Figure 1: Franco Nero as Django (1966). Sergio Corbucci’s film is an improvisation on Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) involving the exaggeration of carnivalesque and grotesque elements.
In the free-wheeling Italian popular cinema of the 1960s and 1970s, film played the role of a subversive Bahktinian secular ritual. ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ or ‘Westerns alla’Italiana’ have had a unique impact on world film though they were produced by marginal filmmakers for marginal audiences, appealing to transgressive populist sentiments. The majority of films in the genre display a striking plot schema initially derived from Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961) but translated into a uniquely Italian populist idiom in Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964). A liminal narrative involving the figurative death of the male protagonist mediated between audience, filmmaker, the culture of both northern and southern Italy, the emerging capitalism of mid-2oth century Italy, and leftist and rightist political currents.
Over 450 Western alla’Italiana were made in Italy between 1964 and 1977 (Fridlund 2006). Both the Northern Italian film intelligentsia and contemporary American film critics dismissed the genre as crude and violent exploitation, derogatorily referring to it as “spaghetti westerns” (Frayling 2006). This response reveals a fundamental incomprehension of popular cinema in general and of the Italian western in particular.
In Rabelais and His World (1984), the Russian literary scholar Mikhail Mikhaĭlovich Bakhtin describes a similar incomprehension among the literary theorists of his time when interpreting Rabelais’s novel Pantagruel and Gargantua (1955). Rabelais’s novel emerged from the fusion of the carnivalesque genres of the Medieval marketplace with the literary freedom of Renaissance. With the Enlightenment’s consolidation of a new hegemonic worldview, the novel lost coherence and become both scatological and impenetrable.
The parallel with 20th century popular cinema is striking. Both the arbiters of cinematic taste and academics have viewed the Western alla’ Italiana out of context. The genre was a secular ritual with a coherent mythos informed by the profound social and cultural dislocations and transformations Italy underwent following the Second World War and the Economic Miracle of the 1950s.
Though these movies were multi-national co-productions involving Italian, Spanish, and German, and British filmmakers, the westerns written and directed by Italians tended to be thematically distinctive from other Eurowesterns. For instance, in disillusioned Spanish westerns like Gunfight at High Noon (Marchent 1963), For a Few Bullets More (Buchs 1967), The Ugly Ones (Martino 1967), A Bullet for Sandoval (Buchs 1969), and Cut-Throats Nine (Marchent 1972) violence is portrayed as a corrosive force. It is a contagion which contaminates a protagonist that are led through a just self-defense into a tragic revolt against the impersonal authority of the state. Little has been written about these films, but it is tempting to interpret this narrative in terms of the Spanish Civil War and the emergence of the fascist Franco regime.
Italian westerns tend to quite different. In Sergio Leone’s Once Upon A Time In The West (1968), the protagonist, an almost spectral gunman called Harmonica, is marked out as different. “People like that,” says another character, “have something inside, something to do with death.” The protagonist of these movies is almost invariably a man who has a special relationship with death. This is not a physical death animated on celluloid but instead is a symbolic death associated with the ritual process described by Turner (1969). This is an initiation rite (Turner 1967; van Gennep 1961) through which the individual is oriented toward the values of Italian modernity.
Figure 2: The beating and torture of the liminal protagonist. Top: Death Sentence (Lanfranchi 1968) Middle: Apocalypse Joe (Savona 1970) Bottom: Vengeance (Margheriti 1968).
Genre Film As Ritual
The claim that genre films are a form of secular ritual must be justified. Religious and media studies scholar Ronald Grimes (2006) has suggested that this identification is misleading. Convention, narrative, and performance are properties shared by both ritual and media. However, it does not follow that ritual and media are equivalent. Frederic Jameson (1978) has even suggested that such scholarship is obscurantist, mystifying the industrial character of the film industry.
Such skepticism is justified. However, the when the characteristics of genre film are surveyed it becomes clear that they share more than just convention, narrative, and performance with ritual. These movies are repetitive enactments of socially weighted and efficacious representations. There are numerous examples of how popular, marginal cinema interacts in meaningful ways with the cultural milieu in which they emerge. For instance, the ideological and psychological potency of the Hollywood western for 20th century American audiences has been thoroughly documented and explored (Wright, 1977; Cawelti, 1999).
Meyer (2006:183-184) describes how the Ghanian straight-to-video film industry is “above all concerned with visualizing what resonates with the structure of feeling of the audience.”* This structure of feeling is instantiated in a popular Pentecostalism and a focus on occult figures like witches who acquire power and wealth through illegitimate means. In the popular Diabolo films (1991-1995) a man “misuse prostitutes by entering their vagina in the form of a snake in order to make them vomit money” (188). In these movies, the occult and witchcraft have become site at which the conflicts of modernity and increasing inequalities are symbolically manifested in performance. These concerns are simply reflected in the films, but they are reduced in scale from the impersonal forces of global capitalism to the frame of a single body and ego (Comarroff and Comarroff 1993).
Interestingly, Meyer reports that many of the filmmakers dislike the Pentecostal worldview of the films, but audience demand requires it. The genre filmmaker must be responsive.
Film scholar like Thomas Schatz (1976) and Vivian Schoback (2003) have proposed that the process of production, exhibition, and appropriation engaged in both filmmaker and audience reproduce the social function of ritual in mass culture. Given the economic risks of filmmaking, there is a tendency to imitate successful films. Identifiable types, or genres, like “horror” or “musical” emerge. What determines which types will emerge and which conventions will be accepted and elaborated?
