A Fistful of Westerns
The Making of The Italian West: Part 2
With Winnitou’s success Italian and Spanish companies started to work jointly creating pictures in the same style, European actors with an American actor on the marquee as well. Multinational casts where doing very well internationally, even in the US with AIP acquiring Maciste films usually renaming them with names like Hercules or Samson.
Maciste, a secondary character in the great 1914 silent film Cabiria, became a fan favorite propelling muscle bound longshoremen Bartolomeo Pagamo into a major star. He would star in 14 Maciste pictures and the character has become the longest running character in the history of cinema.
With Hollywood making their Historical epics in Italy during the 50s, it only made sense to bring back Maciste and shoot his adventures on these massive sets. When Pietro Fransici’s Le Fatiche di Ercole shot by the brilliant Mario Bava was released here in the US by Warner Bros as Hercules starring American Mr. Universe Steve Reeves became a massive hit, it was only natural to resurrect Maciste. These often stared Brooklynder Mark Forest as Maciste with many actors that would show up in the westerns, like Giuliano Gemma, Chelo Alonso and Erno Crisa. These films did well abroad and were often released by AIP.
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The Last Days of Pompei
After Hercules and Hercules Unchained, Steve Reeves starred The Last Day’s of Pompei. This is another story that has been filmed since early cinema the first one being in 1900 and based on an 1835 novel by Edward George-Earl Lytton (most famous for his opening line “It was a dark and stormy night.” From his novel Paul Clifford). What’s special about this picture was the folks who made it and who director Mario Bonnard chose to write it. Along with Ennio de Concini and Luigi Emanuele were none other than future Italian Western iconoclasts Sergio Leone, Sergio Corbucci and Duccio Tessari! Not only were they hired to write it they were hired as assistant directors as well. Since the film was partly financed by the Catholic Opus Dei, they heavily emphasized Christianity and Christian persecution, it also helped that biblical stories were big box office at the time.
This is an interesting film in that it’s very different in pacing and tone than Leone’s later films. The picture opens with big action sequence that’s quickly paced, violent and brutal. Brutal violence is typical of Leone but not the quick editing and action. He doesn’t let things boil and the explode like he would in later pictures. The film is pure pulp cinema, and never has a dull moment, which can happen at times in these Sword and Sandal epics and this one truly is epic.
Rome is being terrorized by marauding Christians in black hoods (not unlike the gang of red hoods in Sergio Corbucci’s Django) who murder the father of Centurion Glaucus Leto, Steve Reeves. After several plot twists and a big gladiator action sequence, that looks like Ridley Scott had studied for his film Gladiator, Mt. Vesuvius erupts bringing more death and destruction.
On the first day of shooting 69 year old director Mario Bonnard got ill with liver pains and Sergio Leone became the uncredited director, which could be why the picture doesn’t look like a Leone film as Leone was often involved with every detail in every department of his pictures. But the picture moves swiftly and is thoroughly enjoyable. It almost moves along like an early 80s Spielberg picture. The success of this film would get Leone another picture, this time with a credit, another Sword and Sandal picture The Colossus of Rhodes.
The other trend that started to happen around this period were Zorro pictures, sometimes he’s referred to as Robin Hood. Zorro, created by American pulp fiction writer Johnson McCulley in 1919, is about wealthy Spaniard named Don Diego de La Vega, who dons a black cape and mask protecting the poor and native peoples in Old California. One of the first of these was L’invincibile cavaliere mascherato (The Invincible Masked Rider) staring Winnetou’s Pierre Brice as Don Diego and directed by Umberto Lenzi (Cannibal Ferox) These films are fun but can sometimes be a bit of a chore to sit through. These pictures were essentially mash-ups of American action films, with Zorro/Robin Hood fighting various cavaliers, Pirates and yes even Maciste like Lenzi’s other Zorro picture Zorro contro Maciste.
Again these films were often joint productions as in the case of Lenzi’s Zorro pictures it was France and Italy. With a French, Italian, and Spanish cast. For The Invincible Masked Rider a set was constructed at Hoyo De Manzanares, not far from Madrid, for the Zorro films and this would also be the town where a stranger would cross the paths of two warring families.
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Enter The Magnificent Stranger
While unemployed after being fired as 2nd unit director on The Last Days of Sodom and Gomorrah, Sergio Leone collaborated on a screenplay he would call The Magnificent Stranger, a play on the title of John Sturges 1960 Film The Magnificent Seven, which was inspired from Akira Kurosawa’s The Seven Samurai.
Leone would also borrow from Kurosawa this time it was Yojimbo, the story of a Ronin, played by Toshiro Mifune, who walks into a town that’s ruled by two families. The Ronin hires himself out to each family, manipulating them and making money off both of them. But it was wasn’t just Yojimbo Leone was lifting from but also the Zorro pictures, which were really popular in Europe at the time, examples would be the families he grabbed from Yojimbo were turned into Gringos and the other Mexican. He also grabbed bits from detective fiction, in particular Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest.
Like most young boys in Italy Leone loved anything American but during Mussolini’s rein anything American was outlawed and pulp fiction was very popular and illegally sold from under a storage counter. Leone devoured this stuff, detective fiction and westerns were the most popular. Some of his shot choices in his films look like they could be pulp cover paintings.
“The worst script I’ve ever seen.”
In 1964 Jolly Film, Constantin (the producers of Winnetou) and Ocean Film put up $200,000 for the film. In the role of the stranger Leone had wanted Henry Fonda, but Leone only had 15,000; no way that was gonna happen. So Leone went after James Coburn but he wanted too much money. “The worst script I’ve ever seen”, was Charles Bronson’s reply. Leone then went to his lead actor from The Colossus of Rhodes, Rory Calhoun (Motel Hell) and even he turned it down.
Finally the producers wanted Richard Harrison, one of AIP’s stock guys who was in Italy doing a bunch of Sword and Sandal epics, but Leone instead went to the William Morris Agency, who had an office there, and they suggested he look to one of their TV actors who was on a popular American show Called Rawhide.He looked at his head shot and wasn’t impressed. They suggested he watch an episode so they sent him season four episode seven, The Black Sheep, from 1961. The show had an ensemble cast so some shows stories would focus on different characters throughout the series and this one was a heavy Rowdy Yates episode. Leone was impressed felt this actor stole the show. The actor was 34 year old Clint Eastwood and he was about to make the biggest decision of his life.
-Phillip López Jiménez
Next: Part 3, The making of The Magnificent Stranger and the beginning of a new genre.
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