A Man called Trinity
From spaghetti to beans
The first Trinity movie, They call me Trinity, is often described as the film that destroyed the spaghetti western and saved the Italian movie industry. In Italy the movie even linguistically marks the ending of an era: whereas the diehard westerns were called spaghetti westerns, the Trinity movies and the numerous imitations it spawned, would be called fagioli westerns. Fagioli (= beans) referring to the obsession with food, notably beans, both Trinity movies express.
The long ride to Trinity
The origins and genesis of the Trinity movies are a bit obscure. Enzo Barboni has always sustained that he had been soliciting producers with a script for a comedy western for years. Barboni had started as a cinematographer for (among others) Corbucci, and according to himself he got the idea for a comedy western on the set of Django (1966). He wasn’t very fond of the brutality the Italian western had brought into the genre, but then realized that the same over-the-top approach, interpreted with some cock-eyed logic, could also be funny. Producer Zingarelli had first turned the script down, but thought of it again after he had scheduled a movie with the couple Terence Hill and Bud Spencer, who had become minor stars in a series of films with Giuseppe Colizzi. But Zingarelli wanted Ferdinando Baldi to direct the movie. Only after Baldi had turned the offer down, he decided to give Barboni a chance.
Some recent inquiries seem to contest Barboni’s claims. There are strong suspicions that it was decided rather late into the process to make a comedy. According to several people involved, Barboni originally wanted to make a serious or half-serious western, more in line with the things Hill and Spencer had done with Colizzi. Some early scenes in the movie seem to endorse this view: there’s still some spaghetti western violence in the first Trinity movie, for instance in the scene with Bambino (‘the left hand of the devil’) shooting several opponents from the hip. According to Luigi Montefiori (George Eastman), one of the actors who was asked to appear in the movie, Barboni had first offered his script to Manolo Bolognini, the producer of Django. Bolognini seemed willing to do the production, but the affair was bogged down, apparently because some others involved weren’t too happy with the script: there was too much talk and not enough action in it. According to Montefiori none of the now famous fistfights and jokes were in Barboni’s original script, it was a serious (and tedious) affair (*1).
When Hill and Spencer were finally asked for the movie, some rewritings had already taken place: in an interview with the magazine Amarcord, Hill confessed that it was a surprise to him that he was asked for a comical role: “(…) Spencer and I had just done Ace High, which had some tongue-in-cheek elements but wasn’t really a comedy, and I had never thought of myself as a comical actor (…)” (*2). He also says: “In the Trinity movie Barboni had in mind, I would work alongside two different actors (…)”. In other words: there were three protagonists. This is also more in line with the Colizzi trilogy, that had always had at least three lead actors. The film’s title, or better the word ‘Trinity’ in it, also seems to indicate that there were three protagonists. Trinity is no real name, but a reference to the Holy Trinity. Apparently it was Spencer who proposed to bring down the number back from three to two; he also came up with the idea of the brothers. He had noticed that audiences reacted positively to the contrast between Hill and him, and thought it was a good idea to emphasize this idea.
They Call me Trinity (1970)
Both Frayling (*3) and Hughes (*4) have associated the movie with the Laurel & Hardy comedy Way out West (1937). There are some similarities between scenes from the respective movies (especially the opening scenes), but the idea behind them is different. Way out West is a (great) comedy, but it’s not really a parody on the western genre. Actually it’s not a western, it’s a typical Laurel & Hardy vehicle, the two comedians haven’t even changed clothes for the occasion, they look like the couple we’re familiar with and perform their usual routines, only this time on western sets.
They call me Trinity most definitely is a western, and the story it tells is surprisingly traditional: it's about two men coming to the aid of defenseless people who are threatened to be driven of their land by a ruthless cattle baron. The premise is reminiscent of Shane, the archetypical American western, and the Mormon family seems a reference to John Ford’s Wagon Master (1954). But its heroes, the two Trinity brothers, are all but traditional American western heroes: they're unwashed, unshaved and have bad table manners, and above all they're crooks.
For a full review of the movie, see here.
With his open face and clear smile, Terence Hill was the perfect anti-thesis of the taciturn, grim-faced spaghetti-western hero who had dominated the Italian western in the sixties. The interplay between him and Bud Spencer, a former swimming champion who had represented his country in the Olympics, had been perfected in a trilogy of half-serious, half-tongue-in-cheek westerns they had made with Giuseppe Collizi. Spencer’s character Bambino was turned into everything Trinity was not: a grumpy, uninviting, misanthropic colossus, who couldn’t stand his dexterous and charming brother. The film had some excellent jokes, but it wouldn't have become such a devastating success without the large scale fistfights, that belong to the most elaborated ever filmed.
