Made for a Fistful of Yen (or pounds, or lire or whatever)
Film titles with livelinks can be clicked on for our reviews of those pictures.
Some purists think that a film can only be a Western if it is set in the American states or territories west of the Mississippi, between the end of the Civil War and the end of the nineteenth century. The genre is specific to a time and place.
Today I want to look at examples of the genre from farther afield. The world, in fact.
There are different kinds of foreign Western: there are American films with a Western story in a non-American setting, pictures like Quigley Down Under in Australia or Way of a Gaucho in Argentina or The Americano in Brazil; then there are Westerns, or imitation Westerns if you prefer, made outside American shores by non-Americans, maybe with an American actor or two, or maybe not, such as Eurowesterns like Old Shatterhand or A Fistful of Dollars /Per un pugno di dollari; and finally there are international films which have quite a lot in common with traditional American Westerns in their style or subject matter, like, say, the bushranger story Robbery Under Arms in Australia or the feared-lone-stranger tale Das Finstere Tal in the South Tyrol, which are so influenced by the Western as, effectively, to be Westerns.
You could even argue, though this is more of a stretch, that when in the 1930s the big studios largely avoided making A-picture Westerns for adults, early-30s pictures like Fox’s The Big Trail and MGM’s Billy the Kid having lost huge amounts of money, the Western migrated abroad. When Errol Flynn rode in The Charge of the Light Brigade in the Crimea, rather than the 7th Cavalry at Little Bighorn, for Warners in 1936, or when Gary Cooper was heroic in a képi in North Africa for Paramount as Beau Geste, they were, in a way, making substitute Westerns. People still wanted ‘Western’ action, just not with Stetson and six-gun.
The American Western was hugely influential from the start, and non-Americans got interested in the genre very early on. Although the Western may be considered, along with jazz and blues, a home-grown art form which is specific to the USA, other, non-American, artists felt permitted and able to contribute, right from the early days, and they still do. The Romani Belgian Django Reinhardt certainly had something to say in the world of jazz and you may (or I suppose may not) feel that another Django also contributed, to the development of the Western movie.
Christopher Frayling, considered the scholarly éminence grise of the spaghetti western, as I call it, or Spaghetti Western as he does, has, as an introductory chapter to his weighty 2006 tome Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, a (rather long) discussion of the background to 1960s spaghettis, the early days of the European Western. I trawled through it for some nuggets. I may have mixed my metaphors there because you don’t usually trawl for nuggets but actually nuggets are appropriate because some of the early European Westerns concentrated on Sutter, his search for gold in California and the resulting mid-century gold rush.
Frayling is actually interesting with his comparison of four versions of the Sutter story. The novel L’Or, La Merveilleuse Histoire du Général Johann August Suter, by French author ‘Blaise Cendrars’ (Frédéric-Louis Sausser), was published in 1925. In 1930 the great Russian film maker Sergei Eisenstein visited the US and wrote a screenplay from this book for Universal, with detailed production notes and sketches, for a film to be titled Sutter’s Gold, but that never happened, partly because of a pro-Soviet agenda the film maker was said to be pushing. And then, concurrently, Tyrolean Louis Trinker, an ardent Nazi supporter, made the 97-minute Der Kaiser von Kalifornien, also loosely based on the Cendrars novel, filmed largely in Italy and with many Italian cast members, while back in Hollywood the noted but not excessively talented director James Cruze, of The Covered Wagon fame (unfortunately replacing Howard Hawks), finally made the 94-minute Sutter’s Gold. Both German and American films were released in 1936. All these four versions of the story had very different ‘messages’ and approaches.
I’d love to see and compare these films but of course they aren’t available, on DVD or YouTube. Maybe posh academics like Prof Frayling can get access to them (he seems to have seen them) but humble bloggers like your Jeff are excluded. There are so many ‘important’ Westerns that are simply unavailable to watch, tragically – though I am highly appreciative of and grateful to the film preservation people at Paramount for letting me see North of 36 (click for our post on that).
By the way, I’m not dealing extensively with spaghetti westerns here. The subject is too big and I have already reviewed many of the best-known ones on the blog – you’ll find those in the index. There are plenty of books and websites out there if you want to go deeper into the subject (I nearly said morass).
Karl May began writing his stories about the (fictional) Apache Winnetou and the hero Old Shatterhand in the 1870s – well before he first visited America. It is perhaps surprising, given that Hitler was a fan of the books, that no German movies were made from May’s tales in the 1930s or early 40s. The first Karl May films made began in 1962 with Der Schatz im Silbersee (The Treasure of Silver Lake) with Lex Barker as Old Shatterhand, filmed in the then-Yugoslavia.