Schatz and Schoback both contend that audiences selectively attend to representations of those conflicts of urgent concern in their lives. Such concerns involve the irresolvable contradictions and strains of modernity imposed on the individual by the policies and surveillance of massive state and corporate institutions. The conflicts are addressed obliquely in genre films, embodied in narrative and performance. In this way they are similar to popular conspiracy theories that give names, faces, and motives to events whose causality is diffuse and dentritic, ramified throughout the entire tissue of capitalist modernity. In genre films these events, forces, and institutions are reimagined as gay monsters short-circuiting and short-circuited by the impossible resolutions mandated by hegemonic discourse. The world is briefly inverted following a Bahktinian grammar of grotesque idealism in a marginal cinematic space where there is greater freedom of movement, expression, and imagination.
The Italian popular cinema of the 1960s and 1970s included spy movies, giallo thrillers, gothic horror, space operas, topical slapstick, Mondo documentaries, sex films, swashbuckling adventure films, and sword and sandal peplum. In the boom-bust cycle of the opportunistic and decentralized Cinecitta production system, each of these genres experiences a relatively brief florescence (Frayling, 2006). Many of the genres, such as the dozens of spymovies made in the mid-1960s, are fairly trivial in terms of their long-term cultural impact. However, the Western alla’Italiana, giallo, and gothic horror movies have a peculiar potency reflected in their widespread influence in world cinema from Hong Kong and Bollywood to Hollywood. These movies resonated with their audiences ‘structures of meaning.” structures in flux as each person participated differently in the modernization of Italy.
The westerns made at this time were particularly successful at translating a Hollywood genre into an Italian idiom (Frayling 1998a; 1998b). Filmed in the desolate open spaces of the Spanish Almerian desert or the vast sandpits outside of Rom, they allowed audiences to indulge in a liminoid space in which to experiment with different possible orientations toward a new social world (Turner 1982). In some cases, this was a collectivist orientation coherent with leftist politics of the late 1960s. In others, it was a transformation of traditional familism into a new consumerist individualism (Banfield 1967; Silverman 1968; Boissevain 1966). This experimentation was mediated by a liminal hero whose progress through death is the genre’s central narrative.
The Carnivalesque Western alla’Italiana
The Italian filmmakers working out the massive Cincecitta film complex outside of Rome were marginal producers of marginal films for marginal audiences. The nature of the industry and the film-going practices of the audience contributed a carnivalesque and repetitive nature to the films. Together, audience and filmmaker created a cultural context in which both had great freedom with which to play with the syntax and semantics (Altman 1984) of the Hollywood western, flipping its significances on their head in carnivalesque inversion.
Though often associated with rigid formulas, the French exploitation filmmaker Jean Rollin argues that exploitation and genre films allow the filmmaker a wider range of expression than mainstream film:
“For me, the terms of popular cinema starkly oppose those of commercial cinema. Commerical cinema attaches value only to the profitability of the product. Popular cinema, or B-series, on the contrary, allows for the creation and development of a director’s personality, even in the realms of alternative of genre cinema. I decided to become a B-series auteur on purpose . . .” (Rollin 2004:xi)
While the marginality and illegitimacy of particular cinematic domains, such as the Italian western, leads to derision from the arbiters of official culture, the marginality endows these movies with a frankness and playfulness that can exceed that of both commercial and art films. At the end of Mussolini’s regime, a decade of previously forbidden American movies flooded the Italian market where they were eagerly by audiences that included later “genre auteurs” like Sergio Leone (Frayling 1998a). Contrary to the Northern filmmakers in the venerated neo-realist tradition of de Sica or Fellini, the popular filmmakers learned their trade working on big budget epics like Ben Hur (Wyler 1959) being shot in Europe in the early 1960s due to low production costs. Much has been written about how the industry attempted to pass-off their product as “authentic” Hollywood westerns (Frayling 2006). The names of personnel were “Americanized” in the credits of early films like Fistful of Dollars (Leone 1964) or Massacre at Grand Canyon (Corbucci 1964). Typically, this is portrayed as counterfeiting or piracy. However, it is important to realize that the filmmakers participated in Hollywood cinema as fans. Even though the films were initially opportunistic knock-offs of Hollywood b-movies (and later many were inferior knock-offs of successful Italian westerns), in many ways the films share characteristics with contemporary fan fiction or fan films. Fandoms do not passively consume a film or television series. Instead, they actively “poach texts,” reinterpret them, explore them, and put these texts to work defining the fan’s own identity and worldview. They produce commentary, artwork, or performances in the idiom of the film or series. Harry Jenkins (1988) describes how Trekkies, fans of Paramount Pictures’ Star Trek franchise, reinterpret the series from their own unauthorized perspective. Characters from the original television series, novels, and films were mostly male. According to Jenkins, this positioned the experience of female fans as a mode of “transvestitism.” However, this opened up new opportunities in the text. Through fan fiction, the relationships of the characters explored through plastic reworking of their sexuality and gender in often homoerotic ways.
