SPAGHETTI WESTERNS

   By the 1960s cinema Westerns were becoming so popular worldwide, especially in Europe, that the supply was having difficulty meeting the demand. Cinecitta Studios, among others, had been specializing in cheaply made, quickly produced action movies often based on mythological stories such as the Hercules legends. It was not difficult for the studios to experiment in Westerns to try and meet the demand. The market, then, was ready when Sergio Leoneproduced Per un pugno di dollari(A Fistful of Dollars) in 1964. The film changed Westerns forever despite the initial negative response. Almost immediately, scornful American critics labeled these Italian-made, filmed-in-Spain movies “spaghetti Westerns” as a term of derision. In many ways, negative critical response was justified. The films looked cheap with grainy, washed-out color, the result of using Techniscope instead of Technicolor. Speech was obviously dubbed in, and American audiences, who did not see Leone’s films until 1967, were not used to overdubbing, especially for Westerns. Sergio Leone’s original Dollars Trilogy, starring Clint Eastwood, was released in the United States in 1967: Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) ; Per qualche dollaro in piu (For a Few Dollars More) ; and Buono, il brutto, il cattivo, Il (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly). But Italian studios had already been busy developing Westerns, and soon, series such as the Django series, the Stranger series, and the Trinity series began appearing. Like Clint Eastwood, several American Western stars such as Lee Van Cleef, Jack Elam, and Eli Wallach entered the European market and boosted careers that might have been nearly finished. Several Italians also developed significant fan followings with their Westerns: Terence Hill(Mario Girotti) and Franco Nero(Francesco Sparanero), for example.
   These films certainly have their idiosyncrasies. The narrative setting is usually the borderlands between the United States and Mexico, mainly because the terrain resembles the Spanish and Italian terrain where the films were usually made. Historical authenticity is suggested by excessive grime and dirt, lots of crooked teeth, crude eating habits, even normative characters. Because of language issues and dubbing, speech is second to action. Reportedly, Sergio Leone’s original cast of Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) spoke such a variety of first languages that, since all would be dubbed anyway, he simply had all lines spoken in the cast members’native languages so that there was no version of the film without language dubbing. U.S. production companies naturally began emulating the Italian Westerns. Clint Eastwood’s fourth spaghetti Western, Hang ’em High (1968), was filmed on location in New Mexico in Technicolor and had an American director, Ted Post. The ultimate convergence of Italian and U.S. Westerns was Leone’s 1968 Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West), filmed in the United States (in Utah) and in Italy. Nearly every cast member brought a different kind of legitimacy to this spaghetti Western: Claudia Cardinalewas an established Italian actor who had appeared in Richard Brooks’s The Professionals (1966), in retrospect a forerunner of the Italian Westerns; Charles Bronsonwas an established American star of action movies; and Henry Fonda, a veteran of some of the greatest classic Westerns ever. Further, Fonda played a role far removed from that of his classic Western, the role of a vicious, disturbed killer gunfighter. By the mid-1970s, spaghetti Westerns as a definable Italian product had played out, but their influence continues to be considerable. Except for a few classic Westerns yet to come with John Wayne and others, every Western since the 1960s has been influenced by Italian spaghetti Westerns. These films indulged in great quantities of violence out of the sheer joy of doing so, and they delighted in developing as many different and new forms of violence as possible. Nothing in these films resembled the regeneration through violence expressed in Westerns heretofore. When the Man with No Name rides away from San Miguel in Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars), he leaves utter destruction behind him, having destroyed both the Rojos and the Baxters. We can only wonder whether he has brought any redemption, any cleansing, any purgation to the town. Violence in Westerns henceforth had new meaning. The protagonists of spaghetti Westerns can hardly be compared to classic cowboy heroes. They are rarely cowboys and seldom heroes. Often the only thing that makes one character a protagonist and another the antagonist is that the film’s point of view favors the one character over the other. Neither seems to have a particular moral center to which we can attribute normalcy.
   Italian Westerns rarely have a place for the kind of womenwho people traditional American Westerns. There are no schoolmarms, no young Quaker girls, no romantic heroines. Instead these Westerns focus on the marginalized—prostitutes, peasants, widows. Hereafter women in Westerns were much different than the classic heroines of the past. Sergio Leone said, “Even in the greatest Westerns, the woman is imposed on the action, as a star, and is generally destined to be ‘had’ by the male lead. But she does not exist as a woman. If you cut her out of the film, in a version which you can imagine, the film becomes much better. In the desert, the essential problem was to survive. Women were an obstacle to survival! Usually the woman not only holds up the story, but she has no real character, no reality. She is a symbol. She is there without any reason to be there, simply because one must have a woman, and because the hero must prove, in some way or another, that he has ‘sex-appeal’” (Frayling 1981, 129). Early on it became evident that these Westerns represented a major new trend in cinema and that their influence would not be merely faddish. Superficially they might be cheaply made but that was never really a concern. They were attacked for two primary reasons. First, they were not real “Westerns.” They had no cultural roots in the historic West. They made no pretense at being authentic or realistic. They did not have the grand vision of the West that a John Fordfilm could convey. Second, they repudiated the moral universe in which all Westerns share. Essentially, these Westerns rejected the classic myth of the West.
   All these observations were accurate, but that was just the point. These Westerns rejected the myth of the West, they rejected notions of the frontier being formative both of individual character and of national character. Thus, they have been termed antimyth Westerns. In many ways, they actually resembled the best features of B Westerns rather than classic Westerns. Today many critics would say that these films extracted the essential universal ingredients of the Western genre and dispensed with those ingredients that limited the Western to a purely American film genre, and thus they universalized Westerns forevermore.

Historical Dictionary of Westerns in Cinema. . 2012.

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