Paul Simpson, in his Rough Guide to Westerns (Rough Guides Ltd, 2006) criticizes some of our key books on the genre (his own comes near to that definition but just misses) as not taking the Italian western seriously enough. Herb Fagen’s The Encyclopedia of the Western, for example, he characterizes as “generous” and “authoritative” but it “would be better still if it treated spaghetti Westerns more seriously”, and Brian Garfield’s great Western Films is “a good read, marred by a dismissive attitude to the Italian Western.” I don’t think Paul’s going to like this blog then.
At a time, the 1960s, when the American Western appeared to be in full decline, the Italian version did at least inject new blood into the genre (quite a lot of it, in fact). Movie theaters, in Europe certainly but even in the US, started to fill up again with people paying to watch guys in Stetsons shooting each other with six-guns. While this was clearly an exploitative commercial gimmick, aimed at making a fistful of dollars, the minimal-budget sword-and-sandal Italian ‘epics’ no longer selling well, many of the key makers of these cheap westerns were genuine admirers of the genre. The likes of Sergio Leone and Sergio Corbucci had been brought up on American Westerns of the 40s and 50s, knew them well and they tried, in some ways, to copy them – or at least quote them.
Italy’s love affair with the Wild West goes way back. Buffalo Bill traveled Italy in 1890 and 1906, performing his show twice in Florence to ecstatic audiences, and 1910 marked the first performance of Puccini’s La Fanciulla del West (The Girl of the Golden West), horse opera indeed. Sergio Leone’s mother, Edvige Maria Valcarenghi, known by her stage name of Bice Waleran, starred in what has been described the first ever Italian Western, La Vampira Indiana, directed by Sergio’s dad Roberto Roberti in 1913. A Fascist-era talkie, Una Signora dell’Ouest, was made in 1942, written and directed by German Carl Koch but shot in Lazio with Swiss and Italian actors.
It is perhaps not fanciful to suggest, as indeed Paul Simpson sort-of has, that guns for hire, bounty hunters and other assorted loners were in Italy inherently more interesting as heroes (or antiheroes anyway) than the lawmen or Army officers of the classic American Western. Italian society has traditionally and historically had a low opinion of the official state and prefers to get by, manage, cope with life, even if – or especially if – it means bypassing official channels. The supposed ‘frontier justice’ of the Wild West, when a man meted out his own kind of law, often at the point of a gun, struck a chord with millions of Italians. And this tradition seems to have fed into the spaghetti western genre.
Furthermore, some of the spaghetti directors and writers came from quite a left-wing, even Marxist tradition, and were happy to produce stories of semi-anarchic characters defying the state and its apparatus, and rebelling also against corporate exploiters, the railroads being a classic example. It was pretty one-dimensional or comic-book Marxism, but still.
The term spaghetti western, by the way, has been considered by some to be demeaning or even racist. I don’t think it is, and indeed the ‘standard’ and rather earnest text on the subject bears the title Spaghetti Westerns (it is by Christopher Frayling, IB Tauris, 2006). Of course many of the so-called spaghettis were not exclusively from the land of pasta but in fact international productions, with actors of a variety of nationalities (including American), often financed by Germans and shot in Spain, in the latter case sometimes being called paella westerns. By extension, we get matzo-ball westerns in Israeli locations, and I myself call British sagebrush sagas shepherd’s pie westerns, named for the stodgy fare beloved of Her Majesty’s subjects. It seems European oaters have to be named for foodstuffs.
Before Italian westerns came along, there had been a series of successful Eurowesterns based on the novels by Karl May, one of the best-selling German writers of all time with about 200 million copies sold worldwide. The first modern movie appeared in 1962, shot in the then Yugoslavia, and they went on till 1968. The Apache Winnetou was played by French actor Pierre Brice, who was usually teamed with Lex Barker as his Aryan pal Old Shatterhand. Barker, of course, as well as being Tarzan, had appeared in a whole series of American Westerns from 1947 on, leading in six.
By coincidence or not, the first internationally successful spaghetti western, Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) was released in the fall of 1964, the year of the last – and perhaps the poorest – of the big Hollywood Westerns by ‘old masters’, John Ford’s Cheyenne Autumn and Raoul Walsh’s A Distant Trumpet. These Cavalry-and-Indian pictures were frankly tired, and seemed very old-fashioned to mid-60s theater-goers. Leone’s movie with TV-Western star Clint Eastwood (not Leone’s first choice: he wanted Fonda, then Coburn, but they were too expensive and Charles Bronson described it as the “worst script I have ever seen”) was, if nothing else, startlingly new. Its impact wasn’t immediate, however: it wasn’t released in France till March 1966 and in the US till January ’67.
Through the late 60s spaghetti westerns were released in droves, on average one a week. Many were copies and rip-offs, re-using plots and character names – Django, Sartana, and so on. I’ve lost count (well, I never counted) how many titles included the word Django. The pictures were churned out on minimal budgets and shot in a matter of days. In fact they were in this respect (only) reminiscent of the second-feature and series Westerns that Poverty Row studios released in the 1930s, 40s and early 50s in the US.
