Sergio Leone’s films are undoubtedly some of the most important ever made within the Western genre. They are exceptionally stylish and original, and the characterisation is integral to the new direction in which it takes the genre. It is perhaps this that sets Leone’s films apart from the Westerns produced within the Hollywood system prior to their release. Leone’s films were among the first of the ‘Spaghetti Westerns’, Italian productions that were shot in Spain and distributed internationally.
They signalled the rejuvenation of a dying genre, one that had had been reproduced ad nauseam since the late 1930’s. Westerns began as silent B-movies and were prominent in cinemas from their very conception, reaching the height of their early popularity with The Great Train Robbery in 1903. The film that elevated the Western from its B-movie status was undoubtedly Stagecoach, directed by John Ford in 1939. Stagecoach consolidated the masculine ideology of the Western film, one in which the gun is the law and the Western gunfighter is omnipotent.
This formula was to be the trademark of all Hollywood Westerns over the next decade. Gradually the genre became more and more complex, with the gunfighter becoming an increasingly mythological figure, and carrying much more psychological baggage. It is clear that in many of the later Hollywood Westerns (circa 1953-1959) the heroes/anti-heroes are suffering moral dilemmas, and as a result are becoming more and more aware of the implications of killing and creating social disorder. The Spaghetti Westerns signalled a complete turn-around of this formula.
They introduced the remorseless, lean, cobra-quick killer (only hints of which had been seen in characters like Shane’s Wilson) and cast them as the hero of the film. These characters were not limited by the moral values or ideals of previous Hollywood characters; instead they had only one motivation, greed. Leone’s films introduced the character synonymous with all Spaghetti Westerns, the cool, deadly Man With No Name. The Man enters the film in need of money, He kills criminals effortlessly (and shows a perverse thrill in doing so), takes His money and leaves, only to return broke again at the beginning of the next film.
This reversal of character was to have a permanent effect on the production of the Western genre. To analyse this new wave of Westerns in context with the above quotes, one needs to critically analyse a number of factors that brought about the production of the Spaghetti Western. In this essay I will determine what Leone is trying to do, what the psychology of the west was, how various institutions played a major role in the production of Spaghetti Westerns, how Leone’s ‘cinema about cinema’ stands up to critical analysis and what exactly was ‘the true spirit of the Western’.
To start with the last point is the best way to begin. The two quotes above, the first from Anthony Mann and the second from Sergio Leone, both illustrate completely different views of the Western genre as a form of filmmaking. Anthony Mann is undoubtedly a director intrigued with the psychology of his characters. Many of his characters are suffering from psychological conflict over the issues that his films portray; murder, greed, corruption, etc. This is apparent not only in his Westerns, such as The Naked Spur and Winchester ’73, but also in his film noir, such as Raw Deal and T-Men.
He is primarily concerned with the portrayal of characters embroiled in moral conflict, characters that struggle to adapt to society and all of its comforts from their previous lifestyle, or a betrayal by society (such as James Stewart’s ‘Howard Kemp’ in The Naked Spur). This seems to be precisely what Leone is referring to in his quote. By the early 1950’s the Western genre had indeed become ‘bogged down’ with psychology, exploring the ethics and mythology of the gunfighter and their place in society, rather than the Western society itself.
By the late 1950’s the genre was becoming less popular. After the glorious Technicolor(tm) offerings of movies such as Shane and The Searchers, the genre had explored the gunfighter as both a world-weary, moralistic reformist and a vicious, revenge driven relic of the civil war; it seemed that a new kind of gunfighter was needed. As Leone justifiably says, by then the cowboy picture had ‘got lost in psychology’. The genre was in need of a lifeline, and it was Leone who provided it.
It is hard to believe that Leone did not have a sophisticated knowledge of exactly what the ‘true spirit’ of the Western was when he created his Dollars trilogy. It seems that the earlier Westerns captured this elusive ‘true spirit’, whereas the later films exploited it for narrative gain before Leone’s final deconstruction of it. So what is the ‘true spirit’ of the Western? It seems apparent that almost all Westerns portray a specific set of values; hence the ‘true spirit’ could easily be described as simply another term for the generic conventions of the Western.
