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Slobbering in slobbery anticipation of Django Unchained? Then you might enjoy this. A thing I wrote (back in 2011), for The Irish Times, on the European Western.
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For many aficionados of the American Western, the 1950s was the decade during which the genre reached its aesthetic peak. Its chief concerns and conventions had, by that point, been extensively explored and codified by genre titans like Howard Hawks and John Ford, leaving a new wave of directors free to build on these solid foundations and expand the Western's scope and focus. Film-makers like Budd Boetticher, Robert Aldrich and Anthony Mann would help steer the genre into previously uncharted territory: imbuing their sophisticated works with a world-weary melancholia, moral ambiguity and fatalism.

By the beginning of the following decade, however, much of this progressive vigour had drained away. The ubiquity of TV westerns – then enormously popular and being produced in huge numbers – had served to “domesticate” the genre, robbing it of much of its lustre and appeal as a cinematic entity. The comparatively few film Westerns that were being produced tended to be either star-studded, big-budget affairs that played it pretty safe thematically, like How the West Was Won, or melancholic and elegiac works, like Ride the High Country, that seemed to articulate not only the end of the West, and all it represented, but the end of the Western film itself.

Into this atmosphere of relative stagnation exploded Sergio Leone’s seminal A Fistful of Dollars (1964). A “revolutionary assault upon the crumbling edifice the western had become” in the words of Kevin Grant, author of a major new work on the genre titled Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to the Euro-Western. Though Leone was far from the first European director to tackle the Western, his radical reimagining of it represented a significant departure from what had gone before.

“Before Leone came along”, Grant explains, “there had been lots of Italian productions, but most looked like very cheap American B-Westerns that didn’t really introduce anything new. Leone and his friends didn’t want to create a facsimile, so they decided to break with tradition. They threw away the rules, or rewrote the rules, and reinterpreted Western conventions”.

This reinterpretation would prove a huge commercial success, both in Leone’s native Italy and beyond, inspiring a slew of copycat European productions eager to hop aboard the “Spaghetti Western” bandwagon. In the peak years of the fad, between 1964 and 1970, hundreds of Leone-influenced films were made. Simultaneously transforming “backwater” locations like Almeria in Southern Spain into thriving creative hubs, while turning struggling American bit-part players like Lee Van Cleef and Clint Eastwood into major international stars.

Though acknowledging Leone’s warranted status as the form’s master and pioneer, Any Gun Can Play is chiefly concerned with countering the perception that the European Western effectively begins and ends with Leone. The phenomenon Grant’s book lovingly and exhaustively catalogues and critiques is a rich and multifaceted one. One with its own star directors (like Sergio Corbucci and Carlo Lizzani), its favoured leading players (Franco Nero, Giuliano Gemma), its unique recurring characters (Django, Sabata), and its own specific concerns, tropes and motifs.

Stylistically, of course, the Leone-esque European Western offered a wild riposte to the staid and sober staging of many of its contemporary American counterparts. At their most lurid, visceral and thrilling they offered audiences an auditory and visual experience where every sound and image was heightened. Whip cracks, pistol shots and punches were louder and more explosive. Colours were deeper and richer. The composition of frames was calculated to produce maximum drama, through a jarring juxtaposition of extreme close-ups and long-shots. The dominant atmosphere was, consciously and deliberately, one of agitation and chaos.

Stylistic differences were not, as Grant makes clear, the only things that set the European Western apart. Unlike American productions where protagonists had to be integrated into a specific historical framework, sentimentalised as it might be, European Westerns were free to rewrite western lore to suit their own purposes.

“Recurring characters like Django and Sartana didn’t really have any back-story”, Grant says. “They weren’t rooted in history so there was no need for them to stick with any tradition. They were more like comic strip characters come to life, set loose in this fantasy world that the Europeans had created.”

This ahistorical approach may have irked Western purists, but it led to the creation of some of the form’s most memorably outlandish characters. At their inscrutable and enigmatic best, Euro-Western anti-heroes, like Django, seemed less like creatures of flesh and blood and more like mythical, elemental forces. Agents of change, disorder and destruction who’d apparently sprung fully formed from the desert sands.

They were, in addition, characters whose international popularity owed much to their canny articulation of the Zeitgeist. They were typically, Grant says, “drifters, outsiders and trouble-makers”, whose “sardonic attitude” tapped into a then prevalent antipathy to authority and establishment forces. Was this subversive streak driven by a desire on directors’ parts to overtly politicise the Western, or was it, instead, largely just the product of populist pandering?

“Well the Italian film industry was certainly bursting with left-wing radicals at the time”, Grant suggests. “Writers and directors who saw the Western as guaranteeing an audience of working-class film-goers that wouldn’t go to see something by Godard or Passolini. So they used them as allegorical frameworks. But, as with any popular development in cinema, there were just as many people who realised that these films were making money so they’d dress them up in the same kind of fashionable agitprop”.

Though the European Western had, by the mid-70s all but exhausted itself, commercially and artistically, it had succeeded in reigniting international interest in a flagging genre. In the process it had dynamited the hallowed archetypes of the traditional Western and replaced them with delightfully grim, misanthropic and absurd visions of its own. Perhaps the ultimate tribute to the durability and potency of its characterisation and iconography can be seen in the revisionist American Westerns of the 1970s. Gritty, cynical and irreverent films that effectively re-imported the reimagined West dreamt up, by Leone et al, in the deserts of Almeria.

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Any Gun Can Play: The Essential Guide to Euro-Westerns is out now (FAB Press, £24.99)

The Best of the Rest: 3 Euro-Western Classics NOT produced by Sergio Leone (Selected by Kevin Grant).

The Big Gundown (1966)
A muscular action film with a social conscience that confirmed the stellar status of Lee Van Cleef and launched Cuban ex-pat Tomas Milian as the genre's equivalent of Che Guevara.

Django, Kill! (1967)
Mario Bava meets Roger Corman in Giulio Questi's grotesque story of greed and revenge. Psychedelic editing, a sarcastic parrot and lashings of stage blood add up to the weirdest Euro-Western of all.

A Bullet for the General (1966)
Many Euro-Westerns were powered by the Sixties protest movement. Damiano Damiani's rousing saga of Mexican revolutionaries set the trend, pitting a simple-minded peasant against an insidious American assassin. Guess who wins?

[The above piece was originally published in The Irish Times, Tue 08 Aug, 2011.]

January 10, 2013

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