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The Italian Western and the American Western

by April 14, 2007

A sweeping panoramic vista of a green valley bathed in morning sunlight shows mountains looming ominously in the background, standing firm and perched like majestic sentinels overseeing the forests and fields stretched out before them. A shabby little dirt road bordered on one side by rundown and rickety wooden buildings and on the other by broken and derelict covered wagons. As the wind batters the wagons, it stirs up the dust and sends tumbleweeds rolling awkwardly down the road and past a dingy stray dog wandering aimlessly through the town. These could very easily be the opening shot of either an Italian or an American western film, and while the two types of films share some similarities in structure and plot, they are also very different in tone, and portrayal of life in the old West. Although the Italian western would borrow heavily from the American western, it would also impart its soul and leave behind a lasting influence that still lives on in the western films of today.

"He shot the eyes of bad men," Jackson Brown eloquently sings in his song about the immortal Italian director Sergio Leone. Sergio Leone was not the only director of Italian westerns, or spaghetti westerns, as they would come to be known, but he was the best: The master!  Some other notable directors of the genre include Sergio Corbucci, Sergio Sollima, Enzo G. Castellari and the godfather of gore and legendary Italian horror movie director, Lucio Fulci.

When Sergio Leone's "A Fistful of Dollars" was released to American audiences in 1967 no one realized that the western movie genre was about to be transformed forever. The film itself was a retelling of Akira Kurosawa's now classic samurai film "Yojimbo." However, this was a western that had not been seen before, at least not in America. It was low budget comparatively and the stars, including Clint Eastwood, were unknown in this country. But it had something the American western did not; it was edgier, and darker in tone. However, this was only the beginning of more gun-slinging goodness to come. Leone followed it up with two more films, "A Few Dollars More," and the now legendary "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly." These would come to be known as the man-with-no-name trilogy.

Leone had started something; the movies would start to pour out of Italy just as sci-fi poured out of Hollywood in the fifties. Some of these would push the envelope in style and essence and transform the western forever. One such film was "Django," a film by director Sergio Corbucci and staring the chiseled Franco Nero who would later star in several other notable Italian westerns. Corbucci strived for a realistic and darker look and even used a costume and set designer that worked frequently with Leone. The town was dirty, the people were dirty, the language and dialogue were rough and raw, and this was one of the first westerns that featured graphic violence and gore; one such scene is the now famous ear-cutting-off scene. This gore would later be taken to the extreme in Lucio Fulci's "Four of the Apocalypse" in 1975. These aspects had largely been absent from the American western.

Not every western film that came out Italy was an instant classic. The Italians had their share of duds to be sure, but mixed among the bad ones were some grand ones as well. Films like "The Great Silence" from Corbucci that features a mute gunslinger, vast snow-filled landscapes of Utah, most of the good guys getting gun downed, and a bleak ending in which the hero is killed. Other classics include "Texas Adios," "Companeros," "A Bullet for the General," "A Man Called Blade," and "Keoma." These films brought to the genre raw violence, vulgar language and attention to details that the American westerns did not have up to this point. Weapons and shootouts were usually represented more accurately, and the films were often more political in nature as can be seen in "Run Man Run" and "Companeros," which both deal with revolutions and politics in Mexico.

The portrayal of women was also very different in the Italian western. One thing that is rarely if ever seen in an Italian western is a woman with so much makeup that she looks like she stepped out of a fifties musical; the women were made up to look just as dirty and sweaty as the men. Another missing element was romance; in fact, most Italian westerns had very little in the way of romance compared to their American counterparts. The little romance that was portrayed in an Italian western was usually brief, not as essential to the story line, and the women were usually treated more unsympathetically. However, they were often portrayed as much stronger characters. One might say the Italian westerns were chauvinistic, but in reality they were more accurate in their portrayal in women of the era and in those situations.

In 1969 the master himself, Sergio Leone, would unleash on the world what is nowadays regarded as the greatest western ever made, "Once Upon a Time in the West." With input from future directors Bernardo Bertolucci and horror maestro Dario Argento, this sweeping epic tale with a mesmerizing score from Ennio Morricone has not been equaled to this day. The film intertwines long scenes that contain very little talk with sudden explosions of violence. Cast with great actors such as Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards and ending in classic Leone style with an extended shootout between the hero and villain, it is a perfect film. While some would argue that Leone's "The Good, The Bad and The Ugly" is the ultimate western, the more polished "Once Upon a Time in the West" surpasses it at every level with the exception of the final shootout; that honor still belongs to "The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly." However, there is no disagreement that Leone has the distinction of being responsible for the two greatest westerns ever made.