The ‘true spirit’ seems to be this collection of ideals, namely family values, establishment of law and order, capitalist ideology, establishment of civilisation and all sorts of other allegorical variables. For example, an analysis of the film Shane can show exactly how this ‘true spirit’ is applied through factors such as style, form, dress, location, characters, politics, timeframe etc. The obvious representation of family values and capitalist ideology in Shane is the Starrett family.
They are a close knit family that work their claim hard in the belief that if they work hard enough they are guaranteed their just reward. Compare this to the character of Jesse Tate (Millard Mitchell) in The Naked Spur. It seems that Jesse has grown old searching for gold and his idea of the American dream, whilst never actually achieving anything, “I’ve seen fellas too drunk to walk fall on their face and find gold, but never me”. He is killed by the ‘baddie’ of the film, Ben Vandergroat (Robert Ryan), when he finally succumbs to the idea of gaining his fortune through corruption.
This image of a country in which life is always hard and greed is always present is a stark contrast to the simpler films of a decade earlier. There is no redeeming view of the family in The Naked Spur, in fact the only family mentioned is that of Howard Kemp’s, a girlfriend that left him and sold his ranch when he went to war. The only place representative of civilisation in Shane is the town, the only place in which the murders occur and the worst members of society live.
Of course I could continue, but it seems that by the early 1950’s all of the films that emphasised the psychology of their protagonists did so in a number of ways, mainly; a) they formed a critique of the conflicting society in which they were based, b) they accentuated the mythology surrounding the gunfighter to emphasise their detachment from society and c) they had much more prominent political meanings encoded within them. Because of this it is clear that the ‘true spirit’ is not just a set of superficial codes and conventions of the Western genre.
Instead it seems that the phrase represents the ideology of the later westerns, assumedly ones made by Anthony Mann himself. This is in fact a glaring contradiction on his part, and makes the selected quote above even more ambiguous out of context, as many of his own films are indeed lacking the ‘true spirit’ of the Western. In The Naked Spur this is abundantly clear. The film contains many examples of generic ‘rule-breaking’, in much the same vein as Leone’s films albeit a little less tongue-in-cheek.
For example, throughout the course of the film Howard Kemp beats a woman, savagely pistol whips an enemy Indian, shoots a lame horse and lets us know that his ‘girl never waited’. He also takes the name of the Law in vain (! ) as he masks his bounty hunter identity by posing as a Sheriff. Anthony Mann also breaks down the Christian work ethic built up in so many other Westerns by demonstrating that Jesse’s lifetime of hard work is never rewarded, ‘The girl’ is a hardy, short-haired rider, and one of the most noble characters in a western, the soldier (see Stagecoach), is seemingly insane.
Perhaps the villain, Ben Vandergroat, gives the most obvious indication of the psychological conflict within Howard when he says, “Choosing a way to die, what’s the difference? Choosing a way to live, that’s the hard part. Why that’s what’s eating you! ” By this we can see that Howard Kemp is suffering internal conflict over what is morally right. Leone’s characters will never have such a problem. His films can never be classed as being ‘lost in psychology’ as the protagonists never experience such conflict. They act only for personal profit, and death is celebrated as a result, it means more money for them.
Any good that these characters do is purely coincidental. By freeing himself from this ‘true spirit’ Leone has carved himself a new creative niche, one that he can fill with his new breed of remorseless ‘violent, uncomplicated men’. By utilising this new genre of the Spaghetti Western, he was then free to develop his ‘critical cinema’. While his style and form are ground-breaking, Leone broke the golden rule of cinematic editing to great effect, ‘If you notice it, it’s bad. ‘ He decided to subvert many of the codes and conventions of traditional Western cinema.
He de-centred the action, for example by placing the emphasis on the build-up to the shoot-out rather than the shoot-out itself. He used various shots such as extreme close-ups, hitherto unseen in many areas of Western cinema. He killed women and children. He used sounds effects to great effect, flies buzzing, horses neighing, guns clicking etc. It is fair to say that Leone’s new form of ‘critical cinema’, a kind of ‘cinema about cinema’, altered not only the conventions of the Western, but the characters, ideologies and iconography of the Western as well.
So how did all of this make the Spaghetti Westerns such a break-through? It is also critically important that the Spaghetti Westerns were made outside of the Hollywood ‘sphere of influence’, and so were not subject to any of the ideological limitations and cultural baggage that the American Westerns had accumulated as the emphasis on psychology had grown. This not only allowed Leone to alter the style and characterisation of the Western genre, but also to form a critique of American Westerns, American Society and the psychology of the West as a whole.