These Italian filmmakers also engaged in a similar “transvestitism.” The act of making a western – at the time an explicitly nationalistic American genre – by Europeans in Europe was an illegitimate act. It stood in the same relation to the Hollywood product as the fan’s online Star Wars novel stand to the products of Lucas Films. Part opportunistic exploitation, part exploratory fan fiction, after the international success of Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars (1964) Italian popular cinema rapidly expanded the semantics of the Hollywood western beyond its traditional rhetorical boundaries. At the same time, the landscape and characters were “Italianized” (Frayling 1998a). Leone later claimed that:
“ . . . when I started my first Western, I had to find a psychological reason inside myself – not being a person who ever lived in that environment. And a thought came to me spontaneously. It was like being a puppeteer for the pupi sicilinai. The pupi siciliani are an old Sicilian tradition. The players tour around in a painted carriage performing shows which are both historical and legendary – based on the Song of Roland. They stop with their puppets and their carriage in every village square and put on a performance. However, the skill of the puppeteers consists of one thing: to give each of the characters an extra dimension which will interest the particular village where the pupi are visiting: to adapt the legend to particular locality. That is, Rolando takes on the faults – and the virtues – of the village mayor. He’s a good guy in the legend. His enemy, the bad guy, becomes – say – the local chemist . . . The puppeteers take a legend or fable and mix it with the local reality . . . That is what I tried to do with the Western (Frayling, 1998b: 76).
In addition to being an artifact of fan culture and outcome of an active translation, two important aspects of production heavily influenced the freewheeling character of the genre. First, the films were usually presold to distributors before production, usually be referencing a previous success (Koven 2006). The industry comprised of competing companies that often released only a single film annually, meaning that even with government subsidies each film carried significant risk (Wagstaff 1992). Investors preferred to bet on sure things. This created the conditions in which the central narrative of Fistful of Dollars was elaborated on, streamlined, or exaggerated in an attempt to capture audience attention scattered among dozens of competing movies.
Beyond the conditions of production, exhibition contributed to a fluid character of the Western alla’Italiana. While the bigger budget productions were shown in the prima vizione (first run) theatres, the majority of the films were intended for the terra vizione (third run) circuit (Wagstaff 1992; Koven 2006) in a striking parallel to the Ghanian straight-to-video horror movies. In urban working class neighborhoods, people often went to see a new film every night (Koven 2006), which givens the genre the character of a serialized television show (Wagstaff 1992). Viewers would arrive late, leave early, change seats, talk back to the film, and talk through the boring parts. Not a space for the “contemplation” of a cinematic text (Koven 2006), the terra vizione theatre was an active social space. Armbrust (1998) describes a similar popular film culture in Egypt during the 1990s. For Egyptian audiences, the cinema was one of the few places where the state could be mocked and social relationships inverted in (morally) “bad” movies. The cinema was a liminoid space. Similarly, in his study of vernacular cinema Koven (2006) describes a similar reaction to Italian giallo slasher films in a theatre in San Fransisco, California, in the 1970s. While little research has been done on audience reception of Italian westerns, the film culture appears to be analogous to that described in Italy and San Fransisco.
Italian westerns reflect this context of production and exhibition in both form and content. Directors and writers paced the action so that something – a gunfight or fistfight – occurred every ten minutes to recapture straying audience attention (Koven 2006). These episodes are signaled by the eccentric, exaggerated scores of composers like Ennio Morricone or Luis Bacalov (Wagstaff, 1992).
In terms of content, the filmmakers followed the strategy of the pupi siciliani. Most of the films are a strange, syncretic mix of popular anti-clericalism, populist Marxism, and American western situations and props in a Southern Italian social geography. Audiences responded to an edgier, irreverent, transgressive product whose grammar maps onto the Medieval carnivalesque as described by Bahktin (1984). These movies speak in the language of the marketplace, they travesty canonical texts, are filled with games of chance and fortune-telling, revel in the uncrowning of “kings”, the delight in grotesque bodies anatomized to pieces and returned to “the lower stratum.”
A tone of hyperbole and mockery is indulged in. Bahkitn identified this as the language of the marketplace. Violent death is ambivalent, both brutal and comic in its posturing and desperate gesticulations. In films like The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Leone 1966) or Once Upon A Time In The West, Sergio Leone systematically inverts and travesties the narratives and icons of the classical Italian western (Frayling 1998a). Most of these films have scenes featuring games of chance. In For A Few Dollars More (Leone 1965), Death Rides A Horse (1967 Petroni), or Death Sentence (Lanfranchi 1968), the stakes of a hand of poker is the life of one of the players. Other films, like The Return of Ringo (Tessari 1965) or Yankee (Brass 1966), have female fortune tellers in pivotal roles.
The genre is filled with grotesque bodies. Ugly faces are exaggerated and anatomized in extreme close-up, as in the opening sequence of The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly (Frayling 1998a). Other films emphasize extreme body sizes. Dwarves appear in God Made Them . . . I Kill Them! (Bianchi 1968) and Ace High (Colizzi 1968). Recalling the giants of Pantagruel and Gargantua, Bud Spencer plays a muscular giant in the films of Giuseppe Colizzi, Enzo Barboni, or Michele Lupo.
Grotesque bodies are torn into pieces. A legless soldier appears as an informant in The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. Laughing Mexican bandits cut the ears off of a spy in Django (Corbucci 1968). In Guilio Questi’s surreal Django Kill (1968) this tendency is taken to its extreme. In a notorious scene, a doctor operating on an injured outlaw discovers that the patient had been shot with golden bullets. A god rush ensues and bystanders literally rip the outlaw apart.
These grotesque bodies, rendered into pieces, are then brought to the “lower stratum,” into seas of mud in Sergio Corbucci’s Django, into sulfuric mines in Vengeance (Margheriti 1968), or into Indian catacombs in desert caves as in Seven Winchesters For A Massacre (Castellari 1967), Johnny Hamlet (Castellari 1968), or Scalps (Mattei and Fragasso 1987).
