Go West, Comrade: Unearthing Politics in the Spaghetti Western
By Austin Fisher (Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics and Violence in Italian Cinema)
One can fully sympathise with Yodlaf Peterson when, trying to blast Professor Xantos free from prison, he is faced with stubborn resistance and a lecture on the merits of pacifism from the po-faced captive. ‘Give me one single case where violence is absolutely necessary’, demands Xantos. ‘Yours’, retorts Peterson, as he knocks the loquacious irritant out cold, much to the relief and amusement of the audience.
The tone of the above dispute is perhaps more Itchy meets Scratchy than Fanon meets Gandhi, but it neatly encapsulates the political approach in evidence throughout Sergio Corbucci’s Vamos a matar, compañeros (1970, henceforth Compañeros): big, brash and laid on with a trowel. There is here none of the subtlety or contemplative calm which the same director so deftly evoked in arguably his most accomplished work, Il grande Silenzio (1968). In the context of Vietnam, the international student movement and an increasingly confrontational domestic counterculture, indeed, a Western featuring heavily-armed communist students being led into battle by a man sporting a ‘Guevara chic’ beret to fight the interests of corporate America and Latin-American counter-revolutionaries does not so much hint at contemporary allegory as slap one in the face with it. Here, Corbucci relies upon broad brush strokes and starkly drawn caricatures, and he was certainly not alone. Compañeros was the culmination of a trend within the Italian Western that repeatedly used Mexico as a forum for similarly modish political sentiment, with tales of peasant resistance such as Quien sabe? (Damiano Damiani, 1966), La resa dei conti (Sergio Sollima, 1967), Il Mercenario (Corbucci, 1968) and Tepepa (Giulio Petroni, 1968).
These films have often been labelled ‘political’, but the precise nature of their engagement with the ferments of the era is too often drawn in a linear fashion from their narrative focus on violent insurrection against the Western world, which is as bravura as it is obvious. This is understandable because, when we search for politics in a film, we tend to look for authorial intent, carefully constructed ‘messages’ and purposeful oppositions. Where such mass-produced exploitation cinema as the Spaghetti Western is concerned, however, socio-political significance more often than not lurks in inadvertent yet revealing reflections of a given time and place. Doubtless, the films of Corbucci et al seek to make cogent political points through their narrative structure, their dialogue and their iconoclastic use of Hollywood iconography. Yet the most interesting reflections of their political surroundings emerge through their macho posturing and over-simplification of complex issues surrounding insurgency, since the protest groups which were emerging at precisely this time were themselves involved in very similar exercises. This is a case-in-point of how popular cinema can offer us intriguing snapshots of an era’s cultural-political idiosyncrasies, precisely through its ‘imperfections’ and its divergence from conventional views of authorship, intent and artistry.
This said, there was in fact a unifying creative source behind this group of films: namely, the famed Marxist screenwriter Franco Solinas (screenplay for Quien sabe?, original treatment for La resa dei conti and Il mercenario, and co-writer of Tepepa). Solinas’s artistic approach was quite purposefully one of studying clashes between irreconcilable extremes at pivotal moments in history; for example, the Holocaust (Kapò, 1959), the Algerian War of Independence (La battaglia di Algeri, 1966), colonial revolt in the Portuguese Antilles (Queimada, 1969) and the Uruguayan Tupamaros (État de siège, 1972).The Mexican Revolution, too, offered one such historical crossroads, but the stylistic and industrial eccentricities of the Roman studio system took the polarising approach of Solinas to an extreme.
Take for example, Tepepa: a potentially complex film whose myriad strands of subjective flashback coalesce with a muddied, ambiguous moral code, but whose political message boils down to the white Western interloper being shot by an infant native because ‘that gringo didn’t like Mexico’. Never mind that Dr. Henry Price had travelled south of the border to avenge his raped and murdered sister; never mind, either, that the film’s eponymous hero was the guilty party. Quien sabe?, too, though showing glimmers of more nuanced analysis, concludes with a resounding revolutionary sound bite, as the native bandit awakens to his political duty and advises a peasant: ‘Don’t buy bread… buy dynamite!’ La resa dei conti goes further, dispensing with all pretence towards subtlety in its allegory of peasant resistance to the technological might of the West. The stylistic panache of Sergio Sollima’s throwing knife versus gun duel displays the director’s consummate eye for genre spectacle, but the intended political statement is almost childish in its reductive simplicity. As the Vietnam War and US military interventionism became an ever more divisive issue in international and domestic politics, the confrontational message of these films is staggeringly clear: a great big ‘fuck you gringo’ writ large.
Left: ‘That gringo didn’t like Mexico’. The infant native Paquito continues the struggle in Tepepa (1968).
Right: The revenge of the Third World as depicted in Sergio Sollima’s La resa dei conti (1967).