He could now look at how the American Western had evolved, criticise it, repackage it from a Post-Modern perspective and redistribute it. He made it clear that his idea of the psychology of the West was very different to that of everyone else. As he says, he believed that ‘violent, uncomplicated men’, not pioneering spirits with morals and pacifist ideals, made the West. So enormous is his deviation from this archetypal hero that his characters are the ‘anti-heroes’, terrible greed-driven characters whom only help society by accident, a far cry from characters like Shane willing to defend civilisation with their life.
The Man seems to be the personification of this belief. It seems that the only reason an audience could possibly have for liking this character is that He is simply not quite as evil as everyone else. He carries a charisma, cool and calm in the face of adversity. However, there is another reason for the audiences’ attraction to such a character, and that is they share the seemingly gleeful approach that He takes to killing. This all requires an audience that has a sophisticated knowledge of the Western genre.
Undoubtedly they see the irony of such occurrences, He tells a coffin maker to make three more coffins for the people He is about to kill, but it is never questioned as to who will pay for them. The Mans aim is to kill all of the criminals for maximum financial gain, but it is never likely that anyone will pay for the coffins, as The Man has just bankrupt the town by claiming any reward money or destroying the economy for Himself. This vision of the gunfighter as a parasite is a crucial one, as it is a prime example of Leone’s belief of the psychology of the West.
Unlike the earlier Westerns, society is just as badly off with the parasitic gunfighters as without. For Leone, civilisation was something that came later, after the gunfighter had died out. This generic transformation turns the gunfighter into an unjust, exploitative entity, feared as much by the innocent as the guilty. The Man has no qualms about killing, no hesitation, no thought for the moral implications and no empathy towards His victims. He lives only to bleed civilisation dry and then move on again. As I have already mentioned, it is crucial that the Spaghettis were made outside of the Hollywood ‘sphere of influence’.
The demise of the studio system in the late 1940’s paved the way for the more deviant of the Hollywood Westerns, such as the films of Anthony Mann and John Ford’s later efforts. The institutions exerting their influence throughout American cinema were not present in the low budget territory of Italian filmmaking, and so Leone uses his critical free reign to its full potential. As a result, Leone carefully deconstructs the Western genre and then reconstructs it in a completely different way. Rather than using the ‘true spirit’ as the focus for his films, he deviates from this.
Instead he shows an exaggerated style of the Western, one that the audience are familiar with, and then introduces the main protagonist into its midst. Chaos ensues and the film ends in a completely different way. However, he maintains audience satisfaction throughout this deviance by showing various icons and elements within the film, popularised by directors such as John Ford, and replacing them with his own. As Christopher Frayling points out, the right to left pan of the camera across the valley, initially showing the stagecoach, its route, and finally the Indian ambush waiting for it was first introduced by John Ford.
Instead Leone will utilise the wide screen to show a lone rider crossing the valley, track his route and then give the viewer satisfaction by replacing the Indian with a gun barrel protruding from the left of frame. This intertextual parody of previous classic Westerns suggests that Leone expects his audience to have a sophisticated knowledge of the Western genre in order to gain full appreciation of his production. The detachment of Leone from Hollywood is obvious through key elements such as this within the dollars trilogy. It is this that confirms Leone’s ‘critical cinema’ approach.
He draws on other films within the genre, as well as adding and accentuating icons of his own (e. g. the coffin maker) to produce a sophisticated, post-modern vision of the Western genre. The reason that he can do this so effectively is that his characters are so implicitly simple. They have no morals or codes of honour; they kill purely for financial gain. It is this simplification of the gunfighter that allows him this freedom. The Man is the most clearly defined Western character in cinema for many years. No emotional baggage, no psychological conflict.
He simply offers an amoral view of the events that transpire within the timeframe of the film. Without this free character Leone would never have been able to produce such a film. It is the very fact that such a character is the star that allowed Leone to present such a detached, raw and violent film, complete with its critique on the myth of the American West. One that reinvents the Western genre and all of its most significant elements for a new audience, and which undoubtedly and most effectively lacks the ‘true spirit’ of the West.