The American Western in Comparison

Prior to the Italian westerns, the American westerns were much different. Better or worse is a matter of opinion, but they were very different. The American western has a long and lavish history and can be traced back to silent films such as "The Great Train Robbery" in 1903. The American western also spans almost every major genre from musical and comedy to sci-fi, but the best were the action and drama westerns. In 1946, John Ford's "My Darling Clementine" was released, and it is generally considered the first truly great American western. While not historically very accurate, and not violent, this good-natured and tender romance story wraps itself into the legend of Wyatt Earp. Over the next twenty years a plethora of westerns would emerge from Hollywood, and mixed among the good and the bad were some greats.

Like all movies, the early American westerns reflected the society and culture of the times; clean and wholesome, they had strong recognizable heroes. While this is certainly not a bad thing, it did not make for very realistic films. The early West was a rough, harsh and crude place, and one would never get a good sense of that lifestyle by watching Howard Hawks' film "Rio Bravo." While Hawks did a brilliant job of telling a story all contained over a few nights and all in the town, the thought of Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson as gunslingers with great singing voices makes it unbelievable: entertaining, yes, but believable, no.

Many of the early American westerns featured incredible scenery and magnificent cinematography, but the people and towns generally just looked too good. People of those times were not very hygienic, but this did not come across in the films. Dialogue was also a problem for the early westerns, because it read more like a book and not how people actually spoke. The grammar was just too perfect. There are, of course, always exceptions, and one of those exceptions was director George Stevens' "Shane" released in 1953: Shane was a gunslinger and he was an anti-hero. The film itself was beautifully shot and the director strived for realism with the gunplay, dialogue, and sets. There was no comedic sidekick and there was no singing; it was ahead of its time.

After the Italian western came on the scene, the American western started to change, and a refreshing change it was. Some label these as revisionist westerns and that may be accurate, but whatever you want to call them, the Italian influence is there. One of first films to showcase this new attitude in American westerns was director Ted Post's "Hang Em High." Released in 1968, it featured the spaghetti western star himself, Clint Eastwood. This was a much more violent film with more realistic use of guns, dirtier and grittier looking people and better attention to details, such as the hero's foot twitching while he was being hung in the opening scene. The film also contains a very disturbing hanging scene toward the end that holds up well even by today's standards. "Hang Em High" also has a very obvious tribute to Corbucci's "The Great Silence" where the main character extinguishes his cigar in a villain's drink.

Two noteworthy directors that would take lead in changing the America western forever were Sam Peckinpah and Clint Eastwood. In 1969 Sam Peckinpah released "The Wild Bunch." The film was very violent for its day and featured shoot-outs in slow motion, which accentuated the graphic nature of the violence. This would be a trademark of Peckinpah in succeeding films. The no-name gunslinger himself, Clint Eastwood, would also leave his mark on the American western, but his roots were easy to see. In all his films the respect and admiration of Sergio Leone is glaringly obvious.

Modern westerns such as "Silverado," "Tombstone," and the very recent "Open Range" would combine the best of the American westerns of old and the brutality of the Italian, and the results were high adventure, spectacular scenery, and a good dose of realism.  Actor Kevin Costner would also contribute with his truly epic film, "Dances With Wolves." It is one of the most beautiful westerns ever put on film.

The impact the Italian western had on the American western is hard to deny; however, if not for the popularity of the American western, we likely would have never seen the Italian western. In reality, they are both part of a whole; and one can't be watched without comparing it to the other. It should also come as no surprise that some of the greatest films of all time just happen to be westerns. All of this tribute and respect to one style or another is summed up brilliantly in Jackson Browne's song, "Sergio Leone." It goes as follows: "He worked for Walsh and Wyler with the chariot and sword. When he rode out in the desert he was quoting Hawks and Ford. He came to see the masters and he left with what he saw. What he stole from Kurosawa he bequeathed to Peckinpah." America started the western movie genre with heart and grandeur, and Italy gave it toughness and grit. The two styles meshed together and combined they would be soul of the greatest movies ever made.