Perge, Scelus, Mihi Diem Perficias
This isn’t Frayling’s first go at Leone. The noted cultural figure has also penned possibly the definitive interpretation of the genre for which Leone is famous, 1998’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, along with books about Clint Eastwood, vampires, mad scientists in film, and even King Tut.
He chaired the Arts Council of England for several years, and as mentioned earlier, received a knighthood, the process for which includes choosing a motto and coat of arms. Frayling’s includes a dodo bird holding a flaming goblet, an indication of his odd sense of humour, but the most incredible detail here must be his choice of motto: “Perge, Scelus, Mihi Diem Perficias.” The phrase translates as “Proceed, varlet, and let the day be rendered perfect for my benefit,” or more informally as, “Go ahead, punk, make my day.” Best. Knightly motto. Ever.
Frayling clearly loves his pop culture, and he brings mind-boggling erudition to all of his work. While lovingly written, the books is not hagiographic. For example, in the index, listed under “Leone, Sergio” one finds a subsection labelled “Character”, which contains the terms:
- careful with money
- family man
- sense of humour
- sense of the ridiculous
- sharp business sense
(Of these, the three with the most page references are careful with money, family man and sense of humour.)
Frayling’s subject comes across as a driven genius of film, who had a problem with problem with gender roles and a tendency to self-mythologize to an almost outrageous degree. For instance, Frayling notes how, beginning at a certain point of his celebrity, Leone enjoyed making references to the famed French author Louis-Ferdinand Céline, particularly his novel Journey to the End of the Night. “Celine’s mixture of knowing literary references, colourful language, chance encounters, absurd incidents, a epic sweep and a belly laugh amid all the gloom would seem to have strong affinities with Sergio Leone’s view of the world,” he writes, adding that Leone screenwriter Sergio Donati “denies that Leone ever in fact read the book.”
This aspect of Leone’s personality—creating an image, a myth, and placing the importance of it above everything else—resonates strongly with other traits that Frayling explores, such as Leone’s desire to create “fairy-tales for grown-ups.” Frayling quotes Leone:
“I began in the business during the neo-realist period. I love the authentic when it is filtered through imagination, myth, mystery and poetry. But it is essential that, at base, all the details seem right. Never invented. I think a fairy-tale captures the imagination when the story is a fairy-tale but the setting is extremely realistic. This fusion of reality and fantasy takes us into a different dimension—of myth, of legend.”
High-minded and ambitious stuff. Of course, Frayling follows this with a telling commentary by Clint Eastwood, who says:
“Sergio doesn’t really know anything about the West. He’s just a good director. I mean he has his own ideas, and I think the fact that he doesn’t know too much about the West is what works for him… He did things at the time that American directors would have been afraid of in a Western.”
Indeed, the entire genre of Spaghetti Westerns carries this trait at its core. These films were based on the traditional Hollywood western, which as Frayling notes was entirely a myth. Leone and the other spaghetti western filmmakers were creating a myth of a myth, and incorporating mythological elements tied to their geographical and sociological histories. In his invaluable survey, Spaghetti Westerns, Frayling captures neatly “the basis of Leone’s strange form of critical cinema”:
“The emphasis, in the ‘Dollars’ trilogy, on amoral familism; families, clans and camarilla; Latin conceptions of chivalry (more conspicuous leisure than moral law); campanilismo; plots involving crosses and double-crosses (often taken from Sicilian puppet plays); and, perhaps most important of all, the profanation of Catholic icons—the emphasis on all this firmly locates Leone’s rearrangement of the ‘codes’ of the Western within the context of Southern Italian society, and shows exactly the terms on which he has chosen to address the ‘cultural force’ of ‘Catholicism (and its penumbra)’.”
In Easy Riders, Raging Bulls, author Peter Biskind also touches on the way that Leone’s films, in particular their startling (for the time) violence, related to larger sociological themes. He does so by comparing three types of violence being legitimized by films of the time: “If the Bond films legitimized government violence, and the Leone films legitimized vigilante violence, Bonnie and Clyde legitimized violence against the establishment.”
Frayling’s biography offers an overwhelming amount of insight an trivia about Leone and his films, far too much to do justice here, but two in particular stick with me. One involves a detail about the violence in Leone’s films, one of the “things that American directors would have been afraid of,” mentioned earlier. At the time, Hollywood rules dictated that “a character being struck by a bullet from a gun could not be in the same frame as that gun when it was fired.” The infamous Hays Code deemed the effect to be too violent otherwise. Frayling quotes Eastwood:
“You had to shoot separately, and then show the person fall. And that was always thought sort of stupid, but on television we always did it that way… And you see, Sergio never knew that, and so he was tying it up… You see the bullet go off, you see the gun fire, you see the guy fall, and it had never been done this way before.”
(A short digression: Frayling also notes how Leone would often clash with his collaborators, one of the most famous instances being an apparent feud with Eastwood, which the two cleared up shortly before Leone’s death in 1989. Director Alex Cox mentions this aspect of Leone’s personality in his excellent 2009 survey of spaghetti westerns, 10,000 Ways to Die: “Some directors love talking to actors,” he writes. “Others do not. Like actors, directors can be complex characters. Leone included.”
Along these lines, Cox also nails a trait for which Frayling provides ample evidence: “I get the impression Leone wasn’t obsessive about directing,” Cox writes. “He liked setting up projects, and planning them, and he was passionate about the costumes, and the sets, and the ‘historical’ detail. He loved talking about these things, in grand and impressively allusive terms. But I suspect he wasn’t entirely happy on the set. Perhaps he was in later films, when he was an internationally respected auteur… But Leone would still try to avoid directorial details, handing entire films over to his assistants.”)
Another insight I loved was Frayling’s connection of Leone’s work to surrealism. “Since the early 1950s, Leone had been ‘devoted’ to the work of some Surrealist painters,” he writes, and points to the work of Giorgio De Chirico as a particularly strong influence. “When describing his admiration, [Leone] tended to emphasize their games with perception, their use of illusion and trompe l’oeil, their bizarre juxtapositions, the fact that ‘things are never what they seem.’”
As Frayling describes, this influence resonates strongly with the perception of space in Leone’s films. For instance, in The Good, the Bad, “Leone explores shapes and spatial relationships in expansive ways”. “For much of the film, the camera will simply not keep still,” he writes. “In classic Hollywood terms, these camera movements are entirely unmotivated, redundant… Cinematic space in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is full of surreal juxtapositions of this kind, to trick the eye and keep the audience intrigued.”
It’s surprising that there aren’t more books about Leone, but it seems impossible that anyone will ever outdo Frayling, whose achievement here seems to parallel his own assessment of Leone. “What [Leone] was trying to do was to re-enchant the cinema, while expressing his own disenchantment with the contemporary world and conveying the exhilaration he personally felt while watching and making movies,” he writes.
Frayling’s work here (and throughout his writing career) stands alongside other brilliant academics (see for example Roland Barthes’ take on professional wrestling in the ‘50s in his book, Mythologies) who, like Leone, bridge ‘high’ and ‘popular’ art. Along with the DVDs of Leone’s work, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death is a must-have. I’m looking forward to a “director’s cut” that includes the details about the horses’ blood-group.
Once Upon A Time: Sergio Leone (Part 1 of 7) A documentary commission by FilmFour that was first broadcast in 2000