The Spaghetti Western

Industrial context

Leone’s international success gave new birth to what American producers had considered an exhausted genre. While Hollywood was undergoing a financial crisis, the Italian film industry “sought international capital for popular films, and with American money available as well as relatively inexpensive Italian or Spanish locations and extras, the western was an obvious choice.”

Peter Bondanella, A History of Italian Cinema (New York: Continuum, 2009), 339.

Paul Smith, Clint Eastwood: A Cultural Production (Minneapolis: U of Minnesota P, 1993), 1-2.

Sociocultural context (The Rise of the spaghetti Western and Italy in the 1960s)

Lino Miccichè, qtd. in Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Western, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006).

The rise of the Italian Western to prominence particularly in 1964-66 corresponded to “the ideological and moral confusion of that period, as well as the difficulty, which seemed to exist in a broad section of petty-bourgeois public opinion, of distinguishing ‘who was guilty?,’ ‘who was responsible,?’ ‘who were the good guys?’ in situations where, more often than not, old enemies were coming together and historic connections were being pulled in opposite directions. All this while the range of individual choices seemed to be restricted to forms of social conscience that were becoming more and more confined, because directed by ‘external’ forces. So it is that the Italian Westerner, far from reflecting the somewhat ‘mystificatory’ epic of the frontier, impersonates, in ways which are paradoxically entertaining (and too explicitly cynical to trouble the conscience) a commonplace of the everyday psyche of the ‘average’ Italian…When he went to see a Western in the mid-’60s, which was really about the violence of a man who believes his only choice is violence, the Italian viewer could imagine himself shooting, wounding and killing the puppets of the cinema’s kitsch, identifying himself with the protagonist–who was not a hero, but a cynic in despair. Few at that time could foresee the crisis of 1968 towards which…all the many strands of contemporary dissatisfaction were leading–a crisis in values which seemed to hit everything that was certain in the past, made it difficult to define the present, and impossible to locate the future” (55).

For Leone’s pessimism on the political conditions in the 1960s (disillusioned socialist), see Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death (London: Faber and Faber, 2000), 305-307.

Intertextual sources

In the 1960s when Hollywood saw a drastic decline of the Western production, the genre regained its momentum from an unexpected source, the international Western (above all the Spaghetti Western). Indebted to John Ford Westerns, Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai (1954) proved that the Western had become a truly international genre and it belonged to anybody. The popularity of The Magnificent Seven (1960), a remake of The Seven Samurai, also confirmed the point: only moderately successful in the U.S., it evoked a big sensation in Europe and signaled a surge of the Western in Europe not only in terms of consumption but also production-wise.

Edward Buscombe, ed. The BFI Companion to the Western (New York: Da Capo Press, 1988), 48-51.

“The immediate stimulus, in 1963, and the reason why Italian and Spanish producers became interested in backing the Italian Western, was the unexpected financial success of Harald Reinl’s ‘Winnetou the Warrior’ films, made in West Germany and Yugoslavia…[And] it was Constantin [as for the German Western in the 1960s, the most successful German production company] that later agreed to co-produce A Fistful of Dollars with Ocean and Jolly Films, splitting the risk three ways…[, which was secured by the addition of a popular German actress, Marianne Koch, to the cast of the film as Marisol]” (Frayling, 103).

The love for the Western: the main inspiration of Leone and Kurosawa came from Hollywood Westerns, particularly George Stevens’ Shane which were very popular in both Italy and Japan (Frayling, 152).

Modeled on the Japanese samurai film and guised in the American Western: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), starring Clint Eastwood, a minor television Western star, was based on Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) (Frayling, 147-50).

See also Howard Hughes, Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers’ Guide to Spaghetti Westerns (London: I.B. Tauris, 2004).

The spectatorship of Spaghettis

“In France, Italy, Switzerland, Germany and Japan (where the film was distributed more or less intact), Once Upon a Time was a box-office smash. In Paris, it ran continuously for nearly six years. But in America it continued to flop.” “Preview audiences in America and those who went to see the film during the first weeks of its release, just thought the film was too long and too slow. In one of the most brutal acts of vandalism in the history of modern cinema, Paramount cut nearly half an hour out of the original three-hour film, leaving the action sequences intact, [but rendering some sequences disjointed].”

The film was so popular in France that it “started a craze [for dusters] in Paris menswear boutiques” (Frayling, 197 and 212).

Directors

Interestingly, many of the spaghetti Western directors were new generations who were affiliated in one way or another with Southern Italian society and found themselves in Rome during the American invasion of Cinecittà Studios in the mid-1950s. Sergio Leone, for instance, was from a Neapolitan family (Naples), and was studying at the Lycée in Rome when the postwar boom of the Italian cinema began. Sergio Corbucci and Carlo Lizzani were from Rome and Domenico Paolella from Foggia. Sergio Sollima and Duccio Tessari also fit this pattern. For the budding cinéastes, the growth of Cinecittà Studios ensuing from the Hollywood influx was an opportunity to make their marks in the Italian film world. They began as assistants or assistant directors mostly for ‘pulp’ films, but by the early 1960s most of them became either co-directors or directors of their own films–of course, with some exceptions like Carlo Lizzani who as a veteran director had made bandit films in the 1950s.

