Interview with Jan Švábenický

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Sebastian has a chat with Jan, who recently published the first book about spaghetti westerns in Czech and has been around the SWDb for many years. Please enjoy the interview.

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You recently published a book about spaghetti westerns in your native language, but before we get to that, what projects have you worked on previously?

Before my new book on the Italian western, I worked on many projects, mainly periodical studies, but also contributions to collective books. In addition to the Czech anthology about westerns “Proměny westernu. Pluralita žánrových, estetických a ideologických konceptů (Transformations of the western. Plurality of genre, aesthetic and ideological concepts)” from 2013 published in University of Palacký in Olomouc where I was also a co-editor of book, I wrote texts mainly for Italian books about popular genres in Italian cinema. My first independent Italian book is a publication compiled from two long interviews with Italian filmmakers Aldo Lado and Ernesto Gastaldi “Aldo Lado & Ernesto Gastaldi. Due cineasti, due interviste. Esperienze di cinema italiano raccontate da due protagonisti” (Amazon.it) published in 2014 in Piombino in publishing house by Italian film historian and publicist Gordiano Lupi. Within the framework of the Italian western, I collaborated on two extensive books by my friend Matteo Mancini, for which I created several long chapters and interviews with various personalities. The two books I collaborated on are the last two parts of a tetralogy “Spaghetti Western Volume 3: Il mezzogiorno di fuoco del genere (anni '68-'71)” from 2016 and “Spaghetti Western. Volume 4 - Il crepuscolo e la notte del genere (anni '72 a oggi)” from 2019.

What draws you to Italian cinema?

I have been interested in Italian film, especially its popular genres, since my childhood, because Ennio Morricone’s music, which I heard for the first time in the Italian western “Il grande silenzio (The Great Silence, 1968)” by Sergio Corbucci, brought me to it. I saw this film for the first time as an eleven-year-old boy, and it made a strong impression on me, among other things, with Morricone’s very impressive and atypical music. From then on, I started looking for all the films with Morricone’s music, and with that I gradually started to get to know the very rich and variable Italian cinema, including popular genres such as westerns. Later, during my university studies, Italian cinema became my main field of specialization. In my diploma thesis, I dealt with the Italian westerns of Sergio Corbucci. In my publishing activities for periodicals and books, I have focused exclusively on Italian film and its popular genres for many years.

The spaghetti western in particular finds a lot of fans, old and new, still today. What do you think is this genre's special attraction after all these years?

Yes, sure. The Italian western is still very popular internationally and sought after by viewers and collectors as well as fans across all age categories. And I think that will certainly continue to be the case. It is not always apparent and clear, but the Italian Western also survives in many contemporary popular genres, having inspired many Italian and foreign filmmakers over the years. In addition, Italian westerns are still being filmed, see for example the films of Emiliano Ferrera or Mauro Aragoni. As for references, we find many in the work of directors such as Alex Cox, Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, John Woo and many others. The Italian western in the context of the themes and film style shaped the work of many world filmmakers. It is known that already in the 1960s and 1970s, Italian westerns strongly influenced Hollywood westerns, in terms of the construction of characters, environments, costumes, music, but also in general film style. So it was exactly the opposite of what is often claimed. The Italian western was not inspired by the American, but definitely American western is surely influenced by Italian.

Tell us about your new book

My new book Fenomén Italský Western - Sociokulturní charakteristiky jednoho žánru (Translation of title: The phenomenon Italian western. Sociocultural characteristics of one genre), published at the end of 2021, is the result of many years of research and study not only of individual films, but also of other sources as for example periodical articles, books, interviews, screenplays, soundtracks, etc. I also drew a lot from my own conversations with Italian filmmakers, which were essential for my project. It was from the creators that I learned many things that you cannot normally read about in any books on the history of Italian cinema. For example, the background of filmmaking or the workings of the film industry, but I do not deal with these aspects much in the book. I have divided the book into four main analytical parts, in which I deal with Christian iconography, intertextual references and socio-cultural anachronisms, genre levels and their combinations, and film music using the examples of individual films. The book is complemented by two key testimonies of Italian filmmakers in the form of a foreword by screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi and my long interview with director Giancarlo Santi. The book was really a very demanding project and I am very happy that my friend Václav Žák from the film publishing house Casablanca in Prague gave me great confidence and was not afraid to publish the book.

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Above: Jan Švábenický and Enzo G. Castellari in Milan in Italy (2017)

This is the first book about the subject in Czech, what can you tell us about the interest in this genre in your country and the fan community there? Are many of these films available with Czech subtitles or do Czechs rely on English and German exclusively?