Bahktin’s grammar had a firm philosophical basis in Medieval popular culture. Through uncrowning, exaggeration of the body, and dismemberment the old is reduced to the stratum of the bowels, genitals, mud, caves, or the grave. From this lower stratum is born the new in a dialectic of rejuvenation, a continuity captured in the image of pregnant death. A very similar grammar structures the Western alla’Italiana. In fact, even the figure of pregnant death is present in one film, Keoma (Castellari 1976).
Figure 3: The crucifixion of the liminal protagonist. Upper Left: Django and Sartana are Coming . . . It’s the End (Fidani and Spataro 1970) Upper Right: Johnny Hamlet (Castellari 1968) Lower Left: Yankee (Brass 1966) Lower Right: Keoma (Castellari 1976)
The Liminal Hero
American film critics have traditionally perceived the protagonist of the Western alla’Italiana as an amoral, self-interested antihero. John C. Cawleti (1977) writes:
“Their ostensible heroes are marked not by moral purpose and righteous courage, but by superior strategems, unscrupulousness, and skill in violence. Their style, embodied in leading actors like Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, is one of supreme detachment and coolness. Eastwood as “the man with no name” – an anonymity that underlines his lack of human feeling and motive – performs his most violent deeds without a quiver of his characteristic cigarillo or a ripple of his serape” (254-255).
This interpretation is flawed by a lack of appreciation of cultural context. In order to understand the Italian western genre, it is important to look beyond the flamboyant irony of how the “anti-hero” operates to the portrayal of the wider effects of what they do. From a structural perspective the amorality evaporates.
After viewing Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), young director Sergio Leone was excited by the possibility of remaking the film as a western. His film, Fistful of Dollars, was made on a shoe-string budget starring an obscure American television actor named Clint Eastwood. The film was released with little fanfare, but word of mouth transformed it into a surprise blockbuster (Frayling 1998a). In the movie, Eastwood portrays an ironic gunman Joe (“The Stranger”) who uses deception, rumor, and targeted violence to manipulate two rival factions in a decrepit border town. Ramon Rojo, the dynamic leader of one of the factions, has a won a woman Marisol at cards and separates her from her husband and child Jesus. Joe frees Marisol and her family, but his actions are discovered by the Rojos and he is brutally beaten. The Rojos laughingly mock the defenseless man in a long sequence. Escaping from Ramon in a coffin, Joe returns at the end of the film as an almost spectral figure impervious to rifle bullets. He kills Ramon, his brothers, and all of his men.
Film scholars like Frayling (2006) or Fridlund (2006) have emphasized the cynical manipulation of a corrupt elite by a protagonist who plays one side against the other. However, the engine propelling these films forward and investing them with symbolic significance is this figurative death and resurrection of the protagonist. The same basic structure of beating, torture, death, and return recurs in literally hundreds of movies. This catalytic sequence occurs at the peak of the narrative’s rising action, marking this moment as the climax of the film. Earlier westerns did provide precedents for the brutalization of the hero. Director Alex Cox (2009) has pointed to One-Eyed Jacks (Brando 1961) in which the protagonist is whipped and his gunhand smashed. Frayling (1998a) points to a similar scene in The Man From Laramie (Mann 1955). Of course, the scene is directly derived from Yojimbo, in which the masterless samurai is also beaten and carried to a cemetery in a coffin in a comic scene. However, following the lead of pupi siciliani, Leone and his imitators invested this moment with added cultural significance.
In film after film, a hip and detached hero manipulates a local elite until he over-reaches himself. Then he is beaten, whipped, drowned, burned or branded, literally crucified, and buried. After this figurative death he rises, returns, and upsets the corrupt social – or at least gets all the gold. This resurrection or initiation is the hero’s special relationship with death.
The beating or torture of the hero is the most common element of the genre’s liminal narrative, reappearing in Leone’s For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly as well numerous other films like A Coffin For The Sheriff (Caiano 1965), Adios, Gringo (Stegani 1965), Johnny Yuma (Guerrieri 1966), My Name Is Pecos (Lucidi 1967), Stranger In Town (Vanzi 1967), Wanted (Ferroni 1967), A Bullet In The Forehead (Vari 1968), and God Forgives, I Don’t (Colizzi 1968) among hundreds of other films. In Massacre Time (Fulci 1966) the whipping of the main character Tom Corbett is particularly elaborated on in a long, brutal scene. In Sergio Corbucci’s Django, Django’s hands are smashed with a rifle butt and horses hooves. The hero of The Great Silence (Corbucci 1968) is similarly mutilated.
This torture is followed by burial. In The Return of Ringo the hero watches his own funeral from a distance. After being shot, the hero of Gatling Gun (Bianchini 1968) is laid in a shallow grave. Suddely revived, he rises from the grave to shoot two heavies. A very similar scene occurs at the end of Death Sentence. In Kill Or Be Killed (Boccia 1966) or Death Rides A Horse, the protagonist are buried to their necks in the earth and left to die of thirst in the sun. In Vengeance, the hero Joko is not only buried up to the neck but his eyes are pinned open with cactus spines. The hero of Lizzani’s Requiescant (1967) survives a fire in a collapsing church underneath the fallen bell. In Fistful of Dollars and Mannaja (Martino 1977), the protagonist rehabilitates in an abandoned mine. In Vengeance, Seven Winchesters For A Massacre, and Johnny Hamlet the hero chases the villain into the labyrinth of an abandoned mine or catacomb.