But back in 1920s Germany there was quite a craze for Western movies, especially Fenimore Cooper stories. The Last of the Mohicans had been translated into German almost immediately after publication in English, in 1826, and was immensely popular there. Lederstrumpf (Leatherstocking) in 1920 was a two-part Last of the Mohicans with Emil Mamelok as Deerslayer and Bela Lugosi as Chingachgook (Frayling says as Uncas but it was Chingachgook, Uncas being written out of the story), filmed in the forests of the Rhineland.
And in the 1930s the Western remained popular in Germany. In 1932 August Kern directed Der Goldene Gletscher (The Golden Glacier), a Western about the perils of gold fever, set in ’49 California, and in 1939 Paul Verhoeven made a parody with the English title Gold in New Frisco.
In France, actor-director Joë Hamman (who didn’t die till 1974), often starred as the character Arizona Bill, and made 35 silent Westerns between 1907 and 1913, for Lux Compagnie Cinématographique de France. Some of them had specifically American settings, such as Pendaison à Jefferson City (1910) (Hanging at Jefferson City), though of course they were shot in France, while others ‘imported’ the West, such as Les aventures d’un cow-boy à Paris (also 1910).
Many of these Westerns were filmed down in the Camargue, between arms of the Rhône delta, a region famous for its wild horses, and considered suitably ‘Western’. Jean Renoir made reference to Hamman in his 1936 film Le Crime de Monsieur Lange, in which the mild-mannered hero churns out sensational pulp stories featuring a certain ‘Arizona Jim’.
Gaston Méliès, brother of Georges, and his son Paul went to Chicago and Texas between 1909 and 1911 and filmed a number of one-reel Westerns, all now lost, for their Star Film Company. Most notably, there was the first film version of the fall of the Alamo.
In 1918 – 19, James Young Deer, a Winnebago, made Western shorts for the Pathé brothers in France.
In Italy, there were Westerns well before spaghettis. In fact Sergio Leone’s actress mother, Bice Valerian, was in a Western in 1913, La vampira indiana (The Indian Vampire) and Puccini’s 1910 opera La Fanciulla del West, based on David Belasco’s 1905 play The Girl of the Golden West, was enormously popular – and would be filmed several times.
It also loosely inspired two wartime films in 1942: the talkies Una signora dell’ovest (A Lady of the West) and the comedy spoof Il fanciullo del West (The Boy of the West), which starred the Italian comic Macario, said to be the inventor of the Italian comedy film. Frayling also says that “a series of Wild Bill Hickok adventures (carbon copies of Hollywood ‘B’ features, with an emphasis on violent action and very little else) appeared during the early 1950s”. But he doesn’t give any titles and I can’t track those down. There was also a little run of banditti movies in Italy, pictures like In nome della legge (In the Name of the Law) in 1949 and Il brigante di Tacca del Lupo (The Outlaw of Tacca del Lupo) in 1952 which definitely owe a lot to the cleaning-up-the-town Western.
In Britain, too, early cinema pioneers were enthused by the Western. You might think that the Brits made their ‘Westerns’ about the far-flung corners of their Empire, with redcoats rather than bluecoats fighting Zulus rather than Apaches, and of course they did make many movies like that. You might even consider some of them ‘Westerns’. Or Easterns or Southerns. But they also made real Westerns, about cowboys in America. Fate (1911), a film tragically now lost, is said to be the first Western shot in color. It was a 19-minute short which told of an Englishman who becomes chief of a tribe of Indians. It was directed by an early pioneer, Theo Frenkel (1871 – 1956), who often used his mother’s name, Bouwmeester, a Dutchman from Rotterdam who made films in England (in Hove, Sussex).
Later on there would be many Westerns that might be thought of as British, or British-American co-productions anyway. In the 1950s the British had passed an astute if protectionist law that forbade foreign film companies to export the profits of any movies made in their country. As a result, studios had money tied up in the UK that they could only use making another film there and so in some (financially unlearned) execs’ eyes, movies made there would be essentially free. For example, in 1958 Fox hired a well-known British star or two like posh Kenneth Moore, shipped over Raoul Walsh, Jayne Mansfield and some character actors, set up in England with British technicians, and shot a few scenes of the wide open West country for The Sheriff of Fractured Jaw (which, amazingly perhaps, turned out to be really good).
And there’s a long list of British or semi-British Westerns. The Canadians (1961), The Singer Not the Song (1961), Shalako (1968), Hannie Caulder (1971), Captain Apache (1971), The Hunting Party (1971) , Eagle’s Wing (1979), and many more either had British production companies involved, or British directors, or significant British financial and/or creative input. And of course many British actors have done American Westerns. The British pictures weren’t all good – the ‘comedies’ Ramsbottom Rides Again (1956) and Carry On Cowboy (1965) were so truly awful as to be close to unwatchable – and some of the pictures might even lead us to accept the thesis that non-Americans just didn’t ‘get’ Westerns, but on the other hand, there were some interesting and high-quality pictures too.