The Italian western has many fans and various collecting communities in our country, which are strongly attracted to this popular genre. Some Italian westerns were shown in our cinemas already during the communist era, but especially in the 80s, lesser-known films with German dubbing from West Germany and Austria also began to arrive on unofficial videocassettes. In the following 1990s, more films came to us mainly on VHS, but they were also shown on various TV channels. Some films have Czech dubbing, others have subtitles, but despite the many titles represented in our distribution, our audience has still not had the chance to get acquainted with many other and less well-known films. At Czech universities, the subject of the Italian western - with some exceptions - is still very little known and researched. Academic circles interested mainly in Czech or American film are not very interested in Italian popular genres, and few of our academics really know this area in depth. Knowledge of Italian popular film in general is very superficial and scornful at Czech universities. The reason is also the still-surviving aesthetic stereotypes and prejudices towards films for a wide audience that limit the thinking and exploration of popular genres. The situation is quite the opposite in Slovakia, where they are receptive and open to these topics.

How successful were these movies there in the 60s and 70s, have you talked to your parents' generation to find out?

During the communist era, not too many Italian westerns were officially released in our country, so they could not create much popularity with the audience. Nevertheless, the films mentioned, especially the comedy westerns, were popular and cult. In the 1960s, West German co-production westerns based on the novels of Karl May were very popular in our country, which were very successful with the audience. Mainly films directed by Harald Reinl but also other directors. The first Italian westerns were officially shown in our country in the first half of the seventies and were the films “Due once di piombo” (1966) by Maurizio Lucidi, “O’Cangaceiro” (1969) by Giovanni Fago and “C'era una volta il West” (1968) by Sergio Leone. Lucidi’s and Fago’s film were shown here in 1972 and Leone’s in 1973 for the first time. Other films followed in succession. My father remembers only Fago’s and Leone’s films from that time, but mostly he remembers West German or American westerns. When we were little boys, our father often was playing the guitar and singing Riz Ortolani’s theme song from Giovanni Fago’s western at the campfire. The Italian western was also known from our film and cultural press at the time, but our viewers did not have the opportunity to see many films for many years.


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Above: Jan Švábenický and Aldo Lado in Milan in Italy (2014)

What are some of the spaghetti western celebrities you have met and what have you learned from that?

I have personally met several creators who are closely associated with the Italian western. I met Aldo Lado, who worked as an assistant director, second unit director and also a screenwriter for this genre, twice. The first time in Prague in 2011 and then in Milan in 2014 on the occasion of the presentation of my book about him. In 2017, I returned to Milan to meet director Enzo G. Castellari on the occasion of the presentation of his autobiography. In 2019 I met the director Sergio Martino at the Octopus Film Festival in Gdańsk in Poland where he had a show of his work and where I had the honor of sitting next to him during the screening of his western “Mannaja” (1977). I was very lucky to be able to meet the composer Ennio Morricone in person twice in Prague in 2011 and 2015. The first time we met only briefly, but the second time I had the opportunity to talk with him about his music for the films of Aldo Lado. By meeting Morricone personally, my big dream came true. I’ve been in correspondence with Morricone since my youth (from year 2000), when I was a secondary school student and he wasn’t yet widely publicized on the Internet. He often wrote to me that he had little time due to his work load, but there was an opportunity to write with him. He also wrote me his personal memory of the western Corbucci’s “Il Grande Silenzio”, which was one of his favorites. The meetings with all the personalities were very inspiring and enriching, as was the internet communication with many other creators. For example, I have a long-standing friendship with the director Aldo Lado and the screenwriter Ernesto Gastaldi.

What are your favorite spaghetti westerns?

That’s a tough question because I like every movie differently and in different ways. I don’t really have a favorite Italian western, because I’m very happy to watch any of them. I certainly have a very personal relationship with the twice-mentioned film “Il Grande Silenzio” by Sergio Corbucci, because I have a strong memory of it from my childhood and because it is where the whole adventure started for me. But I can say that although I like Sergio Leone’s films very much, I much prefer the westerns directed by Sergio Corbucci, because they are very diverse and colorful in terms of genres, themes and styles. It could be said that Corbucci’s films contain to some extent the history of the Italian western in the period of the 1960s and 1970s, as they include a wide range of creative approaches, settings or iconographic elements. I also like to go back to lesser known movies that I saw in my childhood like “Jim il primo” (1964) by Sergio Bergonzelli, “Trenta Winchester per El Diablo” (1965) by Gianfranco Baldanello, “All’ultimo sangue” (1968) by Paolo Moffa and “Campa carogna... la taglia cresce” (1973) by Giuseppe Rosati.


