GHOSTS AND AVENGERS, from Shakespeare & Leone, to Eastwood & Garrone (part 2)
# High Noon for No Name
Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter is usually considered to be part of the so-called stateside spaghetti westerns, a series of American westerns, made in the late sixties and early seventies, strongly influenced by the Italian western. The Italian western took from Hollywood, but also gave back. What it returned, according to critic Philip French, was a taste for ultra-violence, calculated sadism, over-emphatic images and overloaded sound-tracks (6). French, who clearly doesn’t like Italian westerns, calls High Plains Drifter a confident film which owes much to Leone, but (and these are still his words) is no longer merely a spaghetti western re-staged, like Clint’s earlier efforts Hang ‘m High and Two Mules for Sister Sarah (both not directed by himself). Sure, High Plains Drifter is pretty violent and shows some over-reliance on strong, emphatic imagery, but in spite of all these unmistakably ‘Italian qualities’ it is also deeply rooted in the tradition of the Hollywood western. It is – and this is often overlooked – a modern (and more extreme) reading of the town westerns of the fifties, of which Fred Zinneman's High Noon (1952) is the most famous. In Eastwood’s first western as a director, it is, so to speak, High Noon for No name. I have often wondered whether the ‘High’ in the title was a deliberate reference to Zinneman’s famous town western.
Films like High Noon, Warlock and 3.10 to Yuma had put the town community to the centre of the action. Until then townspeople had mainly served as a background, their main function being to put the skills of the hero and villain in relief. In most of the town westerns, and High Noon in particular, the townspeople are described as contemptible and hypocritical (7), not able (or willing) to defend themselves against the forces of evil. For its safety the community depends on professionals, hired to do a dirty job. These men are feared, often admired for their skills, but not loved. Deep in their heart many community members despise them. High Plains Drifter pushes this idea further, much further. It’s as if Will Kane was killed in the end of High Noon and now, in a belated sequel, returns as a ghost to get even with the people who once deserted him and stayed cowardly behind doors while he was whipped to death in the streets of Hadleyville. What does this all mean?
High Plains Drifter seems in line with some of the other films Eastwood made in the early seventies, notably Don Siegel’s Dirty Harry and some of the movies it spawned, like Michael Winner’s Death Wish. Like Harry Callaghan, the drifter is a genuine iconoclast: he appoints a dwarf as mayor, takes whatever he wants from the stores without paying, humiliates the citizens and paints their town red, as if he’s underlining the idea that they all belong in hell. Like Dirty Harry – the movie that is - and the vigilante movie Death Wish (let’s only consider the original and forget the sequels), High Plains Drifter seems a clear indictment of some of the sensitivities of the sixties; these films strongly reject the atmosphere of indolence and easy-going tolerance the previous decade was identified with. In the case of High Plains Drifter, there also seems to be some denunciation of the sexual debauchery often related to the infamous decade. There is one scene in High Plains Drifter that is so obnoxious, so gross, that it can only be understood as a kind of deconstruction of Clint’s screen persona. Probably against his will (after all he is a republican and a conservative), Eastwood had become an icon of the sixties himself as the unshaven, poncho clad adventurer without a name and (more significant) a roof above his head. Although he showed no real interest in sex on-screen, it may be clear that No Name wasn’t the married type. At least two sex scenes - involving the hotel lady (For a Few Dollars More) and a prostitute (The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) - had ended up on the cutting-room floor, most probably because they would, in Leone’s terms, ‘only slow down the film’. In High Plains Drifter Eastwood is provoked by a woman, who walks into him in the street and starts insulting him; he then literally grabs her and forces her to have sex with him. When he’s accused of rape afterwards, he says she seemed to have enjoyed the sex and was, more or less, asking for it (which seems to be the case, at least in the movie). Most critics have interpreted the scene as degrading for women, and of course not without reason, but it’s also degrading for the drifter, or the kind of opportunist characters Eastwood had played in the previous decade, in a genre that more often showed this kind of approach towards women. Note also that he is a ghost (and has been away for a while), so most probably comes from the previous decade, when this kind of behaviour was bon ton.
