Wednesday, 12 November 2014

A Fistful of Dollars and the Spaghetti Western.

As Johnny Cash once sung 'But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’ explaining  “I sat with my pen in my hand, trying to think up the worst reason a person could have for killing another person, and that's what came to mind[1].

On Monday night the RBC Film Club presented a western, which is a rare occurrence in its self (we don’t many westerns) But its not just any western but one of a type that in my opinion changed not only that particular genre (the western) but also how films and TV series have been presented ever since.

The spaghetti western[2] was allegedly born around 1963 and its classic period lasted until 1973 although the first was allegedly a British/Spanish co-production made in 1961/2 called Savage Guns. It was directed by Michael Carreras, the son of the Hammer Studios founder, and was said to be the reason for Hammer not making westerns!  Incidentally this was the first western to be made in Europe’s only desert, located at Tabernas near Almeria in Southern Spain[3]. It’s an unforgiving desolate landscape, barren, hot, dry and dusty surrounded by mountains including the beautiful Sierra Nevada range, this desert area was a mecca for spaghetti western filmmakers and many were made in this area including A Fistful of Dollars (1964). It was this desolate landscape that helped give the ‘Italian’ western its unique look. 
Tabernas near Almeria.
The reason that Sergio Leone's movie made such an impact was that it did extremely well in the box office, not only in Europe, released in 1964, where this type of film was very popular but in the UK and America when it was finally released in 1967. (Re-released in 1969). Turning out to be a very high grossing movie at the box office. Leone went on to make two other films that were to form what was known as The Dollar Trilogy they were, as I am sure you are aware, For A Few Dollars More in 1965 and what is considered the best of the three The Good, The Bad and The Ugly in 1966. Each of these three movies turned out to be even more popular than the previous one. 
Leone directing on the set of A Fistful Dollars.
These films were scored by Ennio Morricone, and his music was as unusual as Leone’s visuals: not only did he use instruments like the trumpet, the harp or the electric guitar, he also added whistle’s, cracking whips and gunshots to the concoction, described by a critic as a ‘rattlesnake in a drum kit’. Morricone went on to score over 30 Italian westerns and was a key factor in the genre's success.
Our anti-hero softens only for the German actress Marianne Koch.
The Dollar Trilogy starred a virtually unknown actor called Clint Eastwood, who you may have heard of but at that time he was in TV series called Rawhide; in it he played a young cattle drover called Rowdy Yates. It was when various actors turned down the role of “the man with no name”, including Leone’s favourite James Coburn who wanted to much money, that Eastwood was offered a chance to escape from his Rawhide image explaining in an interview that "In Rawhide I did get awfully tired of playing the conventional white hat. The hero who kisses old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody. I decided it was time to be an anti-hero." And it was this anti-hero that was so different from the standard American western in which it was made so obvious who was the good guy (the white hat that Clint refers too) and who was the villain (he would wear a black hat, perhaps silver spurs and pearl handled guns!).
Rawdy Yates.

The Man With No Name.

Leone was the best-known director in the spaghetti western genre and went on to make three other genre films including[4] one of his best westerns Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) successfully casting Henry Fonda against type as a villain, but don’t get me wrong he was not the only director of spaghetti westerns - just the best known. But it was Sergio Leone who defined the look and attitude of the genre. Although it was Eastwood whose chose the clothes he wore bring them from America along with the guns he used in Rawhide. Leone’s West was a dusty wasteland of whitewashed villages, howling winds, scraggy dogs and cynical heroes, as unshaven as the villains.
A close up facial shot, the type Leone was famous for 
In general spaghetti westerns are more action oriented than their American counterparts. Dialogue is sparse and some critics have pointed out that they are constructed as operas, using the music as an illustrative ingredient of the narrative. From a long time past westerns had been called ‘horse operas’, but like professor of cultural studies Christopher Frayling pointed out, it took the Italians to show what the term really meant. Many spaghetti westerns were quite violent, and several of them met with censorship problems, causing them to be cut or even banned in certain markets.
Violence was a big ingredient of the spaghetti western. 
Quentin Tarantino has been quoted as saying that his main inspiration for Django Unchained (2012)  pretty much began and ended with Sergio CorbucciCorbucci made thirteen dark and brutal westerns, with characters portrayed as sadistic anti heroes. These westerns were famous for a very high body count and scenes of mutilation. Generally they were not as well known as Leone's Dollars trilogy and none of them truly cracked the American market but they were very popular in Europe. The best known of these was Django (1966) which established the masochistic aspect of the spaghetti western hero, the use of a coffin to store something other than a body and a format that included rivalry between two factions, in Django its between the white skinned red hooded "fanatics" led by Major Jackson and the "Bandidos" Mexicans led by General Hugo Rodriguez. Even our 'hero' is again far removed from the standard American western hero who would fight for love or loyalty where as Django and his like fought only for money and self-gratification, a cynical mercenary who would never hesitate to kill.  This prototype spaghetti western was adjudged to have set a new level for violence in westerns. The film was banned out right in the UK, unable to get a BBFC 18 certificate until 1993 and downgraded to a 15 certificate in 2004. Also similar to A Fistful of Dollars it was influenced by Akira Kuroswa’s Yojimbo (1961). Yojimbo in turn had been influenced by American westerns like High Noon (1952) and Shane (1953). Incidentally Franco Nero, who stared in Corbucci’s film as Django, had a cameo appearance in Django Unchained,
Tarantino based his western on Corbucci Django. 

