Alex Cox on making his own spaghetti western
Just over 20 years ago, sheltering from the sun on the main street of a western set in southern Spain built for a Charles Bronson film, I shot a spaghetti western of my own.
The result, Straight to Hell (1987), is the only western to feature Dennis Hopper, Shane MacGowan and Grace Jones. Despite this, it is not universally acclaimed. What the reasonable, sane, general viewer does not know, but the spaghetti western fanatic will understand, is that Straight to Hell is a homage to the greatest spaghetti western, Giulio Questi’s Django Kill (1967).
The latter is also the most perverse, pessimistic and sinister western of all time. Questi didn’t even like westerns (“the only one I like is the one I made,” he told an interviewer), so, when asked to write a western script immediately and to start shooting the following week, he based his film on his experiences as a teenage partisan, fighting the fascists in the second world war.
These must have been some experiences. In Django Kill, soldiers are massacred by bandits, who then turn on each other with guns. The hero, sometimes called Django, sometimes known as the Stranger, sometimes, oddly, known as Barney, crawls out of his grave and goes in search of the men who shot him. Most of them are already dead, lynched by xenophobic and religious townspeople. They, in turn, are terrorized by a sadistic, white-clad rancher, Sorro, who dresses his “muchachos” all in black, and plays the barrel organ.
This was my inspiration and Tom Richmond, the cinematographer, recreated Questi’s lighting designs – big washes of yellow and blue – in all the night-time sequences. We had a great actor in Biff Yeager, who (I think) gave Django Kill’s Roberto Camardiel a run for his money in the white-suited rancher-villain role. For Sorro’s black-clad muchachos, enter the Pogues, all dressed in mariachi outfits, scoured from the costume houses of Madrid.
Looking back, the results may not be quite of the same Bunuelian standard as Questi’s masterpiece. But, for four weeks on that dusty desert set, we were in Italian western heaven, and that is worth a lot, if you are spaghettily inclined.