It’s hard to pick favorite movies in a specific genre and this is especially true when it comes to genres with such huge volumes of work to choose from such as the Western. There literally must be hundreds of Westerns to choose from and many of them are truly great. There have been few Westerns I haven not liked. I have enjoyed “The Magnificent Seven,” “The Wild Bunch,” “High Noon,” and “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance.” But for me, the definitive Westerns and, probably, my absolute favorites would be the spaghetti Westerns created by Sergio Leone and starring a young Clint Eastwood as the Man with No Name.
For those of you who have not seen these films you really should. Technically speaking the films that followed the first one are not sequels. At the same time the Clint Eastwood character is definitely the same guy it’s just that the stories don’t really pick up where the last one left off. Of course these are also Italian-made films and there are a few things you should know about Italian filmmaking before entering these films.
Italian filmmakers did not record their scenes with microphones. This is the case not just with Westerns but other films as well. If you watch an Italian horror film such as “Suspiria” you will also find it was recorded the same way. In this way the Italian filmmakers could have actors from around the world and they did not need to know how to speak English or Italian. In fact the three Western films were a mix of German, Spanish and Italian with English thrown in from Eastwood (and Eli Wallach later). This sometimes led to comedic moments as direction was attempted to people who could not speak each other’s languages.
What this means is that Eastwood would be on the set delivering his lines in English. The person across from him might be giving his lines in Italian or German or Spanish. Italian filmmakers then brought in the actors of voice talent later and had the dialogue dubbed or looped over the film footage. This is why the mouths do not match the dialogue. You have to either accept this when watching these films or it will not work for you. Yes, it is like watching one of those Japanese monster films with the voice and lips not matching. For me, however, with these movies it never really bothered me.
This does create some interesting situations. In the movie “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly” for example, there was an Italian actor who could not get his lines right on the set. Sergio Leone then asked him simply to count from one to ten in Italian and then he looped the correct dialogue once the filming was complete. Since the films were also not made in America this means the filmmakers were freed from some of the Hollywood conventions. At the time these films were released they were considered unbelievably violent and bloody. Looking at them today you may wonder why but at the time they really were.
So, the first film in this trilogy is “Fistful of Dollars.” It is, of course, a remake of Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film “Yojimbo.” It is also a movie theme that has been done plenty of times before. I have seen this movie turned into a medieval sword and sorcery story and done as a gangster film. The story, regardless of how it is done, is that a kind of superhuman figure comes into a small town. In “Yojimbo” is a Ronin samurai who is so amazingly good with a sword you cannot follow him with the naked eye. In “Fistful of Dollars” it is the Clint Eastwood character who is blazingly fast and accurate with his pistol.
Clint’s character comes into a small town that is evidently on the border between the United States and Mexico called San Miguel. It is a town living in fear because at one end of town is a ruthless band of gangster-like people known as The Baxters. On the other side of town is an equally ruthless and gangster-like family known as the Rojos. Poor San Miguel’s regular populace is forced to live between these two gangs and, essentially, die routinely in the fighting that erupts between the two families.
Eastwood’s character is essentially the hero but he is not truly heroic for much of the movie. He sees profit potential here. What does he do? He begins to play both families against each other. For each piece of information he brings to each family he demands money. He begins to rack up an impressive amount before he is found out. There then follows a very brutal scene where he is mercilessly beaten and his hand broken. Of course you know he survives, the two families nearly destroy each other and the main character is going to come back and finish the rest of them.
This is such a great movie. All of the characters are compelling. While Clint Eastwood is the first person remembered from this particular movie the performance of Gian Maria Volonte as Ramon Rojo nearly steals the show. This is a villain who almost literally chews the scenery up. When he rages you wonder who would survive against him. He does truly horrible things to people and never has seeing a character get his comeuppance at the end been quite so satisfying.
The thing that also makes these movies is the music. The music from all three has become iconic. From composer Ennio Moricone the music from each movie so combines guitar, voices and whistling to create truly memorable music. This is the kind of stuff that will bring chills to your arms and back. For “Fistful of Dollars” Sergio Leone was reportedly not thrilled with Ennio doing the music until he heard the music. They became fast friends after that. Never has whistling sounded this epic in the opening them and never has a trumpet been able to convey so much drama in the main theme.
This movie was released to critical panning and many thought it would vanish. At that time, you have to remember, Clint Eastwood was a television actor. He had some success playing Rowdy Yates on the television show “Rawhide” and at that time television actors just didn’t transition into movie actors at all. Much to everyone’s surprise this movies reached people. It became a huge international hit, launching the careers of Eastwood, Leone and Moricone and turning them into the legends they are considered today. Any and all of them may have reached their status through other means, but none can doubt it was this film and this series of films that catapulted their careers into the stratosphere.
With this success under his belt Leone made the second film in the trilogy. “For a Few Dollars More” was made and released in 1965. The title alone seems to imply that it is a direct sequel to the previous movie. This isn’t really the case. Although the character portrayed by Eastwood is obviously the same person even smoking the same cigars and literally wearing the same trademark poncho this isn’t truly a direct sequel. In fact, of the three this may be the weakest of the bunch. Still, it is an impressive piece of work.