The main influence on the Leone and Corbucci was Kuroswa's Yojimbo.

The Civil War and its aftermath is a recurrent background and instead of regular names such as Will Kane or Ethan Edwards, the heroes often have bizarre names like Ringo, Sartana, Sabata, Johnny Oro, Arizona Colt or, the most famous of all, Django. It has been alleged that the genre is unmistakably a catholic genre (some other names in use are Hallelujah, Cemetery, Trinity or Holy Water Joe!), with a visual style strongly influenced by recognisable catholic images of, for instance, the crucifixion, the last supper. The surreal extravaganza Django Kill! (1967), by Giulio Questi, a former assistant of Fellini even has a resurrected hero who witnesses a reflection of Judgment Day in a dusty western town.

Many spaghetti westerns have an American-Mexican border setting and feature loud and sadistic Mexican bandits. A sub-genre of Spaghetti Westerns known as Zapata Westerns, after the Mexican revolutionary leader Emiliano Zapata, used the Mexican revolution as an allegory of American imperialism past and present. The revolution lasted from 1912 up until around 1920 during which most of these films were set. Arguable one of the best examples of this sub-genre was A Bullet for the General (1966). 
The magnificent A Bullet for the General which also starred Gian Maria Volonte. 
As I said at the beginning of this piece the Spaghetti Western changed how films, and TV series are presented mainly how the main protagonist is sometimes portrayed, the excess violence, the landscape and even the soundtrack. No longer are good and bad obvious and we the audience are invited to support a character that is not necessarily a “good” man, or woman come to that, and generally to support his or her violent actions. Is this reflected in the political actions of so-called civilised countries, I can’t help but feel that the answers is yes. Perhaps A Fistful of Dollars has got more to answer for than how we view Peaky Blinders?
'But I shot a man in Reno just to watch him die’

[1] Johnny Cash Folsom Prison Blues 1955

[2] It got its name from the fact that most of them were directed and produced by Italians, often in collaboration with other European countries, especially Spain and Germany. The name ‘spaghetti western’ originally was a depreciative term, given by foreign critics to these films because they thought they were inferior to American westerns. Most of the films were made with low budgets, but several still managed to be innovative and artistic, although at the time they didn’t get much recognition, even in Europe. In the eighties the reputation of the genre grew and today the term is no longer used disparagingly, although some Italians still prefer to call the films western all’italiana (westerns Italian style). In Japan they are called Macaroni westerns, in Germany Italowestern. A handful of westerns were made in Italy before Leone redefined the genre, and the Italians were not the first to make westerns in Europe in the sixties. In Germany a series of immensely successful westerns based on the works of Karl May had been produced.

[3] The outdoor scenes of many spaghetti westerns, especially those with a relatively higher budget, were shot in the Spain, in particular the Tabernas desert of Almeria (Andalusia) and Colmenar Viejo and Hoyo de Manzanares (near Madrid). In Italy the province of Lazio (the surroundings of Rome) was a favourite location. Some spaghetti westerns were shot in the Alpes, North Africa or Israel. The indoor scenes were usually shot in the western towns of the Roman studios like Cinecittà or Elios. The Elios studios also had a ‘Mexican town’ next to the western town.

[4] A Fistful of Dynamite (1971) starring James Coburn ,some of which was shot in Spain, and My Name is Nobody with Terrace Hill and Henry Fonda. Shooting this time took place in New Mexico.

No comments:

Post a Comment