The Spaghetti Western and Historicity

The Spaghetti Western and historicity

Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Revised Ed. (New York: I.B. Tauris, 2006)

1) Reactions to the Spaghetti Western

* Lack of authenticity: opportunistic imitation, sterile emulation, parody (and self-parody), pastiche based on the notion of historical and cultural roots.

“In the European Western, this tradition [the experienced life on the Western Frontier] is non-existent, so that all the films produced in this genre are nothing more than cold-blooded attempts at sterile emulation” (Frayling 121).

British critics: “if the element of stylization in the Western is important, the image of life which it seeks to evoke should stay essentially true to frontier experience, or at least to what we imagine frontier experience to have been, as it does in much of John Ford’s work…In contrast, ersatz Westerns made in Europe lack this intimate conviction…[W]ith its ritualist slaughter, protracted silences, and chinking background score, [the Spaghetti Western] has solidified more or less into parody…full of contrived ironic reversals and over-acting, over-dirceting and over- just about everything else” (Frayling 122). For Parkinson an dJeavons, the Italian Westerns are hallowed American Westerns, that is, and violent, amoral, surrealistic, noisy, naive, pretentious, ridiculed pastiches (Frayling 124).

French critics (Gaston Haustrate): The Italian Westerns reveal the worst excess of the Mediterranean temperament and they belong to the world of Borgias and Machiavelli than to that of the American pioneers. There is a unbridgeable gulf between the sane ‘classicism’ of the American Western and the ‘manic’ exuberance, which is too superficial to be categorized as ‘baroque,’ and which is a revenge of Europe on her bastard children, who have succeeded where Europe have failed. For instance, where in American Westerns violence is always historically placed, in the Italian Westerns it is ‘gratuitous’: the historical context is non-existent, becoming an object of derision in the Civil War sequence of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (Frayling 124-25).

Italian critics (Lino Miccichè): Due to the lack of what is real, most Italian Westerns are bound to be parasitic–inert, passive re-readings of the myth via the ‘myth’ (Frayling 124).

* Universalization of the Western: mythical and/or structuralist approach

The Western is American history; which does not mean that a good Western cannot be made outside America.

In order to account for the Western’s international charms, it suggests some universal (mythic or structural) elements which are necessarily restricted to the American context: e.g., James Kitses in Horizons West (the West or the Frontier as a transhistorical, transcultural notion which has counterparts in other cultures: the cactus rose=the lotus flower growing out of the dung heap) and Rémy G. Saisselin in “The Poetics of the Western” (the Western rooted in European traditions: the Western hero [the trip-suffering-return narrative]=the Knights of the Romances from the Middle Ages [an enduring legacy from the culture of honor] or to go further, the biblical imagery of Moses leading the chosen people through the desert) (Frayling 123-24).

See also André Bazin, “The Western, or the American Film Par Excellence”

* Genre theory: a film about film, self-parody, intertextuality

As Andrew Tudor argues in Theories of Film, “Notions of genre may be difficult to pin down, but without ‘clear, shared conceptions of what is to be expected from a ‘Western,’ the full impact of Leone’s films is incomprehensible” (Frayling 122).

* The most fundamental problem in the ‘authenticity’ or ‘cultural roots’ arguments lies in their disregard for why a specific type of the Western becomes popular among a specific group of audiences at a specific historical moment, that is, what ideological function does the frontier myth come to have at a specific historical conjuncture and how the components of the myth are rearranged.

I am not simply suggesting here that textual analysis (narrative analysis) is outmoded and we should move on to contextual analysis (production and spectatorship); my sense is rather that we should develop a way of combining textual and contextual approaches.

Spaghettis beyond the authenticity question

“The Italian Westerns, because they were made from outside the Hollywood system, had no such direct connection with a ‘real history,’ and thus had no obligation to justify themselves with reference to that history. The heroes did not have to represent a self-image of ‘the American way,’ or indeed any moral lesson which was recognizably ‘Western’ in the traditional sense…In a sense, the rhetoric of the Italian Westerns–an extension of themes, situations, ‘décors and details’ which audiences already knew and loved–represents a kind of ‘free code’ (in Sylvie Pierre’s words, 1970), ‘free’ because borrowed from a context where it once had a firm ideological and historical base. This ‘free code’ could be rearranged and transcribed in ways which the mainstream Hollywood Western, by definition, could not consider…” (125).