The overall climate of the Italian film culture, however, was not favorable to them at all. Italian cinema at that time, like all sociocultural sectors, was dominated by Northerners: the most famous art film directors we associate with Italy in the 1960s all originated from the North: Antonioni (Ferrara), Bertolucci (Parma), Fellini (the Romagna coast), and Pasolini (Emilia-Romagna). Besides, as the gap between between advanced North and abandoned South continued, Northerners continued to sneer at Southern culture as backward, uncultured, and simple-minded. In this milieu where the sociocultural hierarchy often became a geographical matter, that is, where the high/low dichotomy was pretty much interchangeable with the North/South distinction, Italian filmmakers could hardly escape regionalism as one of the most persistent determinants in social formation. As professionals, the Spaghetti Western directors were looked down upon by the Northern intelligentsia of the film world, not only because of their training in popular films under Hollywood influences but also because as a result of their training they tended to make ‘pulp’ films themselves, usually pitched at the home (Southern) market.

Given the status of Southerners’ Spaghettis in Italian society, the profound hostility to the law and order from above, which was eventually contained in one way or another in classical plots of the American Western, but became so central to Italian Westerns, takes on a new significance; it may have served as an outlet for the subaltern resentments deep rooted in Southern Italian society.

Combined with the Southern subaltern disaffection was the disillusionment with American values inscribed in the classical Westerns. Recalling his first encounter with the Americans, Leone says:

In my childhood, American was like a religion. Throughout my childhood and adolescence (and I am by no means sure that I have grown out of that stage even now, although I passed the age of forty a long time ago), I dreamed of the wide open spaces of America. The great expanses of desert. The extraordinary ‘melting-pot,’ the first nation made up of people from all over the world…The real-life Americans abruptly entered my life–in jeeps–and upset all my dreams…They were no longer the Americans of the West…[but] soldiers like others…In the GIs who chased after our women, and sold their cigarettes on the black market, I could see nothing that I had seen in Hemingway, Dos Passos or Chandler…Nothing…of the great prairies, or of the demi-gods of my childhood. (65)

Combined with the experience of working for productions of Hollywood classical epics, this realist sense–indebted to the Italian neorealism–made the Spaghetti Western almost without exception a “combination of professional expertise in Hollywood film techniques and cynicism about the values which the ‘classical’ Hollywood Western had epitomized.” For instance, the use of ‘realistic’ backgrounds is one of the strategies to which the Spaghetti Western turned to redefine Hollywood codes and values within the Italian context (Frayling, 58-59; 66-67).

Hollywood impacts: cultural imperialism or a criticism of the national film culture?

“[U]ntil the Italian Western became established as a genre, Italian members of the cast and crew hid behind American pseudonyms (usually derived from Westerns, with a preference for what they thought were ‘Texan’ or ‘Californian’ names) in the hope that gullible audiences would take these Westerns for a new brand of their favourite Hollywood product…”–for instance, Bob Robertson (Sergio Leone), Stanley Corbett (Sergio Corbucci), Dan Savio (Ennio Morricone), Frank Kramer (Gianfranco Parolini), E. B. Clucher (Enzo Barboni), Johnny Wells (Gian Maria Volenté), Terence Hill (Mario Girotti), Bud Spencer (Carlo Pedersoli), Montgomery Wood (Giuliano Gemma), John Fordson (Mario Costa), ‘Helen Wart’ (Anna Miserocchi), and ‘Humphrey Humbert’ (Umberto Lenzi) (Frayling 59-60 and 147; Bondanella 339; Paul 1-2).

The obsession with form and the external 

The heroes and villains of Spaghetti Westerns are almost invariably obsessed by style, image, and ritual → the extended duel sequence as a trademark of the Spaghetti Western or a collection of unique gestures, stylish costumes, idiosyncratic voice tones, offbeat soundtracks that render characters sensuously striking and imposing. When we see some cigar smoke puffed into the frame, or when a pair of suede boots appears in the foreground (photographed from ground level), we know that Clint Wood is about to do something. They are little to do with the internal (Frayling 61).

Gordard’s critique of the Spaghetti Western → Frayling, 61-62, 228-30, 243.

Leone’s close-up is about emotion: “I reacted against [all the rules such as a close-up to show that the character is about to say something important] and so the close-ups in my films are always the expression of an emotion…I am not doing it to make it pretty; I’m seeking, first and foremost, the relevant emotion. You have to frame with the emotion and the rhythm of the film in mind” (Frayling 100).

The List of Spaghetti Westerns (Wikipedia)

China 9, Liberty 37 (Monte Hellman, 1978) on YouTube (Sam Peckinpah featured) → Like My Name Is Nobody, a commentary of the rise and fall of the Spaghetti Western (Frayling, 255)

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