THE AGE OF REVISION: Spaghetti Westerns

Film/Video Features
THE AGE OF REVISION: Spaghetti Westerns
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Feb 10, 2009, 07:47

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There is one ethos to define the decade that concludes the 20th century. And, given the hoopla over the end of the millennium—most hotel rooms are booked New Year's Eve, 2000, the world over—this defining ethos seems, on the surface, to be an unlikely one.

You see, while the '90s may be a decade of anticipation—looking forward to the new millennium—it is a decade that culturally keeps one eye staring in the rearview mirror and the other looking over its shoulder. It is a decade based on revision and rediscovery of the past. Technology may be the ultimate impetus, but the driver and the product are artifacts of decades past.

Reinvent the genre, reconfigure the product, redefine the image—take the old, put it in a new context and sell it to a new audience. Kitsch, retro, revision.

Whether it's Pulp Fiction, graphic art design or the latest DJ Shadow record, the m.o. is identical: Cut and paste = collage.

Now this is nothing new. Cultures are always defined by periods of great movement forward—as in fashion, music or film, as well as periods based on revising those movements.

For instance, the late 1940s and mid 1950s offered an amazing push forward in Be Bop, Beatnik and Film Noir. But, like any stock on Wall Street, a big upward move is followed by what is called a “retracing,” a move back down that takes place when those who bought at a low price decide to sell—and cash in their profits. So, the stock goes down a little before it starts going up again.

In culture, the story is much the same. Once a movement forward has sucked dry the last drops of blood—or cultural shifts render it meaningless—the movement stops. For instance, Film Noir, the great cycle of American existential crime films that started with, say, Double Indemnity in 1944, enjoyed a great run that peaked with Orson Welles' masterpiece Touch Of Evil, in 1956.

The Noir film cycle continued to have great moments: The Manchurian Candidate, in 1962, or Sam Fuller's 1963 classic Shock Corridor. But these films, while they included aspects of Film Noir, arrived in a new era that had an entirely different set of concerns.

And when Film Noir could no longer respond to those concerns, the style died. Enter the Noir-tinged, Dirty Harry or Taxi Driver, '70s classics that embody aspects of Noir but exist in a different time and space—and for that reason had a life of their own. Alienation, '70s style, in a city that is more a lonely, desperate black hole than a Noir web of shady ladies and crooked deals.

Regardless of the differences, it would seem that the possibilities for Noir-tinged crime are boundless. After all, there's always a market for a good story full of sex and violence.

But the problem arises when the styles that go into the making of those films become so ingrained in the filmgoer's psyche—the dialogue, plot twists, heroes and killers—that the style becomes associated with, and hence, perceived as being cliché. Sometimes, this is a faulty perception: Clichés often say more about the cliché-monger than the style. After all, Dirty Harry wasn't a cliché—and it came in the wake of Film Noir's rich history. Why? One look at the film's principles, director Don Siegal (a veteran of the Noir era) and an actor named Clint Eastwood and you have the answer.

Then ask yourself, why is a film like Pulp Fiction strictly homage, a film that would be outright cliché if it had the guts to take itself seriously? The answer is simple. Quentin Tarantino is more film fan than idea man. He's probably a much better video store clerk than film director: He's got the right influences, but doesn't have the ideas. Jackie Brown may have made for good Blaxploitation Redux, but it was more a revisit of style than actual vision. A friend once told me: “Whereas someone like Scorsese aspires to make films as good as Orson Welles, Tarantino's aspiration is to be able to say that he was invited to the same party Welles was invited to.”

And the phenomenon of Tarantino can be extended to many of the reassembled ideas that have dominated this decade. There are two ways of looking at it: 1. As the millennium nears, the cultural artifacts of the past have reached an intimidating mass, a mass that has forced the '90s to reconsider that past, aided of course by computers that perform simple cut and paste functions; or 2. The '90s is a decade inhabited more by fans than visionaries—and accordingly, art is more an expression of fandom than vision.

