Sergio Leone’s Westerns
A Fistful of Old Testament Justice
Sergio Leone transformed the American Western. Literally. As one of the major exponents of the low-budget guerilla filmmaking genre dubbed the “Spaghetti Western,” Leone transcended the limitations of a pulp brand and elevated it to a fine art. Yes, there had long been “Horse Operas.” But Leone’s grandiose Italian heritage really did ultimately produce a form of Western that was baroque in its scope and style. His films were mythic operas of justice.
One of the reasons Westerns are so effective, of course, is because the very material from which they draw their stories is myth. The tradition is literary. As the American Frontier was opening, homeward-bound letters were already re-writing history, and pulp novelists like Ned Buntline (see: the “Duke of Death” hagiographer in Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven) were johnny-on-the-spot to capitalize on the East Coast appetite for all things Cowboy and Indian. Stories about gunfighters were especially popular. Even noted 19th century-born European writers like C.S. Lewis raved about the influence such books had on their imaginations.
The trick is this: Western stories don’t have to actually be true. Nobody expects that. No, they just have to feel true. And most good Westerns have that in spades.
But what makes them feel true? Not the landscapes, which are often Mexican, Canadian, or Spanish. Not the sets, which are often far too aged for newness of the frontier. Not the costumes (though Halloweenish conventions help a lot!). Not the performances, which can often be alternately wooden and over the top. As Spaghetti Westerns demonstrate, the voices don’t even need to sync with the lips.
No, the issue is this: Does the human dilemma, the heightened drama of primal urges, feel right? Does the story portray essential, raw motivations in palpable, tangible fashion? Does an Old Testament, ruthless, almost bloodthirsty appetite for justice ooze through every frame of celluloid?
As the Western genre “matured” (read: bloated), Hollywood sort of lost sight of the purity of motivation in favor of a post-war psychologizing. Sure, big-budget films like The Searchers, Shane, and The Big Country can be considered classics of the genre. But in reality they were almost domestic dramas disguised as Westerns. Thanks to the clarity imposed by low budgets (and the inability to, you know, make their films in the actual Old West), a new school of European ragtag auteurs took advantage of the freewheeling 1960s to recapture the zeitgeist and energy of the early films of John Ford and the works of Bud Boetticher.
Seriously. Compare High Noon, Yellow Sky, The Gunfighter, Stagecoach, The Oxbow Incident, or Winchester ’73 with Hollywood’s colorized 1950s and ’60s Western epics. You can see where Leone and company were coming from.
But not where they were going to.
Leone introduced Europe to TV’s Rawhide costar, Clint Eastwood, in 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. In this very rough film (one that couldn’t possibly get distribution today), Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” (an appellation that stuck after the fact) rides into a town pinned under the ruthless and dictatorial thumb of a feud between two rival families. More free-agent mercenary than hired gun, Eastwood’s character sees the opportunity to both balance the scales of justice and profit financially by playing the two sides against each other, using the money to help the innocent. Justice is served, but not by a saint. Eastwood’s character is more an Angel of Death.
The feel is right: If you see injustice and a gun is handy, what are you gonna do? Just stand by and watch? Well, not if you’re Eastwood. You squint your eyes, bite your cheroot, and take a stand.
For a Few Dollars More upped the ante in 1965 with a higher budget, a more sprawling storyline, and a consummate character actor in Lee Van Cleef. Here was a co-protagonist worthy of Eastwood. This time the story is more a quest, and the justice pursued by Eastwood’s “Manco” has personal connections via Van Cleef’s Colonel Mortimer. Great Wrongs are perpetrated by the villain Indio, and once again the Angel of Death pursues and enables Right with brutal effect.
Again, the film is very rough; but the feel is also right: When somebody wrongs you, do you really feel like turning the other cheek? If your family is slaughtered, do you remarry and raise another passel of kids for the monster to destroy? No. You go after the bastards.
Which brings us to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. (The film was released in 1967, the same year that the first two films made their North American debut.) Eastwood is back; but “Blondie” is no deathly dealer of concrete and motivated justice here. Instead, he’s figuratively manacled to a much uglier character, Tuco, a manic outlaw who shares half the secret to a secret hoard of Civil War gold; Blondie holds the other half of the secret.
