GHOSTS AND AVENGERS, from Shakespeare & Leone, to Eastwood & Garrone (part 3)

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-- III --

# The Ghosts from the Past

Before we go any further, let me recapitulate what we have seen: Django the Bastard, a spaghetti western released in 1969, and High Plains Drifter, a so-called stateside spaghetti western, released in 1973, are both gothic revenge westerns. It’s often said that the second film was inspired by the first, but to me it seems more likely that both films developed an idea that was present in rudimentary form in previous spaghetti westerns, especially those of Sergio Leone. The master himself, so I’ve put forward, had combined literate (Proustian) and psycho-analytic (Freudian) elements to create a new kind of western story, with a new kind of western hero: the avenger who cherishes an object (that reminds him of a crime) as a fetish. Leone might also have been influenced (consciously or unconsciously) by literary traditions about ghosts and undead persons that go back as far as Homer and Shakespeare: Leone was aware he was standing on the shoulder of giants. Both Django the Bastard and High Plains Drifter are deeply rooted in the cinematographic tradition they’re part of: High Plains Drifter is a modern reading of the Hollywood town westerns of the fifties, notably Fred Zinneman’s High Noon, while Django the Bastard is a typical Italian revenge western set during the Civil War and its aftermath; by redefining the Django-character, it becomes an alternative history of Corbucci’s angel of death, the genre’s archetypical avenger. Finally there’s a moral and political aspect to both films: they’re critical about some of the recent social and political developments of the previous decades in their respective societies, the United States of the sixties, and post-war Italy.

We’re more aware of the social comment in the American westerns of sixties and early seventies than in their Italian counterparts, most probably because we’re more familiar with the events and circumstances the American movies are referring to. Westerns like Soldier Blue and Little Big Man were displaced reactions to Vietnam war as well as a re-evaluation of the historic treatment of the Indians, excuse me: Native Americans, and few people missed the point. Ulzana’s Raid, sometimes called a reactionary movie, showed a more differentiated approach to these issues, and again few people missed the point, or at least the fact that a point was being made. As far as the Zapata movies are concerned, most people know they were using the Mexican revolution as a metaphor for the revolutionary élan (among artists and intellectuals) in European countries, notably Italy, France and Germany. But the Zapatas weren’t the only spaghetti western with a “message” to society.

Talking about the Jacobean revenge tragedy (and its similarities to the Spaghetti western), in the admirable coda of his lovely pudding of a book, Alex Cox points at the double entendre of Elizabethan theatre: “playwrights could make political statements, show bad nobles and poisoning priests, as long as these events occurred in another country (…) the audience could take pleasure in the secret knowledge that these events, happened in England too. (…) Nobody in the audience doubted that something was rotten in their own country“(8) It seems Italian film makers commented on their own society in a way very similar to playwrights from the Elizabethan theatre, not only in the so-called Zapata westerns, but also in spaghetti westerns set in or immediately after the Civil War: the action was supposed to take place in another part of the world and in another era, the American West, but the average Italian filmgoer knew similar events had taken place in their own society, during WWII and its aftermath. Like I have argued elsewhere (9), the American Civil War was an ideal background for allegorical films referring to a specific Italian reality: during the last stages of the war, Italians had fought against Italians: with German help, Mussolini had founded his private Empire in the North (Salo, a resort on the Garda lake, served as capital (10)), and the communist partisans had fought side by side with their fellow Italians against Il Duce and his black coats. Yet, when Christian-democratic leader De Gaspari formed a government after the war, the communist were left out of it, and the government would embark on a strong pro-American (and anti-communist) course. This was felt by many left-wing intellectuals as betrayal and created strong feelings of disillusion among them. The strong feelings of togetherness and national unity dissolved and Italy headed for hard times full of social disorder, left and right wing terrorist assaults and large scale corruption. Meanwhile crime rings fastened their grip on the Southern provinces …

As said, the loyalty of the average Italian citizen, especially those of the South, is with the family, or the clan. Community and society are to be distrusted, they’re often characterized as ‘tutti ladri’ (= they’re all thieves). The Italian ‘man in the street’ knows society is corrupted and that crime rings like mafia, comorra and ‘ndragheta have a finger in almost every pie. In such a world nobody except those of your own blood can be trusted. The world of the spaghetti western, with its deceitful officers, betrayed soldiers, corrupt bankers and dignitaries, faint-hearted sheriffs and anti-heroes, was a sort of miniature of the world most film goers lived in. Like some of its avenging protagonists, the films and what they symbolized were ghosts of the past, evil spirits that had escaped from their bottle and couldn’t be put back in it again.

