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Part One

Eli Wallach as Cacopoulos in Ace High

British correspondent Lee Broughton offers a full historical rundown on the Italian Western, a genre that has inspired the tone and content of every 'action' film trend that followed it. Another Savant essay on Films You May Not Know About, but that will hopefully be discovered by DVD. - GE 4/29/00

When Eli Wallach was offered the role of Tuco in Sergio Leone's third Spaghetti Western, The Good, The Bad & The Ugly, his first thought was, ' "Spaghetti Western?" That's like Hawaiian pizza.' Last week, when I telephoned a reputable retail outlet to question the availability of a certain Spaghetti Western on DVD, the puzzled silence that met my enquiry seemed to scream, '"Spaghetti Western DVD?" That's like Scottish pasta.'

Wallach's assumption, all those years ago, was understandable, if incorrect. In 1966, he couldn't have known that cinema audiences in most non-English speaking countries around the world had already accepted the concept of Italian Westerns and were attending screenings of these so called Spaghetti Westerns in boxoffice-shattering numbers. But why, in the year 2000, should an employee of a major video and DVD retail outfit suggest that coupling the words "Spaghetti Western" with "DVD" could only result in a contradiction in terms?

It seems that over the years, genre enthusiasts, by ganging together and chewing the Spaghetti cud within increasingly marginalised groups, have failed to realise that the genre has been all but forgotten by the rest of the English-speaking world. Despite the influence of the genre still being found in modern day action flicks and various areas of the media, it seems that, for many people, the term 'Spaghetti Western' is simply a throwaway phrase that is used to describe four or five films made by Sergio Leone. But Leone's films, seemingly the only genre films to have retained any kind of a public profile, actually inspired the production of over six hundred other European Westerns. And in the late 1960s and the early 1970s, the best examples of this new genre, in spite of the many haphazard and unauthorised cuts made by censors and distributors, managed to thoroughly entertain and impress a veritable army of British and American film fans. Do these incredible films, that were equally at home in the local flea pit and the emerging art house cinemas, really no longer mean anything to a large percentage of present day film lovers?

Admittedly, video and TV have been particularly cruel to the Spaghetti Western. Faded and clumsily edited prints, nearly always in the Pan 'n Scan format, broadcast in the middle of the night or presented on grey market videocassettes, are usually the order of the day. With the dawning of the digital age and DVD, with its buzz phrases of 'remaster this', 'restore that' and 'presented in its original aspect ratio', genre enthusiasts were optimistic. Surely now, at long last, these classic films would be presented the way they should be: lovingly restored and remastered, without unauthorised edits and in their original wide screen formats.

Unfortunately, early indications are not good. Of the few non-Leone Spaghetti Western titles available so far on DVD, most appear to be mastered from those same tatty Pan 'n Scan source prints used for so many of the disappointing video issues.

So, how did it all begin? Are we really missing anything?

When the availability of American Westerns started to dry up in the early 1960s, various European film companies began financing and producing their own. These producers endeavoured to pass them off as genuine American Westerns by casting a vaguely recognisable American actor in the lead role and anglicising the names of the rest of the cast and crew. Several of these new Westerns were convincingly shot on sets in Italy and Spain. Then, in 1964, a team of Italian, Spanish and West German producers put together a small budget and a deal that allowed a certain 'Bob Robertson' (actually Sergio Leone) to write and direct a Western in his own special way. Inspired by Akira Kurosawa's Yojimbo and starring Clint Eastwood, Leone's film was called Per un pugno di dollari (Fistful of Dollars) and the rest, as they say, is history.

Giuliano Gemma in action in Day of Anger.

Dollars' incredible success prompted the first wave of Spaghetti Westerns. They were usually loud, brash, colourful, violent and fast-paced but the better ones were also incredibly stylish and well produced. The detachment in the Italians' approach allowed them to portray a sometimes more truthful, more realistic and ultimately more brutal version of the Wild West. Incensed by the perceived lack of cultural roots in these films, American critics wouldn't even allow themselves to find favour in the beautiful music, usually provided by Ennio Morricone or somebody equally inventive, that blasted from their soundtracks. These critics were quick to dismiss the films, labelling them 'Spaghetti Westerns.' Intended as a xenophobic and snobbish insult, fans of the films proudly adopted the phrase as an affectionate moniker for the new, but already much loved, genre.

Leone's particularly stylish approach (extreme close ups, silent pauses, clever editing, unusual camera angles, held shots, inventive composition and framing along with great costumes and sets) was easily noticed. Some of the more capable Italian directors were able to adapt certain key elements from his approach to further embellish their own increasingly baroque visions. This is the way the unique and stylish look of the genre came about.

Duccio Tessari, who had helped script Fistful of Dollars, entered the fray in 1965 with Una pistola per Ringo (A Pistol For Ringo) and Il ritorno di Ringo (The Return Of Ringo). Both films featured excellent Ennio Morricone soundtrack scores. The second deals with Montgomery 'Ringo' Brown (Giuliano Gemma) returning from the Civil War to find that Mexicans (led by Fernando Sancho) have taken control of his hometown. Disguised as a beggar, he infiltrates the town and eventually strikes back. In a sequence that surely influenced the finale of genre fan John Woo's Hard-Boiled, Ringo storms his family home and, with his young daughter slung over his shoulder, proceeds to dispatch the bad guys. It's a fairly violent film but also one with great charm.

Another friend and colleague of Leone's, Sergio Corbucci, directed the notorious Django in 1966. An interesting, but much darker, variation of some of the main schematics from Fistful of Dollars, the violent content ensured that it remained banned in England until 1993. A specific sequence from Django appears to have had a direct influence on a scene in genre fan Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs but Corbucci delivered his take with greater aplomb. Another genre fan, Robert Rodriguez, likes to have his Mariachi men breezing into town with guitar cases full of fancy weapons: Django (Franco Nero) enters dragging behind him a coffin that contains a machine gun. Django is greatly enhanced by the powerful music of Luis Enrique Bacalov.

Lee Broughton's Spaghetti Western chronicle continues in Part Two.

Spaghetti Text © Copyright 2000 Lee Broughton

DVD Savant Text © Copyright 2007 Glenn Erickson

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