossing over into parody, he was able to pull back in time.

Lawrence Harvey as the murdered aristocratic man, has a cold and wooden acting style that worked well for him in The Manchurian Candidate and also helps him somewhat here, but he never quite grips you with his performance.

To my mind, the raped woman is the center of the story. In the original, she is an enigma and one is never quite sure what she actually did and what her motives are and with whom her loyalties lie and that is the central ambiguity. In the remake, Claire Bloom is given many more words to say and a bigger role but while this makes her character and her relationship with her husband more transparent, it also makes her less sympathetic and less compelling, a case of more is less.

The basis for Rashomon was a short story In a Grove by acclaimed writer Ryunosuke Akutagawa (1892-1927). In the story, even the question of who actually committed the killing varied according to the testimonies but Kurosawa made one significant change from that story by wisely (in my opinion) removing that ambiguity, and focused his film on the ambiguity of the motives of the people involved, thus lifting it up above the genre of a mere whodunnit. The Outrage unfortunately did not follow Kurosawa’s example.

See the trailer of The Outrage:

Another problem with the remake may have been the period. Instead of taking just the central concept of Rashomon and re-visioning it to the new time and place as the other successful remakes of Kurosawa did, this remake stuck very closely to the original screenplay. But what seems plausible in 11th century Japan may not be so in the 19th century American west. Take for example, the testimony given by the dead man through the agency of a medium. While one can conceive of judges in Japan in the dark ages taking such testimony seriously because the existence of spirit worlds were a basic part of their beliefs, I cannot imagine a judge in the US in the late 19th century doing so. The sight of an Indian shaman, gripped in a trance, and speaking in the voice and words of a dead man to a judge in a frontier court setting was just too much to take.

Also the shock and disbelief of the woodcutter and the priest at the differing testimonies they heard, and their bafflement as to the motives of the people, seemed much less convincing in the later film. In both cases, the priest’s faith in humanity is so threatened by what he sees as human evil that he is willing to renounce his calling. But while that seemed to make sense in the context of a remote part of Japan and strong ancient Japanese traditions of honor, it was much less so in the context of the American west where murder, rape, brutality, and lying must have been facts of life that would not be unfamiliar to a priest.

In the end, it is hard to avoid the conclusion that The Outrage was simply an enormous waste of talent.

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