# Drifter versus Bastard

To Alex Cox it’s obvious which of the two, Django the Bastard or High Plains drifter, is the better film. To him "Eastwood was simply shooting blanks when imitating Steffen". Cox is no fan of Eastwood’s, so much will be clear. I’m not a fan of Eastwood either, at least not of Clint the director, but I don’t think it’s as easy as this. High Plains Drifter got mixed reviews when first released but its reputation seems to have grown since then; Mike Sutton of DVD Times calls it one of the relatively few westerns of the seventies that deserve to be remembered (11). Django the Bastard, on the other hand, was very popular among audiences, especially in Italy, and although it’s still often cited as one of the best ‘Sotto Django’ (12), it hardly ever appears on people’s list of favourite spaghetti westerns. Neither of the two films can hold a candle to Leone’s masterpieces; the structure of both films is perfectly serviceable, but lacks Leone’s inventive use of the Proustian and Freudian techniques. Compared to Leone, both films look a bit rash, ill-considered. It’s all there, but it could’ve been arranged more properly. Still I think High Plains Drifter is one of Eastwood’s more assured directional efforts. Some parts (especially the elaborated flashback with the murdering of the sheriff) are very strong and unlike several of his later films it doesn’t overstay its welcome. On the negative side it’s often unnecessarily crude, notably in those scenes that have a humorous edge. There are some funny moments involving Billy Curtiss, who plays the dwarf Mordecai; they have, like the rest of the film, a dark, cruel undertone, intelligently reflecting the vengeance theme of the movie. Mordecai is given a chance to get even with the townspeople who have always despised him, but he overplays his hand and we know he’ll have to pay a price (again) once the drifter is gone. That’s all very fine, but when Eastwood tries to counterpoint the cruel atmosphere of his movie with some broad comic relief, he simply isn’t funny (to put it mildly). Still the major shortcomings of his movie, probably originate in the uneasy mix of genres it presents.

Both High Plains Drifter and Django the Bastard are undeniably horror movies. They’re also westerns, but the identity of the avenger put them in a special class. Unlike Hamlet and Harmonica, who belong to our world, the bastard and the drifter come from the other side. They have found a way to return, if only temporarily, to where they came from, like Freddy Krueger, the psychopathic child murderer from the Nightmare on Elm Street movies, who was burned to death by vengeful parents, but still can attack people in their dreams. If Leone ever thought of treating Harmonica like a ghost, then I think it was a wise decision not to do so. Once upon a Time in the West is too much a western to have a ghost as avenger, and I often feel this is the case for High Plains Drifter too. It’s a decent western, but the horror aspects feel a bit alien to the movie and prevent it from being truly great. On the other hand it only works partially as a horror movie because it’s too much a western, or better: Clint is too much a western character to be a ghost. In this aspect, Django the Bastard works better. Stylistically it often resembles a Hammer movie and if there ever was an actor suited to to play a ghost, it was of course Stiffen Steffen. There’s one scene, Django’s dark figure outlined against a shiny white curtain, which seems to be taken directly from a Dracula movie. It’s good to notice his shadow projected on a wall in another scene, otherwise we would’ve been tempted to think he was a vampire! But if Django the Bastard works well as a horror movie, it’s far less convincing as a western. It’s rather static and lacks, like korano has mentioned in his review (13) a good villain. Luciano Rossi turns in a terrific performance as the epileptic/lunatic, but he’s not a real menace (we actually feel a little sorry for him) and Rada Rassimov is a fascinating gypsy, apparently always ready for some kinky sexual games (we spot her bound and gagged in one scene), but the actual villains aren’t really the kind of guys to scare the hell out of you. They’re the most ordinary types of the entire movie. So it’s probably a matter of taste which film is better one: a good film that doesn’t work that well, or a film that works well, but isn’t that good.


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  • 10. Pasolini’s Salò o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma (loosely based on a Marquis de Sade novel) is allegorical denunciation of the period. The best film of this last period of the war, with ‘Italians fighting Italians’ probably is the touching La Notti di San Lozenzo by the Taviani Brothers
  • 12. Sotto Django: literally ‘Under Django’, more or less what we would call a loose Django sequel. See: Marco Giusti, Dizionario dell’ Western all’Italiano, p. 148-149

Films treated or referred to in this section:

- Soldier Blue (1970, Ralph Nelson)

- Little Big Man (1970, Arthur Penn)

- Ulzana's Raid (1972, Robert Aldrich)

- A Nightmare on Elm Street (1984, Wes Craven)

- Salò, o le 120 Giornate di Sodoma (1975, Pier Paolo Pasolini)

- La Notte di San Lorenzo (1982, Paolo & Vittorio Taviani)

--By: Scherpschutter

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