With the unleashing of Tarantino’s anti-slavery epic Django Unchained, it’s time to retrieve the “socially-conscious” Spaghetti Westerns languishing in their vaults
‘A genre with no name’, ‘a shock to the system’, an offering from the wrong side of the tracks obtrusively transgressing upon the purity of the American myth – this, in a nutshell, was the violent and delirious “Spaghetti Western”, that insidiously crept into the fabric of American, and finally World, cinematic culture in the mid-1960s.
When Sergio Leone’s Yojimbo-inspired A Fistful of Dollars hit America in 1966, critics there were coming to grips with a new phenomenon that had insidiously subverted the conventions of a much revered American genre – the Western, a genre Hollywood could truly call its own, America’s foundation myth, its celluloid “Manifest Destiny”
Since then, despite enjoying tremendous popular appeal, the Spaghetti has been much reviled in hallowed critical circles, including the likes of the late Roger Ebert, who refused to see any serious merit in a sub-genre that had effectively subverted the conventions of the Western.
But the Euro-Western, pejoratively hailed as the ‘Spaghetti’ (or ‘paella’/ ‘macaroni’/’schnitzel’) Western, has witnessed a revival of sorts in the last half-decade, primarily due to the infectious energies of its two champions – cult American director Quentin Tarantino and British director Alex Cox, both practitioners and theoreticians of the genre. (While Cox has authored a trenchant treatise on Spaghetti Westerns '10,000 Ways to Die' that is put up on his website, Tarantino is currently writing a book on director Sergio Corbucci).
And with the brouhaha over Tarantino’s recent Academy Award winning Civil War –era ‘Spaghetti’ Django Unchained, the more serious offerings of the Italian Western are ripe for rediscovery.
While it is true that of the 550-odd Spaghettis that were produced between 1961 and 1977, a large number of them were gimmicky, violent, often senseless offerings larded with heavy doses of sadism. Critically lambasted, these films usually did very well in Europe, especially in home country markets like Italy, Germany and Spain.
At the same time, the best of these films, characterized by shoestring budgets, highly stylized violence and distinctive musical soundtracks, often masked a great deal of skill and subtlety beneath their crude veneer.
In their ironic approach to death and pessimistic view of life, the top Spaghetti Westerns often play like Jacobean tragedies in Western garb.
The musical arrangement and the application of natural sounds in these films, made legendary by composer Ennio Morricone's many outstanding scores, and helped along by other prolific composers such as Francesco de Masi, Bruno Nicolai, Riz Ortoloni and Luiz Enriques Bacalov among others, is probably the single most radical event to occur in the history of film soundtrack in the 1960s.
Ultimately, the visceral texture and cynicism that seasons a Spaghetti western proves much more refreshing and real than the stately Eden of the American West, which seems like a fairytale world in contrast. The reason for the sudden explosion of these films had chiefly to do with the fact that traditional conventions of the Western genre had turned stale by the early 1960's.
By the late 1940’s, the Western had been undergoing a sea change as the Cold War loomed large and a fraught world limped into the Atomic age. Then, with the outbreak of the Korean War in the early years of the 1950s and McCarthyism and ‘anti-Red’ hysteria at its peak, the Western was finally coming of age with its frontier myths being systematically “re-visited”.
Films like Delmer Daves’ Broken Arrow and Anthony Mann’s Devil’s Doorway (both 1950) finally started viewing the hitherto maligned and relentlessly objectified native Indian “redskin” in a sympathetic light. While Fred Zinneman’s High Noon (1952) starring Gary Cooper was a powerful allegory on McCarthyism, Anthony Mann’s dark westerns that gave Jimmy Stewart a makeover like The Naked Spur (1953) and The Man From Laramie (1955), were infused with Cold War rhetoric besides introducing audiences to an increasingly paranoid and neurotic American “anti- hero” .
Then came the 1960s and the American Western, as a form, found itself incapable to cope with the sense of disillusionment and disenchantment pervading the US following the escalation of the Cold war and the war in Vietnam. Taboo-breaking attitudes in the social, political and cultural walks of life in that era were better captured instead by keystone films that defied and stretched genre conventions like Psycho (1960), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), Dr. Strangelove (1964) and Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf (1966) among others. Into this confusion, burst the Euro-Western with Italians like Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci skillfully capturing the nihilistic mood prevailing in Europe and the Americas by turning genre conventions of the Western on its head.
Fundamentally, the politics of the Italian/Euro Western is leftist in nature. Before even beginning to catalogue this sub-genre’s “crimes of subversion”, cinematic pundits reviewing Spaghetti Westerns operated on a sort of class prejudice, perceiving the films to be nothing more than “campy”, lowbrow fare.
