For A Few Westerns More: The Forgotten Spaghetti Westerns
From The Spaghetti Western Database
by Divy Tripathi
“Blondie: You see, in this world there's two kinds of people, my friend: Those with loaded guns and those who dig. You dig.” This is perhaps the most famous of the Spaghetti Western dialogues from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.
The Spaghetti Westerns or the Italian Westerns were an interesting phenomenon, coming at a time when traditional westerns had begun to fade out, becoming too preachy and stagnant. They managed to inject a new life into the Genre, leaving an indelible mark on the World Cinema and influencing movie-making in more than one ways. Yet, other than Leone’s Dollar Trilogy and Corbucci’s Django, very few of them are known around the world. The work that went behind making these movies is also not very well known.
While it is sad that even the contribution of Leone’s Westerns has not been studied in depth to date, being designated an inferior position to Hollywood movies where any film could be made on exorbitant budget, with no stars being unaffordable and no requirement of dubbing, the other westerns go further into the oblivion.
Upon seeing them, the viewer might get the impression that the acting is a bit off, same shot is used multiple times and the plot moves too quickly or ends too abruptly, there is however, a case needs to be made for these movies and they should not be merely be resigned to the position of Leone Knockoffs or B-Movies.
To begin with there is truth in the point that these movies were made after the success of initial Italian-Westerns especially Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars. In fact, the three Sergios (Leone, Sollima and Corbucci) created some of the greatest Spaghetti Westerns ever and laid down a set of themes and tropes which became popular with the Film-makers. These include Man with no Name, Mexican Bandit/Farmer- Revolutionary/Rebel/Bounty Hunter duo, Wide Shots mixed with Close-ups of faces and the best long-drawn, enchanting, intense duels. They were used widely, even ad-absurdum because they were potent weapons in hands of film-makers who had to contend with limited budgets.
There was also a need to promote themselves in the English-speaking Market (even with the limited financial resources at hand), so many Clint Eastwood clones turned up, like Andrea Giordana aka Chip Corman, Thomas Hunter who generally had acting talents of a wooden plank or were used poorly. (Even a decent actor like Giuliano Gemma had to change his name to Montgomery Wood, to sound more Eastwood-ish). The editing front was also not exceptional and the dubbed dialogues could seem irritating and unreal.
Yet, there were engrossing, impactful storylines, with interesting plots being different from the usual run-of-the-mill cinema. The unstructured plot, dual nature of characters and intelligent use of music to serve as motif in the story were redeeming factors for these movies. Even taking an average Spaghetti Western ‘The Dirty Outlaws’ starring Chip Corman had unbearable acting, plotline doesn’t run seamlessly yet the story is good and a few shots are worth in any Hollywood Western.
Thus, in some cases, there was creation of an amalgamation of good-bad cinema where solid storyline, twists and deep, musing characters were mixed with below average acting (usually by one of the protagonists who was chosen for his looks), unconvincing dubbing. (As was the case with many Italian movies of the era, the shots were taken in silent, with dialogues added over footage later, thus, all the actors could speak in their own mother-tongue).
This can make some of the lesser ‘Westerns’ a comical view; some of the scenes move too quickly without absorbing the viewers in the emotions the film is supposed to portray, the actor won’t be moved by even the most poignant of moments in the movie and then suddenly has fits of over-the-top emotions. Then, there would be stereotypical characters bursting in and out of scenes inexplicably. These movies end up making average to good viewing on each occasion.
But then there was something about the Spaghetti Westerns, something when in the hands of mediocre directors they became profit-churning devices with entertaining plots, while in the hands of talented Corbuccis and Sollimas, they became weapons for telling powerful and impactful stories.
There was more to the Italian westerns than just good music and storylines; there were themes which could easily be touched and impact of Italian neo-realism which was evident. Smatterings of Neo-realism were present even in the worst of westerns, thus, giving a totally true and different atmosphere to these movies.
The 60s were filled with counter-cultural movements, radical ideologies and the Spaghetti Westerns seemed to fit the box. Gone was the façade of Homely Hollywood and entered raw Italian westerns. The characters became more life-like, showing the wild side of west, concentrating on how survival becomes the central objective in harsh times. Betrayal became a theme central to many a stories and even in other storylines the characters stood in shades of grey. This made for a wonderful viewing with twists expected not only in plot-line but also in characters.
