Monday, September 29, 2008
Italian Westerns: Changing the Landscape of the American Western Part One
European Sagebrush Sagas: US Cowboy Clones & Poncho-Wearing Lone Gunmen
The western genre has thrived for decades. Having periods of varying popularity, it nonetheless has yet to die out completely. Early American westerns were either serial programmers or movies featuring singing cowboys such as Gene Autry and his sidekick, Smiley Burnett. In the 1950's westerns would gain an esteemed air of respectability from the proficiency of such directors as Howard Hawks and most notably, John Ford. The John Wayne film, THE SEARCHERS (1956), directed by Ford, is considered one of the greatest films ever made. Not long after, the Hollywood western would be killed off by the bloated extravagance of the Hollywood Epic films. Westerns would find a new home on the small screen with such memorable television series such as HAVE GUN, WILL TRAVEL (1957), BAT MASTERSON (1958), RAWHIDE (1959), THE RIFLEMAN (1958), WANTED: DEAD OR ALIVE (1958) and the two most popular, and long lasting western series, GUNSMOKE (1955) and BONANZA (1959), both lasting 20 seasons and 14 seasons respectively.
In 1954, Akira Kurosawa would helm one of the greatest films of all time-- SEVEN SAMURAI (a bizarre Japanese remake is ready for release and the dreaded US remake looms on the horizon). That film would be remade in 1960 as THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN directed by John Sturges. The film didn't perform well in America, but fared far better in overseas markets. Shorty thereafter, filmmakers in West Germany would adapt stories from author Karl May for the silver screen. These movies would successfully imitate the Hollywood style of cinema westerns but utilizing Yugoslavian locations as a backdrop for the action. These locations provided an amazing assimilation of the American West.
May's 'Winnetou' novels would form the basis for a series of a near dozen films featuring the Indian hero (played by Pierre Brice) paired with lead character, Old Shatterhand. (Later entries featured different characters such as Old Surehand and Old Firehand). Lex Barker essayed the role of Old Shatterhand. The first handful of 'Winnetou' movies were very successful and paved the way for the Italian films that followed. If not for the ambitious and epic scale of the West German offerings, Italian movie producers may never have sparked an interest in the genre.
The Italians would get in on the act with the co-production of BUFFALO BILL, HERO OF THE FAR WEST (1963). The film starred Gordon Scott as Buffalo Bill and featured a character named Old Yellowhand. Mario (FISTFUL OF DOLLARS) Brega also starred in this Mario Costa film that bears the distinction of being the first real spaghetti western to be released in America. Like the West German counterparts, this film resembled the American style of western film. With the sword and sandal genre on its last legs, the fabled Cinecitta studios in Rome invested heavily into the cowboy genre. Examples of early Italian westerns are-- GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS aka DUELLO NEL TEXAS (1963), BULLET & THE FLESH aka IL PIOMBO E LA CARNE (1964) and famed director, Sergio Corbucci's first western film, MASSACRE AT GRAND CANYON aka MASSACRO AL GRANDE CANYON (1963). These were among a small number of Italian oaters bearing the marks of a traditional US western adventure; none of them were particularly successful.
In 1964, a director named Sergio Leone would change the western landscape in Italy with the release of his crude, but effective and violent Euroater, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS. Starring American actor, Clint Eastwood, the film was a massive success in Italy as well as abroad and made Eastwood a major star. Like the American film, THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960), A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) had its origins taken from a Japanese movie, YOJIMBO (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa.
Leone's film changed the rules that had traditionally applied to these movies for years. By doing this, it gave the Italian westerns an identity all there own. However, these changes soon spilled over into the American resurgence of cinema westerns in the late 60's and the stamp of the European style was now being copied by American filmmakers. The major alterations made using Leone's formula was the elimination of the traditional hero. Replaced by a more self serving and ruthless gunslinger, the hero had now become the anti-hero; not a bad guy, but then, not really a good guy either. Eastwood has stated in interviews that he was largely responsible for the interpretation of his character, Joe.
Incidentally, Eastwood's elucidation became famous as the "Man With No Name", despite his similar characters in the three Leone films all having names. His characters are all rather mysterious personas whom the audience learns relatively little about, but are all the better for it. Another alteration was the overall look of the Wild West. Gone was the romanticism typical of the American western. The clean cut heroes were replaced by shady individuals and dirty (literally) outlaws. Characters looked like they could exist in the real world. People looked unclean. You could almost smell the body odor emanating off the screen. In spite of the comic book approach afforded the main participants, the look and feel of the proceedings was very realistic.
Made for $200,000, the film created a firestorm of imitations and like minded films. Some of these were elaborate, grand scale productions. More often than not, the films were painfully low budget, and hastily released to make a fast buck. Between 500 and 600 European westerns were made between 1964 and 1974; this being the time the spaghetti's thrived, although the genre was showing signs of fatigue by 1972 when kung fu movies became all the rage outside of Asia. For FISTFUL's domestic release, the European cast and crew all took on Americanized pseudonyms to cleverly disguise their film as being a US production; something that would appeal to the Italian audience of the time considering the success THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN (1960) had on the international market. The first Italian director to use his real name on his films credits was Sergio Corbucci.
In between Leone's first two westerns, another Italian oater would see release that would strike gold at the box office. Duccio Tessari's A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) would go on to become one of the top grossing Italian films of all time. It's star, Guiliano Gemma, had gotten his start in the peplum films before making the transition to the westerns. Gemma's performance would straddle the dichotomy between Leone's anti hero mentality and the traditional American western fundamentals. The heroes and villains in Leone's world were all dirty, filthy and possessed trendy 'five o'clock shadow'. Tessari's characters more closely followed the template laid down by the American style, but still managed to bear traces of comic barbarism prevalent in Leone's approach.
