I prefer the concept of Chianti cowboys to the over-used term ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ as it maintains the spirit of the former while more accurately describing an enhanced viewer enjoyment of them: sit down with a decent glassful and savour the film. It works. And with all those violent scenes and mutilations there is the consoling thought in the back of the mind of how well Chianti and bloody human organs go together – at least according to that bon vivant, Dr Hannibal Lecter.
This month sees the new release by Argent (in this form anyway) of a box-set of Cult Spaghetti Westerns – God, how I loathe that appellation, ‘cult’; talk about capitalism’s ability to appropriate culture! – replete with interviews of Franco Nero, Enzo Castellari, Damiano Damiani and an introduction to each film by Alex Cox in what is described as ‘the style of his epoch-making Moviedrome BBC series’. The set includes Django (Sergio Corbucci, 1966), A Bullet for the General aka El chuncho, quien sabe? (Damiano Damiani, 1966) and Keoma aka Django Rides Again (Enzo G Castellari, 1976), and as such constitutes a collection of some of the high points that this very special and unique genre had to offer. Each is a great exemplar of a tradition of Italian filmmaking that held sway in the period of 1964-1976 (be warned, accounts vary). This re-invention of the Hollywood Western appeared during a time of genre exhaustion in both film centres: Hollywood was giving up on the Western genre in favour of adult-themed contemporary dramas, youth-orientated films, epic VistaVision-type productions, spy stories and fantastical fare in an attempt to lure the television audience back to cinemas. Meanwhile, Italian studios were looking to cater for an audience that was fed up with the pepla cycle of classical mythological motifs – sword and sandal epics to you and me – with which they had made great profits in the late 50s and early 60s.
From 1964 to 1976, Italian studios made hundreds of Westerns, often invoking franchise characters like Django, Sabata, Trinity and Ringo, though in the Wild West of Italian producing, many plot devices, characters, and storylines were cavalierly ‘borrowed’ and passed around from writer to writer and director to director. It has been speculated in various accounts that it was the condition of Italy itself in the 1970s – corruption, uncertainty, terrorism, political incompetence, Mafia control, dirty bankers, tampered juries and bribing of officialdom – that inspired these largely left-leaning directors and that drew disaffected, largely working-class Italian audiences to the cycle. There is some evidence of this social criticism to be gleaned in most of the ‘Spaghetti’ films where the stock characters of Hollywood Westerns such as the sheriff, the Indian, the banker and the wagon trains full of ‘civilised folk’ are played down in favour of the individualistic, lone anti-hero. An anti-bourgeois, free-spirited main character (another trope of 60s cinema) whose morality and behaviours are steeped in ambivalence and who usually finds himself, if not the good guy, then the least bad guy, in the face of incompetent sheriffs, corrupt businessmen and impotent authorities, including the Catholic church, which is often presented as just as corrupt and corrosive an influence on the fictional under-classes populating the films. Popular settings for many of the films are also redolent of 60s and 70s European socio-political upheavals: many are set during troubled times, the Civil War (or the reconstruction period that followed it), in decaying and run-down towns (not new frontier towns, which should look pristine) and during the Mexican Revolution (an ideological class war). One of the best made in this sub-genre of Mexican Revolution films – arguably one of the best of any of the Spaghetti Westerns – was Damiani’s El chuncho, quien sabe? which influenced Sam Peckinpah’s 1969 Mexican Revolution film The Wild Bunch, which in turn influenced many Italian directors’ efforts. Enzo Castellari, for one, acknowledges the debt to Peckinpah and points out actual homage sequences that show up in his film Keoma in the interview extra that comes with the DVD. Certainly, Castellari’s film surpasses Leone’s enervated 1971 attempt, A Fistful of Dynamite aka Duck, You Sucker.
Outside of neo-realist traditions and vérité styles, Italian audiences have always leaned to the operatic, the excessive, the theatrical, the transgressive, the comedic and the carnivalesque (commedia dell’ arte for instance) and especially the raw visuality of these in their popular culture, and this is perhaps due in no small part to the influence of the Church – itself anxiously concerned with many of those social expressions. Hence it was the Italian filmmakers Gualtiero Jacopetti and Paolo Cavara who cinematically travelled there and loosed upon the world the first mondo films, Mondo cane (1962), Mondo pazzo (1963) and Adios Africa (1966), which offered documentary and pseudo-documentary visions of weird and exotic sex, violence and bizarre rituals – the original shockumentaries. At the same time, a re-invigoration of the horror and thriller genre arose with the films of Riccardo Freda and Mario Bava in 1956 and 1960 respectively, which developed into a particularly Italian form, the giallo. The excessive threads of these three – pepla, mondo and giallo – can be seen to be stitched into the ‘Western all’ italianana’ – the Spaghetti Western. Saturated in blood, steeped in sado-masochistic overtones, crowded with ‘fallen women’, whores and Madonnas and chock-a-block full of ‘the old ultra-violence’, the films reinvented the Western genre – ‘violence vérité‘, as Damiani described them. They appeared at a time of history where drive-ins, youthful baby-boomer audiences, film societies, repertory houses – and most importantly, liberalisation of censorship standards – reigned supreme. Of course, by 1976, when Keoma was released, the cycle had rode the long, hard genre trail from innovation to the establishment of codes to the parody of these codes, finally resulting in the Trinity series – more spoofs than genuine, full-blooded genre pieces. As inevitably happens, the cycle had come full circle and in Keoma, the gunslinger returns to his home town to find that it is ruled by a gang of sadistic bullies. A reminder perhaps of Italy’s own troubled situation at this time, with organised crime and the rise in the drugs trade, political kidnappings, murder and the crises of government institutions. It also marked the beginning of privatised takeovers and the eventual monopoly of much media and film production by the Fininvest Group, run by one Silvio Berlusconi.