From Ulenspiegel to Trinity
When first released, the Trinity movies might have looked more innovative than they really were, still the enormous success of the movie seemed as inexplicable as it was unexpected: costing under 400 million lire, it engrossed some 6-7 billion lire. A sequel was released the next year and would do even better at the box-office. Although both movies share the same director and pair of actors, they’re not identical twins. At first sight, both movies also share the same kind of humour, but watched more carefully, the differences quickly become obvious. The reason for this, was the unexpected appeal the movies had to the masses. Barboni and his producers had aimed the first Trinity at the same audience that had fancied the spaghetti westerns, a predominantly male audience, consisting of schoolboys, students and working class people. Spaghetti westerns had never been considered as family entertainment and the first Trinity has some rough edges and raunchy jokes. “One store destroyed, three heads split like melons, one man wounded and another castrated – all in two hours”. Already into the fagioli business, the first Trinity still had a foot in the spaghetti branch. With the second, Barboni would cross the Rubicon once and for all. The fagioli western would be a dish for the entire family.
Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (1954)
Humour had been an ingredient of the spaghetti western genre from the very start, from the wry, often sardonic side-notes of the Dollar movies to the more ebullient comedy of the half-serious, half tongue-in-cheek action movies made by Enzo G. Castellari while the spaghetti western was still at its zenith, like Any Gun can play and the false sequel I came, I saw, I shot. However, the Trinities did not really take their inspiration in any of these movies. There are some similarities, especially with Castellari’s movies, but they’re rather vague. The Collizi trilogy had paired the two actors, but wasn’t a major source of inspiration either. In an internet interview Hill has said that Spencer and he were both fans of the musical comedy Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (Stanley Donen, 1954), and they had something in mind like that movie (minus the musical interludes that is). There are a lot of fistfighthts in Donen’s movie, and he choreography and settings of it (notably of the famous barn-raising sequence) seems to have influenced the large-scale fistfight near the end.
Chris Frayling has associated their style with the Hollywood slapstick of the Mack Sennett era. There might have been some influence from the Comedy Capers, especially the shorts with Laurel and Hardy, but to me the Trinity movies seem closer in spirit to classic picaresque traditions than classic Hollywood. The character of Trinity, played by the good-looking Hill, seems a distant cousin of some well-known traditional heroes from European folklore and literature, notably Thyl Ulenspiegel, the famous prankster from the novel by Charles de Coster (*5). Like Ulenspiegel, Trinity is a footloose layabout, roguish and deceitful, but ultimately kind-hearted and honest, with a clear eye for the ladies, always in for a free beer or a free dinner. In the first literal sources, mainly German, Eulenspiegel was described as a dishonest and unprincipled person, but this was changed by De Coster, a French speaking writer of mixed descent, who also politicized the character: in the novel he has become a Flemish vrijbuiter (freebooter) fighting against the Spanish oppressor. This puts him in line with some other folklorist heroes like Robin Hood, the Scarlet Pimpernel or Zorro. These characters are rogues (in the case of the Pimpernel or Zorro they’re noblemen pretending to be rogues), but they would never steal from the poor and would always support a good cause. In the case of Trinity, the political aspects have been dropped. Trinity and Bambino help the poor and defenseless because they can’t stand the sight of injustice or indigence.
Readers of the Coster’s novel, were supposed to recognize some of their own vices and virtues in the adventures of Ulenspiegel, his fiancée Nele and his friend Lamme Goedzak. In a similar fashion Trinity ‘mirrors’ some of the most proverbial vices and virtues of the Italian soul, notably the (in)famous dolce far niente, the pleasant idleness: doing nothing is an art form, and Trinity is very good at it. He is, like Frayling put it, ‘always busy doing nothing’. Furthermore the movies reflect two typical Italian obsessions, the one for food and the one for sex. Both obsessions are somewhat complicated, and (to make things even more complicated) linked to each other. Italians love food as much as they love sex, and they’re forever torn between those two passions: the more they eat, the more they literally grow unattractive to the other sex. And they know that eventually food will always win.
Both Trinity movies start with a dinner scene (the eventually would give the films their name, fagioli westerns) and the probably best remembered scene from the movies, improvised by the two actors, is a clever restaurant scene in which nearly all peculiarities of the Italian culture are ridiculed. The attitude towards the fair sex clearly shows that Trinity was born south of the Alpes: Ulenspiegel was loyal to his Nele, Trinity is a promiscuous Casanova, a ladies man who despises the duties of wedlock. He decides to marry the Mormon girls of the first movie because their religion permits promiscuity, but decides to cancel the marriage when he finds out he’ll have to work day and night as their husband. In an ironic sense, Trinity stood for all things young Italians wanted to be: a clever, good-looking bon vivant, envied by other men, popular with the ladies. Therefore Spencer had to be the person all young Italians feared to become one day. A has-been. Once a champ, now grumpy, fat and unattractive.