If these Spaghettis have not been afforded much serious critique as ‘political’ films, it is probably because of this tendency to simplify, while the works of such internationally lauded auteurs as Francesco Rosi, Elio Petri, Gillo Pontecorvo and Pietro Germi (some of them also written by Franco Solinas) were more apt directly to address the ideological complexities and the volatility of the 1960s. Looking at the protest movements themselves, however, it could be said that the ‘political’ Spaghettis more faithfully register the outlooks of those who actually partook in the ferments of the era. The phrase ‘of its time’ is an over-used platitude in cultural criticism, but is completely apt when analysing this group of films.
The most overtly contemporaneous scene in Compañeros comes when the revolutionary students confront their mentor, Professor Xantos, in an impromptu ‘debating chamber’. His outdated pacifism, they insist, is futile when faced with a ruthless enemy: ‘Words are of no use to us any more [...] The time has come to respond to violence with violence. To respond any other way is cowardice.’ Throughout the film, indeed, these same students argue amongst themselves about whether violence is justified, as their number is steadily depleted by their sadistic adversaries. It is no coincidence that the various student movements and related leftist splinter groups (some of which were by 1970 breaking away to form clandestine insurgent cells) had been debating precisely this issue internally since the first university occupations in 1967. The proclamation from the Compañeros debating chamber quoted above bears a striking resemblance to West German insurgent Gudrun Ensslin’s declaration of that year: ‘This fascist state means to kill us all [...] violence is the only way to answer violence.’
Ensslin’s use of the word ‘fascist’ to refer to the liberal bourgeois governments of post-war Western Europe is testament to the extremely polarised outlooks which informed the political activism of many countercultural factions in this era. In Italy in particular, the very real spectre of fascism was frequently evoked by such radical groups, to express the long-held belief that fascism, right-wing terror and state power were one and the same (and these opinions would later play an important role in the emergence of militant violence in the 1970s). The writings of Mao, Fanon, Guevara and Trotsky offered uncompromising models of armed uprising, and the Mexican Revolution was itself a common reference point as increasingly confrontational activists sought to construct their own mythologies of resistance: mythologies which were confused, unfocussed, disputed and frequently reductive. Paul Ginsborg writes that these groups ‘accepted a dangerously casual attitude towards violence, adopting contemporary South American and Asian struggles as their models, with little reflection on their applicability or likely consequences in the Italian situation’.
A propensity to seek easily recognisable symbols, to reduce the bewildering complexities of 1960s politics into a set of clearly defined binary oppositions, and to frame one’s opponents as an ‘absolute enemy’: all are equally evident throughout the group of films under consideration here. At the end of Quien sabe?, the native bandit Chuncho shoots the gringo Bill Tate dead as he boards a train home (the locomotive providing a convenient symbol for the technological and economic power of the USA). His instruction to Tate’s limp body to ‘go back to the United States’ as the train pulls away sends a bloodied and unambiguous message back over the border that Western intervention will no longer be tolerated. As the aggressive cult of ‘Third Worldism’ became increasingly de rigueur amongst the ascendant New Left towards the end of the 1960s, the politicised films of Corbucci, Sollima, Damiani and Petroni were simply partaking in an ongoing debate, and expressing sympathy for the often simplistic outlooks of emergent revolutionary groups. To quote one of these groups’ chief sources of inspiration, Frantz Fanon: ‘The native’s work is to imagine all possible methods for destroying the settler. To the theory of the “absolute evil of the native” the theory of the “absolute evil of the settler” replies.’
‘Go back to the United States, Niño!’ (Quien sabe?, 1966).
It is therefore the very aspects which many would see as flaws that make these films fascinating documents of an Italy in the throes of confusing cultural and political upheaval; an Italy which the more accomplished and internationally-oriented films of Sergio Leone do not register so tangibly. Contrasting these ‘political’ Spaghettis with Leone in this way is not to say that they are ‘bad’ films (indeed, I will defend their riotously entertaining simplifications to the grave). It does, however, highlight that a film’s imperfections can inadvertently tell us much about its time, place and makers (elements which more beautifully crafted films are apt successfully to hide). Above all, what I believe becomes clear upon investigating the myriad strands of political, artistic and cultural influence that coalesce within such films as these is the dubious worth of ‘top ten’ lists based upon ‘quality’, or ‘artistic merit’. The Spaghetti Western Database is itself testament to an appreciation of the alternative, the taboo and the counter-canonical. If such ‘cult’ fandom as this has a purpose – and it does – it surely lies in precisely this refusal to accept that ‘quality’ is the sole arbiter of cultural value.
Austin Fisher is the author of
Radical Frontiers in the Spaghetti Western: Politics, Violence and Popular Italian Cinema.
 Ginsborg, Paul, A History of Contemporary Italy: Society and Politics, 1943–1980 (London: Penguin, 1990), p.313.
 Fanon, Frantz, The Wretched of the Earth (London: Penguin,  2001), p.73.