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.