Maybe there's some truth to both views—but that, ultimately, isn't the point. And, of course, this is no indictment of cut and paste. Quite the contrary, revision, at some point is necessary: You have to set your house straight eventually.

What is relevant is that the revision rarely occupies the same space in the collective mind as the archetype. Pulp Fiction or LA Confidential will always be homage—and Film Noir will always be the movement. And the argument applies to the rest of the decade.

Cut and paste film, music, fashion and even architecture, may cut and paste all it wants—but society will always associate the archetype with the era it originated from—i.e. psychedelia, swing or neo-hardcore rap metal (?) will always be phenomena of past eras—irregardless of the different contexts it is cast into today.

But like they say, there are rules and there are exceptions. And the rarest of exceptions struck me last October, as I was driving through the desert plains of Spain in a rented Ford with an Englishman, a Spanish woman and a fellow American.

We had just passed another seemingly insignificant town, this one named Segovia: desert plain town about an hour and a half north of Madrid. Insignificant except that it was used as a backdrop in one of my all-time favorites films.

The radio was playing '60s Motown hits, '70s disco classics and '80s American diva pop. The car was driving up a steep mountainous incline overlooking a stony gulch and a broad desert prairie panorama. It was almost like a scene you'd see in some movie—a rockier imitation of Texas you might see in some Western. Almost, but not quite.

And then the Spanish woman asked me, in broken English, “What you like about Spain?”

I responded with the only thing that had been going through my head as I was staring out of the window: that eight-note ululating hyena shriek that acts as the musical theme to Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

“Ah-ah-ah-ah-ahhhhhhhhhh, wah, wah, wowwwwwwww.”

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THE REVISION

You're probably familiar with the eight-note shrieking melody that punctuates The Good, The Bad And The Ugly. It is, after all, one of the most recognizable musical motifs in film history. Derivations of the melody have appeared in other songs, in commercials and as incidental music in just about any setting imaginable.

It's a melody that connotes, no correct that, screams “The Old West.”

This from a film that was shot in Spain and Italy by a European cast and director who knew almost no English, with a soundtrack scored by a classical composer bored with American Westerns and their soundtracks.

Hence the name “Spaghetti Western”—films shot by people who could only approximate their own romantic notion of the West—since they were neither American nor of The West. And that's the point of this entire story.

The Spaghetti Western offers the rarest example of the triumph of style over substance. And what is meant by “style” isn't the Tarrantino concept, or the cliché definition of style: a replica, something that looks good and may be entertaining, but is, in the end, a hollow imitation.

Style, in the case of the Spaghetti Western, is all about creating new art by sifting through the old—in this case a dead genre known as the American Western—and reconstructing it in a truly visionary manner. A revision that transcends the original.

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DEAD GENRE AND REVISIONIST DIRECTOR

By the early 1960s, the American Western had all the symptoms of a dead genre: a pastoral and sentimental take of an era gone by. It had reached the point at which all genres find certain death—it had become historical.

By 1956, John Ford had delivered his last classic, The Searchers; by 1959, Howard Hawks had delivered a late classic, Rio Bravo. Both films star John Wayne, the man who literally defined the Western Hero. In The Searchers, Wayne stars as a man seeking to avenge an Indian attack on his family. The film works as a conflict between moral code and the Western code of vengeance. In Rio Bravo, Wayne plays a sheriff looking to prevent a prison escape with the help of some misfits.

Both films are impeccable and quintessentially Western. But, at the same time, they exist within a framework of time and space that is defined by the tenets of what makes for a Western: 1. the conflict between civilizing force and the unexplored; 2. rugged individualism and the desire to attain freedom by settling the new frontier; 3. the building of community and the evil forces seeking to disrupt it; and 4. the ultimate confrontation between good and evil: the gunfight.

But what happens when the trains have arrived, every parcel of land has been settled and paid for and the evil forces are no longer marauders, but the owners of the train, the bank and the town?

How do you conduct a straight gunfight when the line between good and evil has been blurred so far, you can't even see straight?

To Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, the problem was even deeper than that. Leone, a fan of the Western and a romantic believer in the West as American myth, saw the Western as having become too sentimental, too psychological, too convoluted—a genre with more reminiscence than violence. It had lost its immediacy—it had become historical.

LEONE: The man of the West bore no resemblance to the man described by Hollywood directors, screenwriters, cineasts... One could say all the characters they present to us come from the same mold: the incorruptible sheriff, the romantic judge, the brothel keeper, the cruel bandit, the naive girl... All these molds are mixed together, before the happy ending, in a kind of cruel puritan fairy-story. The real West was a world of violence, fear and instinct... Life in the West was neither pleasant nor poetic, at least not in any direct sense... the law belonged to the most hard, the most cruel, the most cynical.

And, in a two-bit TV actor named Clint Eastwood, Leone found his cynical man of the West.

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THE ANTI-HERO

When, in 1964, Clint Eastwood swaggered onto the set of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Western Fistful Of Dollars, sucking on a cigarillo, stone quiet and squinting into the sunset, the hero was forever changed. Eastwood's “Man With No Name” character was as far outside of the “Hollywood mold” as one could imagine.

He was a gunfighter and a drifter with no discernible past, let alone a name. He lacked any of the aforementioned four traits that defined the traditional Western. There was no conflict between civility and code of honors, no sense of individualism as ultimate manifestation of freedom, no community and definitely no distinction between good and evil.

When “The Man With No Name” rides into the Mexican border town of San Miguel, he is thrown between two conflicting forces—two rival families, the Baxters and the Rojos. But unlike the films of past Western masters, Ford, Wyler, or Hawks, the conflict is strictly a matter of power and money. The Fistful Of Dollars represents wealth, but it is the sort of wealth held tightly within the fist.

Upon entry, Eastwood immediately finds himself at odds with the Baxters, who have just scared off his mule. After informing the undertaker—seemingly the only town inhabitant with a steady job—that business will soon be picking up, Eastwood provokes the Baxter clan into a gunfight.

The gunfight exists as part parody; Eastwood states that the Baxters have insulted his mule and that they should apologize to the animal. The old Western gunfighter's sense of understatement is also spoofed when Eastwood tells the undertaker to start building three coffins for the Baxters.

The gunfight also offers Eastwood the chance to show his prowess with a gun to the Rojo family, a test he passes easily. After killing four of the Baxters in a gunfight, Eastwood corrects himself as he walks past the undertaker—“my mistake four (coffins)”—and straight into the arms of the Rojo family, his new employer.

Such a scene, in varying degrees, reoccurs throughout Leone's Westerns: the gun is guarantor of power and the powerful survive. This is the law that renders the outdated “Hollywood molds” null and void.

In Fistful Of Dollars, the law of power via the gun is an instant recipe for violence. Unlike, John Wayne, who had the gun but also the moral conscience not to use it indiscriminately, San Miguel has only one compass: The blood thirst for money and power that takes the lives of the townspeople and keeps the undertaker a very busy man.

And when Armageddon ensues—the penultimate gun duel between the head of the Rojos, Ramon, and the “Man With No Name”— the town is “cleaned up” of the bad guys, as the sheriff might claim in the Westerns of the past era. But unlike the cleaned up towns of traditional Westerns, this town is just dead, and the community was all along nothing more than an amoral plain driven by nihilism and power-drunk madness.

Such madness and nihilism continue to dominate the other two films in his “dollars trilogy,” For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad And The Ugly.

For A Few Dollars More opens with a simple epigraph: “Where life had no value, death, sometimes, had its price. That is why the bounty killers appeared.”

Lee Van Cleef plays the role of Colonel Mortimer, a former Confederate officer-turned bounty hunter looking for a sadistic, drug-addicted killer named Indio (Gian Maria Volonte). Mortimer hunts for reward but in this case, he seeks to avenge the death of his sister, who committed suicide after having been raped by Indio.

Mortimer (the name is derived from the Italian word for “death”) strikes a partnership with Eastwood's “Man With No Name,” himself a bounty hunter looking for Indio. Their relationship survives a series of double-crosses only because Mortimer has no pretensions toward the bounty. He is interested in revenge, the “No Name” is interested in money, hence a logical short-term arrangement.

