Bright Lights Film Journal
By Evert Jan van Leeuwen
April 30, 2008
On the manifest destiny of Civil War tricksters and gun-slinging corpses
As the opening credits of Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo (1959) appear on the screen, a caravan of cowboys on horseback and fully-laden coaches come riding down the mountain into a green valley. With the sun and blue sky behind them, the horses’ hooves and wagon wheels kick up orange dust from the dry road that leads to the western settlement. The western world of Rio Bravo, despite the outside threats its heroes need to overcome, is a predominantly bright world, peopled with brave cowboys, in control of their horses, who face the camera and the villains head-on to save the day, the settlement, and civilization. This west is one of heroic sheriffs, defending beautiful young maidens in flowing dresses from evil outsiders. In contrast, the viewer of Sergio Corbucci’s Django (1966) is confronted during the opening credits with the back of a solitary black-clad figure, walking away from the camera through a sea of grey mud. He is not on horseback, but carries the saddle for a horse he does not own. As the camera zooms out to reveal the stranger in full , no other cowboys or coaches appear that carry this traveler’s belongings toward an ordered settlement. The dark stranger is revealed to be pulling his own coffin on which what looks like a solitary black candle seems to provide a fragile bright spot on the cinematic canvas.
The stylistic and atmospheric difference between a classic American western like Rio Bravo and the opening sequences of Corbucci’s Eurowestern is just one instance of how European directors utilized classic gothic tropes and stylistic devices — in this case the trope of the darkly-clad mysterious solitary wanderer in a bleak desolate landscape — to challenge the dominant Hollywood myth of the American West. This essay will examine how the makers of Eurowesterns employed a cinematic technique I call grotesque perspective in order to subvert the often utopian and mostly nostalgic ideological point view of the classic American westerns of, for instance, John Ford or Howard Hawks.
Hawks’ Rio Bravo is a clear instance of an American western that takes its subject seriously, heroically, and ideologically affirmative. The film ends with two deputies having a private joke at the hero’s (John Wayne’s) expense, as they wonder about becoming sheriff one day. Their eyes are on the future, which, due to the intervention of the all-American hero, is bright indeed. R. Philip Loy argues that the classic Hollywood westerns “mirrored the American commitment to individual responsibility, progress and manifest destiny,” an ideology that he defines as “the belief that God gave the North American continent to whites of European descent as a place in which to build a new democratic political order to serve as an example for humankind.”1 From westerns, Loy argues, “children learned that most folks were basically honest and brave but sometimes they needed a good leader to stiffen public resistance to the few who were corrupt and dishonest” (Loy 6). Westerns underscore the protestant work ethic that helped build America, Loy argues, when he writes that “westerns also taught that very little comes without hard work, but success is sure to follow if one works hard and remains steadfastly committed to one’s goals” (Loy 6). Douglas Pye also shows that the classic Hollywood western was ideologically affirmative. He argues that the community dance sequence in John Ford’s My Darling Clementine (1946) has an ideological function in pointing towards “the possibility of a perfected society in the West that will reconcile opposing forces in an ideal harmony.”2 J. A. Place also observes that the town of Tombstone, in the same film, “goes through a ‘civilization’ process after Wyatt [Earp] takes over as marshal.”3 Over the years several film critics have written about the poetic and nostalgic nature of classic westerns such as My Darling Clementine, or the glorification of heroic violence in cavalry films such as Fort Apache (1948). According to Lindsay Anderson, Ford’s famous westerns neatly fit Loy’s Hollywood western prototype. He wrote about Fort Apache that: “at the end Ford leaves us in no doubt where our sympathies and our respect should lie”; the movie ends by showing “a cavalry troop, riding out on another patrol.”4 The following voice-over is imposed over this image: “they’ll fight over cards and rot-gut whisky, but they’ll share the last drop in the canteen . . . the regular army, now and fifty years from now . . .” (quoted in Anderson 125). For Ford, the heroes of the movie are the rough and rugged soldiers of the cavalry, who are fighting the battle over the West for the American people to cultivate and civilize. Unsurprisingly, the voice-over at the end of Ford’s She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (1949) presents the viewer with exactly such an American idyll:
So here they are — the dog-faced soldiers, the regulars, the fifty cent-a-day professionals, riding the outposts of a nation. From Fort Reno to Fort Apache, from Sheridan to Stark, they were all the same, men in dirty shirt blue, and only a cold page in the history books to mark their passage. But wherever they rode, and whatever they fought for — the place became the United States. (quoted in Anderson 125)
Violence in the classic Hollywood western, as Loy argued, is “socially necessary,” a means toward a noble end, and when used in this light it represented “manly virtue” (Loy 101). The violence pictured between cowboys and Indians, the Cavalry and the Confederates, are all necessary struggles in the larger process of civilization that will ultimately lead to the realisation of a utopian community the settlers were destined to build in this new-found land.