# Django revisited
The western town, 'the community', never was a predominant narrative device in spaghetti westerns. Although several spaghetti westerns have a town setting, the town community hardly ever is at the centre of the story. To most Italians, especially those of the southern provinces (where the spaghetti westerns were particularly popular) loyalty is with the family or the clan, not with society or the community. Even in those Italian westerns that are set in (or around) a western town, the action usually concentrates on family matters rather than problems concerning the town community. In A Pistol for Ringo an assault on a bank smoothly evolves into a story of a wealthy family held hostage; in the second Ringo movie (not really a sequel), Return of Ringo, a man returning ‘home’ from the Civil war, finds out that Mexicans have taken not only his ranch, but also his family: it’s this element which identifies the movie unmistakably as an Italian western. Massacre Time and Keoma are both films about the so-called prodigal son who returns to his hometown and parental home, only to find out that things have gone terribly wrong. In both cases, the evildoers are members of his family, in Massacre Time his half brother, in Keoma the genetic sons of his foster-father, who adopted him when he was very small. Both films invert the theme of the bastard son, the outcast of the family, a person disowned by those who are closest to him: it’s the bastard son who is the good son, while the genetic sons are bad, representing ‘bad blood’
Unlike Eastwood’s drifter, the Django character from Django the Bastard has no score to settle with an entire community. Actually, the town in Django the Bastard looks very much like a ghost town, with only a handful of citizens left, mainly merchants and traders. He is after three former Confederate officers who have deserted and betrayed their men during the Civil War and witnessed how they were slaughtered by Union Troops. In the meantime they have become a rich and powerful clan, terrorizing the territory. When Django orders a cross for one of them – he still has to kill him – and wants to pay for it, the carpenter says he’ll make the cross for free. The few merchants and traders who have stayed, don’t like these corrupt families, but they strongly fear them, and most probably are depending on them. An obvious question could be: And where’s the family angle in this one? Well, it’s on the villain’s side: as mentioned before, there are only two people who have some kind of spiritual contact with Django. The first is the lunatic Luke, who’s also the younger brother of the main villain, Rod Murdoch. The second is the lunatic’s wife, Alida. Both are part of the family, but at the same time both are outcasts: Luke’s mad and violent behaviour worries even his criminal brother and Alida only married Luke because she was paid for it by Rod. Luke not only is a madman but also an epileptic; Alida is blond, but most of the time she’s dressed like a gypsy and it’s obvious that she’s from a completely different descent than the Murdochs; in one quarrelsome conversation Rod insists to Alida that his brother and he come from one of the best families in the country. In other words: Alida does not. Both epileptics and gypsies are often thought to have special gifts, such as second sight or the ability to talk to the dead. They seem to have access, one way or another, to this place between the worlds of the living and the dead where ghosts live. When Luke says, after he has wounded Django, ‘look, this is his blood, he’s real’, he probably means: he’s real to me. The others are afraid of Django because he haunts them and seems invulnerable, Luke isn’t afraid of him – at least not at first – because he can wound him. He only becomes afraid after he thinks he’s about to kill him by hanging him by a thread, but Django manages to survive the hanging: ‘You were supposed to die!’.
With its deceitful officers who have become rich and powerful citizens after the war, Django the Bastard is a rather obvious political allegory, referring, like most spaghetti western set during (or immediately after) the Civil War, to Italy’s less than glorious WWII history and its irksome aftermath. But there’s more. The Django in the title, is not simply a trick to cash in on Corbucci’s milestone movie, like it had been far too often (especially in Germany, where over fifty films were given a fake Django title). Steffen’s character, ghost or man, was called Django from the beginning, and very likely Garrone and Steffen (who co-wrote the script) had special plans with him. According to Alex Cox – and it’s hard not to agree with him on this – Garrone and Steffen must have asked themselves: “What if Django had fought not for the Union, but for the South?” Their answer is, still according to Alex, that he would have ended up as an avenger nevertheless, not after a racist Colonel aping the KKK, but after wealthy ex-Confederate aristocrats, who once betrayed both their men and their own beliefs. Just like High Plains Drifter is in some ways an alternative history of Will Kane, the sheriff from Hollywood’s quintessential town western High Noon, Django the Bastard is an alternative history of Django, the spaghetti western’s quintessential avenger.
- 6. Philip French: Westerns, p. 106-107
- 7. Don Graham: High Noon, in: Western Movies, edited by William T. Pilkington and Don Graham, University of New Mexico Press, 1979, p. 51-61
Films treated or referred to in this section:
- Hang 'm High (1967, Ted Post)
- Two Mules for Sister Sara (1968, Don Siegel)
- High Noon (1952, Fred Zinneman)
- Warlock (1958, Edward Dmytryck)
- 3.10 to Yuma (1957, Delmer Daves)
- A Pistol for Ringo (Una Pistola per Ringo - 1965, Duccio Tessari)
- Return of Ringo (Il Ritorno di Ringo - 1965, Ducio Tessari)
- Massacre Time (I Colt cantarono la morte e fu... Tempo di Massacro - 1966, Lucio Fulci)
- Keoma (1976, Enzo G. Castellari)
- Dirty Harry (1972, Don Siegel)
- Death Wish (1972, Michael Winner)
- The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Il Buono, il Brutto, il Cattivo - 1966, Sergio Leone)
- Django (1966, Sergio Corbucci)