Rehabilitated, the hero returns. In Fistful Of Dollars, Joe appears wreathed in smoke and impervious to bullets. The gunman of Django The Bastard (Garrone 1969) may be a vengeful spirit while the heroes of If You Meet Sartana, Pray For Your Death (Parolini 1968), Three Crosses Not To Die (Garrone 1968), and Sabata (Parolini 1969) all reappear after apparent death.
This liminal narrative is charged with Catholic overtones. It is surprising that this aspect of the genre has not received much comment by the few scholars that have analyzed it, though Frayling (1998a) does briefly describe it in his biography of Sergio Leone. Repeated in literally hundreds of films, this narrative is exaggerated at times to ridiculous proportions, heightened intensities, and often vicious brutality. Something is at stake here. These films symbolized and dramatized a central concern to a socially, culturally, and geographically displaced audience. What should be the relationship between the masculine individual, collective action, consumerism, and family? Note that this is a specifically masculine individuality. Female characters are marginal in most of these movies and, as the genre declined in the early 1970s, the films became increasingly misogynistic. The audiences for these films was largely male and young (Wagstaff 1992) – an audience which identified with this figure and indulged in his fantastic, impossible actions.
Figure 4: Figurative death and burial of the liminal protagonist. Top: Fistful of Dollars (Leone 1964) Middle: Death Rides A Horse (Petroni 1967) Bottom: $1,000 on the Black (Cardone 1966)
Social Context of the Liminal Narrative
After Fascist era laws restricting internal immigration were lifted in the late 1950s, there was a profound demographic shift from the countryside to cities. In the sixteen year period between 1955 and 1971, over nine million Italians migrated within the country (Ginsborg 1990). All the major cities rapidly expanded in these decades, but especially the industrial cities of the North such as Milan and Turin. While rural Italians form throughout the nation took part in this movement, Southerners contributed the bulk of internal migrants.
As already mentioned, Sergio Leone claimed that in his westerns he translated the American genre into an Italian vernacular in a manner inspired by the travelling Sicilian puppeteers: “. . . the skill of the puppeteers consists of one thing: to give each of the characters an extra dimension which will interest the particular village where the pupi are visiting . . .” While the characters in the Western alla’Italiana wear cowboy hats and carry Colt revolvers, they move in a landscape that is a hybrid of the mythic cinematic West and the arid, impoverished, and over-populated Mexxorgiorno (Southern Italy). Frayling (2006) has already speculated that the superficially amoral ethos of the genre emphasizing flamboyant, crafty, and self-serving characters manipulating a hostile world reflects the ethos of “amoral familism.” Banfield (1967) coined the term to describe the fragmented, competitive character of the impoverished villages of “Montegrano” in Southern Italy he studied in the late 1950s. What most struck Banfield was the lack of a civic culture and communal projects to collectively alleviate the desperate conditions most villagers lived in. Instead, according to Banfield, Montegrano was a Hobbesian war of all against all for the few resources available. While the notion of “amoral familism” has gained considerable notoriety, other contemporary fieldworkers confirmed the general concept of a “familism” caused by systems of land tenure (Silverman 1968; Blok 1969) or a harsh physical environment and distant ineffectual central government (Muraskin 1974). Whatever the causes, external bonds beyond the family were weak and unreliable accept for the patron-client relationships necessary to gain access to education, employment, and social services. These patron-client relations, based on calculation, were best managed in the crafty manner of Joe in Fistful Of Dollars.
In the emerging Italian modernity of the 1960s and 1970s, internal immigrants faced the challenge of orienting themselves in a rapidly changing society. In the South, families had survived by turning inwards and playing on networks of patron and client. Though there were waves of collective social action, especially in the decade after the Second World War (Ginsborg 1990), collectivism was atypical. Forced to immigrate by poverty and over-population, Southerners became the most militant activists in the wave of strike actions that occurred in the North starting in the early 1960s but resurgent and strong after 1968. The late 1960s also saw massive unrest led by students and workers following divergent socialist programs of the official Communist and Socialist Parties (Ginsborg 1990). It was a time in which many people were drawn in the direction of collectivist action.
At the same time, however, Italy was becoming an increasingly consumerist society atomized by television, marketing, and capitalist ideologies of the individual. This consumerism arose as clientalistic politics and a rigid central bureaucracy were impotent at addressing urgent social crises involving housing, land reform, or unconstrained capital. This added momentum of centrifugal, individualistic responses.
Fried (1967) quotes an Italian journalist commenting in 1964 about the tension between these two impulses:
“We have changed a great deal in only a few years, more than any other European nation in the same period of time. We were the country of the ‘hundred cities,’ and now we are the country of the ‘four metropolises.’ We used to speak many languages, and not we are close to speaking only one. We were inert, and now we are in movement. We were parsimonious, and new we are big spenders. We used to have the spirit of sacrifice, and now we incline towards hedonism. We used to believe in ‘destiny’ and now we believe in ‘success.’ We used to cultivate friendships; now we make ‘contacts.’ We used to be impetuous with the ladies; now we are becoming more tranquil. We were composed; now we are agitated. We used to be prudent; now we are aggressive. We were talkative; now we are more taciturn. We were diversified; now we are becoming homogenous. We were an elite society; now we are becoming a mass society. What more? We used to be individualists; we have remained individualists” (518-519).
