In the waning days of dynastic Tokguawa rule, Ezo rebels led by village chief Jirozaemon (Shogo Shimada) kidnapped a Russian princess & demanded Russian rifles to let the hostage go.
In Edo, a Tokugawa government man, Honjo Daizennokami (Tatsuya Nakadai, who is not in the film long at all) hired a ronin (Rentaro Mikune) to head a secret expedition against the Ezo men in the north.
Such is the set-up for Duel at Fort Ezo (Ezo yakata no ketto, 1970), from Kengo Furusawa, a minor director of rather kitschy action films of the 1960s & 1970s, attempting for once to do something with a more classic jidai-geki intent. In spite of a remarkable cast, Furusawa was not entirely up to the task before him.
A political prisoner, Edo Saburata (Yuzo Kayama) , speaks fluent Russian, so is released to help, along with a whole band of criminals whose value is mainly in keeping the Edo government at a distance, to appear uninvolved.
Saburata is a fine swordsman but also a man of intellect & engineering ability. He built three gattling guns shortly after seeing one foreign example.
His skills will be signal to the mission's success, but he's also the only one smart enough to realize the mission isn't exactly as represented, & all these men will be betrayed by Usa Shinbei (Mikune).
Others in the gang include Toru Abe as the ronin Goto Shimenosuke; Kunie Tanaka as Kurubei the Thief; Toshio Kurosawa as Kyuma; & several others including a young pickpocket & an ex-sumo wrestler.
They're all allowed to believe Shinbei is leading an expedition to save the princess rather than, as is the real case, to make sure the Ezo rebels are destroyed, & find the secret Ezo treasure for the teetering shogunate.
This could've been a great tale with great characters, as they're mostly scruffy criminals on a rather chivalrous mission, which to their misery turns out to be not chivalrous at all.
But this potentially psychologically complex area of convincing bad guys into doing good only to trick them into supporting something bad -- none of this is developed at all.
This is a bad movie due to the poorly written script & undeveloped characterization, despite that it was based on a story by Shibata Renzaburo the creator of the Full Moon Swordsman, Zatoichi, & many characters who became heroes of chambara classics.
A tediously long amount of time is spent just getting through the mountains of Ezo (today Hokkaido), all of it mere padding of the worst sort. Once our scruffy band reaches the rebel village, there'll be a romantic subplot with the headman's daughter (Mitsuko Baisho) which just isn't involving.
Some of the duels are downright silly, as when Saburata & a one-eyed Ezo rebel fight with Roman style shields & axes, then wrestle for a while.
The climax is a big shoot-out in the mountains, boring as all hell unless you're the one in a million who would watch a samurai film hoping for lots of dynamite explosions & battlefield gunplay & gattling guns.
When all the pointless mayhem of smoking guns runs its course, Saburata & Shinbei have somehow survived, & meet on a plain in the aftermath for an actual duel.
Finally swordplay matters. It's not all that well choreographed or photographed, but it's good enough to justify the whole film having been named after this one genuinely samurai-style duel. It's way better than anything else the story dished out.
copyright © by Paghat the Ratgirl