The film deals with a sly, wise-cracking gunslinger named Ringo (Angel Face to his friends) who is hired to rescue a family being held hostage by a group of rampaging Mexican bandits. Having robbed a nearby town and killing a number of people in the process, the sheriff and a posse surround the subjugated ranch in the hope that Ringo can get the innocents out alive before the approaching Christmas holidays. Ringo uses his bag of verbal and mental tricks to ingratiate himself among the bandits. Initially, it's not quite sure just where his loyalties lie as Ringo uses both sides to his own ends. By the finale, it becomes apparent that Ringo isn't such a bad guy after all.
A PISTOL FOR RINGO (1965) was a success in America and predated the US release of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1965) by nearly a year. Like several other popular Italian western film titles, the Gemma film spawned a number of unrelated movies bearing the Ringo name. For the export release, Gemma took on the pseudonym of Montgomery Wood (foreshadowing the success the Eastwood western would have abroad?); a name applied to a number of his early western films. The director, Duccio Tessari, had previously directed Gemma in the mythological film, SONS OF THUNDER (1961; ARRIVANO I TITANI). Tessari had also worked on the script for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) but was uncredited. Gemma was already a proven commodity in the western genre having essayed the lead role in two prior Italian cowboy pictures-- ADIOS, GRINGO and ONE SILVER DOLLAR both released in 1965. The Ringo movies cemented Gemma as an in demand and popular actor for these films.
Gemma has hinted in interviews (without revealing the name of the movie) that Sergio Leone had wanted him for the lead in a western picture he was working on which I would assume was A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964). Over the years other actors have laid claim that Leone had wanted them for that lead. One of them being prolific American actor, Richard Harrison. Gemma was blessed with obtaining some very choice roles in his spaghetti western oeuvre. His look in his films (clean shaven, extremely white teeth) are at odds with Leone's model bearing more semblance to the American western hero. But again, Tessari's script lends Ringo shades of the anti hero variety in his actions and motivations. Gemma did flirt with the dirty look briefly in RETURN OF RINGO (1966) and THE LONG DAYS OF VENGEANCE (1966).
One of a small few Italo westerns with a Christmas setting, Tessari revisited the holiday season again with his comedy western, ALIVE, OR PREFERABLY DEAD (1969), also starring Gemma. This film predates the comedy western sensation, THEY CALL ME TRINITY (1970). Even as early as 1965, there were comedy westerns but this style didn't grab hold till after the runaway success of the Trinity pictures. One of the earliest examples of a comedy Italian western was the high spirited Franco Giraldi film, SEVEN GUNS FOR THE MACGREGORS (1965), a film which was also very successful at the Italian box office. It deals with a fiery Scottish clan of settlers whose seven sons must find out who has stolen their herd of horses and recover them. The scenes involving the oldsters of the MacGregor clan are highlights.
Although the film bears a light hearted tone throughout, there's a smattering of darkly comical violence present. One scene has a captive being dragged by horses through streams of flame. Frequent bad guy actor Fernando Sancho then comments on how soft gringos are compared with Mexicans. An even bigger sequel was quickly put together using much of the same cast. Entitled SEVEN WOMEN FOR THE MACGREGORS (1966), the film was even more successful than the first one.
Leo Anchoriz plays the villain in both films. He can also be seen in the first two SANDOKAN films as the main bad guy battling Steve Reeves. A third entry didn't come until 1970 with the release of MORE DOLLARS FOR THE MACGREGORS albeit without the participation of director Giraldi. The Leone films, the two Tessari Ringo films and the first two Macgregor movies discussed above all share one thing in common-- composer Ennio Morricone.
Morricone is emblazoned in the Italian western canon for his staggeringly prolific resume as a composer. His credits in the cowboy genre are only a small fraction of the sheer volume of film music the man has created over the course of four decades. In recent years (approaching his 80th birthday), he has shown no signs of slowing down. His scores created for the Leone films were a monumental occasion utilizing sounds and an offbeat style that hadn't been heard before. The score for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (1964) and the Leone films that followed it, would become a part of the landscape in that objects and mannerisms of the characters would be significant to the sound of the production. Creaking doors, windmills, drops of water and even whistling conjoined music with onscreen action in a way not seen before.
Morricone had previously done the US styled score for GUNFIGHT AT RED SANDS (1963) but it bore no similarities to his later groundbreaking techniques heard in the Euro westerns that came after. Morricone would collaborate frequently with his associate, Bruno Nicolai, a likewise distinguished composer whose spaghetti western scores are of a high quality. Critics somewhat slander other Italian composers and their music as Morricone knock-offs, but this is a bit unfair as Morricone's template was so revolutionary, it was a hard act to follow without making comparisons.
Other notable composers that followed in Morricone's footsteps are the aforementioned Bruno Nicolai (ADIOS, SABATA), Riz Ortolani (DAY OF ANGER), Francesco De Masi (ARIZONA COLT, SEVEN WINCHESTERS FOR A MASSACRE) and Gianni Ferrio ( WANTED, FORT YUMA GOLD; collaborative score with Morricone) were all accomplished (but nowhere as prolific as Ennio) film composers.
Nicolai is possibly the most famous outside of Morricone, but that doesn't discount the output of the others who all delivered exciting soundtracks. Outside of the look and violence inherent in the films, the scores are the most memorable aspects of the Italian oaters. When a fan thinks of THE GOOD, THE BAD & THE UGLY (1966), the first thing that often comes to mind is the main theme with the whistling and yelling on the soundtrack. That score especially being another blaring wonder in the catalog of Morricone classics.
CONTINUED IN PART 2...