Spaghetti Westerns Unchained – The Good, the Bad and the Guilty Pleasures
‘Django Unchained’ (2012), Tarantino’s Academy Award winning and hugely profitable homage to the Spaghetti Western (with a worldwide gross of $425 million plus DVD and download sales) has proven what we SW aficionados have always known – that Italian westerns are deliriously enjoyable, seriously addictive and offer more bang for your buck, literally, than any other genre.
Filmed primarily, but not exclusively in the sun-bleached landscape of Almeria, Spain, during the mid-Sixties and early Seventies, these euro westerns present a highly distinctive and idiosyncratic re-imagining of the old west which is in stark contrast to the rugged romanticism envisaged by American directors John Ford, Howard Hawks, Raoul Walsh and Anthony Mann. There are no majestic vistas for the camera to linger over, only a bleak, arid terrain, pockmarked with white-washed adobes, ramshackle frontier towns and the occasional windmill!
It’s an unforgiving environment scourged by blistering heat and populated by grizzled Mexican bandidos who laugh like hyenas and by lean, laconic cheroot-smoking gringos with two-day stubble who change their allegiances more often than their duds.
Although the best of these directors demonstrated a distinctive personal style, some going so far as to subvert the conventions, they all shared an almost fetishistic obsession with cool.
It is strutting, bare-chested Italian machismo writ large with women relegated to the role of Madonna or whore, or—in the case of the more thoughtful offerings—a feisty, stoic survivor determined to hang tough and pursue whatever reason or business it was that had brought her to the (usually) god-forsaken place in the first place.
No pretty school ma’ams with peach and cream complexions, only hardened, brutalised, (and some) fiercely independent women and a gallery of male grotesques and caricatures in minor (often non-speaking) roles, who are frequently shot in extreme close up as if they were features of the landscape.
Every element is exaggerated, amplified and embellished, each scene shot at an extremely leisurely pace punctuated by bursts of savage and gratuitous violence often bordering on sadism. Film scholars have termed this highly stylized approach ‘heightened realism’, but it is simply another word for stylish excess staged as only the Italians knew how.
The Sound of Western Music
As befits this operatic approach, the music of maestro Ennio Morricone and his contemporaries has always been an essential element and not an afterthought to underscore the action. Their themes and motifs were frequently recorded before filming began, the editing timed to match the music.
Twanging electric guitars, plaintive pan flutes, mournful whistling and the trill of a lone trumpet playing the Degüello, the Mexican bugle call signalling ‘no quarter given’, are augmented by sound effects that reflect the hostile environment and its predatory inhabitants. The creaking of a rusty weather vane, the incessant banging of an unlatched stable door and the snigger of the undertaker watching from the wings are augmented with cracking whips, galloping snare drums, vulture-like shrieks and a male chorus of inarticulate grunts. These are often contrasted with delicate musical box motifs to heighten the tension and suggest the ticking of pocket watches counting down to the big gun-down.
The practicalities of producing films for multiple language markets and the Italian practice of dubbing all their films in post-production (even those for the domestic market) dissuaded many directors from allowing their actors to indulge in long verbal exchanges. Instead, dialogue was pared to the minimum and replaced by long meaningful looks and mucho action. Which was just as well, because directors were frequently working with an international cast who spoke their lines in their own language on location.
These might include veteran American actors who needed a job in their declining years (William Holden, Gilbert Roland, Rod Cameron), newcomers hoping to get noticed (Burt Reynolds), experienced character actors who became stars of the spaghettis (Jack Palance, Lee Van Cleef) and Europeans who were used to the peculiarities of international coproductions (Horst Franck, Adolfo Celi, Klaus Kinski).
Inevitably, several home-grown actors made a name for themselves through their work in Italo westerns, most notably Terence Hill (real name Mario Girotti), Budd Spencer (born Carlo Pedersoli), Giuliano Gemma, Anthony Steffen, Gianni Garko and Franco Nero, while others were effectively adopted by the Italians as their own (such as Cuban émigré Tomas Milian).