Gian Maria Volonte appears once again as the villain Indio. The fact that this guy looks exactly like the villain from the first movie is never mentioned. It was common for the same people to appear over and over again in Italian films. You see the same faces throughout this entire series. This movie adds another American actor in Lee Van Cleef as Colonel Douglas Mortimer. The story focuses on Eastwood and Val Cleef’s characters as competitive bounty hunters looking for Indio and his gang. Once again the primary motivation for both “heroes” is actually money. Well, at least it appears to by money for most of the movie. Only at the end to we realize the Col. Mortimer has an ulterior motive for finding Indio.
This is the movie that begins Leone’s obsession with the drawn out showdown. This time the final showdown takes place between Indio and Col. Mortimer and involves waiting until the musical chimes from a pocket watch wind down before the two men draw. Of course both Eastwood and Mortimer are blazingly fast gunmen. The colonel’s gun can also transform into a rifle by adding a stock. These are superhuman men with superhuman toys.
The final showdown involves what has become a trademark and icon for Leone films. Lots of shots of extreme close-ups of men’s eyes, licking lip and twitching hands are shown to build the tension. While this may seem comedic by today’s standards it really does work. The tension does build and then it explodes into violence.
Moricone’s music is once again dazzling and memorable. It manages to hearken back to the earlier film and yet be entirely different. This time he adds a curious mouth harp twang to the music that gives it a strange quality. Also, in this movie look for the strange movie debut of Klaus Kinski as a hunchback who is also a gunslinger.
Once again Leone had success with this film. People seemed to be clamoring for more. Leone decided he wanted to create the most realistic movie depicting the American Civil War that had ever been filmed. Reportedly Orson Welles told him not to do this because films about the Civil War were box office poison. Leone wisely chose to ignore this advice and did set about creating the most expansive and realistic Civil War scenes every filmed up until that time. The uniforms worn by the hundreds of extras were all authentic. The cannons and muskets were authentic.
The story picks up with our friend in the poncho and short cigars teamed up with a character played with brilliance by Eli Wallach. This character is called Tuco and the movie they star in is “The Good, the Bad and the Ugly.” This is Leone’s western epic. This is the final installment in the series and it is the longest of the three films.
Tuco and “Blondie” (as Tuco calls Eastwood’s character) are essentially con men. Tuco is a very wanted man and truly despicable. Eastwood “captures” him and returns him to various law enforcement officials. Then, when they are about to hang Tuco Eastwood’s character hides nearby and shoots the rope away to Tuco can make an escape. Eastwood and Tuco then divide up the money. The more Tuco escapes and the more notorious he becomes the more money he is worth.
Along comes the villain of the role and it is Lee Van Cleef again. In this movie he is known as “Angel Eyes.” The exact plot, of course, is not entirely important. This movie moves from one epic moment to another. Eastwood and Tuco have no desire to end up involved in any way with the war that has erupted but they find out that there is a wealth of confederate gold hidden away. Eastwood knows where and the three characters conspire, betray and connive their way into trying to find the gold.
The two characters of Eastwood and Wallach end up on the front lines of a major civil war battle. Eastwood’s character shakes his head watching the slaughter and comments that he has never seen so many men so uselessly wasted for so little. Considering the time in which this movie was released it may be Leone making a comment on a much more modern war through the use of the Civil War. The two end up in a Union prison camp.
Eventually the story builds to one of the most classic scenes in cinema. The gold is in a cemetery. Tuco runs through the cemetery looking at headstone after headstone trying to find the one grave that may contain the gold. The camera whirls with him. Then, of course, all three characters end up in a massive circle for the final showdown.
Has there ever been a showdown like this one? Leone was already being teased for his long drawn out showdowns in each movie. Rather than being parodied by others Leone seems to be parodying himself. This showdown extends for endless minutes. It seems to go on forever. In an already long movie it seems like the final hour is nothing but shots of people’s faces and close ups of their guns. Meanwhile the music builds and then…well…shots are fired.
The music for this one is probably the music you think of when you think of spaghetti westerns. The vocal cries that sound animalistic combined with a flute-like instrument create a fantastic and iconic sound. Epic movies like this deserve epic music and this one delivers.
Of all of them I alternate between loving “Fistful of Dollars” and “The Good, the bad and the Ugly” the most. The third one is so long that is sometimes detracts from my love for it, however. Of course the first one I ever saw was “Fistful of Dollars” and that means it has special significance for me.
Of course Leone would go on to direct other films and many of them have become classics. He even visited Westerns again with Charles Bronson in “Once Upon a Time in the West.” He turned Henry Fonda into a villain with that movie. Eastwood, of course, became a huge star and one of the finest directors we have working in film today.
However, just for a historical perspective it is important to watch these films. If you love Westerns then these movies have to be seen. There may be others you enjoy more but I am betting you too will develop a fondness for these films. Check them out today because each of them are available on DVD with quality sound and pictures.