Christopher Frayling argues that across the Atlantic Sergio Leone made westerns that reacted directly to the naive and idyllic picture of the American West as presented by Hollywood. According to Frayling, Leone believed that it was his personal interpretation of the history of the American West, as a foreigner and outsider, which was the most important difference between him and Ford.5 Leone tells in an interview how the Catholic Irish American immigrant Ford imbued his movies with a traditional American Christian vision of the West; as a result, his characters always present a typically American optimistic future. Leone has described that, as an Italian and a descendant of the Romans and therefore an outsider, he necessarily had to develop a different perspective on the history of the American West: to him it represented a world characterized by “the reign of violence by violence” (quoted in Frayling 135). To materialise this alternative vision, Leone chose to present his version of the American West from a grotesque perspective, an example of which is his penchant for extreme close-ups on the eyes of two dueling cowboys, an image that has gained iconic status in western popular culture.
Philip Thomson writes that “the most consistently distinguished characteristic of the grotesque has been the fundamental element of disharmony,” which is present not only in the work of art but also in the reaction of the observer or even in the temperament of the artist.6 According to Thomson, the grotesque is characterised by ambivalence, a violent coming together of binaries, especially the fluid merger of the comic and terrifying, the mixture of which “may be disproportionate” (Thomson 21). Important to the grotesque, Thomson emphasises, is that the grotesque is not concerned with the creation of a fantasy world; it is not a purely aesthetic principle: “far from possessing a necessary affinity with the fantastic, the grotesque derives at least some of its effect from being presented within a realistic framework, in a realistic way” (Thomson 8). All these elements of the grotesque are prevalent in Leone’s work.
19 Gothic Eurowesterns: A Grotesque Perspective on a Hollywood Myth Part II
As an artist, Leone was clearly ambivalent about the West. Frayling writes: “Leone may admire Hollywood westerns, but he does not believe in the dreams they embody” (Frayling 135). One of the most obvious grotesque techniques Leone uses to create his satirical vision of the West is his choice to represent a hyper-realistic setting using surrealistic camera angles. Leone’s camera lens is restless, shooting its subject from either too high or too low a position, from too far away or too close up to the action; focusing either too short or too long on the object in view or the scene; moving too much or too little, and always placed in the most unusual of optical positions. For example, while in the opening scene of Rio Bravo the cowboys are presented as coming down the mountain, passing a fixed roadside camera, in the opening sequence of For a Few Dollars More (1965), the camera is placed on high, taking in a vast desert landscape surrounded by mountains through which a tiny cowboy makes his way on horseback. While the convoy of cowboys in Rio Bravo safely arrives at their destination, the tiny lone cowboy in Leone’s film is suddenly shot and immediately falls off his horse, which subsequently runs away in a gallop. This sequence reveals that the camera is also the sight of the rifle that has just shot the tiny cowboy. The typically grotesque, comically horrific atmosphere is created by the multiple aesthetic and structural clashes: the hard reality of the western landscape photographed by surrealist camerawork, which in turn surprises the viewer with a slapstick rendering of a brutal killing that invokes laughter instead of terror. As in Rio Bravo, the cinematic technique, setting, and representation of the cowboy set the tone for the rest of the film.
Leone peoples this grotesque world with grotesque individuals. The hero and focalising character of his movies is no longer the famous western hero Wyatt Earp, or a heroic cavalry general, marked by his integrity, moral steadiness, and engagement with the welfare of the community and the nation. Frayling explains that in Spaghetti westerns, “the hero-figures are usually identifiable by a collection of external gestures, mannerisms, stylish articles of clothing, or even motifs on the soundtrack, rather than by anything remotely to do with the inner man” (Frayling 61). The anti-hero of Leone’s Spaghetti westerns is a man without a name, history, nationality, or moral values. He is only recognisable from his multi-cultural external identity, immortalized by Clint Eastwood in Leone’s Dollar Trilogy: a stylistic combination of American cowboy and Mexican peasant with his ever-blazing cigar and perpetual five o’clock shadow. The grotesque effect of such an identity is created by fusing two character types that in the traditional westerns had always stood diametrically opposed to each other: the heroic cowboy (immortalised by John Wayne) and the Mexican or Indian outlaw (unsurprisingly sometimes played but never immortalised on the silver screen by any Hollywood actor). The grotesque effect of this mode of characterisation on the viewer is that he or she is forced to conclude that not all people wearing a poncho and a sombrero are slothful and dim-witted.
Significantly, Leone’s anti-hero fights for no national goal or political authority but only from himself. He is always on his own, in search of money. In Fistful of Dollars (1964), this figure manipulates two feuding bands of robbers into killing each other; in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), he opportunistically works together with other bandits, abuses the American law, and uses the chaos brought about by the civil war, its weapons, and union soldiers to realise his own selfish plans. Leone’s western world parodies Hollywood’s western ideology of manifest destiny and heroic masculinity by highlighting the complete disintegration of community, family, and moral values under the rule of masculine violence and a selfish will to power.
