Westerns



THE CONTEMPORARY WESTERN

Following the deaths of Peckinpah and Leone, the tradition of the film western has been maintained most consistently by Clint Eastwood, who as star and director has returned to the genre with some regularity. If Eastwood's first American westerns seemed like pale imitations of Leone, later works such as the gothic High Plains Drifter (1972) and the wistful The Outlaw Josey Wales (1976) were admired by fans and some critics before widespread acknowledgement of Eastwood's contribution to the genre came with Unforgiven (1992), created in some sense as the "last western" insofar as it functions as both apology and elegy for the genre. Kevin Costner's Dances with Wolves (1990) successfully revived the sympathetic Indian film: surprisingly, it and Unforgiven earned Oscars ® for best picture, the first for the genre since Cimmaron . Recent attempts at politically correct revision such as the African American Posse (1993) and pseudo-feminist Bad Girls (1994) have seemed poor excuses as westerns. The successful Tombstone (1993) and flop Wyatt Earp (1994) both offered elaborately staged but insignificant returns to one of the key events and historical figures in the genre, and All the Pretty Horses (2000) was an ineffective attempt to adapt for the screen the award-winning 1996 novel by Cormac McCarthy, one of the genre's most prominent novelists. More successful recent revisions of the genre have come from independent cinema, including The Ballad of Little Jo (Maggie Greenwald, 1993), based on a true story of a cross-dressing woman who passed as a male sheep rancher in the West, and the surrealist Dead Man (Jim Jarmusch, 1996). Certainly the most daring and surprisingly successful contemporary western is Brokeback Mountain (Ang Lee, 2005),

SERGIO LEONE
b. Rome, Italy, 3 January 1929, d. 30 April 1989

The son of Italian film pioneer Vincinzo Leone and actress Bice Waleran, Sergio Leone rose to international prominence with a series of "spaghetti westerns" (or, more respectfully, "westerns all'italiana") produced in Italy during the 1960s and featuring the then relatively unknown American actor Clint Eastwood. Leone's westerns were preceded by other European (especially German) examples, but his were the first non-Hollywood westerns to gain international attention and to deeply influence the genre.

Leone's first major film, Per un pugno di dollari ( A Fistful of Dollars , 1964), an unofficial remake of Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (1961), brought the western fully into the 1960s by featuring a coolly amoral, unshaven, poncho-draped antihero at its center: Eastwood's "man with no name" inherited some of the genre's conventions while subverting others, especially the conventional ethical stability of the cowboy hero. Similarly, Leone's celebrated "operatic" style served at once as a romantic homage to the classic western as well as a brutal parody of it. The director stretched the suspenseful moments before a shoot-out to nerve-wracking lengths with extreme close-ups of his characters perversely filling a widescreen frame, which typically would have contained sweeping landscapes rather than squinting eyes and twitching fingers waiting to draw a pistol. The worldwide success of the first film justified an even more audacious sequel, Per qualche dollaro in più ( For a Few Dollars More , 1965), which featured drugs, sex, and sadism, all previously taboo in the genre. The last film in an unofficial trilogy, Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo ( The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , 1966), centers on three greedy treasure seekers hunting for gold against the epic backdrop of the Civil War.

After Eastwood returned to Hollywood as an international star (whose subsequent westerns owed a clear debt to Leone), Leone's films became even more ambitious, but were often released in mutilated versions. C'era una volta il west ( Once Upon a Time in the West , 1968), which boldly cast Hollywood legend Henry Fonda as a villain, was poorly received and badly cut upon its original release, but after restoration was commonly viewed as Leone's masterpiece, an epic tribute to and cinematic essay on the genre itself, as well as an elegy for its impending demise.

Leone's greatest impact on the western was stylistic: whereas nihilistic narratives and antiheroes would soon appear in US westerns, Leone's films audaciously asserted that the western, among the most formulaic and stable of genres, could drastically change its look, feel, and sound. Certainly the impact of Leone's films was immeasurably supported by their startlingly original scores written by Ennio Morricone, whose lush soundscapes countered Leone's sparse landscapes (with Spain standing in for Mexico and the US Southwest). Although they would quickly lend themselves to parody, Leone's westerns remain among the genre's most thorough revisions.

RECOMMENDED VIEWING

Per un pugno di dollari ( A Fistful of Dollars , 1964), Per qualche dollaro in più ( For a Few Dollars More , 1965), Il Buono, il brutto, il cattivo ( The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly , 1966), C'era una volta il west ( Once Upon a Time in the West , 1968), Giù la testa ( Duck You Sucker , or A Fistful of Dynamite , 1971)

FURTHER READING

Cumbow, Robert C. Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone . Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1987.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something To Do with Death . London: Faber and Faber, 2000.

——. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone . Revised ed. London: I.B. Tauris, 1998.

Hughes, Howard. Once Upon a Time in the Italian West: The Filmgoers' Guide to Spaghetti Westerns . London: I.B. Tauris, 2004.

Corey K. Creekmur

Sergio Leone during the production of Once Upon a Time in America (1984).

which sensitively depicts the tragic love affair of two cowboys. After decades of invisibility on television, the western has also enjoyed an unexpected revival through the relentlessly profane cable series Deadwood (beginning 2004).



Other articles you might like:

Follow City-Data.com Founder
on our Forum or Twitter

User Contributions:

Comment about this article, ask questions, or add new information about this topic: