Italy, 1964. The month is September, usually the worst month for cinema ticket sales. A film is released, without a major distributor and with negative reviews. The director is only known for an uninspired sword-and-sandal epic from a few years prior and some uncredited work on a Steve Reeves movie. The film plagiarises a popular Japanese movie and will soon get bogged down in lawsuits, preventing an American release until 1967, despite the American lead actor. The Italian audience who sat down in September 1964 didn’t know what they were participating in. The film was A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, the director was Sergio Leone, and the world of cinema, art, and culture was about to be forever changed.
Westerns are a rather strange genre. Historically they represent something almost unique to the American psyche. America is a land without castles, without mythology, without empires. It is a land of colonisers. The 19th century was the century of global expansion. As Europe conquered the sea, America moved westward, devouring land and claiming it as their own. It was the last frontier of exploration, remaining some of the last inhabited lands to be taken over by white settlers. So, in the next century, in a country with little history, this expansion became a romanticised dream. The western genre was a celebration of all that is deemed noble about America. It was a time when people were truly individuals, where men were men, and the land was there to be bravely taken by those strong enough to fight for their right to claim it. Anyone could make it; all you needed was skill, luck, and courage. “The American Dream”, repackaged as the past.
The first feature film ever shot in Hollywood, THE SQUAW MAN (1914), was a western. The genre was popular in cinema, as far back as the 1910s. What followed was decades of western cinema. From the 1930s through to the 1950s, it was a highly popular genre at a time when Hollywood was at its height of power. American traditional values were reflected back at the audience through them. The Wild West was not so wild in these depictions. Ultimately family values of decency and love won out almost always. If there was a criminal, there was a sheriff or brave cowboy to stand up to them. If there was debauchery, it was only by the villainous. If a good man sought violence or revenge, it was to protect his family. However, by the late 1950s, these clichés were getting tired and hackneyed. The 1960s saw Hollywood transition away from the western as newer, more auteur-led cinema took over. Yet, outside America, especially in Europe, the western remained as popular as ever, even as audiences mocked their unoriginality.
In 1963, Sergio Leone began work on his Italian western, A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, starring Clint Eastwood. Here, history was born. Much is made of Leone subverting the western, as Italian audiences too were tired of the stale tropes coming from Hollywood. Yet a much larger part of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is Leone just making an American genre in an Italian style. The broad excesses of Italian cinema were less rooted in the conservative attitudes of mainstream American filmmaking. So Leone made a film of nasty violence and hopeless nihilism, something Hollywood shied away from. Lying about the harshness of history was not in his interest. The success of A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS paved the way for the complete Dollars Trilogy (also containing FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE (1965) and THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY (1966)), all of which pushed the boundary of the western further and further. FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE depicts rape, suicide, and drug misuse, whilst THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY is at times a depressing war film. Nobody in America had made films like this, but from then on, many imitators would try.
The violence of the Dollars Trilogy only ever leads to suffering. Leone depicts a world of cruel men under no authority. American cinema though took a long time to embrace violence. The late 1960s, with NIGHT OF THE LIVING DEAD (1968) and BONNIE AND CLYDE (1967), changed things. However the European film industry was far more awash with bloodthirsty characters. In the 1950s, it was British cinema that brought blood into the world of colour through Hammer Horror. In the 1960s, it was the Italians and French who went further. The Vietnam War changed American culture, since for the first time the incongruity between onscreen violence and the violence of the news seemed incredibly hypocritical. Yet European countries, having faced the abyss of their own horrors in World War Two, were not so joyous about war. Hollywood war films in the 1950s have a sense of victory; the rest of the world was significantly dourer. When we confront the American Civil War in THE GOOD, THE BAD AND THE UGLY, it is noticeable that the war is not shown as an American war across large battlefields. Instead we have two sides in trenches, stuck in a stalemate and feeling hopeless. It is more reminiscent of European warfare than anything America dealt with. Leone was doing what few westerns before him had done, he was bringing an ideology not rooted in American exceptionalism. Men are fighting without reason, not for the cause of freedom or the American way of life. Men fight to survive. Principled and noble people are mythical, but unlike the Hollywood machine, Leone wasn’t interested in perpetuating romantic myths of struggle.
