The silence is finally broken by an ear-shattering gunshot. However, this is anything but your typical Western film because that supposed American valley is actually a place in Almería, Spain. And this unravelling of an American myth is told by, not an American filmmaker, but Italian director Sergio Leone – who in many ways is also the least typical of Italian film directors.
Leone is most often regarded as a curiosity; usually considered the resuscitator of a “dead” genre (the Western) and the father of a ridiculed sub-genre (the Spaghetti Western: a term coined by American film journalists who applied culinary labels to ‘inauthentic’ or ‘alien’ Westerns). With no equivalent in Italian culture to the American frontier, Leone internalized the visual language of American Westerns while separating them from their own roots. American Westerns are origin stories, myths about the founding of culture and the establishment of law. Leone, born of a childhood lived under the heel of fascism, fabricates a West with an air of mistrust for any kind of authority. Officials are corrupt and weak-willed; government is absent. All this resulted into an image of the West unlike anything seen by American viewers which in some ways is the point. His films are essentially about what America means to those who have never seen America except through its cinema. Towards the end of his life Leone commented; “I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.” Thus, Leone’s films are more about living with the image of America, but never about being American.
Leone’s first step was to unpack the mythology of the West. Especially in the “Dollars Trilogy”, Leone stripped conventional Hollywood Western mythology to its most base and alluring elements. He dug into a savage vision of the West. As Christopher Frayling noted in his ground-breaking study of the Spaghetti Western phenomenon, “Leone’s films contain no universal moral messages (as many Hollywood Westerns have claimed to), and his heroes are not intended to set an example for today.” Instead, Leone’s camera celebrates violent individualism at the same time appearing ambivalent about morality. In other words, there is no great justice-keeping American hero.
Many filmmakers in the 60’s and 70’s wanted to make Westerns, but production costs in the United States were too high for low-budget productions. Italy and Spain were cheap substitutes that resembled many of the deserts of Nevada, Utah, and New Mexico. As an added benefit, local peasants could be easily recruited to play Mexican extras. Thanks to Leone, Almería, Spain became a Mini-Hollywood and played nearly as important a role as the actors. The nearby Tabernas Desert (the only true desert in Europe) was a magnet to film producers. Genuine cowboy country -gray, dusty, barren hills- that made your mouth dry just to look at them.
Unlike many Spaghetti Westerns which sought to make their Spanish locations look as much like the American-Mexican border region as possible, Leone’s expansive wide-screen vistas highlight the landscape’s slightly alien feel. A surreal, garish landscape of the mind where half remembered names and faces crowd. Thus, it is perhaps no coincidence that the Spanish locations of his Westerns are the same arid dreamscapes Salvador Dali employed in many of his nightmarish images of the 1930s.
To set the tone of his nightmarish world Leone hired Ennio Morricone, whose music contributed to his atypical Western. Discarding the symphonic and the noble strings and brass, Morricone brought in the folkloric and the grotesque: whistling, choral shouting, dissonant harmonica, lonesome trumpet, the Jew harp, ocarina, chimes and most importantly the gnarly electric guitar. Many scenes contain little to no dialogue, giving the music ample opportunity to be heard above all other sounds. When other sounds do occur, such as animal sounds, gunshots, cannon fire, and bugle calls, they are often incorporated into the music and not situated against it. As Leone himself put it: “If it is true that I have created a new-style Western, with picaresque people placed in epic situations, then it is the music of Ennio which has made them talk.”
Born and raised in Rome, Leone adored Hollywood movies as a child. After working on several films, including Vittorio De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves (1947), Leone quit school to pursue a movie career full time. He then worked as an assistant director throughout the 1950s at Cinecittà, where he worked on such Hollywood spectacles as Ben-Hur (1959) and Sodom and Gomorrah (1961). Leone got hias first shot at solo directing when he took over The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) from ailing mentor Mario Bonnard, and earned his first “directed by” credit with another peplum, The Colossus of Rhodes (1960).
Leone found his next project after seeing Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961) in 1963. He adapted Yojimbo as a low-budget Western to be shot in Spain. Low on the list of possible Americans to play Leone’s man with no name was a TV actor, Clint Eastwood, cast more out of financial necessity than desire. Even his composer, one-time schoolmate Ennio Morricone, had to make do with limited orchestra access because of budget costs. The result, re-titled A Fistful of Dollars (1964), turned out to be wildly popular. Filled with widescreen close-ups which transformed faces into craggy “landscapes” (and what would become Leone’s trademark), Fistful re-imagined, as mentioned earlier,Western myths and consequently launched Eastwood’s lucrative Hollywood career.
Its European run was so successful that Leone was pushed to make a sequel titled: For a Few Dollars More (1965). As violent as its predecessor and ending with Eastwood tallying up his monetary gains, For a Few Dollars More broke box-office records in Italy, paving the way for the even more expansive sequel The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) which in turn sealed Leone’s status as the premiere Italian Western director. Next up were Leone’s operatic masterworks Once Upona Time in the West and the tragic-comic Duck you, Sucker (1971). It wasn’t until 1984 that his next effort was released about Prohibition-era Jewish gangsters in New York, Once Upon a Time in America, starring Robert De Niro. Sadly, it turned out to be the maestro’s swan song. Sergio Leone died in 1989, leaving a legacy of influence in his wake. It is amazing that so few book-length analyses of Leone exist given the proliferation of material on near-contemporaries as Federico Fellini and Michelangelo Antonioni.
Leone was the master of the Italian box-office when both Fellini and Antonioni were in their prime. Some may even argue that Leone’s films are as cherished amongst cinephiles as the films of either of these two canonised film-makers. And while he helmed a mere seven films, Leone’s enormous influence is apparent from the late ‘60s onward, from Sam Peckinpah, John Woo, Quentin Tarantino, and of course Clint Eastwood, who dedicated his Unforgiven (1992) “To Sergio and Don.”
Much of his work is often quoted or parodied in popular culture. Notable examples have been included in films, for example Back to the Future Part III and more recently Kill Bill . Let us not forget the notorious whistle which signals any Mexican standoff – past, present and future. Thus, whether for good or for bad, what remains clear is that Leone left behind a beautiful array of films for future generations to enjoy.
Screen some of Sergio Leone’s movies:
written by Amanda Fulginiti & Gabriel Riel-Salvatore