Van Cleef is back, too, as a Union officer (and hired gun gone rogue) who’s also on the trail of the lost Confederate bullion. This tale, which takes nearly three deliciously detailed hours to unfold, culminates not in a clear-cut battle between a Hero and a Villain but in a three-way showdown between the lesser of evils. Good is not absolute in this universe; instead it’s the relative judge between the Bad and the Ugly, delivering very sweet just desserts. There are not just two kinds of men, Leone’s script tells us. Things are not that neat.
Once more, it feels right, in spite of the moral murkiness. The film is about betrayal, and Leone takes the time to spell out very clearly that the frontier is no place for maidens or the naïve. No; in fact, the naïve had best not even entertain the notion of goodness on the frontier: it’s all dirty, it’s all corrupt, it’s all brutal. It’s all desperate, and almost pointless.
And wasn’t this the disillusioned reality that was about to dawn in the United States? Didn’t we all feel that way already, after Kennedy, but especially after King, after the other Kennedy, after Kent State and Viet Nam? And after Watergate? Our hands were dirty; the United States was no longer a moral beacon but had turned into just another special case of the Bible’s book of Judges. The best we could hope for was to chop the corpse of a gang-raped concubine into twelve pieces and send them out to all the tribes as warnings of the bloodbath to come… right?
Well, we can thank God, sort of, that Leone didn’t quit with a trilogy. His fourth (and in many ways, best) Western was the truly operatic and literally mythic Once Upon a Time in the West (1969 U.S. release). Eastwood and Van Cleef don’t appear; instead Charles Bronson and Henry Fonda (yes! as a villain!) take the leads. And here, Leone gets to stage his film in John Ford’s iconic Monument Valley, a setting that fittingly never actually hosted such grandiose stories.
Fonda plays Frank, the hired gun of a railroad Empire Builder. The Iron Horse is opening up the West, and the West is changing dramatically. Bronson’s nameless vigilante is nominally the protector of a homesteading (and not so helpless) heiress played by Claudia Cardinale; but he’s really there because he’s got a history with Frank, and a score to settle.
Yes, the story sprawls like a big-budget Hollywood picture (and, in reality, it was, spawned by Leone’s independently-produced successes). But nobody here looks as spiffy as they did in Shane or The Searchers. The Spaghetti Western grit still covers everything in sight, and Ennio Morricone’s epic score underlines the oddity around every corner.
And oh… the climactic confrontation between Frank and Bronson’s “Harmonica” feels oh-so-right. In an oh-so-Old-Testament sort of way.
One critic, I forget who—perhaps it was Film Comment’s Bob Cumbow, but I can’t track down the reference—noted that Leone’s work was characterized by long silences punctuated by blazes of gunfire. (This is true even in Duck You Sucker, aka A Fistful of Dynamite, a misfire of a film that closed Leone’s foray into Westerns—a film that is hard to classify at all, much less nail down as a Western.)
In this way, Leone’s films model God’s seeming interaction in our world, as reported in the Bible. He starts us out in Eden, serves justice, then goes silent. He sends a flood, serves justices, then goes silent. He delivers us from Egypt, plants us in Palestine, then goes silent. He sends invaders from Assyria and Babylonia, serves justice, then goes silent. He returns us to Jerusalem, serves justice on our neighbors, then goes silent. Jesus comes, conquers death and sin, then disappears to heaven. He ransoms our souls, stands in for justice, then leaves us to work out our salvation through suffering and sorrow, often seeming to vanish for days, weeks, even years. Yes, the pattern of quick justice followed by silence is scripturally familiar.
But make no mistake: there are no Christ figures in Leone’s Westerns. Mercy is as out of place in his landscape as Leone’s dusters. This truth you will not find in Leone’s vision: God is found not merely in the satisfaction of retribution via human agents; he is also there in the desert, between oases, calling us to sit and dwell in the silence and wait not for an explosion but a still, small voice.
As humans, we want justice, and we want it now, served our way. Leone’s films are visions for December 8 or September 12.
Just don’t learn to live there. God’s a lot bigger than that.