When I was a teenager the spaghetti western seemed to proliferate on TV: the good, the bad and the downright awful! Some were laugh-out-loud misfires, others grotesque, misogynist, but a few, a not insignificant few, were very good and a couple were masterpieces. They changed the face of cinema and rebooted the western, a form that had largely died in America. The spaghetti western took oft told tales and well worked storyboards and reshaped them, handing the remodelled genre back to the world for others to reinterpret and so it goes. Cox has produced an anthology of Italian westerns that is warm but also insightful, idiosyncratic and selective but if you bare in mind that a lot of dross was produced that is a good thing. Cox knows his subject and knows how to get complex themes across in plain language and with a bit zip.
This is a new edition of a book Cox wrote in 1978, now added to, corrected and revised with the perspective of forty plus years of re-examination and new scholarship on the subject of the spaghetti western. A term, incidentally, that Cox is not all that comfortable with, lumping as it does great films in with the run of the mill that was being churned out at the same time. I see it more as a badge of honour so for sake of ease we’ll stick with spaghetti.
Alex Cox, one-time enfant terrible of the British film industry, director, critic, writer and TV presenter grew up on Italian/Spanish westerns catching his first double bill, A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More in 1967. These were seen in the US and England as misogynistic and violent and dismissed as inferior by critics but they gradually struck a chord with the audience, and were hits across Europe. This was the sixties, the time of Vietnam, the US western was on its uppers and TV cowboy drama (High Chaparral, Bonanza) was hardly challenging. For Cox, the golden years were 1967-68 and two directors stand out: Leone and Corbucci, this anthology concentrates on the films he considers significant of the hundreds that were made.
Cox says it all began with Brando, Kurasawa and the Continental Op. The stories in Italian westerns are essentially a rehash of American westerns (all hail founding father, John Ford). You can see for yourself when you read this book where Hammett/Continental Op fits in. The influence of Kurasawa’s Yojimbo and Brando’s One-Eyed Jacks, 1961, was considerable. Both are films about heroes who suffer before finally fighting back, that delay is a key element of the spaghetti western. Here’s one detail Cox highlights as relevant: Yojimbo is the tale of a samurai with no lord, he arrives in a town torn between two rival gangs, and there’s a poor family, beautiful woman, caught in the middle.
In Italy there had been a few comedy westerns before 1963 but that’s where Cox starts his survey. The first chosen film is Red Pastures. Cox lists the cast and crew, gives a plot synopsis and a review/history of the making and release of the film. The subsequent pieces on individual films range from a couple to twenty pages. His summing up:
‘Red Pastures is a bad film. Half-hearted and half-assed, it seems to imitate an American cowboy picture, and fails badly at that.’
The dialogue is confusing and the characters behave unnaturally but the crew went on to better things so it was a proving ground.
1964: Fistful of Dollars, Director: Sergio Leone, Music: Ennio Morricone, Starring: Clint Eastwood, Gian Maria Volonte, Marianne Koch, Pepe Calvo.
Remember Yojimbo? Fistful has a drifter, Joe [Clint Eastwood], he rides into a Mexican town on his mule, he kills four men for insulting said mule. The town is torn between two rival gangs, the Rojos and the Baxters. Joe sees a chance to make money, he joins the Rojos. The Rojos steal a gold shipment from the Mexican army and a fragile truce between the two warring factions in town soon ends. Joe helps a poor family, beautiful woman, caught in the middle of it all to escape. He gets caught, he is savagely beaten by Ramon Rojo and his men. Joe recovers in a cave, fashioning a bullet proof vest out of sheet metal and the Rojos wipe out the Baxters. That’s when Joe comes back to town, it all ends in a final shootout between Ramon and Joe, spoiler – Joe wins.
Cox describes the movie as a good picture; exciting, violent, funny, and cynical. We learn that Charles Bronson, Lee Marvin and James Coburn turned the part down before Leone turned to TV actor Eastwood (Rowdy Yates in Rawhide), a movie superstar was born. Cox isn’t blind to the film’s failings, hammy acting by stock characters for instance. The film almost ran out of money, Fistful also broke the Hays Code (American movie rules instituted in the 1930s), but the producers had European money and European distribution and didn’t really care about that code of conduct. Fistful showed victim and shooter in the same shot (deemed shocking), showed a ‘mercy’ killing (shooting a wounded man) and had a pervasive atmosphere of violence. When comparing Yojimbo with Fistful, Cox notes forty plus direct steals in the plot, from hiding in a coffin and hiding under the floor boards, to the rival gangs (also see Shakespeare for that though).
‘The levees of good taste and correct heroic lawmaking were about to be overwhelmed by a tidal wave of free-willed, violent, anarchic heroes – courtesy of the hundreds of Italian Westerns made in the wake of Fistful of Dollars.’
1965 sees an explosion of movies including A Few Dollars More (D: Leone, teamed with Morricone, Eastwood, and van Cleef):
‘This is how the film begins. One long take, lasting over a minute and a half, which does more than establishing mood. This shot, I think, is the essence of the Italian Western: a harsh, desert world where human life is mercilessly exposed, and sudden violence erupts without a warning. There is no visual romanticism.’
Other significant movies that year for Cox include: A Pistol for Ringo (D: Tessari), In a Colts Shadow, Return of Ringo, Johnny Oro, Django (D: Corbucci, starring Franco Nero). 1966: Arizona Colt, The Bounty Killer, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and A Bullet for the General (D: Damiano Damiano).
Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), again directed by Leone and starring Henry Fonda, Claudia Cardinale, Jason Robarts, and Charles Bronson may be the one film most people see as the best Italian western. Cox says this is a simple story made epic, ‘a masterpiece’, an art house western.
One I personally liked Sabata (1969, D: Parolini with Lee van Cleef) is fairly described as not great but enjoyable. The spaghetti western was dying out by the early seventies. There are two points Cox expounds on that are interesting, one is the link to Webster and Jacobean revenger tales, the other is the link between these violent boundary breaking movies and the times, Vietnam and the upheaval of the sixties. What Cox has to say makes a lot of sense.
Cox is always interesting, often insightful, the director’s eye sometimes throws up something you might have missed. This is a personal survey but it is rigorous and entertaining. It sets the spaghetti western in its context within cinema history. His love of the form is obvious.
Paul Burke 4*
10,000 Ways to Die by Alex Cox
Kamera 9780857303387 pbk Sep 2019