“Sergio Leone’s ‘Dollars’ trilogy comprised a two leve detachment from the Hollywood Western genre. Firstly, as a type of European critical cinema which, using an established cinematic tradition, and without shedding its popular character, can deconstruct and rearrange the images and themes which exemplify the reverence of puritan-liberal Hollywood Westerns, the established bases of the genre. Thus Leone can go beyond merely interpreting the West in a critical sense; he can re-creat it…since the ‘Dollars’ films were made outside the Hollywood production system, they could involve a transcription of the traditional Western ‘codes’–without being subject to the usual ideological constraints. Secondly, Leone makes no attempt to engage our sympathy with the characters, but watches the brutality of his protagonists with a detached calm; they are brutal because the environment in which they exist. And they make no attempt to change that environment. They accept it, without question” (Frayling, 160).

On the other hand, the Spaghetti Western is not simply a product of free imagination. Charles Bronson was surprised to discover that Sergio Leone knows more about the Western than most American directors. Henry Fonda has commented on Leone’s unusually enthusiastic interest in the tiniest detail of setting and props (Frayling 126). Working outside the Hollywood environments and thereby enjoying some freedom to cite (tear something apart from its original context) conventions of the Hollywood Westerns in a detached manner, but at the same time equipped with a good deal of knowledge obtained through various sources, Leone developed an interest in details of America in the Wild West–in a way a neo-realist attitude toward the details of everyday life on the frontier as in ‘Leone towns’ and their main streets which bear little resemblance to the traditional Hollywood film set–in which Hollywood had shown little interest, “aspects which could only achieve prominence once the genre had been divorced from its traditional historical bases,” more specifically, unknown and weird anecdotes about the American West (Frayling 127). “The milieux and décors of the first two ‘Dollar’ films,” according to Christopher Frayling, “were based on research into over fifty eye-witness accounts of what it was like to live in growing frontier towns, particularly in the Southwest, but certain colourful incidents, such as the story of Joseph Alfred (‘Jack’) Slade, stuck in Leone’s mind,” which, quite gruesome and heinous, reveals different and previously unspoken sides of the American West (Frayling 125).

The interest in details → small characters

“When Leone decided to produce ‘a fresco on the birth of a great nation’ [Once Upon a Time in the West], he did not base the film on historical incidents or folk-heroes–attempting to reinterpret the ‘great moments’ to which the Hollywood genre had often returned. Rather, he chose to ‘portray America’s first frontier using the most worn-out of sterotypes: the push whore, the romantic bandit, the avenger, the killer who is about to become a businessman, the industrialist who uses the methods of a bandit.’ These stereotypes, which, in Leone’s and Bertolucci’s hands, become fictional ’emblems’ of a sort, are taken from the dime novel, the Wild West show, the Hollywood film, the pulp magazine, the comic-strip, rather than from American history…’To narrate great events, as Chaplin has taught us, it is always necessary to take as subjects humble, insignificant characters. For example, it is extremely difficult faithfully to re-create the great Napoleon on the screen. But the little character always becomes more human and more real, because he is anonymous’…Leone’s masterpiece is intended to ‘recount, through small characters, usual characters, taken from American traditions of fiction, the birth of a nation’…” (194).

Leone also embedded in those details fresh perspectives in a way American directors could not imagine. When Perter Bogdanovich asked John Ford which of his cavalry films most pleased him, he replied, ‘I like She Wore a Yellow Robbon. I tried to copy the Remington style there…I tried to get his color and movement…’ Another visual inspiration for Ford (as well as for Andrew V. McLaglen) was the frontier paintings and illustrations of Charles M. Russell. Yet when Leone shot the firing-squad sequence of Duck, You Sucker, he showed to his director of photography, Giuseppe Ruzzolini, some of the ‘Disasters of War’ (Link) series in order to get the lighting and colour effects he wanted. ‘For Once Upon a Time in the West, I showed the cameraman, Tonino Delli Colli, a series of Rembrandt prints (Link). I was after that monochrome colour.’ For Leone, the fact that Goya and Rembrandt had never been to the Wild West (and their paintings had little to do with the history of the American West) seems rather beside the point (Frayling 137).

According to Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, who called himself a pupil of American Westerns, particularly John Ford’s, once defined his own works as “fairy tales for grown-ups.” (Sergio Leone: Once Upon a Time in Italy(London: Thames & Hudson, 2005), 15; Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death (London: Faber & Faber, 2000), 10)

* Summary notes on the Western (here)

This entry was posted in European Cinemas, Film History, Film Theory, Historicity, N. American Cinema, The Western and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

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