Prophets without Honor
Out of the dust of Italian neorealism rode a new breed of film into Cinecittá: the Italian Western, a ragtag subgenre that raided the borders of international cinema to rustle together a self-conscious, transnational form. Dismissively branded by US critics as the “Spaghetti Western”, this subgenre was a composite of several global influences that didn’t always cohere: the Hollywood western, the Japanese samurai film, neorealism, the peplum, the German Western, and Swedish art cinema, to name only a few.
The Italians, most film critics at the time surmised, had over-reached by tampering with an American genre that they knew little-to-nothing about and conjuring up bizarre, blood-soaked, operatic, Mediterranean hallucinations from the deserts of Spain in the process. John Ford they were not.
Much has transpired in regards to the critical reception of the Spaghetti Western since its origins during the mid-‘60s. Film historians like Christopher Frayling, Tony Williams, Laurence Staig, Marcia Landy, and Dimitris Eleftheriotis have legitimized the study of the genre within academic circles. On a more popular level, most film viewers recognize the works of Sergio Leone jumpstarting Clint Eastwood’s cinematic career. Leone has become something of a synecdoche for the genre, its sanctioned auteur that many fans and scholars use like a bottle of cheap perfume to drown out the stench of a disreputable body of over 400 films that are often absurd at best and downright incompetent at worst.
The culture industry has recently profited from the hype by producing an eight disk Leone box-set in early June. The Spaghetti West, a documentary produced by the Independent Film Channel, is perfectly timed with this release to provide a wider grasp of the cultural moment that yielded the genre.
For Spaghetti Western fans, the documentary will be a disappointment. Not only does it offer nothing but the standard narrative of the genre’s rise and fall, but it recycles footage from many of the extras found on other Spaghetti Western DVDs. For a group that prides itself on its encyclopedic and often obsessive knowledge of the genre, its context, actors, and back-stories, as can be witnessed by any casual glance at the Spaghetti Western Web Board, this documentary will be viewed as nothing more than mercenary opportunism, no better than the motives of many of the anti-heroes who populate the films they love. Yet for the uninitiated, The Spaghetti West offers an adequate overview of the genre’s contours.
It begins predictably enough during the year 1964 with the making of Fistful of Dollars. As the tale goes, after seeing Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), Sergio Leone felt that the story could be translated into a western setting. For the film’s lead, Leone searched through a series of stills, eventually stopping on a clean-cut, all-American Clint Eastwood who was then starring in the popular television show Rawhide. Leone withdrew a marker, filling in the young actor’s face with stubble and placing a cheroot between his lips. He had found his icon. The film, originally titled The Magnificent Stranger, became a hit in Europe, providing the template for countless imitations and signaling the dawn of a new cycle for Italian filmmaking.
Yet one wishes that The Spaghetti West spent more time explaining the causes for the emergence of the Spaghetti Western. Prior to its appearance, the peplum, the sword-and-sandal epic, epitomized by the Hercules films, reigned supreme. Yet the peplum’s celebration of Roman antiquity, physical strength, and the family could not be further from the cynical, anti-heroic, and exclusively male genre that was to follow on its heels. What caused such a radical ideological departure?
The reasons were two-fold. First, there was the general tenor of the ‘60s that challenged the institutions of preceding decades: the family, the state, and religion. No longer viewed as worthy of cinematic resurrection, these institutions were blown away like dust from the vast, inhospitable landscapes that came to characterize the Spaghetti Western’s topography. Civilization atrophied into nothing more than a fractured Spanish-style town dotting the landscape like a broken tooth, an ever present gale gradually dissolving it back into sand and memories.
The second factor concerns the expansion of Italian cinema into the country’s southern region. Before 1945, Italian cinema was mostly geared for the northern urban middle-class who attended the first-run cinemas. However, with the growth of third-run cinemas in the South, new genres had to be developed that would appeal to a more male-centered, rural population.
In Cinematic Uses of the Past, Marcia Landy explains how the concerns of the Mezzogiorno were incorporated by the Italian western: “The emphasis on landscape and on demographic mobility—the movement from east to west—the focus on brutality, brigandage, revenge, and criminality, the decomposition of villages, the ambiguous role of the Catholic church, and the stark competition for economic power are all conditions that inhere in Italian folklore but that can be grafted onto prevailing representations of Americanism” (79). The Italian western provided a psychic geography where veiled Mezzogionro concerns were allowed to run loose.
By delving into these two factors, The Spaghetti West could then better contextualize the next phase of the genre: its politicization during the mid-‘60s. The political Spaghetti Western is in many ways the genre’s most interesting development, and to give the documentary credit, it spends a good deal of time addressing it. Because Italy produced more films than any other European market during the ‘50s and ‘60s, it needed to constantly expand its distribution networks. By the mid-‘50s, the industry steadily lassoed-in markets in North Africa, the Middle and Far East, and Latin America. As a result, the politicized Spaghetti Western was in part dictated by profit-motives to cash-in on the recent trend of New Latin American cinema where Third World revolutionary politics guided both form and content.