The leftist ideology was embraced in quite a few westerns (Especially Zapata Westerns) seamlessly, without the hue and cry it might have raised had these movies been made in US. The plots included oppressive landlords, merciless moneylenders and corrupt government officials pitched against the natives, simple farmers or other minorities. The endings were realistic and darker, A Bullet for the General a good example, making a strong social statement about the state of world and which way the change should come, with Gian Maria Volonte’s bandit character answering the question in the ending.
Similarly, issue of racism is seen in several movies famously in Django and then followed in other movies. The much-forgotten Corbucci Masterpiece “The Great Silence” had a dialogue where one of the goons tells Pauline (A colored lady) to not worry herself with this Harsh weather (Of North Dakota) and head to better climes like Haiti.
As stated earlier there was no uniformity in quality and hence, the above markers were missed out in some of the movies. There is also criticism of some of the Westerns being ignorant of female characters or even degrading them to a mere rubber stamp in the film. Again, it holds true in some cases and not in quite a few other cases. There was an attempt to introduce realistic portrayal of women, the woman of this depressed west were often prostitutes, widows or those who had lost their families due to war. In fact, the stigma of conflict was present all over them and often, they were left alone to fend off against the big bad in a place where they had little or no support. They were far away from the usual characters present in other movies like the chaste heroine, sexpot or independent free-willed girl who was ready to take on the world.
It can be leveled that in certain movies the characters were paper-thin but then characters of Martine Beswick in A Bullet for the General, Margarita Lozano in more popular A Fistful of Dollars are examples of well-developed female characters in Spaghetti Westerns. Zapata Westerns in fact did quite well in portrayal of women and other oppressed classes.
But, the single-most attractive factor about Westerns overall and running through to the lesser known westerns as well is how morality of characters is dealt with and how characters are portrayed. To explain, generally the majority of movies irrespective of genre follow the story of the protagonist versus antagonist, though there can be changes the antagonist can be an anti-villian, the protagonist can be an anti-hero, the entire crowd can be morally ambiguous. But generally, the characters that are shown in a sympathetic light have a positive relationship with the hero and a strong impact on story.
The Spaghetti Westerns added another dimension to the same; the hero was morally ambiguous at the least. All the characters more or less had their follies, even the reformed characters had a dark past which they would rather not visit. The Characters shown in sympathetic light example to an extent Baxter Matriarch in A Fistful of Dollars, Pablo from The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Rosaria in A Bullet for the General, do not necessarily have a positive relationship with the protagonist in fact they might be on the opposite side, the hero will not necessarily defend them or establish a strong relationship with them. They might have a strong morality; they are definitely well-written and are shown in situations where the viewer will sympathize with them.
This helps in adding a tinge of realism. Real life is not simply a tale of good vs. evil. More so, in a conflict there can be innocent, rational people on both the sides, it depends on which brush you paint them with, this is something which is often not addressed or treated unconvincingly in cinema. Often, the protagonist would realize his mistake, feel empathy and join the sympathetic characters help them out, in majority of Spaghetti westerns, the protagonist might be unconcerned or cares more about his survival than playing the good Joe.
The impact of Italian Westerns was more than what they have been credited to, it is quite sad that some might just look at them as blockbuster instruments with a lot of violence and bloodshed. In all probability, due to their origin in European Cinema and lack of enough marketing to the English-speaking world has led them to this anonymity. World Audiences have been reintroduced to the magic of Spaghetti Westerns through the cinema of Quentin Tarantino where they can relive the Music of Morricone and the epic duels. Though, it is quite ironic, when Audience shower praise on the use of music in fights or major plot points in movies like Kill Bill, Django Unchained, yet forget the origins of these sequences in the Westerns, which Tarantino sought to give tribute to, and was quite successful in doing the same.
Yet, in today’s world, this is probably the only way world will know about this great cinema, Django unchained led to an increased interest in the original Corbucci’s Django. Still hoping someone remakes the Great Silence.