Take The Claim (2000), made by the BBC and the Arts Council of England, directed by Brit Michael Winterbottom, filmed in Alberta and Colorado, with an international cast: it was a Western remake of Thomas Hardy’s 1886 novel The Mayor of Casterbridge. I must get round to reviewing it because it’s very good – and definitely Western.
The countries we have been visiting in this article, and other countries too, had welcomed Buffalo Bill’s Wild West, and audiences, from crowned heads to common people, had enthused over the spectacle. There was a hunger for everything Western.
Australia was an especially popular locale for the Western, or an interpretation of the Western. As early as 1906 the Tait family made the 4-reel The Story of the Kelly Gang, about the outlaw Ned Kelly, the first dramatic film to run for more than 60 minutes. It was written and directed by Charles Tait and starred Elizabeth Tait and John Tait. Sadly, only fragments survive. There would be films about Ned Kelly in 1959 (Ken Goodlet as Ned), 1970 (Mick Jagger), 2003 (Heath Ledger) and 2019 (George MacKay), to name but a few. They’re all pretty Western.
There have been many other Aussie ‘Westerns’. I mentioned The Overlanders (1946) in my recent post on cattle Westerns. In that one, at the start of World War II the Japanese are getting close, people are evacuating and burning everything in a scorched earth policy. Rather than kill all their cattle, a group decides to drive a herd overland half way across the continent. Frayling makes the point that films like The Overlanders “may have worked as ‘Westerns’ because the historical events depicted (pioneers in Australia) directly parallel those of American frontier history.”
The Kangaroo Kid in 1950 (review soon) was more like the later Quigley Down Under: made by a British-Australian company and shot in New South Wales, it starred Jock Mahoney and was directed by Lesley Selander, so there were excellent ‘proper’ Western credentials there. Read the synopsis: “Tex Kinnane (Jock O’Mahoney), posing as a stage driver, goes to Australia to investigate a series of robberies. He makes friends at the saloon with Baldy Muldoon (Alex Kellaway) and barmaid Stella Grey (Veda Ann Borg). Lawyer Vincent Moller (Douglass Dumbrille), the leader behind the robberies, learns Tex’s real identity, and frames a plot to blame the crimes on Tex.” Frankly, how Western can you get? B-Western OK, but Western ne’ertheless. Bet you can hardly wait for the review.
In Warner Brothers’ The Sundowners (1960), the “Carmody family lives a nomadic life out of their wagon, but the mom and son want to settle, while the dad is against it,” says the synopsis. It starred Robert Mitchum and Deborah Kerr, was directed by Fred Zinnemann and filmed in New South Wales.
Or take Mad Dog Morgan (1976), the story of Irish outlaw Daniel Morgan, who is wanted dead or alive in Australia during the 1850s. It was directed by Australian of French extraction Philippe Mora and starred Dennis Hopper.
In The Man from Snowy River (1982), directed by Scot George Miller, we are in 1880s Australia. When the father of young Jim Craig (Toronto-born Tom Burlinson) dies, Jim takes a job at the Harrison cattle ranch. This is ruled over by ancient autocrat Kirk Douglas. There Jim is forced to become a man.
And let’s not forget Quigley itself, in 1990, when Tom Selleck bonded with Native Australians instead of Native Americans. Alan Rickman in that was a straight Western bad guy, who fancied himself quick on the draw.
Some more recent Australian Westerns have been outstandingly good. Think of The Proposition (2005), for example, written by Nick Cave and directed by John Hillcoat from Queensland, Australia, made by the UK Film Council and shot in Queensland. A Western? “That which we call a rose by any other name would smell as sweet,” as Bill Shakespeare told us. It’s a Western alright, and a darn good one.
New Zealand too: Utu in 1983, directed by New Zealander Geoff Murphy and filmed there, had a Maori warrior (Anzac Wallace) in the 1870s who finds his village attacked and the people massacred, so he vows revenge. That Western enough for you? In 2010, in Tracker, Ray Winstone (who had also been very good in The Proposition) is van Diemen, a Boer, a famed follower of trails, who arrives in another far-flung outpost of the Empire, New Zealand, and is offered a bounty to capture Kereama (Temuera Morrison), an educated Maori seaman (wrongly) accused of killing a British soldier and regarded by the colonial authorities as a savage. That was directed by Englishman Ian Sharp and also filmed in New Zealand.