Many of the patrons of Italian movie theaters of the time were not sophisticated cinephiles going to see art films; audiences were rowdy, noisy and smoked heavily (it was still like that when I lived in Italy in the 1980s) and they liked action and blood and not too much talking per favore.
In fact, though, spaghetti sellers did it to death. As quickly as it had mushroomed up, the craze faded away. The producers tried hard to invent later variations which might appeal to theater-goers, such as ‘comedy’ spaghettis. Venetian Mario Girotti (Terence Hill) and Neapolitan Carlo Pedersoli (Bud Spencer) were an especially popular duo, and they appealed to the long and noble Italian tradition of the buffoon. There were also kung-fu spaghettis and horror ones. Yet they only delayed the inevitable. The sub-genre was doomed.
But not before it had amassed large numbers of fans – and intellectual film-studies type scholars also. Still today spaghetti westerns are surprisingly popular.
There have, however, also always been critics. When Burt Kennedy told an incredulous John Wayne that the Italians were making Westerns (or westerns anyway) he described them as “no stories, just killing.” Brian Garfield, mentioned by Simpson above, wrote, “I acknowledge that these films have their apologists but I hope I may be forgiven if I express a deep disgusted revulsion toward them.”
Myself, i.e. your Jeff, I don’t feel that strongly about them. No deep disgusted revulsion for me. But I don’t like them. Actually, I’m not sure they were really Westerns at all. They were about Westerns. They are parodies, even, or maybe anti-Westerns.
The article on the history of the Western in The BFI Companion to the Western suggests that in fact there was a continuity here, quite apart from the use of actors known for their traditional Westerns. “They took certain attitudes and themes which had emerged and pushed them further.” Leone was an especial admirer of Vera Cruz (1954) and it is true that in that Western Robert Aldrich and his writers spotlighted characters (Gary Cooper and Burt Lancaster) who were cynical guns for hire. “The scene in which they demonstrate their shooting prowess to the Emperor Maximilian is a blueprint for all the show-offs in the Spaghetti Western.” In his sometimes perceptive book Westerns: Aspects of a Movie Genre (Carcanet Film, first published in 1973 but later reissued with revisions and addenda) Philip French says that “no American director influenced the Italians more than Robert Aldrich” and says that the climactic gunfight between Rock Hudson and Kirk Douglas in The Last Sunset (1961) was the model for spaghetti high-opera shoot-out showdowns.
Mmm. I’m not so sure. Plenty of American Westerns, all through the glory years, had highlighted shooting prowess and had major climactic shoot-outs (that idea went right back to at least Owen Wister’s The Virginian of 1902). And guns-for-hire and bounty-hunters were standard Western characters long before spaghetti came along – though the American ones usually had a heart of gold.
But yes, the spaghetti westerns certainly did stress those elements.
Another key and different element of the Italian western was the soundtrack. Italian westerns were post-dubbed. They were made almost like silent movies, with the director free to talk as much as he (it was always a he) wanted behind the cameras and with the actors, unencumbered by boom-mikes, saying their lines in their own languages, or in one case recounted by Christopher Frayling, simply counting earnestly up to ten. Then the dialogue would be recorded in a studio and added. Supporting actors were not well paid on movie sets but were well rewarded for studio recording, and were happier to do that. Usually it didn’t really matter whose voice it was anyway. There is a theory that because the Cinecittà movie studios in Rome were directly under the flight path to Fiumicino airport, the industry had learned to do without live recording of dialogue. Certainly the Italians developed sophisticated dubbing techniques. But you can always tell, and it always both sounds and looks false. And because these spaghetti westerns were usually very low-budget affairs and turned out so fast they did not receive the high-quality post-dubbing sound that bigger Italian movies did. Lip-synching was often perfunctory.
Another weakness (in my view) was the way non-dialogue sound was done. Spaghettis delighted in overloud gunshots and overdubbed clip-clopping hooves. We have all seen spaghettis in which the cowboy falls dead just before the gunshot rings out. And why did every shot do a ricochet whine even when it didn’t hit anything? Leone especially was a fan of so-called ‘sound design’ and loved to ornament his pictures with this kind of fakery. These days sound technicians are described as ‘Foley artists’ and a character can’t put a glass down or pull out a gun without hundred-decibel sound effects or twirl a knife without those stupid phew-phew noises. I blame Leone.
And don’t get me started on the music. Or do. Ennio Morricone, who died this July, was, Wikipedia tells us, “With more than 400 scores for cinema and television, as well as more than 100 classical works … widely considered as one of the most prolific and greatest film composers of all time.” Certainly he is greatly admired. But not by me. I find the music he did for spaghetti westerns trite and often downright annoying. I get that spaghettis wanted to move away from huge orchestral scores and lush strings, and preferred a more proletarian, humble soundtrack, such as a wailing harmonica, twiddly wooden flute, cracked whip, or human whistling (always, of course, absurdly amplified). A lot of the rationale was simply cost. Budgets did not allow for multi-musician recording. One guy with an electric guitar and someone shouting “Hoh, hoh!” into an echo-chamber would do just as well. I think it’s just awful. Still, whatever turns you on. I know many people like the music and probably have it on their iPods, or these days, phones. You can buy, if you like that sort of thing, a whole 2-CD album, with the inevitable title A Fistful of Sounds, which includes the complete soundtracks of three Leone westerns, “a haunting, surprising, satisfying experience”, according to Paul Simpson. Whatever floats your boat.