Student and worker militancy, beginning in 1968 and lasting through the economic turmoil of the 1970s, challenged this individualistic orientation. Many of the filmmakers of the Western alla’Italiana were sympathetic with populism (Frayling 2006) even though some, like Sergio Corbucci, were hostile to the form that it took in the counterculture. It is in this context, this tension between the individual and communal, that the Western alla’Italiana must be placed. In Leone’s original telling, the liminal masculine hero passes through his initiation in order to adopt a more altruistic stance toward others. Jow the Stranger is nearly killed in Fistful Of Dollars after performing an altruistic act for Marisol and her family. In a series of films starting the popular actor Giuliano Gemma including Arizona Colt (Lupo 1966), Day of Anger (Valerii 1969), and The Price Of Power (Valerii 1969) this shift in orientations is made explicit. In these movies, the hero is a drifter or outcast motivated by his own psychological appetite or calculation for profit. Rejected by the community, he sulks like a moody adolescent until he decides to sacrifice personal interests for communal ones. While these movies are, to some degree, adolescent fantasies of male potency, it is significant to note the direction in which these fantasies are channeled. Instead of fantasies of domination, these are fantasies of community and justice. This justice is not the “law and order” of legitimate state institutions as in the Hollywood western. Instead, legitimacy resides in the individual and, more generally, the people.
Though the protagonist of the Western alla’Italiana is often described as an anti-hero, his action has positive byproducts. Even in the many revenge westerns like Django, Death Rides A Horse, or I Want Him Dead (Bianchini 1968) the enactment of personal revenge had the effect of removing a corrupt and illegitimate regime from power. The detached irony and flamboyance of the Italian western protagonist has long been seen as the marker of the cynical anti-hero by American critics, but this is a mistake. These characters perform the same structural role as the classical Hollywood western hero, but they do so within a different ideological grounding. Their actions are anchored in different conceptions of legitimacy. This is not simply a popular cinema, it is a populist cinema. These films express a similar grotesque idealism as that described by Bahktin, one in which the world is constantly renewed through the lower stratum of earth and body. This pregnant death is portrayed explicitly in Enzo Castellari’s Keoma, made at the very end of the Italian western boom. It is one of the most self-conscious films in the genre, sharing this quality with George Stevens’ Shane (1956). Not only does it reenact sequence from earlier films, like Django and performs one of the most explicit crucifixion scenes in the genre, but it ends with a gunfight as a pregnant woman gives birth. Sick with cholera, she dies after delivering the child. Keoma, the liminal hero, leaves the child in the hands of old woman who has represented Death throughout the film.
This populist element is taken to its extreme development in the explicitly Marxist westerns written by Franco Solinas like A Bullet For The General (Damiani 1966) The Big Gundown (Solima 1966), Tepepa (Petroni 1968), and The Mercenary (Corbucci 1968). In these films the hero is an ambivalent revolutionary instructed, as a proxy for the audience, in the machinery of power, exploitation, and resistance. Revolution is represented as a tragic carnivalesque fiesta extinguished by the state’s brutal retaliation. But like the liminal hero himself, the revolution will rise again. In A Bullet For The General, the protagonist El Chuncho is a Judas figure swept up in revolution and motivated by excitement, freedom, and loot. Betraying a village by abandoning its defense, he experiences the true social significance of revolution.
The portrayal of revolution as fiesta is intriguing. As I have suggested, instead of portraying the liminal individual these movies describe a liminal community which for a moment inverts power relations. This is almost the definition of carnival. Later, thematically or aesthetically cruder “Zapata” westerns like Companeros (Corbucci 1969), Head I Kill You, Tails Your Dead! They Call Me Hallelujuah (Carmineo 1971), Return of Hallelujuah (Carmineo 1972), and What Am I Doing In The Middle Of The Revolution? (Corbucci 1972) dropped Solinas’s tone of political sincerity but retained the atmosphere of fiesta. The Mexican Revolution was portrayed as a backdrop for sight gags and slapstick.
Not all of the films in the genre take such a collectivist orientation. In comedies like Any Gun Can Play (Castellari 1967) or Dead For A Dollar (Civriani 1968), partners double-cross each other in a zero-sum free-for-all whose reward if the consumption of all the gold or dollars for himself or herself. Interestingly, most of these movies also lack the liminal narrative. This element is also lacking in the dozens of slapstick westerns inspired by the enormous success of Enzo Barboni’s My Name Is Trinity (1970) and They Still Call Me Trinity (1971).
By the late 1970s, the social climate in Italy had changed enormously. The populist ferment of the 1960s was dissipated by in a nation wearied by economic crisis and political violence. The film culture also changed. Most homes has televisions by the early 1970s, depressing ticket sales and altering the film-going experience. The popular genres of the time were urban police thrillers, stylish giallos and horror, and a series of strange cannibal movies mixing reflections from contemporary ethnographic film with mondo movie sensibilities, animal cruelty, voyeuristic misogyny, and a raw and poignant sense of social and political outrage. In the middle to late 1960s, the Italian western represented a cinematic enactment of a central conflict of modernity that was returned to again and again by audiences and filmmakers. By the middle 1970s, this secular ritual no longer performed a compelling social function.
Note: Film titles will be presented first in the most common English title, then in the original Italian or Spanish.
Barboni, Enzo, dir.
1971. Trinity Is Still My Name….continuavano a chiamarlo Trinita. 117 minutes. West Film.
1970. My Name Is Trinity. Lo chiamavano Trinita… 106 minutes. West Film. Rome.
Bianchini, Paolo, dir.
