Sunday, November 10, 2019

European Western vs. American Western (Part 3)

By Alireza Vahdani

The invention of the modern antagonist

The nature of the antagonist is the most significant difference demarcating Italian and American westerns; the Italian antagonist is totally distanced from the American variant. The latter, as a one-dimensional character, is simply ‘a bad man’; but this badness is not defined by the film, or explained in any depth. Instead the character of the antagonist is a nexus of clichés: he drinks a lot, he is not a gentleman, he is a troublemaker, he is the one most likely to provoke needless acts of violence, and above all he stands outside the community, an outcast, which means he is hated by the townspeople. This type of representation is simplistic because the audience is not given the chance to really understand why he behaves differently. If drinking and shouting make men evil, so too are the majority of today’s university students. Films should develop or at least suggest more profound elements as to why some men act differently than others.

Italian westerns set out to change the traditional way that westerns depict antagonists. Cooke (2007, p.180) writes: “Leone, by breaking and playing with conventions, established a new template for the western based on liminality and complexity rather than a simple binary system of good versus bad.” To do so, Leone reduces the space between antagonist and protagonist. Moreover, the personalities of the two characters can overlap. This is not an arbitrary attempt, but something that requires certain rules and tactics. They are:

1. Physical appearance; this means that the antagonist’s and the protagonist’s features are similar. In A Fistful of Dollars, Ramón is almost as tall as Joe, and his gun fighting abilities are at Joe’s level. Moreover, both of them have the same make-up (gruff exterior, unshaven, etc.). Cooke elucidates this resemblance. He (2007, p.180) writes: “[the antagonist] is as powerful and charismatic as the hero, in order to maintain interest and give the hero a real challenge.” Therefore, it can be said, based on Cooke’s idea, that the antagonist must be a worthy adversary; if not, there is no point for the protagonist to face up to him.

2. Character establishment; both antagonist and protagonist establish their presence in the film through the killing of others. The difference is that the antagonist kills more often than the protagonist. As the result of using violence for the purpose of identity, the death of the antagonist carries more meaning than the death of his counterpart in an American western. According to Bondanella (1996), if in an American western the antagonist’s death simply means the triumph of the virtuous, in an Italian western it encompasses the narrative. [7]

3. Heterosexual love; there is always a love interest between a man and woman in Hollywood films and this follows in many American westerns as well. The convention is that the hero falls in love with a woman, but can’t attain her. The reasons are either that she marries another man (e.g. The Searchers, The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance), or she has been murdered (Red River). Moreover, even if he does fall in love with a married woman, he is gentleman enough to avoid a sexual affair (Shane). Italian westerns re-contextualise the notion of love. By this I contend that women often are not portrayed as romantic objects. They are lost in the hierarchical system of the masculine society of these films. Moreover, they are too feeble to be loved by the protagonist. As noted before, the hero looks for strong and challenging characters. It can even be said that when it comes to women, the hero is asexual. In addition, in these films it is the antagonist who is more likely to fall in love (like Ramón who loves Marisol). This love is not the conservative and romantic love of Hollywood, e.g. to enact on his love for Marisol, Ramón separates her from her child and husband, bringing dysfunction upon her family life.

4. Selfishness; in Hollywood films, one element of the protagonist’s character is that he is unselfish and down to earth. The character of Tom Doniphon (John Wayne) in The Man who shot Liberty Valance is an ideal example. In opposition to this, the protagonist in the Italian western cares for no one and nothing, outside of his personal gain. As noted earlier in A Fistful of Dollars, Joe’s goodwill act toward Marisol still serves a personal purpose. The irony is that in these westerns, the antagonist is usually more caring and unselfish than their counterparts. This does not necessarily mean that he is a decent or lovable man, but that as long as people stay within his rules he will not bother them. Ramón shows his hatred to the protagonist only when Joe causes Marisol to leave him. In Hollywood films, the antagonist has few friends and many enemies; this formula is echoed in Italian westerns, where it is the protagonist who has few friends and many enemies.


Among the four changes that Leone established in A Fistful of Dollars, the most significant one is the representation of the villain. The traditional bad man of Hollywood no longer carries the same weight. Viewers today are only satisfied by complex and menacing villains. In the last few years characters such as the Joker (Heath Ledger) in The Dark Knight (dir. Christopher Nolan, 2008) and Bill “The Butcher” Cutting (Daniel Day-Lewis) in Gangs of New York (dir. Martin Scorsese, 2003) epitomise this change.

As all the above dichotomies suggest, the Italian western is not a sub-genre of the Hollywood western, but a genre of its own. [8] The westerns of both traditions are different in terms of visual style, theme, and characterisation. They may be grouped together as westerns, but they function under differing semantic and syntactic patterns. To quote an ancient Iranian proverb, “not every round object signifies the walnut.”


1 According to Christopher Frayling cited in Bertellini (2004, p.163), “between 1962 and 1976, over 450 westerns were produced in Italy or involved an Italian financial interest.”

2 The term Spaghetti western has been considered derogatory by some scholars, as discussed by Dimitris Eleftheriotis (2001, p.92), because of the way it [spaghetti] “connotes inferiority and foreignness.” However, Dimitris Eleftheriotis uses the term as a springboard for theoretical and critical discussion around issues of genre. My own preference for this essay is to use the term ‘Italian Western.’

3 Frayling (2006) says that the film’s budget was 200,000 US dollars; it earned 8 million Dollars worldwide

4 As an example, Shane (dir. George Stevens, 1953).

5 As an example, The Searchers (dir. John Ford, 1956).

6 This reminds one of a contemporary Hollywood film, Blood Diamond (dir. Edward Zwick, 2006). In the film, the protagonist Danny Archer (Leonardo DiCaprio) explains the acts of violence in Africa as a result of God having left there a long time ago.

7 In American westerns, going back home or reunion with love ones conclude the narrative.

8 For a thorough examination of the spaghetti western and genre theory I recommend Dimitris Eleftheriotis’ essay “”Genre Criticism and the Spaghetti Western,” in his book Popular Cinemas of Europe, 92-133.


Cooke, Paul. (2007) Dialogues With Hollywood, New York: Palgrave Macmillan.

Bertellini, Giorgio. Ed. (2004) The Cinema of Italy, London: Wallflower Press.

Bondanella, Peter. (1996) Italian Cinema from Neorealism to the Present, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group INC.

Eleftheriotis, Dimitris. (2001) Popular Cinemas of Europe: Studies of Texts, Contexts and Frameworks, New York: The Continuum International Publishing Group INC.

Frayling, Christopher. (2006) Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone, London: I.B.Tauris and Co Ltd.

Russell, Bertrand. (1961) History of Western Philosophy, 2nd ed. London: George Allen and Unwin LTD.

Alireza Vahdani lives in Oxford, UK. He holds a M.A in Popular Cinema and, a B.A in Film Studies/ Communication, Media, and Culture from Oxford Brookes University. He is an Associate Lecturer in Film Studies at Oxford Brookes University. His research interests are Japanese period drama films, Italian popular cinema, classic American Westerns, and English linguistic.

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