50 years since its initial release in Italy, the subversive after-effects of A Fistful of Dollars still reverberate in Western cinema
In the summer of 1964, a TV actor who starred in a prime time Western serial was looking for distraction in feature films.
The show was Rawhide, and its star Clint Eastwood felt he’d stagnated with his work on that serial.
So, at 34, Eastwood decided upon a risky gamble: take a leap into the unknown by imposing trust in an obscure Italian director by the name of Sergio Leone and travel to Rome to do an obscure “European Western” called Per un Pugno di Dollari or A Fistful of Dollars (as it became eventually known in its dubbed English version).
The script, which he received on typewritten onionskin pages, was a rip-off of Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 classic Yojimbo that pitted the anti-heroic protagonist against two warring factions struggling to gain supremacy of a border town.
The budget was pitiful, shooting conditions rough, and the script, largely improvisational. (Eastwood was advised by colleagues to collect his paycheck first as the Italians were regarded as notorious fly-by-night operators)
Earlier, Charles Bronson and James Coburn, who later were to do their best work for Leone, had turned him down.
“It was just about the worst script I had ever seen”, said Bronson at the time.
But Eastwood trusted his instincts, taking this harsh and humble venture in his stride, getting to know Leone on location in Spain, enjoying every moment of the eventful filming process.
The film wrapped up and then began a long period of uneventful lull: Eastwood quietly returned home; the picture apparently forgotten and buried in the Spanish sun.
Meanwhile, a small miracle was taking place in Italy. Per un pugno di dollari, which first opened in rural Italy, (its violence deterred producers from taking a chance in the sophisticated urban North) was turning out to be a sleeper.
The rest is hoary history. Eastwood returned to Rome to collaborate with Leone on For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966).
The three films, dubbed as the “Dollars Trilogy”, created the ‘Man with no Name’ and made Eastwood a superstar from the wrong side of the tracks.
Leone, who can be credited for inventing the Spaghetti western (Though Fistful was by no means the first), later gained belated critical recognition as an auteur.
Yet another twisted version of Yojimbo followed when Sergio Corbucci directed his fantastically stylized cult masterpiece Django (1966).
Apocalyptic, impressionistic, anti-clerical, elevating violence to new heights, Corbucci’s film made a superstar of Franco Nero (The film’s violence ensured it being banned in Britain for 25 years.)
But when A Fistful of Dollars was released in the US in 1966, critics were coming to grips with a phenomenon that insidiously subverting genre conventions and destroying the Western - America’s foundation myth, its celluloid “Manifest Destiny”.
Who were these Italians to teach us how to make a western? And why defile sacred Yojimbo? thus objected elitist American critics.
But Yojimbo itself owed much to novelist Dashiel Hammett’s crime classic Red Harvest and was suspiciously similar in plot to Budd Boetticher’s 1959 western Buchanan rides Alone.
The late 1940’s had witnessed a sea change in traditional American westerns as the Cold War loomed large and the world lurched into the Atomic age. By the early 1950’s, the outbreak of the Korean War and the unleashing of McCarthyism led to a crumbling of traditional frontier myths.
Complex themes like racism, incest and anti-Red hysteria began to feature in films like Devil’s Doorway, Broken Arrow, High Noon and The Last Sunset.
Screen legends James Stewart and Henry Fonda, personifying traditional American values, began to be seen in hard-bitten films directed by Anthony Mann and Delmer Daves, while Randolph Scott made a name playing the morally conflicted loner in austere Westerns by Budd Boetticher.
It looked as though the skeletons of the American Eden, so long buried under the rich loam, were finally tumbling out.
But by the early 1960s, American Westerns had turned stale, failing to capture the sense of disillusionment and disenchantment sweeping the country as it stumbled into Vietnam and the Cuban Missile crisis.
On the other hand, in presenting a world racked with turpitude, the Spaghetti Western struck a raw nerve with audiences across North America and the European continent, not to mention their tremendous influence in Asian markets.
While most of the 550-odd Spaghettis made between 1961 and 1977 were sub-par oaters, the best ones often masked a great deal of skill and subtlety beneath their crude veneers.
Their film scores, revolutionized by Ennio Morricone, made use of bestial sounds, choral sighs and moans, cymbals and Jew’s harp to evoke an eerie atmosphere of menace and doom.
Their ironic approach to death and pessimistic view of life often make the films resemble like Jacobean tragedies in Western garb.
Most importantly, Italy’s shameful tryst with Fascism and the humiliation endured by its people in a post-war world decisively shaped the psyche of these films.
The nihilistic protagonists of a Spaghetti western survive by deceit and treachery in its cynical, bleak moral landscape which they inhabit as opposed to their American counterparts.
Furthermore, the great betrayal of the Left in shaping policy in post-war Italy led to the expression of anti-Fascist, left-wing themes in Euro-westerns like Sergio Sollima’s The Big Gundown, Damiani’s cerebral A Bullet for the General and Corbucci’s seminal The Great Silence.
Moreover, a Spaghetti Western’s shoestring budget coupled with their use of the disenfranchised Gypsy populace in Spain’s Almeria and Andalucia regions made it fundamentally a proletarian movie-making exercise.
The films boosted sagging careers of faded American stars and opened up new vistas for Italian and Third World actors. Bit players like Lee Van Cleef became overnight icons, while Cuban actor Tomas Milian struck gold playing the oppressed campesinos.
The great Italian leftist actor, Gian Maria Volonte first gained notice as the psychopathic antagonist in Leone’s spaghettis before becoming famous in the socially-committed films of Francesco Rosi.
India would not have its hallowed “curry western” Sholay. The family massacre scene is lifted lock, stock and barrel from Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West while Amjad Khan’s Gabbar Singh is modeled on Volonte’s performance in For a Few Dollars More.
Sam Peckinpah, whose films led to a critical reappraisal of violence in cinema, remarked that “only the climate created by Spaghetti westerns” enabled him to make classics like The Wild Bunch.
Maverick filmmakers like Alex Cox and Quentin Tarantino continue to pay homage to Leone and the Spaghetti westerns, not only in their films, but also by penning scholarly monographs on the subject.
Tarantino’s recent Django Unchained is proof of the continued influence and popularity of the Spaghetti Western - which wouldn’t have existed if Clint Eastwood hadn’t taken that plane to Rome to meet Sergio Leone for a fistful of dollars.