Leone’s international reputation attracted the most prestigious names – Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Claudia Cardinale, Eli Wallach – and tempted Clint Eastwood back twice, for ‘A Few Dollars More’ (1965) and ‘The Good, The Bad and The Ugly’ (1966), the latter generally regarded as the greatest spaghetti western of them all and certainly the most commercially successful. It also included an oft quoted line that summed up the ethos of the Italian westerns, “If you’re gonna shoot, shoot…don’t talk.”
The body count was always higher in Italian westerns than Hollywood would have allowed, with flailing limbs and falling bodies tumbling from roofs and crashing through wooden balustrades to the satisfaction of both audiences and Italian stuntmen who were rarely out of work. Revolvers and rifles rarely seemed to need reloading and the gringos never missed.
When the odds were stacked against them, they might let loose with a Gattling gun hidden inside a coffin or pull out improbable weapons that would not have been out of place in a Bond movie and with which one man could mow down a small army. The comic strip action would often be matched by the banality of the script (although there are a fair number noted for their smart dialogue) and if the budget was low and the schedule tighter than the heavy’s leather pants, the syncing might not match too well. But even a routine production-line quickie could be transformed by the music of maestro Morricone and his illustrious contemporaries, men such as Luis Enriquez Bacalov and Bruno Nicolai, to name just two of the many composers whose catchy themes and motifs gave the spaghetti westerns their distinctive flavour.
The immediate effect of Leone’s success was to encourage American directors such as Peckinpah, Coppola, De Palma, Siegel and Scorsese to ramp up the carnage and usher in the ultraviolent action movies of the late Sixties and Seventies, which began with ‘Bonnie and Clyde’(1967). It also led to a spate of revisionist westerns that included ‘The Wild Bunch’ (1969),‘Pat Garrett and Billy The Kid’ (1973), ‘The Culpepper Cattle Company’ (1972) and ‘The Great Northfield Minnesota Raid’ (1972), with a second wave exemplified by ‘Tombstone’ (1993), ‘Wyatt Earp’ (1994),‘Open Range’ (2003) and ‘The Quick and The Dead’ (1995). These in turn led to the creation of the grunge western series ‘Deadwood’ (2004–2006) produced by HBO, ‘Hell On Wheels’ (2011-) from AMC and the Kevin Costner miniseries ‘Hatfields and McCoys’ (2012).
The Post-modernist Western, TV and Subgenres
‘Django Unchained’, however, is not simply the latest in a line of post-modernist westerns which collectively laid the ghost of incorruptible lawmen like Marshall Matt Dillon of TV’s longest running series ‘Gunsmoke’ (1955-75), who agonized over each killing, and his counterparts in ‘The Virginian’, ‘Rawhide’ and ‘Wagon Train’.
In borrowing a title and theme song from Sergio Corbucci’s 1966 cult film ‘Django’, and by giving a cameo to its star and genre icon Franco Nero, Tarantino was both acknowledging the source of his inspiration and informing his audience that there is more to Spaghetti Westerns than Leone and Morricone.
While Leone established and defined the genre with the ‘Dollars’ trilogy – determining the essential elements of almost every future entry – his close friend, the erratic but intermittently brilliant Corbucci, explored its bleaker and more bizarre possibilities. ‘The Great Silence’ (1968), once referred to as the first existentialist western, was set in a desolate snow-covered wasteland and featured a central character who was a mute, while the director’s Mexican “Zapata adventures”, ‘Companeros’ (1968) and ‘The Mercenary’ (1970), played as comedies but revealed a bitter cynicism toward revolutionary idealism. The third Sergio, Sergio Sollima, utilized the western setting to make astute, allegorical social commentaries and insightful psychological studies of his characters and in doing so produced three essential entries: ‘The Big Gundown’ (1966), ‘Face To Face’ (1967) and ‘Run, Man, Run!’ (1968).
Greek tragedies, Shakespeare and 1960s Super Spies
But there were other directors with sufficient imagination and ideas to transcend the limitations of the genre and ensure their audience was treated to entertaining and intriguing variations on the basic themes of vengeance and the hunt for gold.
Ferdinando Baldi, for example, drew on his knowledge as a former Professor of Greek tragedy in adapting the legend of Orestes for ‘The Forgotten Pistolero’ (1969). The previous year he had made the superb ‘Django Prepare A Coffin’ with the future star of the ‘Trinity’ comedies, Terence Hill, in a straight role.