In Keoma, one of the last of the Spaghetti Westerns, this sense of the hero’s return is evident and signals a finality. ‘The world keeps going around and around. So you always end up in the same place,’ says Keoma. Franco Nero is starring again in a style of Western that he helped invent, and although Keoma does not feature a character named Django, it was re-titled Django Rides Again for markets outside of Italy, so inextricably linked was Nero to the role. And while his role in the film tries to shake off the character of Django that made him a star, and in spite of the fact that there had been dozens of other Django character rip-offs and actors in the role, he was after all the original, and in a sense the final one in this period. Corbucci has been oft quoted as saying that Ford had the Duke, Leone had Clint and that he had Nero – though the two later fell out. Nero only returned to the role once more in the 1987 film Django 2: il grande ritorno aka Django Strikes Again (directed by Nello Rossati and co-written by Corbucci) in the unlikely form of a monk whose daughter is kidnapped. Setting out to save her, he digs up his old Gatling gun, which is buried in a coffin under a headstone that reads ‘Django’. But perhaps it should have stayed buried – along with Rambo, Indiana and John McClane.
El chuncho, quien sabe? genuinely aspires to be a political Western, its most obvious credential being that it is based on a script adaptation by the Marxist author and polemicist Franco Solinas, who penned such ideologically-driven entertainments as The Battle of Algiers, State of Siege, Burn! and The Assassination of Trotsky. As Damiani puts it in the interview extra, interestingly disengaging himself from the genre: ‘the film is a tribute to Pancho Villa and Emiliano Zapata… I have always to remind critics that it is not a Western. Westerns happen north of the Rio Grande. South of the Rio Grande is Mexico, which has nothing to do with the American West. It is not a film about revolution either, I would say that it is a film about rebellion and revolution. It is a historical film because it depicts the upheaval in a South American country that is exploited by a selfish ruling class… The only thing it has in common with a Western movie is the horses.’
Damiani was not the only director who felt that there was some mileage in raising political consciousness via the Spaghetti Western. Sergio Sollima made two films in the genre, which were criticised as ‘disguised anarchist cine-texts’. In his book Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans From Karl May to Sergio Leone, Christopher Frayling notes that although the directors were utilising Hollywood techniques to tell their stories (a cause for complaint amongst leftists critics), ‘Pasolini certainly thought that A Bullet for the General represented an authentic form of political cinema (one that reached the displaced peasantry, perhaps) for it was as a result of this film that he agreed to appear (as a revolutionary priest, again with Lou Castel) in Carlo Lizzani’s Requiescant (1967), which concerned the struggle against foreign financiers who were propping up the counter-revolutionary federal government.’
The film title poses a question: Quien sabe? Who knows? And given the various twists in plot and especially in the characterisations, it is a good question. The main character, Chuncho Munos / El chuncho, played with great bravura by the talented Gian Maria Volonté (who had appeared in the Dollars films), starts the film as a half-hearted revolutionary bandito robbing trains and stealing weapons to sell them on to ‘General’ Elias, the leftist commander. During one of these raids, he takes an instant liking – that turns into an attraction (and a queer subtext as in many of Damiani films) – to a mysterious American gringo and interloper, Bill ‘Nino’ Tate, played by Lou Castel as the stereotypical outsider and immoral existential drifter character that re-surfaces in almost all Spaghetti Westerns. He has been paid by government officials to assassinate the ‘General’, for which purpose he carries a golden bullet. The box-set presents the film in its most complete version (114 mins), with all of its many plotlines and narrative developments restored after previous editing (butchering) jobs gave it a running time of only 77 mins in order to fit in a double bill. In its full telling it is quite an exhilarating journey – as well as a vast and spacious, visual and textual one – for both the audience and the characters. Damiani says: ‘The many shots of landscape and space contrasted with the deep feelings of the characters and the actors represent this will to live… an open outlook to things, not a narrow view… When dealing with characters who are larger than life and with wide landscapes and deep feelings, as well as the will to live, the result is a necessity for an open outlook to things – not a narrow view associated with more intimate films and inner psychological studies… Here the characters have moments which match the grandness of the landscape.’
It is El chuncho who travels furthest as he slowly comes to grip with his past, his present and his future. His future is as a true and dedicated revolutionary who finally realises the difference between random killing for personal gain and killing for higher political aims. Damiani again: ‘The psychological turning point is the sudden realisation by the main protagonist that he has fallen prey to greed instigated by a cunning man [the American gringo] whose main motivation is money. Suddenly the protagonist understands that these are the people to destroy: the people who take advantage of the suffering of the poor for money, these are to be eliminated… â€œQuien sabe?â€ means â€œwho knows?â€ It is a title that reflects and sums up the main character who doesn’t know where he’s going, but little by little discovers his calling. I didn’t know – quien sabe? – what my life would be. Now I do, I have found out.’
Now, put the film on, pour a glass of Chianti and quien sabe?
James B Evans