Trinity is still my Name (1971)
In an early scene, set at the parental home, after a boisterous welcome dinner, the boys promise their moribund father to live like good bandits until they die. Of course all their attempts to respect the old man’s wish are foredoomed to failure, because the boys are far too kind and generous to live like bandits. That’s more or less what this film is about. Unlike the first Trinity, the sequel never bothers with a story, it’s more a series of vignettes. In the opening scene bambino knocks someone out with his trademark blow on the top of the head, and the guy enters into a state of bewilderment every time he wakes up. It’s one of the running jokes that hold the otherwise very loosely structured film together. Some of the other gags are related to a protestant family of settlers with a flourishing daughter and a farting baby. The first time they meet, Bambino decides to rob them (as a part of Trinity’s education as a bandit), but the brothers end up helping the family out and giving them some money so they can visit a doctor for their farting baby. When they say goodbye, the father says something like “The most bizarre bandits/federal agents I ever saw”. The boys change clothes and hats a few time in this one.
The few irreverent and raunchy details still noticeable in the first movie, have been removed meticulously. The two Mormon girls, who had tried to seduce Trinity into a threesome, have been replaced by an innocent girl, all blue eyes and freckles, who won’t go any further than a peck on the cheek. None of the violence or the sleaziness of the spaghetti westerns is left, it’s all clean fun. Even the homecoming dinner, a true festival of bad table-manners, is supposed to be a warm scene: okay, these people have bad manners, and they look dirty, but they are a family, and la mama insists on a prayer before the pig-out may start.
The second Trinity also was a breakthrough for the De Angelis Brothers, who’d become some of the most prolific soundtrack writers of the decade, and regular contributors of the Hill and Spencer franchise. Like its predecessor, the sequel was an exclusive Italian production, shot entirely on Italian soil, with an Italian crew and cast. Yanti Somer (who plays the girlfriend) was Finnish, and Jessica Dublin (the mother) was American, but both had worked extensively within the Italian film industry (Dublin had made her debut in Fellini’s Satyricon). The exception was American actor Harry Carey Jr. and his casting was an interesting nod to the first Trinity movie, that had featured a Mormon community: Carey Jr. had also made an appearance in John Ford’s Wagon Master.
Beans, more beans please
Trinity is still my Name even beat Leone's classics at the box-office, becoming the most successful Italian western ever. Of course the Trinities spawned and endless series of imitations, in the first half of the seventies, everybody seemed busy making a beans western. Those imitations often had a biblical reference in the title: Halelujah, Providence, Spirito Santo (Holy Ghost), Te Deum, Aquasanta Joe (Holy Water Joe). Leone used Hill twice in films he produced (and did or did not direct entirely or only partially): the classic My Name is Nobody (1974) – in which Hill represented the New West, the West no longer Wild - and the not so classic sequel A Genius, two partners and a Dupe (1975).
Hill & Spencer only remained in the Far West for two movies, then their adventures were transported to locations like South-America, Africa or Miami. The first post-Trinity movie, Più forte, ragazzi (All the way boys) was still a very decent affair, but more and more their own films started to look like the pale imitations of others: some of them were okay, but none of them as funny as the Trinities. In Si può fare Amigo! Spencer was cast alongside a cute kid, a combination that proved to be quite rewarding. In the seventies the duo were among the most popular stars in cinema, worldwide. In the eighties and nineties, thanks to VHS and television, new generations discovered the adventures of Trinity and Bambino, the crooks who defended the common people against other crooks. In their home country, Italy, the Trinity movies have become some kind of Christmas event. The films usually are scheduled in the afternoon and people plan their activities so everybody is able to watch the movies. The come back western Troublemakers (1994) seems a nod to this peculiarity. Many young Italians met the two brothers for the first time within the circle of the family, under the Christmas tree.
- (1) Luigi Montefiori, Stracult interview
- (2) Marco Giusti, Dizionario del western all'italiana. No doubt an error, Hill most certainly means Boot Hill, the final part of the trilogy he and Spencer made with Colizzi.
- (3) Christopher Frayling, Spaghetti Westerns, Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone
- (4) Howard Hughes, Spaghetti westerns (pocket version)
- (5) La Légende et les Aventures héroïques, joyeuses et glorieuses d'Ulenspiegel et de Lamme Goedzak au pays de Flandres et ailleurs (1867);
Text by Scherpschutter
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