In The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the relationship among men is much more complex. Though the “Good” is nominally Eastwood's “Blondie” character, the “Bad” is Lee Van Cleef as a bounty hunter named “Angel Eyes” and the “Ugly” a Mexican bandit named Tuco, the three characters exist as a triangle of shifting alliances and competing interests. All three men seek out $200,000 in Confederate-held gold buried in a cemetery. Tuco knows the name of the cemetery, “Blondie” knows the grave in which it is buried and “Angel Eyes” is fast in pursuit of the men and the gold.

Though “Blondie” and Tuco endlessly attempt to double cross one another, each has a bit of information necessary to find the gold and keep their relationship intact. But their attempts to solicit the necessary information—and “Angel Eyes” attempts to get it out of both of them—results in a cycle of sadistic violence that culminates only in a stunning three-sided duel that Leone masterfully shoots at the cemetery where the gold is buried.

Again, it is the ability to exert power that ultimately determines whether violence or benevolence reigns. As in For A Few Dollars More, a partnership is strictly a marriage of convenience. And unlike films like Rio Bravo or The Searchers, such arrangements never even entertain abstract concepts like good and bad. In Leone's The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the definitions of good vs. evil are in the eye of the beholder: “We both desire $200,000 in gold, therefore I am “Good” and you are “Bad.”

And as long as power comes at gunpoint, the relationship is beholden to the holder of the gun.

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AMERICAN WESTERN AND THE EUROPEAN VISIONARY

Combine all of the revisionary elements in Sergio Leone's Western—the anti-hero, the blurred line between good and evil and power as supreme motivation for any and all acts—and you have something that is wholly different from the Western myth as presented in Hollywood.

But how is it that a European filmmaker came to revise the Western in such a way that the American myth, at least the Hollywood version, would be forever changed? Leone's previously stated desire to create a Western not of “the Hollywood mold,” one where men were driven “by violence and instinct” is a quintessentially Italian view of filmmaking.

Immediately after the end of World War II, the Italian Left embraced the idea of “Neo-Realism” in film, a style committed to the representation of human reality. The greatest of the Italian directors to depict reality without the political agendas that existed in Mussolini's fascist state was Neo-Realist master Vittorio De Sica. De Sica's two major works, The Bicycle Thief and Umberto D depict the desperate plight of the average man in post-war Italy.

Leone, who worked as a journeyman in various capacities on more than fifty films prior to his Spaghetti Westerns, no doubt was influenced by the Neo-Realists. In fact, he even made a cameo in The Bicycle Thief—as a priest. Just as “Neo-Realism” was a reaction to romanticism taken to its ultimate extreme—i.e. fascism—Leone's own “realist” take on the Western served the same purpose.

As Leone once stated: “The Americans have always depicted the West in extremely romantic terms—with a horse that runs to his master's whistle. They have never treated the West seriously, just as we have never treated ancient Rome seriously.”

Whereas, the “Neo-Realist” De Sica told a real story of post-war Italy with long shots of barren streets and anguished faces, Sergio Leone told the tale of the cynical gunfighter in the cruel, desolate West. The tale came complete with a close-up of the cynical face and an elegant panorama of the desert that surrounds it.

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THE MAKING OF AN “AMERICAN” FILM IN EUROPE

It is one thing to present a revisionist work, quite another to do it in such a bold, striking manner that the revision creates its own autonomous universe. No doubt most of the credit for the visionary Spaghetti Western belongs to Sergio Leone. However, as in any attempt to sift through the past, some of the most unique outcomes are the result of accident.

Sift the contents, toss them up in the air and see them land in new wondrous ways. You atomize the archetype and de facto create anew.

With Fistful Of Dollars, the first of Leone's “dollars trilogy,” the contents and myths were dislodged as much as a result of naiveté and collision of disparate cultures, as of any artifice.