20 Gothic Eurowesterns: A Grotesque Perspective on a Hollywood Myth Part III
Revenge has been the grand motif of many westerns, American and European. In Ford’s My Darling Clementine, a central theme was the high price of revenge. Tag Gallagher commented on the fact that this film is characterised with “musing over whether one can ever have the right or duty to kill.”7 In Leone’s Spaghetti westerns, however, seeking revenge for wrongs committed against the individual becomes a primary human necessity, on a level with nourishment and shelter. Instead of functioning as melodramatically staged moral lessons, the revenge plots in Leone’s westerns are represented through comical tableaux. The never-ending twists in the plot, in which each anti-hero tricks and gets his revenge on the other, endow Leone’s films at times with an undercurrent of slapstick humour. At the end of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the man with no name has tricked his adversary and hung him on a tree, only to shoot down and free him from the noose at a distance, leaving the bandit to swear revenge, pointing out that after the end credits the story will start all over again in the imaginary world of the film.8 The circularity of the plot stands in marked contrast to most of Hollywood’s Western plots, which are founded on a model of linear progression.
John R. Clark points out that the grotesque as an artistic mode has strong links with ideological critique. He argues that “the ‘serious grotesque,” as opposed to the comic grotesque, “is significantly utilized in the eighteenth-century gothic novels,” where it functions as “an antidote to Enlightenment optimism.”9 The serious nature of the grotesque in the gothic is created by unbalancing the relationship between the comic and the terrific in favour of terror in which the engagement with symbolism and the supernatural is favoured over the satirical engagement with the real (as is the case in Leone’s Spaghetti westerns). After the success of Leone’s Fistful of Dollars, many European filmmakers followed his lead, and the exploitation film market was flooded with Spaghetti Westerns. The most successful of these post-Leone films was Django (1966). This film was also the first gothic Eurowestern, in which the Leone-style man with no name is pulling his coffin through the mud only to reveal a humungous machine gun with which he ends up maiming a fascist gang. Sergio Corbucci was the first to alter the nature of the anti-hero from Leone’s immoral, opportunistic trickster into the mysterious apparently immortal wanderer so frequently found in gothic fictions, such as Godwin’s St Leon (1799) or Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer (1820). This figure, as Manuel Aguirre argues, symbolises the “abandonment of the journey” toward an optimistic resolution, which typifies the linear plots of quest or epics, as well as Hollywood westerns. The sense of Django’s immortality was heightened by the many unofficial sequels to Corbucci’s film and by the fact that as late as 1987, Django, now a monk, digs up his coffin and with it his machine gun in order to again try to bring about justice. Castelari would take up this trope in Keoma, heightening the Hell-on-Earth gothic atmosphere by using symbolic colour schemes.
Clark argues that “modern grotesques” following on from the gothic “dramatize the corruption of entire communities” in which “individualism and the noble protagonist are equally perverted and destroyed” (Clark 14). The effect that the utilization of a gothic grotesque aesthetic has on the development of the Spaghetti westerns is that these films turn from satires on the naïvely optimistic Hollywood myth of the West into gothic allegories about the Hollywood western genre’s self-deception regarding their civilization’s innate sense of superiority over other cultures, its God-given drive to dominate nature, as well as the androcentric heroism with its reliance on militaristic violence that makes this project of domination possible. Significantly, Frayling argued that Spaghetti westerns found a sympathetic audience in the third world as its people could more easily identify with these movies’ overt engagement with the evils of first-world economic and political tyranny and peasant oppression (see Frayling Chapter 9). Several European directors, in their attempts to distinguish themselves in the now flourishing Eurowestern market, fused Leone’s grotesque perspective with gothic tropes pioneered in the tradition of nineteenth-century gothic romance and further developed and popularised by the horror-film industry since the 1930s. While Leone’s westerns were characterized by their fine balance of the comic, the horrific, and the political, these films heightened the terrifying over the comic. As a consequence they move from the satiric to the monstrous in their response to the classic Hollywood Western.
In Antony Dawson’s (Antonio Margheriti’s) Vengeance (1968), the relationship between hero and villain is no longer characterised by the moral struggle between good and evil, but takes on the hues of gothic psychological doubling. The gothic double, Manuel Aguirre has explained, “is a figure to flee from, or ignore, or destroy, not one to confront and embrace” because “there is no longer a belief in the possibility of restoring the harmony of human nature” (Aguirre 53). This gothic trope is exemplified in late nineteenth-century gothic tales such as Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, in which a young man becomes immortal while his youthful portrait grows monstrous as it comes to represent his corrupt mind. Robert Louis Stevenson’s Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde, in which the doctor loses control of his experiment and ends up killing his degenerate double, is of course the most famous of gothic doubling stories. The hero and villain of Vengeance increasingly come to embody this relationship, where the monster is not an external force to be defeated with masculine muscle or military might, but an aggressive inner demon of the mind that must be confronted and exorcized.
In Vengeance, this doubling works to critique the Hollywood western’s idealisation of masculine violence noted by Loy.10 Joko, the hero cowboy, finds the dismembered body of his friend Richie and swears to get revenge on the bandits who murdered him, making the film a standard revenge western at the outset. However, as Joko gets closer to finding and confronting the bandit Mendoza, the initially orthodox representation of the West increasingly takes on a surreal character. By the finale, Joko, having become as bloodthirsty for revenge as his adversary Mendoza, is lured into a labyrinthine system of dark caves illuminated in lush shades of yellow and orange through which he pursues his enemy.