Both pictures almost absolved him for helming the truly atrocious ‘Little Rita of the West’ (1967) starring popular Italian singer Rita Pavone, which has the dubious distinction of being the one and only Spaghetti Western musical or musicarello!
Duccio Tessari had fun with genre conventions in the first of the Ringo films, ‘A Pistol For Ringo’ (1965) which opened with two gunmen facing off on Main Street only to wishing one another ‘Happy Christmas’. More seasonal jokes were inserted both in the script and as visual gags in the background and yet the director managed to create a satisfying, action filled western.
The second outing, ‘The Return of Ringo’, was made later the same year and it too stared former acrobat and stuntman Giuliano Gemma whose regular presence in Spaghetti westerns became a fairly reliable indicator of quality. This second offering was a far more sombre affair, a retelling of the Greek myth of Odysseus who returns home in disguise to find his wife betrothed to a nasty villain. It was distinguished by some beautifully lush cinematography and featured one of the most memorable theme songs of the era emotively sung by Maurizio Graf.
Other notable directors include Enzo Castellari who blended bullets and the bard in his adaption of Shakespeare’s Danish tragedy for ‘Johnny Hamlet’ (1968) the year after helming the genre favourite ‘Any Gun Can Play’ (1968). Castellari was still in business at the end of the era producing the best of the so-called ‘Twilight’ spaghettis, ‘Keoma’ (1976) staring Franco Nero.
Giuliano Carnimeo anglicised his name (as did many Italian directors, actors and composers) to Anthony Ascott. Under that name he created several comic strip-styled spaghettis, which acknowledged the influence of swinging Sixties super spies James Bond, The Avengers and Modesty Blaise. His heroes, Sartana, Holy Ghost and Hallelujah sported ingenious weapons hidden in everyday objects such as sewing machines and even a fully functioning pipe organ.
A memorable mention too for Giulio Petroni who paired genre icon Lee van Cleef with John Philip Law of ‘Barbarella’ fame for the minor classic ‘Death Rides A Horse’ (1968). The following year Petroni attempted to make a long and leisurely Mexican revolution adventure, ‘Tepepa’, in the manner of Kurosawa’s ‘Rashomon’ with the central character altering the way he played the role from scene to scene to reflect the way others remembered him. It was an ambitious but fascinating failure notable mainly for its pastel-coloured cinematography and for providing a meaty role for none other than Orson Welles as an amicable despot in make-up which bore a remarkable similarity to Charlie Chan.
Lucio Fulci, director of the brutal ‘Massacre Time’ (1966) and the hallucinogenic ‘Four of the Apocalypse’ (1975) became better known for his horror movies as did Mario Bava who revealed little understanding of the Italian western with his curiosity ‘Roy Colt and Winchester Jack’ (1970). But Gianfranco Parolini director of the first Sartana film, ‘If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death’ (1968), the equally flamboyant ‘Sabata’ (1969) and its satisfying sequel ‘Adios Sabata’ (1971) demonstrated a special flair for producing westerns with a deliciously macabre touch.
Last, but no means least, was Tonino Valerii, a former Leone assistant who made a reputation with ‘A Taste For Killing’ (1966), ‘Day of Anger’ (1967) and the very Leone-esque ‘My Name Is Nobody’ (1973), which paired Henry Fonda and Terence Hill. In mixing dramatic scenes and light comedy Valerii could be said to have mined the last nugget in a gold rush that had begun almost a decade before.
(c) Paul Roland, February 2015
Posted on March 14, 2015, in 1960s, 1970s, 21st Century, film music, films & movies, Italo western, spaghetti western, TV western, western and tagged 1960s, 1970s, Anthony Ascott, Anthony Mann, Castellari, cinema, cinematography, Claudia Cardinale, Clint Eastwood, Django, Eli Wallach, Ferdinando Baldi, film music, Giulio Petroni, Greek tragedies, Gunsmoke, HBO, Henry Fonda, Howard Hawks, Italo western, John Ford, Klaus Kinski, Lee van Cleef, Lucio Fulci, Morricone, movies, Raoul Walsh, Rawhide, Sergio Leone, spaghetti western, Tarantino, TV western, western films, Zapata. Bookmark the permalink. 3 Comments.