If you judge spaghetti westerns just by a few of the more famous pictures you may find them different but acceptable. Leone’s so-called dollars trilogy – Per un Pugni di Dollari (1964), Per qualche dollaro in più (1965) and Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966) – Corbucci’s original Django (1966) and Il Grande Silenzio (1968), as well as Damiano Damiani’s ¿Quien Sabe? aka A Bullet for the General (1967) are all watchable and have certain merits. The last-named even got up to a Jeff Arnold’s West three-revolver rating in the days when he gave ratings. Amazing. But the vast majority of the ‘westerns’ that were churned out from the mid-60s to the early 70s were dire. Chief among their downsides were the bad sound, dubbing and music (as just mentioned), the lurid colors, the juvenile writing and repetitive plotting, the bargain-basement production values, and actually their lack of respect for the genre. They were really live-action cartoons.
But they did make some money, and they did have an impact. In a meanwhile-back-at-the-ranch way, American movie producers took note and began to incorporate spaghetti influences into their mainstream Westerns. More blood, antiheroes, sweaty and unshaven men characters and sleazy women ones (spaghettis were notably misogynistic or at least male-chauvinist), one-dimensional plots, huge close-ups of faces and, for some odd reason, a fascination with boots and horses’ hooves, as well as arsenals hidden in coffins, all started to feed into the Western. It was a process of reverse engineering.
Take a movie like Barquero (1970) for example, perhaps the most Italian of American Westerns. It stars Lee Van Cleef with his curly pipe and contains many of the features just noted above. Its director, Gordon Douglas, had clearly seen a number of spaghettis and wanted to cash in on their commercial (if not artistic) success.
Sam Peckinpah was also clearly influenced and his balletic and bloody final slaughter in The Wild Bunch (1969) probably would not have been possible without its spaghetti precursors. Leone and Corbucci claimed influence anyway. Leone said that Peckinpah told him “Without you I would never have thought of making the films I made” and Corbucci said, “Peckinpah made The Wild Bunch after thinking about the films of Leone and Corbucci.” To underline the point, the contents page of Frayling’s book Spaghetti Westerns has an illustration not of an Italian western but of the four Wild Bunch stars (Johnson, Oates, Holden, Borgnine) walking down to their dusty death.
In fact Frayling’s book carries a long appendix, The Impact of Spaghettis on the American Western. Some of it is written in film-studies jargon, aka gobbledygook, but it also has some interesting info. He says that Oscar-nominee and Emmy-winning director Ralph Nelson was an early influencee. Certainly Duel at Diablo with James Garner and Sidney Poitier, shot in the fall of 1965 and released in May ’66, has spaghetti influences. Frayling calls Nelson “the closest American director, in terms of technique, to Sergio Leone.” I’m not sure that’s high praise, though. In fact Nelson’s other two Westerns, Soldier Blue and The Wrath of God, were really bad.
Eastwood’s post-spaghetti career clearly shows that spaghetti blood (or sauce) now ran freely in his veins. In interviews Don Siegel expressed his appreciation of Leone’s work, and some scenes in Two Mules for Sister Sara (1970) with Eastwood are clearly nods to Sergio. The Civil War in the Siegel/Eastwood The Beguiled (1971) is not that far from Leone’s in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, and Eastwood’s soldier in that is completely cynical about his part in the war. Clint made quite a thing of the spaghetti ‘man with no name’ (though in fact he was named in Leone’s pictures). The superhuman stranger riding into Lago and meting out vigilante ‘justice’ in Eastwood’s first Western as director, High Plains Drifter (1973), is very spaghetti-ish and indeed the opening scenes, in which Clint rides into town, seem to be a straight copy of those in A Fistful of Dollars when he rides into San Miguel. In some ways Clint was still doing that as late as Pale Rider (1985), though one difference is that in these post-spaghetti American pictures he was, vaguely, righting society’s wrongs, even if in a somewhat extra-legal manner, while in the Dollars movies he couldn’t give a damn about righting society’s wrongs because he was too busy exploiting them.
Later Western makers, Tarantino especially, are spaghettisti. Django Unchained (2012) – Franco Nero even appeared in it – pays obvious homage to Sergio Corbucci and The Hateful Eight makes specific references to Il Grande Silenzio.
Well, you’ll find quite a few spaghettis reviewed on this blog. They all got at least one revolver in the once universally admired JAW ranking system, because after all, they made a Western. But very few get more than that. Caveat lector, Simpson.
Maybe pastiche is the word that best describes these movies. Webster’s defines pastiche as “a literary, artistic, musical, or architectural work that imitates the style of previous work”, with a secondary meaning of hodgepodge, potpourri. There’s maybe a hint in the word of the cheap fake. At any rate, like ‘em or love ‘em, a Western fan can’t really ignore ‘em (however much you’d like to).