Leone followed up the Dollars trilogy with three more films: the operatic western ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (1968), the Mexican-set western DUCK, YOU SUCKER (1971), and the gangster epic ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA (1984). Often these are thrown together as the Once Upon a Time Trilogy, but that is misleading, although these disparate films do function as an epic tale on the rise of America. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is the death of the frontier and the rise of corporate capitalism. DUCK, YOU SUCKER is a film of revolution as class begins to encompass lives. ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA is then finally the rise of the modern economy, rooted in crooks and crime. Leone explored the tapestry that was the twentieth century and tried to examine how America came to be as it was.
ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST is Leone’s western masterpiece. It is a slow and contemplative work, lacking any of the up-tempo aspects of the Dollars Trilogy. Gone is thrilling nihilistic glee, instead the audience is presented with something thoughtful. There are two threads to ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST. One relates to an act of vengeance and the other to the end of the frontier. The film is about what is described as “civilisation” reaching the edge of the America. The trains and the people and the money of the coasts are all heading towards the lawless Wild West. Leone captures the last vestiges of frontier capitalism, just before the modern day corporate world arrived. His film is an ode to the individuals that formed the society of the frontier. They would soon lose their way of life, as the modern economy took over their world and the money was funnelled back to rich people who lived far away. Cowboys, bounty hunters, bandits, all these people would soon become irrelevant. Forces of control and economic power stopped being centred on the individual around the start of the twentieth century. As land became owned and companies became expansive due new abilities to travel and communicate, the individual was not needed. ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST captures that transition, but furthermore shows that the flow of history was only ever leading to the homogenised, faceless corporate world that eventually dominated everything, including cinema and the ideology of the Hollywood western itself.
However radical ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST may have seemed, it is nothing compared to Leone’s follow-up DUCK, YOU SUCKER. Though this film is generally forgotten about, it is one of Leone’s greatest efforts. Opening with a quote by Mao Zedong, the film depicts an Irish terrorist and a Mexican peasant swept up in the Mexican Revolution. Leone was at times making a statement on European politics with this film, examining the romantic notions of revolution prevalent in the youthful left of the era and also dealing with Italy’s fascist past, most notably with symbolism reminiscent of the Axis powers in World War II. DUCK, YOU SUCKER is also about class struggle and a desire to reform civilisation away from the powerful. Mikhail Bakunin is referenced at one point, extending Leone’s previous worldview that favoured the individual over the collective in many regards. However, DUCK, YOU SUCKER plays to both a communist and anarchist worldview, often simultaneously. Ultimately it about the distrust of authority and the belief that those at the bottom are let down by the forces above them in society, exemplified by an opening scene filled with over-indulgent bourgeoisie. Setting the film in 1910s Mexico allows the film to look at an ideology being fought over, something a more traditional western could never do since America capitulated to capitalism without any resistance. DUCK, YOU SUCKER is a wildly uncommercial film, but it is the most directly political effort Leone ever made. His quest to give the western gravitas was fulfilled by making such a probing look at the forces that shape history and economic circumstance.
Sergio Leone’s five westerns stand the test of time for so many reasons. One is obviously that they are very entertaining, and the scores by Ennio Morricone are iconic. However they also show something much deeper. They reveal the history of America from the eyes of someone not interested in promoting America. Spaghetti westerns are not a more truthful form of western, but they are not more inaccurate. What they provide is a reality check. History was not built on family values and America’s virtues. It was built on power struggles, awful brutality, and endless change. Leone celebrated the individual in his films, not because they are noble, but because they are themselves. The world moved to a place where power became concentrated and individuals just cogs in a machine. His westerns celebrate the last era of real freedom, whether or not it was a good time and place to live. In the 1950s he saw a western genre that did not celebrate the individual but instead had become self-parody and glamorised the values of the institutions that ran America. His films are an affront to that and a lasting tribute to the world that died so civilisation could form.