And the first of many accidents was the involvement of Clint Eastwood. Originally, Leone had offered the lead role in The Magnificent Stranger, as the film was originally called, to a number of actors including Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, James Coburn and a fading American cowboy actor named Rory Calhoun.

Fonda, Bronson and Coburn rejected the quirky violent script; Calhoun asked for sixteen thousand dollars—one thousand more than the studio was able to pay. Eastwood came to Leone on the recommendation of a bit actor named Richard Harrison. Harrison had been familiar with Eastwood's work as the lanky cowpoke Rowdy Yates on the TV show Rawhide.

Eastwood got a hold of the script, a direct take-off of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo, the story of a samurai who prospers by conniving between two rival families in a Japanese town. Eastwood was familiar with Yojimbo, but more importantly was an actor stuck playing a handsome young cowboy on a TV show with no chance to grow, let alone try something so risky.

After all, Leone's Western would have never gotten off the ground had it been an American production. Not only was the Western genre becoming a bloodless and dated convention, the US film code would never have allowed the level and intensity of the violence in A Fistful Of Dollars. American Westerns could not show a trigger being pulled and a man being shot in the same scene; in Fistful..., the rule is violated shortly after the last opening credit rolls. But Leone wasn't concerned with (or aware of) American film code—after all, the film was intended for an Italian audience.

To Eastwood, such codes mattered little, also. He got the chance to spend a summer in Italy, Spain and Germany while on break from Rawhide and to shoot a movie that would earn him fifteen thousand dollars (and hopefully not tarnish his reputation in Hollywood).

The actual filming proved less fun. Eastwood was the only one in the entire company to speak English. And this is perhaps, the most important of content-dislodging accidents.

When critics point to Leone's minimalist dialogue and Eastwood's silence, it's not surprising—there was just no one to talk to.

LEONE: Clint Eastwood did not say a word, but he was good at getting on a horse, and he had a way of walking with a tired, resigned air... During the shooting he did what he had to do and then he'd sit down in a corner and go to sleep immediately, until he was needed again.

No dialogue—only a stoic, tough stone-face, framed in tight, with a close-up that never relents. A face that spares no time on words, a face uncomplicated, driven by instinct... a face that says more about Leone's Western than any gunfight the past had ever presented.

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NAME CHANGE AND REVISION

When Fistful Of Dollars opened in Florence Italy in August of 1964, anticipation was nil. Screenings in Rome and Naples had tanked—and the film was opening only because it was required to do so, since Italian law stipulates that films which receive a government subsidy must at least play a minimum run.

Leone & Co. were so afraid of criticism that the entire cast adopted pseudonyms—American names. Leone became Bob Robertson, after a name, Robert Roberti, he had once used; Gian Maria Volonte (Ramon Rojo) took on John Wells; soundtrack composer Ennio Morricone used Dan Savio. The entire cast—except for Eastwood and actress Marianne Koch—assumed American identities.

The American Western made by Italians with American names became a hit, turning Clint Eastwood into an international star and revising a genre in a way that would never again occur. An Italian director saw an American myth from afar, a myth killed in Hollywood and revised from Europe.

The Spaghetti Western was born and with it came one of the rarest examples of how genres are revised.

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SEQUELS AND REVISIONS

Adding yet another layer to the cross-breeding of culture that surrounds the “Spaghetti Western” is the fact that Italian director Sergio Leone sought to reinvent an American Myth by reworking a Japanese film.

It was obvious to everyone involved in the making of Fistful Of Dollars that the film was a direct, scene-by-scene take on Akira Kurasawa's 1963 film Yojimbo. So much so that according to Clint Eastwood, Richard Schickel's excellent biography on the actor, Eastwood was informed by a producer “not to discuss openly the source [of Fistful Of Dollars].” A problem encountered during the release of the film explains the reason why. Kurasawa's production company had obtained a court order blocking the film's distribution outside of Italy because it successfully alleged an infringement of rights. (A settlement followed whereby the studio Kurasawa worked for was given release rights to Fistful in Japan. )