My Name is Nobody
Although most of the Spaghettis remained relatively traditional in terms of cinematic form, they did place the Third World front and center by setting the films in Mexico, which served as a metaphor for all Third World nations. Christopher Frayling refers to these films as using “the Zapata-Spaghetti plot” whereby a mercenary gringo comes into contact with a group of revolutionary bandits and is either killed by, separated from, or joins the revolutionaries (Spaghetti Westerns).
Yet it would be both condescending and inaccurate to relegate the political Spaghetti Western as nothing more than First World opportunism of Third World politics. Some directors like Sergio Sollima, Damiano Damiani, Gillo Pontecorvo, and screenwriters such as Franco Solinas believed that commercial cinema needed to be injected with a Left ideological outlook to remain relevant during a time when radical politics infused all areas of culture. Sollima felt that his film, The Big Gundown, (1966) resonated with various anti-colonial struggles: “It could have been the story of an American Green Beret against the Vietcong, or of an English officer against a native boy at the time of British imperialism in India.”
The films needed to respond to the times, not remain in some formulaic, outdated purgatory. And their transnational origins—co-produced with Spanish, Italian, French, and/or American money, shot in Spain with multinational casts from Italy, Spain, Cuba, the US, France, and Germany—offered the perfect venue to transcend national concerns for more international issues, the exact strategy that many in New Latin American were similarly pursuing.
Furthermore, many features of the Third World resonated with Southern Italians. This can most clearly be seen by comparing two films written by Franco Solinas: Salvatore Guiliano (1961) and The Battle of Algiers (1966). The first film addresses the Italian government’s use of violence and corrupt politics to suppress Sicily’s secession. The second film addresses Algiers desire to liberate itself from French colonial rule.
Despite different directors at the helm, both films have identical sequences such as when the camera pans over the labyrinth-like architecture of Guiliano’s hometown and follows a similar trajectory over the Casbah in the later film. The poverty and misery graphically match between both worlds. The names and countries might have changed, but the situations are disturbingly similar. The same holds true for the dilapidated towns that populate the political Spaghetti Western; they could equally be from Mexico, Argentina, Senegal, or Sicily.
Once Upon a Time in the West
By the early ‘70s, however, the genre has run its course, collapsing into a series of self-parodying films. The most popular was They Call Me Trinity (1970) where Terrence Hill plays a lazy, good-for-nothing who happens to be fast on the draw. But the best was My Name Is Nobody, directed by Tonino Valerii and produced by Sergio Leone. It stars both Terence Hill as Nobody, who is remarkably similar to Trinity, and Henry Fonda as Jack Beauregard, who was cast as the child-killing outlaw Frank in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968).
As Christopher Frayling points out in the documentary, My Name Is Nobody, is the final stand-off between the older Leone West and its later imitators. It is a film defined by entropy and broken ideals as when Jack states, “There was never any good old days.” It is a West corralled in by its own half-priced, romanticized memories. For example, in the final scene when Jack and Nobody square-off, a photographer stands at the forefront of the frame. More notable than the duel itself is when the photographer forgets to press the trigger as Jack is shot. The real tragedy is not Jack’s death, and by implication the death of the Old West, but the fact that the enshrined moment, and its subsequent profits, has been lost.
It is due time that the Spaghetti Western receive its rightful recognition, not because it is a particularly great genre or representative of artistic excellence, though it does have elements of both, but because its serves as a vital body of work to explore the intricate workings of transnational cinema and the multifarious results that emerge from infusing commercial cinema with Left politics. It is a genre that has required the development of more sophisticated methodologies and histories in order to account for its hybrid tendencies, which has made it so loved and vilified by audiences. The Spaghetti West is a valuable contribution in its simple historical validation of the genre’s importance.
Also, the Spaghetti Western reminds us of how an elitist bias still guides most film histories that associate postwar Italian filmmaking solely with neorealism and its art film descendants like Federico Fellini, Michelangelo Antonioni, and Pier Paolo Passolini, despite their limited appeal with both domestic and foreign audiences. Effaced from such accounts are the more popular peplum and the Spaghetti Western, as if mass appeal serves as prima facie evidence that no further study is warranted.
Within Italy, the predominantly Southern Italian directors of the Spaghetti Western were considered “prophets without honor” by their Northern, art school counterparts since they supposedly didn’t deal with “serious” themes and never used Italy as a setting. The ledgers of film history sanction this outlook by conflating Northern Italian cinema with Italian cinema as a whole, which exemplifies yet another reason why the directors of the Spaghetti Western would gravitate towards a genre that possessed men with no names and often identified with the wretched of the earth.