Once Upon a Time in Italy—Spaghetti Western Roundup
(This excellent article by Alex Cox ran in the New York Times on June 6, 2012.)
When film critics and historians refer to the spaghetti western, they tend to mean four films directed by Sergio Leone: his “Dollars” trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and his epic, “Once Upon a Time in the West.” This focus on Leone’s work is understandable: he was a great filmmaker who made Mr. Eastwood a star. And it also acknowledges Akira Kurosawa, the form’s spiritual godfather, whose film “Yojimbo” inspired Leone and his colleagues to see westerns as cynical samurai films. But the spotlight on one director has tended to obscure the rest of the Italian western subgenre, which may include as many as 500 films. (A tiny fraction will be on display this month in a series at Film Forum in the South Village.)
No one can say how many there were for sure. Throughout the late 1960s and early ’70s — every European producer had to have at least one western on the runway, if not two. Serial western heroes were created out of thin air. A copyright-lite atmosphere prevailed in Italy, and multiple films were made simultaneously about characters with improbable names: Django, Cjamango, Sartana, Sabata, Arizona Colt. Most of these pictures were all-Italian, quickly shot in studios just outside Rome. Some were bigger-scale affairs, with international casts, exteriors in Spain, and money from German and — eventually — American studios.
Higher-end spaghetti westerns often featured extraordinary music (usually composed by Ennio Morricone), extravagant production design (at its best in the hands of Carlo Simi) and leading players from the United States: Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson, Joseph Cotten and Orson Welles among them. Perhaps because more money was at stake, these films tended to have the most familiar plots: adventurers go in search of buried treasure; a boy grows up to seek revenge on his family’s killers. The cheaper Italian westerns often seemed more original, and certainly far more bizarre.
And thus it was that this young filmgoer, in the late ’60s, discovered not the Summer of Love but the Summer of Spaghetti. On a high school trip to Paris I encountered that city’s network of second- and third-run movie theaters, which played the most obscure Italian westerns any enthusiast could wish for, dubbed in French.
In Paris again the next summer I got a job as an office boy at Les Films Marbeuf. This didn’t provide much valuable work experience, but I didn’t care. Marbeuf distributed the most legendary of these B westerns, Sergio Corbucci’s “Django.” It is to this great, mad, violent spaghetti western — and its many sequels — that Quentin Tarantino’s forthcoming film, “Django Unchained,” alludes. In the Corbucci film Django (played by a young Franco Nero) arrives in a muddy shantytown on foot, dragging a coffin. In the coffin is a machine gun with which he will shortly kill many enemies. Why does he do this? Apparently they are racist Southerners who wear red hoods rather than white ones. In a brief scene Django visits his wife’s grave and reflects that she was murdered by the leader of the bad guys, Major Jackson. Why the major killed her, and why Django has waited so many years to take revenge, is entirely unclear. And, equally, unimportant.
My enthusiasm for “Django” and its contemporaries rivaled that of a young Elizabethan treated to the London theater of the Rose or the Globe. Who cared why the Dane waited so long to murder his uncle? There was mayhem! There was murder! There was madness! There was music! And a ghost! The enthusiasm for these things shown by the best Renaissance playwrights — Marlowe, Webster, Kyd, Middleton — rivaled the spaghetti western auteurs’ equal passion for arbitrary killing, crucifixions, loud music and scenes with white-clad villains abused by talking parrots.
On those Paris trips I saw many Italian westerns, and very few other films. Among the most vividly memorable are:
• Carlo Lizzani’s “Requiescant,” a fierce revenge tale in which the director Pier Paolo Pasolini and several of his actors appear in strange character roles.
• Corbucci’s “Navajo Joe” and “Great Silence,” also pessimistic revenge tales, in this case ones that do not end happily for the hero. (“Navajo Joe” is the best of all possible Burt Reynolds vehicles; “The Great Silence” is one of the finest westerns ever).
• “Quien Sabe?” (“A Bullet for the General”) and “Tepepa,” parables about third-world revolution and the Vietnam War disguised as westerns.
• Giulio Questi’s “Django Kill,” which had nothing to do with “Django” but displayed a surreal aesthetic worthy of Buñuel, featuring gay outlaws, murderous townsfolk and that talking parrot.
• Tonino Valerii’s “Price of Power,” which restaged the Kennedy assassination, in Dallas, circa 1880.
“The Price of Power” works on many levels: as an adventure story about a displaced Southerner who fought for the North (a typically conflicted role for Giuliano Gemma, most handsome of all spaghetti western heroes); as an urban detective western (it was shot on the locations of “Once Upon a Time in the West,” where Mr. Valerii had been the assistant director); and as political agitprop anticipating David Miller’s “Executive Action” and Oliver Stone’s “J F K.”
Spaghetti westerns were most exhilarating when they were at their most political. Sergio Sollima’s “Big Gundown” starts as a cat-and-mouse police chase but ends with the heroes (a Mexican bandit and American sheriff) uniting to kill their employers in the final showdown. His “Face to Face” shows how a liberal university professor (Gian Maria Volonté, great actor and mainstay of so many of these films) can become a fascist monster given the right circumstances.
These were all formidable films. Visually extremely striking, aurally distinctive, wonderfully acted, violent, mystifying, perversely inspirational. Watching these films — so individual, so strange, frequently so bad — encouraged me to think I might make films just like them, in the cowboy hovels of the same surreal Spanish desert. When it came about in 1986, my own spaghetti western, “Straight to Hell” (a digital redux released last year as “Straight to Hell Returns”), was nowhere near as good as even the worst of these films. But it was shot in the same desert where they made “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, the Bad & the Ugly,” just across the street from the Leone ranch. And it was the most fun, and the best experience, for me, of all the films I’ve made.
How I miss that desert! No matter the heavy black wool costumes and 110-degree weather and collapsing wooden boardwalks and adobes dissolving back into the sand. Luckily for me and others of like madness, Film Forum has reassembled the Parisian dream list outlined earlier, as well as several other great examples of the form. Thrillingly, most of the projections won’t be digital: 35-millimeter prints will be in attendance, the way these films were intended to be shown.
(Alex Cox directed one spaghetti western, “Straight to Hell,” and teaches film at the University of Colorado, Boulder.)