By David G. Maciejewski
December 13, 2018
Controversies and plagiarism in Sad Hill
The places chosen for For a Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly passed through Iberian territory. The emblematic desert of Tabernas, in Almeria; the Sad Hill cemetery rebuilt in Burgos (the recent Spanish documentary Unearthing Sad Hill) and La Calahorra granadina hosted part of the sequences. The rest, the ones of the interiors, were filmed in the studies of Italian Cinnecittà.
For a Fistful of Dollars came to theaters loaded with controversy. Some critics accused Leone of plagiarizing part of the script of Yojimbo (1961) and even sued the Italian producer. Akira Kurosawa's screenwriters won the lawsuit and took 15% of the film's profits, more money than they collected with Toshiro Mifune's films. Critics, who did not understand Leone's style at the time, even accused him for decades of being a plagiarist of other films.
However, the talent of Sergio Leone, like that of Quentin Tarantino, was to reconvert the schemes of the genre, adapt them to their style and expose them from a different perspective than the public was accustomed to. The cinema is an endless succession of creative references between artists, so it is trivial (if not selfish and envious) to consider that the adaptation of certain visual motives is cause for plagiarism. History has given the reason to Leone: the cinema of the West cannot be understood without his influence. Something that criticism had to accept after the premiere of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, his third installment of the trilogy starring the Nameless Man (Eastwood).
The sunset of the rider
After the undeniable success of the Dollar Trilogy, Leone embarked on his most ambitious project: portraying the decline of the Far West with Once Upon a Time in the West. The blood and violence of his previous films were skillfully inserted into a plot marked by a melancholy family tragedy (that of Claudia Cardinale, the first woman protagonist in his films) and a brutal revenge story led by Harmonica (Charles Bronson). Henry Fonda, an actor who always embodied a good-natured character (if you do not remember him in his angelic role of 12 merciless men), became a ruthless assassin whose pulse does not move when he has to shoot an unarmed kid who has seen hia face. No one better than Leone could portray the brutality and savagery of the true West.
In order to emphasize this disappearance of the conventional codes of the western and to break with the Trilogy of the Dollar, Leone wanted to contract with Clint Eastwood, Eli Wallach and Lee Van Cleef, the trio of protagonists of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, to appear in the initial sequence. As Eastwood refused, the idea was forgotten. In the end they were Woody Strode, habitual actor in the westerns of John Ford; Jack Elam, a minor celebrity from the North American Western, and Al Mulock, who had already worked with Leone and who committed suicide in Guadix during the shooting, the protagonists of the opening sequence, the longest in film history.
A new universe ahead
The radicalism with which Sergio Leone cut short with his previous works is evident with the unexpected death of the three malefactors. Genius comes to say: "The Old West is gone forever. I killed it. You can do nothing to remedy it. "The rest of the film is a sequal succession of unforgettable sequences that are taken from Johnny Guitar (the female character of Cardinale is inspired by that of Joan Crawford); the solo gunfighter before the danger (the sequences of the persecution between Fonda and Bronson in the town) and, especially, from the deep roots of the genre, that served as inspiration seen in the massacre of the McBain family. The script was written by Bernardo Bertolucci, Dario Argento and Sergio Donati.
The eruption of the Railroad and the decay of the Far West, which leads to a rapid democratization of the wild territories, are the main motive of OUATITW. His characters, on the verge of disappearance by the eruption of modernization, seem to seek their last moment of glory before disappearing. An idea that connects with the laconic memories of John Wayne in The Man who Killed Liberty Valance. "The rhythm of the film sought to evoke the last rales of a dying man," says Leone. And as Thoret recalls: "The extreme elongation of time, the funereal hieraticism of the postures, procure the sensation of a frozen and deserted world, already dead in short."
Revolutionaries and gangsters
Duck You Sucker! and Once Upon a Time in America were the last two works of Sergio Leone. The first, was little understood and almost relegated to the background in the filmmaker's filmography, is contextualized in World War I. Specifically, in a revolutionary Mexico where lives a bloody class struggle. It has Rod Steiger and James Coburn in a masterful interpretive duel: a bandit and an IRA terrorist who end up establishing a close friendship relationship, like the buddy films of yesteryear. His beautiful interpretations are only comparable to the extraordinary visual epic of most sequences (the nightly performances in front of the headlights of the cars or the appetizer in front of the cliff are anthological) and with the satirical-melodramatic melody of Ennio Morricone.
In Once Upon a Time in America, that movie that already premonized with its first script of 1948, Sergio Leone leaves the western for the first time and honors the great films of the history of the black cinema. He moves his characters to decadent suburban Manhattan. Once again, he rebuilds it under his schemes and destroys the narrative line through a frame mounted on flashbacks (a technique he had previously used). Forgotten by the Academy Awards, which saw in it nothing more than another themed and incoherent potpourri, Once Upon a Time in America, was really the best work of a filmmaker in his creative heyday.
His next project, Leningrad, about 900 days from the site to the Russian city, could never see the light: Sergio Leone died in 1989 during the pre-production of the film. A potential masterpiece that we will never get to see.