A Fistful of Westerns
The Making of The Italian West: Part 4
“One of the first loves of Italians who grew up in the 30s was America. Like all First loves, it may well be seen from a different point of view even after, but it’s never forgotten. And that was given to us by Hollywood, especially the Epic of the Western.” -SERGIO LEONE
Fistful of Dollars
For the role of Ramon Rojo, 31 year old Italian stage actor Gian Maria Volantè was chosen. A staunch communist, Volantè was a serious Shakespearean stage actor whose fiery temper landed him in exploitation pictures like Hercules and The Captive Woman and Antinea, l’amante della Citta Sepolta (Journey Beneath The Desert) a sword and sandal picture that takes place in Atlantis, later he would star in one of my favorite SW’s the politically charged Quien Sabe and French New Wave auteur Jean-Pierre Melville’s Le Cercle Rouge. Volantè wasn’t thrilled about the Leone’s western but he needed the money.
The shoot for The Magnificent Stranger went well. Eastwood called the shoot fun, with Leone wearing a cowboy hat and toy pistols to re-enact the scenes for the actors. If you ever see the behind the scenes footage it’s nice to see the often intense Volantè crack a smile and laugh.
The Italians shoot MOS, without sound (MOS is an American term from the early days of cinema. The story goes a German director was yelling that he didn’t need sound for a particular shot so he shouted: “Without Sound!” But with his German accent it came out “Mitout Sound” so as an in joke assistants labeled the reels MOS and the term stuck.) in Italy since the casts of their films are often international they don’t bother recording audio since it’s all going to be dubbed and the cast speak their dialog in their native tongues and The Magnificent Stranger was no different, Clint, English; Gian Maria Volante, Italian; Marianne Kock, German; This lack of audio can be a bad thing but in Leone’s hands it was a great thing. He was able to play with the soundtrack isolating certain sounds, like having just the sound of spurs jingling and jangling or the sound of the howling winds.
Leone may have been copying Kurosawa right down to the wind and leaves blowing but Leone manages to make use of it differently. Scenes like Eastwood’s “resurrection” when he comes into town to confront Ramón have more of a horror movie vibe than Kurosawa’s use of it. There’s no doubt Leone’s Roman Catholic upbringing plays a large part in the film, it’s use of crucifixes, graveyards, coffins and a fascination with death. The small family the stranger rescues are named Julio, Marisol, and Jesus; Joseph, Mary, and Jesus respectively, though José would be more apropos than Julio.
After the shoot, Eastwood packed his things and headed home. Several months later The Magnificent Stranger’s name was changed to Per Un Pugno Di Dollari but that wasn’t the only name change. Knowing that Italians loved American movies Sergio Leone changed his credit to Bob Robertson; Volantè became Johnny Wells, Wolfgang Lukschy was simply W. Lukschy and even Ennio Morricone became Dan Savio.
Fistful of Dollars was finally released and would go on to out-gross top American films My Fair Lady and Mary Poppins internationally. In an interview actress Sophia Loren ask an American Journalist, who’s this American actor Clint Eastwood everybody’s talking about? Who? Back at home, working TV actor Clint Eastwood, unaware of the name change, read in the trades about the sudden popularity of Italian westerns because of Per Un Pugno Di Dollari had been outgrossing everything overseas, he didn’t pay it much attention until a couple of days later his agent said excitedly “THAT’S YOUR MOVIE!”. Clint hadn’t been told of the name change.
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The picture went on to be Italy’s most successful film despite mostly negative reviews. In England, it was given the ‘X’ certificate for its brutal violence and scenes were often cut, such as the massacre of the Baxter’s and the strangers brutal beating. Fistful had a level of violence that hadn’t been seen in films before. When shooting the film Eastwood noticed Leone would show the gun firing and a cowboy going down in the same shot (this was very much a no-no in the states. It would be the shooter, then cut to the victim falling down) but Eastwood thought it interesting and didn’t tell Leone about the rule. A few years later American director Sam Peckinpah high on Leone would take violence to a new level in his landmark picture The Wild Bunch.