The society as depicted in the more thoughtful Spaghetti Westerns is a corrupt, bourgeois oligarchy, exerting control through coercion and force of arms as opposed to the stately, pastoral idyll and ordered capitalism as envisaged in the Westerns of the great American masters like John Ford, Howard Hawks, George Stevens among others.
To most audiences today, the standard metric of the Spaghetti sub-genre are the films by Sergio Leone, notably the “Dollars trilogy” (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964; For a few Dollars More, 1965 and the Good, the Bad and the Ugly 1966) and its follow-up Once Upon a time in the West (1968)
While Leone was the undisputed Svengali of the genre, directors like Sergio Corbucci, Damiano Damiani, Guilio Petroni and Sergio Sollima among others have succeeded in creating films that were thematically stronger with more nuanced with complex characterizations and Marxist underpinnings.
One only has to take a look at Corbucci’s The Great Silence (1967), Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (1966) a.k.a. El Chuncho, Quien Sabe? and Sollima’s Face to Face (1967) to understand that even a Spaghetti Western can be cerebral.
A far more direct political reason for the genesis of the political Spaghetti Western was the rise of the Communist party in Italy following the Second World War and chiefly as a direct response to the shameful fascist legacy of Benito Mussolini and his minions.
Post-war Italy saw the formation of a right-wing, pro-American (and anti-communist) government under Christian Democratic leader Alcide De Gasperi, who voted for the Marshall Plan to rebuild the country’s economy, thereby jettisoning Communists out of his government.
This betrayal of communists in European countries like Italy and France and the consequent social upheavals in the coming decades, like the Students’ Movement of 1968, soon started manifesting themselves in the Spaghetti Western, often forming a sub-genre within the Spaghetti western itself known as the ‘Zapata Western.’
These films, branded after Mexican revolutionary Emiliano Zapata, were often set in Mexico during one of the numerous revolutionary wars between 1910 and 1923.
Hitherto, Mexicans had only appeared as bit players or as the oppressed masses in classic American Westerns (such as The Magnificent Seven, 1960).
But these 'Zapata' Spaghetti westerns turned the focus on the humble Mexican peon as a central character (often played by third world actors like Tomas Milian) who had taken up his cudgels to oppose predatory capitalist forces (as in Guilio Petroni’s Tepepa, 1968 and Sollima’s The Big Gundown), or was as a central instigator (as in Corbucci’s Companeros, 1970) or quite simply had a philosophy about going life his own way, under his dictates, not wanting to get “committed” (as in Damiani’s 'Quien Sabe?' And Leone’s 'A Fistful of Dynamite', 1971).
These films were infused with Marxist thought and ideology with scenarios and screenplays being penned by the renowned Italian left – wing author like Franco Solinas, (who, along with director Gillo Pontecorvo, had penned the classic anti-imperialist film text Battle of Algiers, 1965) and writer-editor Franco Arcalli (who cowrote art-house favourites like Bernardo Bertolluci’s infamous masterpiece Last Tango in Paris 1973 and edited Liliana Cavani’s shocking The Night Porter 1974).
The ‘socially conscious’ breed of the Spaghetti western often featured sharp condemnations of fascism, racism, xenophobia, US foreign intervention in Latin American countries, eerily prophesying the setting up of fascistic Latin regimes set up in countries like Uruguay and Chile during the 1960’s and 70’s. In 1966’s La resa dei conti (The Big Gundown), Cuchillo Sanchez (played by Tomas Milian) is a Mexican peasant framed for the rape and murder of a 12 – year old girl. Ex –lawman Jonathan Corbett, played by Lee Van Cleef in one of his best roles is hired by a wealthy and corrupt railroad magnate to track hunt down Sanchez
The film, directed by Sollima, with a scenario by Franco Solinas, is replete with Fanonian underpinnings in what is a powerful tale of how men of rectitude (in this case the Van Cleef character) can sometimes be blinded in pursuit of their ambitions by predatory capitalist forces.
Sollima even makes a fine class distinction in terms of the humble resources at Cuchillo’s disposal, in this case his knife - which is pitted against conspicuously sophisticated weaponry, most notably the pin fire revolver – low slung in an aluminum holster - wielded by the railroad magnate’s sophisticated Austrian bodyguard, Baron von Schulenberg.
Sollima returned in 1967 with Face to Face, one of the most fascinating and cerebral westerns in the Euro-Western oeuvre, tracing the roots of Fascism. In the film, an ailing History professor (played by the great Leftist actor Gina Maria Volonte) meets a notorious brigand (played by Milian). As the film progresses, there is a Nietzschean transformation as the timid History professor takes over the brigand’s gang and harbours lethal ambitions owing to his superior intellect.