1968. God Made Them … I Kill Them! Dio Li Crea… Io Li Ammazzo! 90 minutes. Cineriz.
1968. Gatling Gun. Quel caldo maledetto giomo di fuoco. 90 minutes. Atlantida Films and Fida
Cinematografica. Rome. •
1968. I Want Him Dead. Lo voglio morto. 82 minutes. Centauro Films and Inducine. Rome.
Boccia, Tania, dir.
1966. Kill Or Be Killed. Uccidi o muori. 94 minutes. Regafilm. Rome.
Brando, Marlon, dir.
1961. One-Eyed Jacks. 141 minutes. Paramount. Hollywood.
Brass, Tinto, dir.
1966. Yankee. 92 minutes. Tigielle S.R.L. and Balcazar Producciones Cinematografica. Rome.
Buchs, Julio, dir. .
1967. For A Few Bullets More. El hombre Que Mat6 a Billy el Nifio. 100 minutes. Aitor Films
and Kinnesis Film. Madrid.
1969. A Bullet For Sandoval. Los Desperados. 105 minutes. Atlantida Films, Daiano Film, and
Leone Film. Madrid.
Caiano, Mario, dir.
1965. A Coffin For The Sherriff. Una Bara Per Lo Sceriffo. 95 minutes. Estela Films and Nike
Cardone, Alberto, dir.
1966. $1,000 on the Black. Mille dollari sul nero. 102 minutes. Lisa-Film and Metheus Film,
Carmineo, Guiliano, dir.
1972. Return of Halleluja. II West ti va stretto, amico… e arrivato Alleluja. 96 minutes. Colosseo
Artistica, France Cinema Productions, and Hermes Synchron. Rome.
1971. Heads I Kill You, Tails You’re Dead! They Call Me Hallelujah. Testa t’ammazzo, croce…
sei morto… Mi chiamano Alleluja. Colosseo Artistica. Rome.
Castellari, Enzo G., dir.
1976. Keoma. 97 minutes. Uranos Cinematografica. Rome.
1968. Johnny Hamlet. Quella Sporca Storia Nel West. 78 minutes. Daiano Film and Leone Film.
1967. Seven Winchesters For A Massacre. Sette Winchester Per Un Massacro. Circus Film,
Fono Roma and St. Regis Films. Rome.
1967. Any Gun Can Play. Vado… l’ammazzo e torno. 105 minutes. Fida Cinematografica and
RAF Vado L’Amazzo e Tamo. Rome.
Civrani, Osvaldo, dir.
1968. Dead For A Dollar. T’ammazzo!- Raccomandati a Dio. 106 minutes. Denwer Films. Rome.
Colizzi, Giuseppi, dir.
1969. Ace High. I Quattro Dell’Ave Maria. 132 minutes. Crono Cinematografica and Finanzia
San Marco. Rome.
1968. God Forgives … I Don’t. Dio Perdona… Io No! 109 minutes. Cronocinematografica S.p.a.
and Productores Exhibidores Films Sociedad An6nima (PEFSA). Rome.
Corbucci, Bruno, dir.
1968. Shoot Gringo Shoot. Spara, Gringo, spara. 88 minutes. Cemo Film. Rome.
1972. What Am I Doing In The Middle Of The Revolution? Che c’entriamo noi con Ia
rivoluzione? 103 minutes. Fair Film and Midega Film. Rome.
1969. Companeros. Vamos a matar, compaiieros. 188 minutes. Tritone Cinematografica, Terra-
Filmkunst, and Athintida Films. Rome.
1968. The Mercenary. II mercenario. 100 minutes. Produzioni Associate Delphos, Produzioni
Europee Associati (PEA), aridProfilms 21. Rome.
1968. The Great Silence. II Grande Silenzio. 105 minutes. Adelphia Compagnia Cinematografica
and Les Films Corona. Rome.
1966. Navajo Joe. 96 minutes. C.B. Films S.A. and Dino de Laurentiis Cinematografica. Rome.
1966. Django. 87 minutes. B.R.C. Produzione S.r.l. and Tecisa. Rome.
1964. Massacre at the Grand Canyon. Massacro al Grande Canyon. 89 minutes. Ultra Film and
Prodi Cinematografica. Rome.
Damiani, Damiano, dir.
1966. A Bullet For The General. El chuncho, quien sabe? 135 minutes. M.C.M. Rome.
Fago, Giovanni, dir.
1968. One More To Hell. Uno di piu all’inferno. Devon Films and Flora Films. Rome.
Feroni, Giorgio, dir.
1967. Wanted. 107 minutes. Documento Film. Rome.
Fidani, Demofilo and Spataro, Diego
1970. Django and Sartana Are Coming… It’s the End. Arrivano Django e Sartana… è la fine. 96
minutes. Tarquinia Film. Roma.
Fulci, Lucio, dir.
1966. Massacre Time. Tempo di massacre. 92 minutes. I.F. Produzioni Cinematografiche and
Mega Film. Rome.
1969. Django The Bastard. Django il bastardo. 107 minutes. Societa Europea Produzioni
Associate Cinematografiche (SEPAC) and Tigielle 33. Rome.
1968. Three Crosses Not To Die. Tre croci per non morire. 98 minutes. G.V. Cinematografica.
Giraldi, Franco, dir.
1968. A Minute To Pray, A Second To Die. Un minuto per pregare, un instante per morire.
American Broadcasting Company (ABC), Documento Film, and Selmur Productions. Rome.
Guerrieri, Romolo, dir.
1966. Johnny Yuma. 100 minutes. Tiger Film and West Film. Rome
Kurosawa, Akira, dir.