As massive a hit as Fistful of Dollars was it would remain unknown in American along with its star Clint Eastwood, because of producers Arrigo Colombo and George Papi’s refusal to pay Kurosawa the rights on Yojimbo as Leone requested. Once Kurosawa got wind of its success he called his lawyers and a cease and desist was put on the picture for a couple of years but not in Europe were it continued to play to big numbers. Eventually, they settled and Kurosawa would get all profits from Japanese showings. Kurosawa would later say he made more money on that picture than any of his own pictures. Eventually, Fistful would get an American release in 1967 by United Artist.
The poster, illustrated by the great Robert McGinnis, touted The Man With No Name (his name is actually mentioned twice as Joe) it performed well, 3.4 million in its original US release but it didn’t really propel Clint’s acting career here in the states even though by this time he was the number one box office star in the rest of the world. He would make a few American westerns before finally becoming a major star at home with Dirty Harry. The American critics weren’t very kind to the picture as well, the New York Times’ Bosley Crowther said: “He (referring to the stranger) is a morbid, amusing campy fraud.”
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In 1975 for its network premiere a 4-minute prelude was made to pad the picture for the 2hr format and justify some of the violence. This prelude was directed by Roger Corman alum Monte Hellman, who had directed a few westerns himself with Jack Nicholson, The Shooting and Ride The Whirlwind and later the spaghetti China 9, Liberty 37 but is probably most famous for his existentialist picture Two-lane Blacktop.
This prelude stared Harry Dean Stanton and a very short stand in for Clint Eastwood. What’s interesting about this prelude is that it sets up a slightly different plot. The stranger is in prison and is given a pardon if he goes into the town of San Miguel and destroys the two gangs. He has 60 days to do this, if he can’t make it in 60 the Calvary will come in and kill the gangs including him.
This is almost verbatim to what would be the plot to John Carpenter’s Escape From New York also with Harry Dean Stanton and starring Kurt Russell as an Eastwoodesque loner. In Carpenter’s picture, it’s future Leone star Lee Van Cleef giving the pardon. The sequences in the two pictures are very similar! This scene was how I first saw the picture during TV showings in the 70s when I was little, by the 80s it was off of it and at one point I thought I was mistaken about seeing it then it showed up as a special feature on the DVDs and Blu-Rays!
With the Sword and Sandal pictures dwindling at the box office an old but newly transformed genre was born. What American critics patronizingly referred to as Spaghetti Westerns, though some say the term originally came from Spanish critic Alphonso Sánchez. But where ever it came from, it stuck. Between 1964 and 1974 over 500 Italian pictures were made, dozens of men with no names and some with names like Django, Sartanna, Sabata, Trinity, and the first hit after Fistful, Duccio Tessari’s Una Pistola Por Ringo (A Pistol For Ringo)
The ‘Spaghetti Western’ would go through a few stages, the first stage is what I call the tall blonde gunslinger stage, then the socio/political stage. These are my favorites because they often took place during the Mexican Revolution where the leads were Mexican characters sometimes played by Latinos like Cuban Born, American trained actor Tomas Milian.
Then finally like most genre fads, self-parody. Universal’s ‘Monsters’ had Bud Abbott and Lou Costello, the ‘Spaghetti West’ had Bud Spencer and Terrance Hill in the Trinity pictures.
As Clint would say “There are two types of men my friend. Those with loaded guns, and those who dig. You dig.” In the next few weeks, I hope to dig up some of these films including some non spaghetti’s that were made at the time but in other countries like the Lee Van Cleef starrer Captain Apache.
Next: Giuliano Gemma is given A Pistol For Ringo
-Phillip López Jiménez
CLINT:A Retrospective by Richard Schickel
Clint Eastwood Interviews editor by Robert E. Kassis and Kathie Coblentz
Once Upon A Time In The Italian West: The Film Goers’ Guide To Spaghetti Westerns by Howard Hughes
Once Upon A Time In Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone by Sir. Christopher Frayling
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