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Above: Sergio Martino and Jan Švábenický in Gdansk in Poland (2019)

Other than spaghetti westerns, what movies, genres and people interest you and why should others reconsider these as well?

I am interested in Italian cinema in a comprehensive way, but of course I pay the most attention to various popular genres, not just westerns. For example, I am also interested in the influence of Sigmund Freud’s psychoanalysis on Italian detective thrillers or horror films, because I come from the town of Příbor in Moravia, where Freud was born. I also worked as a historian and curator at The Birth House of Sigmund Freud in Příbor. I am also interested in the artwork of the painter, draftsman and illustrator Zdeněk Burian, who lived and worked in nearby Štramberk and who illustrated many literary westerns, such as the magnificent adventures of Winnetou and Old Shatterhand in Karl May’s novels. Burian was one of the pioneers of Western iconography in painting and book illustration in Czechoslovakia, and he is also well known abroad for his paintings of the prehistoric world and prehistoric civilization. Some of Burian’s paintings and drawings from the American Wild West, Mexico and South America countries are iconographically very similar to Italian distribution posters for Italian westerns. The head of Burian’s museum, my good friend Aleš Durčák, could tell a long story about Burian’s artistic work.

Which spaghetti western release will you get for Christmas?

I don’t know if I’ll get any Italian westerns for Christmas, but I’d certainly like to re-watch some films set in a snowy winter setting if circumstances permit. In addition to the already mentioned Corbucci’s “Il Grande Silenzio”, westerns such as “Quanto costa morire” (1968) by Sergio Merolle or Spanish films as “El más fabuloso golpe del Far West” (1971) by José Antonio de la Loma and “Condenados a vivir” (1972) by Joaquín Luis Romero Marchent are recommended to be watched in winter, where the hooves of the riders’ horses fall into the snow in the winter landscape. All these westerns are at the same time harsh stories about survival in the inhospitable conditions of icy nature. Winter westerns based on Jack London’s literary works “Zanna bianca” (1973) and “Il ritorno di Zanna bianca” (1974) by Lucio Fulci were very popular in Czechoslovakia, because the readership of London’s works has a long-standing cultural tradition in our country.

Other than your own book of course, what's your recommendation for best spaghetti western book (that is still available)?

There are more interesting books about the Italian western. There are more interesting books about the Italian western. Personally, the Italian publications “Al cuore, Ramon, al cuore. La leggenda del western italiano” by Luca Beatrice from 1996 and “Il western italiano” by Alberto Pezzotta from 2012 appealed to me the most. Both books approach the topic from a socio-cultural point of view, which is very close to me and which I myself applied in my book. Among the older books, I find it interesting, for example “Western all'italiana” from 1978 by Massimo Moscati which is one of the first books about the Italian western published in Italy. I am long term in contact with the authors Massimo Moscati and Alberto Pezzotta and both have provided me with very valuable and interesting information on the topic.


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Above: Jan Švábenický and Ennio Morricone in Prague in Czech republic (2015)

A big aspect of the Eurowestern is music, what are some of your favorite composers?

Similar to films and directors, I don’t have a specific composer either, as each of them had their own specific creative approach and used different compositional techniques. Ennio Morricone is definitely one of the most famous and unknown composers of music for Italian westerns, but there were also many others. There were authors with a modern approach like Francesco De Masi, Bruno Nicolai, Luis Bacalov, Riz Ortolani, Gianni Ferrio, Carlo Savina, Marcello Giombini, Benedetto Ghiglia, Roberto Pregadio or at that time already old but still innovative composers as Angelo Francesco Lavagnino and Carlo Rustichelli. Also the pop folk duo Guido and Maurizio De Angelis followed their own path. Many composers combined different styles and genres such as pop, jazz, blues, opera vocals, virtuosic performances, electronic elements and avant-garde experiments with symphonic, lyrical and melodic music. I have been in correspondence for many years with the composer Nico Fidenco, with whom I had a long interview about his music for Italian westerns for the fourth volume of the book by Matteo Mancini, which I have already mentioned. The recently deceased Nico Fidenco was one of the last living masters who composed music for westerns in the 1960s and 1970s, and whose musical style is very distinctive and unmistakable.

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