But, in Leone's defense, it is also worthwhile to point out the differences. Yojimbo functions much like Fistful: It tells the story of a samurai who enters a deserted town and uses his prowess with the sword to pit two feuding families against one another to his financial gain. But, unlike Fistful, Yojimbo maintains a farcical quality—and Toshiro Mifune plays a fighter who is much more emotive than Eastwood's “Man With No Name.” The samurai shows contempt for the families he is manipulating, Eastwood is stone-faced and perfectly amoral. Where the samurai acts comical, Eastwood's gunfighter offers a wince. The differences lie in degrees—in Leone's film, the gunfighter, like the film, utters only as many words as is necessary.

Perhaps, the ultimate instance of cultural cross-breeding going full-circle lies in Kurasawa's inspiration in making Yojimbo. You guessed it—the American Western. When making Yojimbo, Kurasawa stated that he had been inspired by the genre he so admired, including a film that is similar to the Japanese master's, the rugged 1958 film Buchanan Rides Again.

And following the endless cycle of remakes, Kurasawa's Yojimbo would see two more attempts at revision. In 1990, the Coen Brothers offered a loosely-based remake, Miller's Crossing, that owes as much to the American Gangster film as it does the Japanese classic. The film traces the “business” dealings of Tom Reagon (Gabriel Byrne), an advisor to a crime boss in a Prohibition-era town. He ends up getting caught between his boss, Leo, and Johnny Caspar, a rival boss—and has to navigate through a series of double deals and shifting alliances. As in both Yojimbo and Fistful Of Dollars, there is no societal order, only a feud over money and power in the absence of any authority (police, military or religious). But Miller's Crossing is so steeped in gangster amorality that it overshadows the similarities to Yojimbo.

Last year director Walter Hill remade Yojimbo as Last Man Standing, starring Bruce Willis. And perhaps, this offers the best example of the difference between say, a visionary revision a la Fistful Of Dollars, and a cheap remake. The problem is in the failure to add any new layer or context to the original. Instead, you just get Willis acting as a ruthless killer—without the farcical aspects of Yojimbo or the archetypal gunfighter extremism of Fistful.

For sequels, one needs to look no further than Leone himself. After completing The Good, The Bad And The Ugly, the last of the “dollars trilogy,” Leone found himself in the potential trap: Continue to re-cook more Spaghetti Westerns or create the West once again, with a new vision. He opted for the latter and the results are astounding: Once Upon A Time In The West, his most elegiac film, tackles all the issues of the dying myth.

The film, starring Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda, two actors he had long sought to work with, creates the West as an elegant, melancholy, grand conflict involving vengeance, the arrival of the trains and with it commerce. Bronson seeks to avenge a murder committed by Fonda, while Jason Robbards, a gunfighter in the old tradition gets caught in the middle. The film's opening and final scenes are among Leone's finest. The slow-moving opening depicts three men just waiting for a train to arrive, a train carrying three men they seek to kill. And the last scene, masterfully elegiac in its composition—features a panorama, a train, and a man, all composed with equal importance—has Robbards dying on the train tracks as the train arrives in the town. Progress and commerce has won, the gunfighter is dead.

Leone's next film A Fistful Of Dynamite, is as much a departure but still among Leone's finest and underrated films. It has appeared at different times under two other names, Once Upon A Time In The Revolution and Duck, You Sucker and features James Colburn starring as an Irish revolutionary who ends up using his mastery with explosives in the Mexican Revolution. Like Once Upon A Time In The West, this film offers a more romantic view of the world of violence both in Colburn's revolutionary cause and in the flashbacks of his time in Ireland. But, it nonetheless never turns Colburn into sentimental hero, a flaw that killed the Western the first time around.

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Fistful Of Dollars (1964); For A Few Dollars More (1965); The Good, The Bad And The Ugly (1966); Once Upon A Time In The West (1969)”; A Fistful Of Dynamite (1972)

BUY The Man with No Name Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) at AMAZON

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Article originally appeared in Your Flesh #39

Filed Under: Film-DVD-VideoFilm-DVD-Video Features

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