What about South Africa? In 1949 the British Gainsborough Pictures made Diamond City, set in the diamond fields of South Africa. Stafford Parker (British actor David Farrar, who retired to South Africa) is a lawman trying to maintain the peace in the ‘Wild South’. The picture was directed by Scottish-born David MacDonald, who had learned his trade in Hollywood under Cecil B DeMille and had been assistant director to Raoul Walsh on Klondike Annie in 1936.
In 1967 Killarney Film Studios, established in Johannesburg by New York native Isidore W Schlesinger in 1915 and regarded as the first motion picture studio in Africa, produced The Jackals, a remake of the great William Wellman Western Yellow Sky. It starred Vincent Price as a South African prospector named Oupa (grandpa) Decker and contract Fox actor Robert Gunner in the Gregory Peck part. The film was the last directed by (American) Robert D Webb. To be fair, it wasn’t a patch on Yellow Sky, but it shows the appeal of the Western beyond American shores. And the really rather good angst-laden 2014 Western with Mads Mikkelsen The Salvation, made by Danish companies, set ‘somewhere in the American West’ in the 1870s, was actually shot in the same area as The Jackals, near Johannesburg.
And in East Africa, Budapest-born Andrew Marton (Endre Istvan Márton) directed Africa: Texas Style (1967) in which an American cowboy (Hugh O’Brian, famous as TV’s Wyatt Earp) is hired to work on a ranch in Africa, and winds up having to fight predators, the four- and two-legged kinds.
What of the French-Italian production Soleil Rouge? That was released in the US as Red Sun in 1972. It had a highly cosmopolitan cast that included Charles Bronson, Ursula Andress, Toshirô Mifune, Alain Delon, Capucine and more, was directed by Shanghai-born Cambridge-educated Terence Young, was filmed in Spain and concerned a train robbery in 1870 in which a gang steals a ceremonial Japanese sword meant as a gift for the US President, prompting a manhunt to retrieve it. It’s dreadful (review soon) but still.
I would even call Warner Brothers’ The Last Samurai (2003) a Western – just. Or almost. Tom Cruise, a US army veteran, is hired by the Japanese emperor to train his army in the modern warfare techniques. He finds himself trapped in a struggle between two eras and two worlds. It starts in the US. The US Army captain hero has been fighting the Cheyenne with Custer. It’s got loads of guns in it. It’s about a lone hero bravely fighting the forces of evil in a hostile terrain. Come on, that’s a Western. Then there’s The Seven Samurai after all. That’s virtually The Magnificent Seven in drag. The Last Samurai was shot in New Zealand (with a bit in Japan).
Since we are now in the Far East (rather than the Far West), because foreign Westerns have to be named for foodstuffs for some odd reason, we got Sukiyaki Western Django in 2007, a way cool, 21st century spaghetti Western in the Quentin Tarantino mold. The movie is bloody, garish and has a derivative plot, there are stretches of tedium between the over-the-top action, and it has lousy dialogue, so in these respects it is pure spaghetti. You feel it was maybe made only for a fistful of yen. But it’s spaghetti, or in this case sukiyaki, in that knowing modern way, with plenty of references for the Western fan to pick up on, a pastiche perhaps, even a parody, or, if you are being generous, a homage.
The following year Korea had a go. When I started this blog I never thought I would be reviewing a Western called Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom. But there we are. Joheunnom nabbeunnom isanghannom, otherwise known as The Good, The Bad, The Weird, is a Korean spaghetti western set in 1930s Manchuria. Clearly it’s a remake of or homage to the third of Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy. It was directed and co-written by Ji-woon Kin, evidently a Leone fan. It had a fat Korean budget of $17m and the production values are more big-studio Hollywood than Cinecittà on a shoestring. There are special FX, a train and a cast of lots.
By the way, talking of Japanese films a moment ago, this might be the point to add that there was also a ‘reverse engineering’ effect on the American Western in the sense that films like Valerie (1957) and The Outrage (1964) were Western versions of Kurosawa’s 1950 picture Rashomon. Actually, those didn’t transpose too well. Kurosawa himself acknowledged his debt to Dashiell Hammett’s 1929 gangster story Red Harvest when making his 1961 film Yojimbo, and this fed into Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, and in a way came full circle back into the gangster genre (though also really quite Western) in Walter Hill’s Last Man Standing (1996).
Spaghetti westerns certainly had an influence on the American Western. You can’t watch a 1970 Western like Barquero without noticing the spaghetti sauce, right down to Lee Van Cleef and his curly pipe. Influences are a two-way street, or, as Englishman Kim Newman says in his book Wild West Movies, “a circularity, with the ideas thrown out by the parent form circling the globe and coming back to Dodge City again.”
Well, it depends on how strict you are. Those purists I mentioned in the first para would probably have apoplexy if I said that half the films mentioned above were Westerns.
Expect more apoplexy-inducing reviews in the months to come.