1961. Yojimbo. 110 minutes. Kurosawa Production Co. and Toho Company. Tokyo.
Lanfranchi, Mario, dir.
1968. Death Sentence. Sentenza Di Marte. 90 minutes. B.L. Vision. Rome.
Leone, Sergio, dir.
1968. Once Upon A Time In The West. C’era Una Volta II West. 175 minutes. Finanzia San
Marco, Rafran Cinematografica, and Paramount Pictures. Rome.
1966. The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly. II Buono, II Brutto, II Cattivo. 161 minutes. Finanzia
San Marco, Rafran Cinematografica, and Paramount Pictures. Rome.
1965. For A Few Dollars More. Per Qualche Dollaro In Piu. 132 minutes. Produzioni Europee
Associati, Arturo Gonzalez Producciones Cinematograficas, and Constantin Film Produktion.
1964. Fistful Of Dollars. Per Un Pugno Di Dollari. 99 minutes. Constantin Film Produktion, Jolly
Film, Ocean Films. Rome.
Lizianni, Carlo, dir.
1967. Requiescent. 92 minutes. Castoro, Istituto Luce, and Tefi Film. Rome.
Lucidi, Maurizio, dir.
1966. My Name Is Pecos. Due Once Di Piombo. 83 minutes. Italcine. Rome.
Lupo, Michele, dir.
1966. Arizona Colt. 118 minutes. Leone Film and Orphee Productions. Rome.
Mann, Anthony, dir.
1955. The Man From Laramie. 104 minutes. Columbia Pictures. Hollywood.
Marchent, Joaquin Luis Romero, dir.
1972. Cut-Throats Nine. Condenados a vivir. 90 minutes. Films Triunfo. Madrid.
1963. Gunfight at High Noon. El Sabor De La Vanganza. 80 minutes. Centauro Films and
Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA). Madrid.
Margheriti, Antonio, dir.
1968. Vengeance. Joko Invoca Dio … E Muori. 81 minutes. Arlington International Pictures and
Super International Pictures. Rome.
Martin Eugenio, dir.
1967. The Ugly Ones: El Precio De Un Hombre. 95 minutes. Discobolo Film and Tecisa. Madrid.
Martino, Sergio: dir.
1977. Mannaja. 101 minutes. Devon Film and Intes Corporation. Rome.
Mattei, Bruno and Fragasso, Claudio, dir.
1983. Scalps. Scalps, venganza india. 102 minutes. Beatrice Film. Rome.
Parolini, Gianfranco, dir. .
1969. Sabata. Ehi amico … c’e Sabata, hai chiuso! 111 minutes. Produzioni Europee Associati
1968. If You Meet Sartana Pray For Your Death. Se incontri Sartana prega per la tua morte. 95
minutes. Paris Etolie Films and Pamass Film. Rome.
Petroni, Guilio, dir.
1968. Tepepa. 136 minutes. Filmamerica and Productores Exhibidores Films Sociedad An6nima
(PEFSA), and SlAP. Rome.
1967. Death Rides A Horse. Da uomo a uomo. 114 minutes. PEC. Rome.
Questi, Giulio. dir.
1968. Django Kill. Se Sei Vivo Spara. 100 minutes. GIA Societa Cinematografica and Hispamer
Savona, Leopoldo, dir.
1970. Apocalpyse Joe. Un uomo chiamato Apocalisse Joe. 90 minutes. Italian International Film.
Sollima, Sergio, dir.
1968. Run Man Run. Corri uomo corri. 120 minutes. Chretien and Mancori. Rome.
1966. The Big Gundown. La resa dei conti. 80 minutes. Produzioni Europee Associati (PEA),
Rome Produizone Cinematografica, and Tulio Demicheli P.C. Rome.
Stegani, Giorgio, dir.
1965. Adios Gringo. 100 minutes. Fono Roma, Explorer Film ’58, Dorica Film, Cooperativa
Trebol Films, and Les Films Corona. Rome.
Tessari, Duccio., dir.
1965. The Return of Ringo. 11 Ritorno Di Ringo. 95 minutes. Balcazar Producciones
Cinematognificas, Produzione Cinematografica Mediterranee and Rizzoli Film. Rome.
Valerii, Tonino, dir. .
1969. The Price Of Power. 11 Precio Del Potere. 108 minutes. Pantry Films and Film Montana.
1968. Day Of Anger. I giorni dell’ira. 95 minutes. Sancrosiap, Corona Filmproduktion, and
Vanzi, Luigi, dir.
1967. A Stranger In Town. Un dollaro Tra I Denti. 86 minutes. Primex Italiana and Taka
Vari, Giuseppe, dir.
1968. A Bullet In The Forehead. Un Buco In Fronte. Tigelle 33. Rome.
1959. Ben Hur. 215 minutes. Metro-Goldwyn-Mayer.
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Armbrust, Walter .
1998 When the Lights Go Down in Cairo: Cinema as Secular Ritual. Visual Anthropology,
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1967. Moral Basis of a Backward Society. New York: Free Press.
1969. South Italian Agro-Towns. Comparative Studies in Society and History 11: 121-135.
1966. Patronage in Sicily. Man 1(1): 18-33.
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1999. The Six-Gun Mystique Sequel. New York: Popular Press.-
1977 Adventure, Mystery, and Romance: Formula Stories as Art and Popular Culture. Chicago:
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1993. Modernity And Its Malcontents. Chicago: University of Chicago.
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1968. Agricultural Organization, Social Structure, and Values in Italy: Amoral Familism
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