“The western is always the same, which gives the director tremendous freedom,” Jean Renoir, a director who never made a western, once opined. In this regard, the classical American western film, which reached its fullest peak of maturity and creativity in the 1950s, represents one of the greatest playgrounds that cinema was ever offered. Many of Hollywood’s key artists worked in the genre: Nicholas Ray, Samuel Fuller, Howard Hawks, John Ford, even Fritz Lang and Jacques Tourneur — for auteurists and those who care about great American filmmakers, it remains an extremely rich body of work. And if this body of work could be boiled down to one overarching thematic or moral principle, it would in my view be the notion of redemption.
Many classical western narratives focus on a lone man stubbornly clinging to vengeance, violence, and a kind of lonely self-sufficiency; in the westerns of Anthony Mann and Budd Boetticher (two of the genre’s key specialists), this bitterness often stems from the loss of a former wife or lover. Almost invariably, the body of the film works to gradually corrode the protagonist’s morally dubious position, allowing room for such alternatives as growth and forgiveness to emerge. Generally speaking, the main thrust of the classical western is to move away from vengeance and toward a new chapter of one’s life. In the hands of a great filmmaker like Mann or Tourneur, this movement toward redemption, maturity, and a kind of serene objectivity can be stunningly powerful and moving.
As the classical model of studio filmmaking began to decline in the mid-’60s, the western underwent an identity crisis. Here in the United States, 1962 seems to be the crucial year, with the release of a pair of elegiac masterpieces (John Ford’s The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance and Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country) that bring a close to and in part eulogize the great classical cycle as it experienced its last gasps of life. The next few years (roughly 1963-1965) would be a transitional period for the American western, though it’s during this period that the western becomes resurrected in Italy and Spain, where it begins to assume a very different form.
Though the Italian western could be said to retain an interest in the images and iconography that make up American mythology and history, under the post-classical vision of filmmakers like Sergio Leone and Sergio Sollima these images take on different contours; visual aesthetics become at once more cartoonish and operatic, scarier and more baroque. The classical emphasis on redemption and serenity gives way to an aggressively modernist well of cynicism. Though some writers would label this period the beginning of the “revisionist western,” I’m not a fan of that term because it suggests that the post-classical western was somehow more beholden to historical reality and less beholden to myth than its classical antecedent (it wasn’t). Still, it’s inarguable that the western had undergone a profound change in its presentation and meanings. By the end of the decade, Peckinpah would pick up the torch in the United States with his notoriously violent landmark The Wild Bunch (1969), but for the time being, an intensely creative period would ferment in the confines of the Italian genre cinema, led by the spaghetti western’s greatest practitioner, Sergio Leone.
The post-classical western has not always been warmly received, particularly by those cinephiles who loved the clean, classical style of Hawks and his contemporaries. The intelligent French critic Jacques Lourcelles wrote (in relation to Peckinpah) that “the western had become a bloody opera, a hectic whirlwind where the hemoglobin spurts and the falls of mortally wounded characters in slow motion punctuate a discontinuous action without lines of strength.” Looked at in a different way, though, post-classical westerns, and especially those of the Italian variety, can be appreciated in terms of their powerfully kinetic visual energies. In Leone’s iconic The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), perhaps the first example of his fully formed style, the montage is not merely much more rapid than in earlier westerns, but also wildly deployed, full of bold and thrilling juxtapositions: alternations between tight eyeline shots of heavies like Lee Van Cleef against vastly open, monumental arenas (where a shootout will soon take place) cause the viewer to “feel space,” to understand the cosmic (and comic) disparity between the infinitesimal nature of the individual characters and the absurdity of the quest they’ve embarked on — which is ultimately a cynical one, as the unifying force pulling together the disparate elements of Leone’s universe is human greed and the desire for capital.
So, while a critical writer like Lourcelles may complain about the “discontinuous action” of these later westerns, I see its formal discontinuity as its very source of strength. There’s a hugeness, a sense of overwhelming grandeur (and, yes, a cartoonishness) in this highly kinetic approach to filming action. With his next film, the immortal Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), Leone would extend this audacious style to the native land of the classical forefathers that he was poaching upon: Monument Valley, the famous site where most of John Ford’s classic westerns were filmed on location. There’s something uniquely ineffable about watching the mythic iconography of this most American of movie genres become usurped by Leone’s highly modern and European style; it’s like watching the western disintegrate in real time.
As a final note, I’d like to add that the Italian western did not exist in a vacuum but rather emerged as part of a continuum within the Italian genre cinema of the mid-twentieth century. In some ways, the Italian western could be said to come out of the Italian peplum (sword-and-sandal) films which were very popular in the 1950s and ‘60s. Leone’s first film, predating his first western A Fistful of Dollars (1964), was in fact a peplum set in Hellenistic Greece called The Colossus of Rhodes (1961). Italian horror cinema, which also has roots in the peplum through key figures like Mario Bava and Riccardo Freda, in turn comes to appropriate some of the visual forms of the Italian western, and shares some of its directors such as Lucio Fulci. These definitively linked strands of film history should be seen as being in conversation with one another, and in this regard, the Italian pepla and horror cinemas are an equally crucial subtext of the spaghetti western as the classical American western film is. An exciting meeting point of disparate aesthetic traditions, the Italian western remains a unique expression of cinema’s fables of history and myth.
A new 4K restoration of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly screens at IU Cinema this Saturday, May 13, as part of its Critics’ Pics: Selections from AFI and Sight & Sound series.
For more of my writing on the classical western, check out Riding the Dusty Trail, an online dossier on the ’50s western which Establishing Shot contributors Michaela Owens and Laura Ivins also participated in.
Jack Miller enjoys the films of Howard Hawks, Jacques Tourneur and John Ford. He graduated from Indiana University with a BA in English, and currently resides in Chicago. He also enjoys listening to country and disco music.