Who captured the wild west? Not Hollywood, with its stodgy epics, but Italy with its spicy
Following the runaway success of ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ in 1964, Sergio Leone liked to say:
“There was a terrifying gold rush — based on sand rather than rock.” One of his favourite after-dinner stories was about the making of low-budget Italian westerns in the glory days of the mid- to late 1960s. On one occasion, apparently, the leading man walked out because he hadn’t been paid, just as they were about to film the final sequence. “Give me half an hour,” the director said. “I’ll come up with something.” He returned half an hour later. “You know the old man who cleans the floor of the studio? Well, put him in a cowboy costume, quick as you can.” They changed the script so the old man drove in a buggy to the Indian camp and said: “My son couldn’t come, so he sent me instead.” It was a time in Italian film history when one actor answered to the pseudonym of Clint Westwood, and one director called himself John Fordson. In 1964, about 27 westerns had been produced in Italy: ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ — by far the most successful - was number 25.
But by the time Leone started preparing ‘Once Upon a Time’ in the West, his “arrivederci” to the assembly line of popular Italian filmmaking, a staggering 73 other Italian westerns, or Italian-Spanish co-productions, were either in pre-production or being filmed. This at a time when the number of Hollywood westerns was in steady decline, falling between 1950 and 1963 from 150 releases to only 15. In her review of the Akira Kurosawa film ‘Yojimbo’, on which ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ was unofficially based, critic Pauline Kael pointed out that those American westerns being produced staked their appeal less on the vitality of the stories than in the veteran movie actors wheeled out to embody them. Cinemagoers turned out for westerns only to reassure themselves that James Stewart and John Wayne could still manage to struggle on to a horse. American audiences, Kael added, had become saddle-sore, bored with a played-out Hollywood genre that had become slow, pictorially composed and now had about as much relevance to modern life as the Elizabethan pastoral. She concluded that a filmmaker such as Kurosawa, operating outside the Hollywood myth factory, was in an excellent position to extend the visual conventions of the western genre, while debunking its morality. This proved nowhere more true than in Italy, where westerns remained as popular as ever throughout the 1960s. If Hollywood wouldn’t produce westerns, then Cinecittà and other Italian studios would. Southern Italian audiences went to the cinema more often than other Europeans (television had not penetrated yet) and they had notoriously low boredom thresholds.
The Italian version would eventually have more youthful, stylish heroes, more action, and a soundtrack that sounded like a mixture of Duane Eddy, the Beach Boys and Puccini recorded in a bathroom, rather than lush symphonic music from the school of Aaron Copland. It would also have Italian and Spanish actors hiding under American pseudonyms - not to fool the Americans, but to reassure the southern Italians. The novelist Alberto Moravia jokingly suggested that the big success of these films on the domestic market had something to do with an unconscious fear on the part of Italian audiences of overpopulation. The solution? More and more massacres. Others wrote of the increasingly urban sophistication of rural Italians: between the late 1950s and the early 1960s, the most popular genre had been
“sword and sandal” epics featuring an assortment of American (or sometimes Italian actors pretending to be American) body builders who played characters called Hercules, Goliath or Samson, sometimes all in the same film. While these muscular heroes sorted out their problems by demonstrations of superhuman strength, the heroes of the westerns, who went by the name of Django or Ringo, Joe or the Stranger, resorted to cunning, guile and sleight of hand.
The new characteristics of the western also included an obsession with American currency (which, even in inflationary times, seemed a little over the top). There was an emphasis on Mediterranean machismo and style rather than American toughness. The hero, whose main ambition was to exploit the injustices he saw all around him, was identifiable by his stylish clothes, designer stubble and smoking preference. There was an energetic and increasingly brutal action climax every 10 minutes to keep the audience’s attention (director Sergio Corbucci once claimed that an audience in ‘Calabria’ opened fire at the screen when they felt short-changed by the ending of his film ‘The Big Silence’); a “rhetorical” use of the camera, which lingered on the visual cliches of the Hollywood western; and dusty Andalucian locations recently made fashionable by Lawrence of Arabia. Gunfights, or rather gundowns, were usually accompanied by solemn trumpet laments (like the deguello in Rio Bravo ) or stately boleros on Spanish guitars held close to the microphone.
Moravia concluded an article about Italian westerns in 1967 by asking: “After all these stories - then what? Just a fistful of dollars? Or is there more?” Today, when Italian westerns have become DVD staples and the soundtrack albums, especially the 35 Ennio Morricone western scores, are acknowledged as major influences on world music, it remains a fair question. In the intervening years, the Sergio Leone westerns have become accepted by most critics as important breakthroughs in action cinema: the modern action hero, not just the ones in the films of Tarantino and Rodriguez, begins here. These westerns are now seen as part of a late 1960s form of “cinema cinema” (as Leone called it) - popular movies made by cinéastes. What Claude Chabrol was to the films of Alfred Hitchcock, Jean-Pierre Melville to gangster films and Bernardo Bertolucci to film noir, Leone was to the westerns of John Ford.