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I republish here an article originally written for the catalogue of the retrospective “Faroeste Spaghetti – Bangue bangue à Italiana” in 2010.
The man walks through a valley dragging a coffin while a singer on the soundtrack describes his achievements. He watches from a distance while two rival groups – one white, the other Mexican – vie for the right to torture and kill a woman, and act with coolness and precision to eliminate them without exposing any emotion. It’s a series of strong images (Franco Nero dragging his coffin achieves an automatic iconic value) that powerfully introduce Django’s hero. In these few minutes, Sergio Corbucci’s film also accurately shows us much of what makes the Italian western diferente from its American counterpart.
When discussing the so-called spaghetti western one often points to its cold antiheroes (such as Django, Sartana, or the Man Wiyh No Name), the dirty settings, the obnoxious peasants, and the unglamorous hookers as proof that the Italians would propose a version of the American West that is truthful than the American equivalents. A more honest way of looking at the issue – and Django’s opening is a great illustration of it – is that for the Italians, the so-called “conquest of the west” is an abstraction that can be manipulated for a variety of purposes; a setting and a series of conventions to be manipilated in the name of drama (and, as the image of Django and his coffin reinforces, the Italian western is first and foremost dramatic).
While the American Western (at least the good ones) has to deal with the historical weight associated with the genre (something that has been accentuated over the years), the Italian films are free of such associations.For filmmakers such as Sergios Leone, Corbucci and Sollima, the American West is mainly the memory of other films.They saw Henry Fonda as Wyatt Earp, while John Ford used to proudly claim he had met the real Earp in the 1920s. This, of course, does not make Ford’s version more true to the facts, but it puts him in the position of making myth out of a much more recent story than we often remember: when the first producing companies were set up in Los Angeles, the city was not far from a big western city.For the Sergios, only the myth remains.The entire Italian western is by definition a Mannerist film, the work of a group of European filmmakers playing with the historical mythology of someone else.Which leads us to the question: what do they do with it?
It’s worth looking carefully at the Italian film industry and how it developed between the late 1950s and early 1960s, in the wake of Hollywood’s falling revenue. Above all else, there was a very large production with great demand. Obviously, this made room for much nonsense, but also opportunity for the most diverse types of professionals. The Western (as well as the horror/thriller film, which also had a local boom at the same time) had become an excellent opportunity for some aspiring filmmakers not only to settle a foot in this industry but also to develop their ideas. No local producer cared about what the filmmaker was trying to do as long as the film delivered the minimum dose of exciting shootings.
One can for example observe Leone’s Dollar trilogy and how the three films progressively grow in their ambitions as it becomes clear that the filmmaker can get away with them. By the late 1960s and early 1970s, it was already clear that as long as he was skilled and creative with his shootouts, a filmmaker could fragment his narrative as much as he wanted (as in Gianfranco Parolini’s If you Meet Sartana Pray for your Death), or start a movie quoting Mao Tse-Tung – as Leone would do in Duck you Sucker. For poorly established left-leaning filmmakers – quite numerous in late-1960s Italy – the spaghetti western turned out to be an endless source of rich opportunity, precisely because it was made within this abstract mythology that could be manipulated so many ways. Think about a movie like Sergio Corbucci’s Navajo Joe,in which a young Burt Reynolds plays a Navajo driven to reclaim the lands of his people, armed almost exclusively with his determination (Reynolds plays him like a zombie, unable to deviate an inch from his goal) and his extensive knowledge of local geography.Soon enough, it became clear to these filmmakers that, far more than indigenous genocide (that recrring theme of American bad consciousness westerns), the great gold mine for their political interests was located a little further south in the then-almost-ignored Mexican revolution. Here was the widest possible cocktail for a late 1960s militant filmmaker with a free hand from his producers: armed revolutionaries;local corruption;a complicated exploitative relationship with its wealthy capitalist neighbor from the north;European agitators;and the ample opportunity to fit into this historical space the twisted dramatic plots that underline the qualities the audience came to expect from Italian westerns.
Soon, the Mexican revolution western would turn into a genre within the genre, with its own tropes and expectations. Some of them only used the Mexican confusion as a background for the exploits of some European adventurers, but many were interested in using the allegorical possibilities of this background (and it is certainly not accidental that Leone’s contribution to the cycle begins by quoting Mao). The film that first perfected the ideal of the Mexican spaghetti was A Buller for the General by Damiano Damiani, who only a few years later would make one of the oficial classics of Italian political genre cinema: Confessions of a Police Captain. El Chuncho (Gian Maria Volonté) is an idealistic bandit in an unsustainable position that becomes the film’s central issue: he survives by supporting the revolutionaries while also profiting from them. Enter his two major influences, his half brother and revolutionary priest Santo (Klaus Kinski), and Bill (Lou Castel), the gringo of the Brazilian title who becomes a member of the Chuncho gang for personal purposes that have little to do with the well bwing of Mexican people. The script by Franco Solinas (Gillo Pontecorvo’s main screenwriter at the time) has no room for any subtlety, and A Bullet for the General is probably the most radical of the films from this cycle. Castel is great and as charming as every good corrupting figure needs to be, but Damiani doesn’t allow him any virtue. It is in the figure of Santo that we can see much of the strange balance that makes the Italian political westerns so intriguing: Kinski, with all the tics one come to expect from him, splits time between shouting political slogans and blessing his enemies before throwing grenades at them. On the one hand, the populist need of the genre film; on the other, the revolutionary rhetoric that the film applies with absolute belief. It’s a complex pendulum that all filmmakers who ventured into the Mexican western needed to know how to balance. Damiani always talks about the influence of Rocha’s Black God, White Devil on his film and it is quite evident; but so is a crassness (without any value judgment to be clear) inherent in the genre.
Other filmmakers would deal with the issue in different ways. Sergio Leone, for example, lends a greater elegance to Duck You Sucker, which is both more direct and less angry than a movie like A Bullet for the General. But the director seems mostly interested in adapting the subgenre to the particular mythology that his four previous films have been gradually expanded; and he does so with great beauty. No filmmaker, however, was as keen on this idea as Sergio Corbucci. Corbucci’s early westerns (like Minnessota Clay) suggested a filmmaker with a particular interest in themes of exploitation and injustice, and who saw the landscape of the American West as a natural space for these themes to develop amid a malleable law. In one of his best films, The Great Silence, we have bounty hunters who act as a true extermination army that kills within the law. It is one of the most sober and cold of Italian westerns, far removed from Corbucci’s contributions to the cycle of the Mexican Revolution: The Mercenary and Companeros. They both have the same central plot – which suggests how a genuine subgenre had gradually been created: an European mercenary (Franco Nero in both films) becomes involved with a popular Mexican leader (Tony Musante in The Mercernary, Tomas Millian in Companeros) and help him to carry out crimes in the name of revolution while being chased by an American gunslinger (Jack Palance, again in both movies). Companeros further complicate the situation by including a professor (Fernando Rey) who preaches nonviolent action. There are differences in tone, with Companeros’ mood being more over than The Mercenary’s, in part because Millian throws himself into his role with greater amount of energy than the more subdued Tony Musante.
Both films could lazily be described as farcical Westerns about the adventures and multiple betrayals of two gunmen, were it not for the complete sincerity that Corbucci applies to this material. Especially in Companeros, which is nonetheless A Bullet for the General reverse, with Tomas Millian’s enthusiasm gradually undoing the cynical mask used by the foreign mercenary. It’s the kind of movie where Palance always has an eagle on his shoulders, to make it clear to even the most distracted audience what he stands for; or in which a scene that shows Franco Nero and Fernando Rey discuss the merits of nonviolent intervention is followed by another, in which Palance and his minions torture Milliam by throwing a rodent into his pants. The late 1960s are a prodigal in engaged films, but few have aged as well as this western cycle, precisely because, even when their rhetoric may sound dated, this balance between the needs of capitalism and a sincere belief that these films will be capable to transcend it is far too fascinating and contagious. Films like A Bullet for the General or Companeros become key pop artifacts of their time, and an essential – if far from the most famous – part of what makes the Italian western as a whole a cycle of the most interesting films of that era.