Beyond the dynamite and gunfire, there is something that feels more true to the old West in the operatic spaghetti (or Euro) western than it does in the American cowboy film. It might be that the heavy tan of the Italian actors, and how they more closely resemble our perceptions of Mexican bandits and townsfolk. Or maybe it is that the original settlers of the West were European, and because of this, there is a closer cultural link between the settlers and the Europeans of the sixties and seventies than there is with Americans of the same time frame–an American culture that had its European foundations eroded and reformed over the years. In any case, there is only one thing certain, if you plan to make a spaghetti western, you should change your name to Sergio.
In 1964 Sergio Leone came out with Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars), the first of what would become known as the "man with no name" or, as it was originally marketed, "the man with no specific name" trilogy. The trilogy would establish Clint Eastwood’s career as a film actor, and Sergio Leone’s legacy as a director.
Slightly before "Fistful," a former film critic turned director, Sergio Corbucci, would co-write and co-direct a more forgettable western, Massacro al Grande Canyon (Grand Canyon Massacre). Fortunately, it was not his last. In 1965 he would release a somewhat more notable western, Minnesota Clay, with the intriguing tagline, "The sightless gunman…who killed by sound !"
With the low production costs of making spaghetti westerns, and their popularity growing, being prolific was good business. Corbucci continued to pump out a few more before making what would later become his first classic, Django, in 1966. Django can be seen as either stolen, or as a tribute to Leone’s A Fist Full of Dollars. In any case, both films were either stolen or a tribute to the Japanese samurai film Yojimbo.
Django was considered so violent that it was banned in multiple countries. Years later, in an interview for a documentary entitled Westerns Italian Style, Corbucci commented on his use of violence, claiming that it was partly due to him being born a Roman. "Yes, I am killing a lot of people–I have killed more people than Nero and Caligula. But each time it’s more difficult for me to find a new method of murder that could be used…. I have used revolvers and Winchesters. I have killed with dynamite, with gas, with fire.… I cut many things. I have cut ears and made my characters eat their own ears."
Django became so successful that confidence grew in Corbucci as a director, and he was provided with a larger budget to shoot later films. The title character, played by Franco Nero, spawned twenty sequels by other Italian filmmakers, and another dozen or so using the name merely for marketing. Most films of which–not unlike Django itself–contain elements of parody. Some of these sequels include, Django the Bastard, where, like Eastwood’s later High Plains Drifter, the character takes the form of a ghost to avenge his own death; Django Does Not Forgive, where Django’s sister is raped by someone in the Canadian Mounted Police; Django, Kill, where Django must fight against homosexual Mexican bandits who wear black leather and ride snow-white horses; and possibly the best titled of the sequels, Django, Get a Coffin Ready.
Corbucci’s use of comedy and parody, usually through his excessive, over-the-top violence, is attributed to his roots as a comedic writer and director. But his excessive style does not mean his technique is sloppy. On the contrary, Corbucci’s work is very careful and most often serious. His films, like Leone’s, are marked with an obsessive attention to detail, capturing the grit of life in the West far better than earlier American westerns. Most of his films also defy conventions of both American and European westerns by ending in tragedy for the hero.
The second of his two classics, The Great Silence, follows this tragic form. It ends with the violent death of the hero, instilling a pessimistic attitude in the audience. The movie further breaks from convention by taking place in the most mythical of all settings, where characters ride horseback around a snow-covered landscape.
Even though he called his films, "Zapata-Spaghetti," movies he thought to be, "proletarian fables–where the baddies are on the Right, the goodies on the Left," Christopher Frayling in his book, Spaghetti Westerns : Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, feels that Corbucci’s attempts at political satire are unsuccessful, that they are too buried within fantastic elements of violence and comedy, and restricted to formulaic plot. Other critics feel themes like the Mexican revolution are mentioned only for the purpose of a backdrop for the story. More than anything, Corbucci’s films are meta-theatre, constantly assessing and re-establishing the euro-western genre, and existing on a separate and surreal tangent.
More successful at politicizing the western and less tied-down to formulaic plots was Sergio Sollima. Like Corbucci, Sollima tried a series of different genres (epics, comedies, spy thrillers) before falling into westerns. His first, The Big Gundown, starred "Angel Eyes" Lee Van Cleef. The movie instantly established him as a rogue director, and was the first of his political trilogy.
His next, Face to Face, is the most notable of the trilogy. Again defying convention, it is a story about a dying professor who befriends an outlaw. In the film, the professor states: "To kill alone, is murder; to kill with ten men is an act of violence; but to kill with a thousand men–that is an organised act, a war a necessity!" Frayling says this line is a reflection of Sollima’s concerns with what he feared was growing Fascism in Europe. Each of the trilogies, including the less notable Run, Man, Run has this concern.
But like Corbucci, Sollima was concerned with not only politics, but also improving the myth of the West. There is a unique scene in The Big Gundown where the street is flooded with mud, and the townspeople are up to their waist trying to move through it. It is as if to say, this is what it was really like to live in the West.
Sollima prided himself on breaking from years of myth, claiming his movies had "total disregard of the folklore of the West." Other spaghetti directors, like Leone and Corbucci, must have had a similar mindset. As a result, they were able to create a completely new myth, infused with underlying politics and a little bit of humour. In the end, their myth seems a more appropriate representation of the old West. These three filmmakers are reason enough to change your name to Sergio if you plan to continue in a genre that is waiting for revival.