WHEN film critics and historians refer to the spaghetti western, they tend to mean four films directed by Sergio Leone: his "Dollars" trilogy with Clint Eastwood, and his epic, "Once Upon a Time in the West."
Alex Cox’s words certainly ring true as I made this association and only equated Spaghetti Westerns with Leone. But as Alex Cox points out in his NY Times article there are many other films that fall under this label:
But the spotlight on one director has tended to obscure the rest of the Italian western subgenre, which may include as many as 500 films. (A tiny fraction will be on display this month in a series at Film Forum in the South Village.)
Sam Juliano attended many films at this Film Forum spotlight and inspired by Sam’s experience, I decided to finally plug a gapping hole in my cinematic viewing. An initial search revealed that there are easily 20-30 Spaghetti Westerns that are readily accessible either via youtube or Mill Creek Entertainment’s DVD packs. So as a first pass, I decided to restrict my viewing to 11 essential films, which included revisiting four of Leone’s films:
A Fistful of Dollars (1964, Sergio Leone)
For a Few Dollars More (1965, Sergio Leone)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966, Sergio Leone)
Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci)
A Bullet for the General (1966, Damiano Damiani)
Arizona Colt/Man from Nowhere (1966, Michele Lupo)
The Great Silence (1968, Sergio Corbucci)
Sabata (1969, Gianfranco Parolini)
Duck, You Sucker (1971, Sergio Leone)
Four of the Apocalypse (1975, Lucio Fulci)
Keoma (1976, Enzo G. Castellari)
”Man with no Name” trilogy
One of the most remarkable aspects about Sergio Leone’s trilogy is that the films grow in scale and ambition with each installment which also nicely builds on the previous film's virtues. In the first film, A Fistful of Dollars, Clint Eastwood’s nameless character rides solo and manages to take on two clans on his own. His character gets a rival/partner in the form of Lee Van Cleef in the second film For a Few Dollars More while three characters are featured in the The Good, the Bad and the Ugly when Eli Wallach joins Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. The three films are appropriately expanded in length to allow each additional character to get a decent amount of screen time. A Fistful of Dollars is 99 min long, For a Few Dollars More clocks in at 132 min and the extended cut of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a staggering 179 minutes long. Also, Ennio Morricone’s music gets more elaborate in composition with each film and reaches a cinematic high in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. It is hard to imagine how Leone’s films would feel without Morricone’s music, which is an essential component of the trilogy, especially in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The score for that film could easily be used to represent all western films because the music perfectly evokes the sentiment of a hero riding for a showdown against his enemy.
Clint Eastwood vs Lee Van Cleef
While Clint Eastwood perfectly embodies a rugged unshaven man who has seen off many villains in his time, Lee Van Cleef forms a polar opposite to Eastwood’s character. In For a few Dollars more, The Good, the bad and the ugly and Sabata, Lee Van Cleef plays a character that emits a cool dignified persona even moments before he kills someone. His character is “the bad” in Leone’s film but even when his character is on the side of good such as in For a few Dollars More or Sabata, it is with a shade of grayness. One is never sure when his character could flip sides.
The other Sergio..
If there were film lovers that had not heard of Sergio Corbucci before, then Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained will certainly ensure a new phase of discovery for Corbucci’s works. Corbucci’s Django and The Great Silence are certainly landmark films in the spaghetti western subgenre. Once can even see the influence that Django had in Robert Rodriguez’s Desperado. In Django, Franco Nero’s title character always pulls a coffin behind him. That leads to many jokes from other characters that Django is smart to bring his coffin with him. However, the coffin is not empty and contains Django’s machine gun. Desperado echoes this coffin in a different manner by featuring machine guns enclosed in guitar cases.
Django and The Great Silence are brutal uncompromising films which are not shy to leave the hero battered up. Django is left for dead and has his hands hands crushed but still manages to fire some final shots to extract his revenge. But no such justice is dished out in The Great Silence where the villain played by Klaus Kinski finishes off the hero. An alternate “happy ending” was created for The Great Silence because as the per the DVD, not all global audience could accept an unhappy ending.
The Great Silence is also a remarkable because it is a rare Western film that is shot mostly in snow. There is something lonely and beautiful about seeing a cowboy riding on a horse against a vast snowy mountain landscape.
Even though Keoma was directed by Enzo G. Castellari and released a decade after Django, it feels similar to Corbucci’s Django in terms of violence and brutality. It is not surprizing that an alternate title for Keoma was Django Rides Again. Keoma distinguishes itself from Corbucci’s film by incorporating an element of the Civil War and by making the title character a half-breed who has to fight his own family as well.
Shades of Gabbar
Sholay, one of the most loved Indian films ever made, is a curry western inspired by Sergio Leone’s spaghetti westerns and also from The Magnificent Seven which in turn was a remake of The Seven Samurai. A memorable component of Sholay is the villainous character of Gabbar Singh played to perfection by Amjad Khan. No villain in Indian cinema has ever dwarfed Gabbar, which is why it was a real surprize to observe Fernando Sancho’s character of Gordo in Arizona Colt.
Gordo is a ruthless villain with a twisted sense of humor similar to Gabbar’s. However, Gordo is far from a fully developed Gabbar but in an alternate cinematic universe, Gordo would be Gabbar’s right hand man and be able to carry out Gabbar’s sinister tasks.
Under the Mexican Sun
A Bullet for the General and Duck, You Sucker are set in Mexico against a backdrop of revolution and political upheaval.
And finally....Robert Pires
Lucio Fulci’s Four of the Apocalypse shares some of the rugged terrain and savagery found in Glauber Rocha’s Black God, White Devil. But Four of the Apocalypse eases up on the violence for some stretches of the film before finishing up with one final act of revenge followed by a customary ride off into the sunset.
On an unrelated note: Fabio Testi’s character in the film looks eerily similar to Robert Pires.
There was plenty to admire and enjoy in all the 11 films but the following would be my preferred top 5:
1. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly: A complete film that features a stellar story, great acting and some memorable sequences, including an incredible final showdown between all 3 characters.
2. For a Few Dollars More: The rival and partnership between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef’s characters make this an unforgettable film.
3. The Great Silence: Ruthless, brutal and poetic.