Thursday, February 04, 2016

Spaghetti Westerns

Spaghetti Westerns: Bounty Hunters, Bullets and Blood Money
by Sachin Gandhi

The Calgary Cinematheque is pleased to present a six film spotlight on Spaghetti Westerns, a sub-genre of Westerns. Spaghetti Westerns have had a long road to recognition in the film world. The films were looked upon unfavourably when they first came out. American critics looked down upon these films and considered them fake and used the term “Spaghetti Westerns” in a negative manner to differentiate these Cinecittà Studios (Rome) productions from traditional Westerns. However, over the decades, the sub-genre has been closely studied and its filmmaking virtues have been acknowledged. The films may have been spawned from Westerns but they developed their own visual language, soundtracks, distinct characters, themes and iconography.  These unique characteristics of the sub-genre have in turn influenced diverse filmmakers over the decades. In fact, one can draw a line from Spaghetti Westerns to the cinema of John Woo, Johnnie To, Takashi Miike, Quentin Tarantino and Robert Rodriquez. Also, Spaghetti Westerns injected new life into traditional Westerns which were falling out of fashion in the late 1950’s. As a result, Spaghetti Westerns have created a unique and influential place in cinematic history. The Calgary Cinematheque has selected films that give a taste of the sub-genre, depicting its relevant themes and symbols while showcasing some of Spaghetti Western’s famous directors/writers/actors. Even though there were as many as 500 Spaghetti Westerns made between 1964-73, the sub-genre is still mostly associated with Sergio Leone whose A Fistful of Dollars (1964) is the first Spaghetti Western. The Calgary Cinematheque has included films from two other famous Sergios’, Corbucci and Sollima, while the selections range from the lone wolf (Django) looking for revenge (Death Rides a Horse) and money (The Bounty Killer) to political films (Compañeros, A Bullet for the General). The selected films also cover the gambit of characters from bounty hunters (The Bounty Killer, The Big Gundown), a gun-carrying priest (Klaus Kinski in A Bullet for the General), corrupt general, double crossing gunmen to crazed machine gun toting characters.

Excessive violence, bullets, blood and dynamite, that were central to Spaghetti Westerns, also set them apart from traditional Westerns. In addition, the camera shots, background score, themes and symbols were distinct as well. For example, in Westerns, heroes and villains were clearly identified by the colours of their hats. Heroes wore a white hat while the villains a black hat. However, in Spaghetti Westerns, the main characters displayed no moral compass and were never afraid to kill, either for gold, revenge or political cause. As a result, these main characters were not pure heroes but anti-heroes who rode in the grey middle line away from concepts of pure goodness and honesty. These anti-heroes often donned black apparel (Django, Sabata) in the form of a black hat, poncho or vest. The Spaghetti Western characters also appeared rugged, unshaven and sunburnt, in complete contrast to the clean looking, well dressed heroes of traditional westerns. This look was in keeping with the harsh landscape the Spaghetti characters found themselves in. Their sunburnt faces perfectly illustrated the heat-packed land they traveled through and their unkempt look, with dirty clothing, represented the lack of time to clean themselves as they were either being hunted or were on the hunt. Such naturalistic looks for the characters were not a coincidence in Spaghetti Westerns but instead owe inspiration to Italian neo-realist cinema. Admittedly, Spaghetti Westerns created their own meta-world apart from Westerns or Italian life. However, elements of reality did creep in the story lines such as the aspect of a family clan (a nod towards Southern Italian families), political references (corrupt rulers/generals) or religious symbols peppered throughout the films, such as the cross, church, and priests (some of them famously turned killers).

In terms of major plots, Spaghetti Westerns can be considered to fall into three camps -- bounty hunter films, revenge tales and political stories. Sergio Leone’s films focused on the bounty hunter, in the quest for money, which was an end goal in itself. The second major plot revolved around revenge killing, to avenge a family or loved one’s murder. These revenge killings were often depicted with savage violence, an eye for an eye taken to its bloody conclusion. In the later phase of the sub-genre, political plots were incorporated in the stories resulting in films which featured a revolution and liberation of people from an oppressive ruler/general/family clan. These films were identified as Zapata Westerns and their stories took the side of the oppressed against the hierarchy, thereby resonating with the common man. This also helps explain the popularity of Spaghetti Westerns with the masses who flocked to see the films in their heyday.

The Calgary Cinematheque Spotlight has selected works which expand on these different themes and symbols of the sub-genre. Corbucci’s Django stars Franco Nero, a vital actor of the sub-genre, dressed in all black carrying that well-known coffin behind him. Django exemplified the violent world that later became commonplace in the sub-genre. Eugenio Martín’s The Bounty Killer shows a savage world where killing is normal because that is the means by which bounty hunters earn their living. Corbucci’s Compañeros is his take on the Zapata Western and impressively brings together Franco Nero with Jack Palance and Fernando Rey (known for his work in Luis Buñuel’s films and The French Connection). Clint Eastwood is a renowned association with Spaghetti Westerns but Lee Van Cleef is not far behind. Lee Van Cleef made small appearances in many Westerns (The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, High Noon) but caught the eye in Leone’s For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly before he went onto carve his own name in the sub-genre. Two of Lee Van Cleef’s memorable films Death Rides a Horse and The Big Gundown are part of this Spotlight. The Big Gundown is also famously associated with director Sergio Sollima and writer Franco Solinas. Solinas made his name as a writer in Gillo Pontecorvo’s The Battle of Algiers and Francesco Rosi’s Salvatore Giuliano, two landmark films that are firmly rooted in political violence. Solinas was able to transfer this political depiction into the four Spaghetti Westerns he wrote, two of which are shown as part of the Cinematheque Spotlight. The Big Gundown is the first Spaghetti Western that Solinas worked on and he built on top of this film’s Mexican aspect by crafting a fully developed Zapata Western in A Bullet for the General, an essential film that shows how the sub-genre incorporated political elements within its framework.

This Spotlight features something for all films fans. For seasoned film lovers, there is a chance to discover some new Spaghetti Western films and see them in rare formats, such as Death Rides a Horse in 35 mm. For newcomers, this spotlight is the perfect way to be introduced to the sub-genre and experience the origins of many contemporary films.