The best ‘Zapata’ western, Damiano Damiani’s A Bullet for the General (1966) starring Volonte and Lou Castel, is a penetrating condemnation of US foreign policies in Latin America presented in Western garb, alluding to Operation PBSUCCESS – the coup engineered by the CIA in Guatemala that toppled the politically liberal Jacobo Arbenz regime in 1954.
But the greatest Spaghetti Western outside the Leone canon is undoubtedly Sergio Corbucci’s stunning and unremittingly bleak masterpiece The Great Silence (1968). This vicious tale of stalwart bounty hunters, set against a snow-clad backdrop of a harsh Utah winter, pits a mute gunslinger, characteristically named Silence (played marvelously by French star Jean – Louis Trintignant) against a crazed bounty killer again characteristically named Loco (essayed by the wild-eyed German legend Klaus Kinski).
Both Silence and Loco operate according to a certain code, and in many ways are alike. However, Silence deviates from the Darwinian ethic after he decides to stand up for a young, black widow whose husband was murdered by Loco for bounty lucre and the killing was made to seem legal.
This build-up leads to one of the most notorious and downbeat endings ever to be found in Western movie history, as Corbucci (alluding to Che Guevara’s death in Bolivia the previous year) starkly hammers home the point about the futility of a Revolution, the fact that a lone man cannot change much.
So strong was the allure of the Spaghetti by the late 1960s that even Orson Welles condescended to do a ‘Zapata’ western (which turned out to be one of the best ones!).
In Tepepa (a.k.a Blood and Guns) 1969, Welles plays Cascorro (a nasty Mexican Chief of Police) hunting down the Campesino Tepepa, played yet again by Tomas Milian. But Tepepa is also being sought by an English doctor (played well by John Steiner) for a different reason. As aims and motives become confused in the crucible of the Mexican Revolution, both doctor and revolutionary undergo drastic character mutations leading to a strange, complex climax of betrayal and double-crossing.
Compared to the films discussed above, the characters in the Clint Eastwood-Sergio Leone ‘Man With no Name’ westerns seem almost two-dimensional caricatures.
In his book Medium Cool, an exemplary study of 1960’s filmmaking, critic Ethan Mordden writes this of Spaghetti Westerns: “they were only taking the western at its word, filming what America’s movies were afraid to show.”
Assessing the legacy of the Euro-Western, one can discern a general change in the pattern of American filmmaking as Leone’s films hit the U.S.
Note the potent violence in keystone works such as Arthur Penn’s Bonnie and Clyde (1967). Post-Spaghetti, the American Western in particular, became bolder and more radical in its form and political outlook as is evident in films like Sam Peckinpah’s feral The Wild Bunch, George Roy Hill’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (both 1969), Abraham Polonsky’s Tell them Willie Boy is Here (1970), Robert Altman’s turn – of- the- century “parable”, McCabe and Mrs. Miller (1971) and Robert Aldrich’s ferocious Ulzana’s Raid (1972) with its Vietnam War allegory.
Further, more and more of these ‘Re-visionist’ westerns (as they were now termed) started using Spanish locations which hitherto only featured in Italian westerns.
Westerns apart, the philosophy of the Italian Western reverberates elsewhere: as in some of the more anarchic political thrillers and gangster films, most notably in Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs (1992) and Pulp Fiction (1994), to cite only two examples. So, it comes as no surprise that a postmodernist, subversive film-maker like Tarantino is so heavily influenced by the Spaghetti Western genre (the notorious ear-cutting scene in Corbucci’s seminal Django (1966) was directly referenced in Reservoir Dogs while the Kill Bill series contains entire chunks of Morricone’s music from A Professional Gun and Luis Enriquez Bacalov’s theme from The Grand Duel).
Alex Cox succinctly defines a cult film as one which has a passionate following, but may not appeal to everyone. Cult films rarely retain their status for more than forty years, but the cream of the Spaghettis have not only endured, but are also rising in popularity by the day.
Movies in general and the American western in particular were never the same after the arrival of the Spaghetti. It would only be fair to say that they were the “kiss of life” for the Western.
(The author can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Stimulated readers might like to check out British cultural critic Sir Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (1981), a definitive and utterly engrossing work on this subject. He also followed it up with extensive analyses on Sergio Leone in Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (2000) and Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy (2005). Equally noteworthy is American critic Robert C. Cumbow’s early in-depth analyses of Leone’s works entitled Once Upon a Time: the films of Sergio Leone (1987).
A handful of good databases on the subject are out there too, the best among them being A Fistful of Pasta. One can also check out Shobary’s Spaghetti Westerns - a well-designed website; while lacking in solid analyses, it’s packed with movie stills and soundtrack samples for the browser to soak in.