By Alireza Vahdani
The re-conceptualization of violence
The representation of violence in Italian westerns differs fundamentally from the American westerns. The re-conceptualization of violence in the former is a reflection of violence in the Italian society of the 1960s. Lino Micciché cited in Frayling (2006, p.55) explores this notion by writing: “the Italian Westerner … [is] a commonplace of the everyday psyche of the ‘average’ Italian [who has] the urge to overwhelm … in order not to be overwhelmed, the urge to guarantee that you will not become anyone’s victim.” This everydayness of violence is the first level of difference from Hollywood films. In the latter, a community and/or a person seeks peace. The obstacle to peace arises from the usage of violence by others. However, in Italian westerns the protagonist or the community has another approach. They utilize violence not for defending themselves, but for avoiding being violated. Whereas in Hollywood films the proper etiquette is to calm the situation, in Italian films the protagonist aims to provoke violence as much as possible. Joe proves this notion in the first fifteen minutes of “A Fistful of Dollars” by murdering four people because they make fun of his mule.
The next point is that Italians are more explicit than Americans in their depiction of violence. According to Frayling (2006), in tandem with some other American directors, John Ford did not like European westerns because they were “too violent.” Moreover, John Cawelti in Bondanella (1996, p.235) writes that “[in] the classic [American] westerns … violence was the fault of evil and corrupt men.” I think that Ford and others failed to understand the representation of violence in Italian westerns; unlike the American western, in the Italian western violence does not have symbolic or moral meaning. For example, in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962) John Ford represents the antagonist, Liberty Valance (Lee Marvin), as the villain by portraying him as a thief and a brutal man. Valance tears apart Ransom Stoddard’s (James Stewart) law books to illustrate that his character is an outlaw. Moreover, he kicks Stoddard to establish himself as a violent man; but there are no shotguns, no vulgar language and even the kicking is not that harsh. However, Ford sets Valance apart as a violent antagonist with the use of symbols (e.g. law books).
The essential contrast to the above example is the way that Leone portrays his antagonist, Ramón (Gian Maria Volonté), in “A Fistful of Dollars”. Prior to Ramón’s first appearance in the film, Joe (and hence the spectators) learns from the film’s characters that Ramón is an artist with a gun; and that he shows little mercy towards others. Tension is built leading up to Ramón’s introduction at approximately twenty-five minutes. The audience wonders: “is he really that good with guns?” “is he really a vicious man?” Using violence in a symbolic manner not only bypasses the generic codes of the Italian western, but destroys the suspense generated around the antagonist. Leone cleverly avoids any symbolic attempt at the antagonist’s portrayal. Therefore, the first time that the audience encounters Ramón is when he is behind an automatic machine gun slaughtering a whole platoon. Furthermore, his great marksmanship is demonstrated when a wounded soldier tries to escape and Ramón shoots him dead with his Winchester rifle at distance. In Italian westerns characters are privileged with an absolute freedom to use violence.
The secularization of Biblical themes
As Bertrand Russell (1961) espouses, Judeo-Christian traditions have had a great influence on Western culture and art. Biblical themes can always be found in the films of both continents. Bertellini (2004) believes that the man with no name’s visit to Saint Miguel can be likened to the entrance of Jesus to Jerusalem. The evidence is tangible; he is coming from the desert on a mule; and he enters a corrupt town with the aim of making changes. Up to this point the narrative is classically Biblical. However, the contrast starts from the point the audience learns that Joe is not trying to bring salvation for others, but for himself. If Jesus brought the message of ‘love’ and ‘peace’ to Jerusalem, Joe conveys concepts of ‘death’ and ‘personal gain’ to Saint Miguel.
The above claim can be contested if one considers that towards the end of the film Joe saves the honor of a young woman, Marisol (Marriane Koch), and reunites her with her family. He also saves her life by not telling Ramón of her whereabouts, an act which leads to his torture. Nevertheless, this act of self-sacrifice helps Joe as well as Marisol. When Marisol asks him why he is helping her, he responds: “I knew someone like you. No one was there to help.” This response perhaps suggests that in the past Joe was a simple man without the skills of a hero, like most of the film’s viewers. If this is seen as an admission of self-defeat, then helping Marisol allows him to overcome personal demons. Therefore, the spectators learn that to be useful to themselves and others, they need to be as strong as Joe.
The Biblical ethos of Italian westerns is also different from the American films. In American westerns the concept of God shapes the faith and destiny of its people; whereas in Italian westerns God does not intervene and is absent from the films. In the Hollywood western the incarnation of God is often likened to the idea of the ‘Garden’. Cooke (2007) argues that seeking the garden –that is, the idea of the family in a developed land– is the most significant ideology of American westerns. In the last sequence of “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance”, Hallie Stoddard (Vera Miles) tells her husband that their hometown (Shinbone) was once an undeveloped land, but now it is a garden. Many western film critics have suggested that the garden is an allusion to the Garden of Eden, and America, with its newly ‘civilized’ land, representing a new Garden of Eden.
In opposition to this usage of Biblical themes, Leone gives us a secular version of God. The signs and icons of a divine being are indeed present: crosses, churches, the platonic man with no name (like Jesus), and so on. However, God does not challenge the violent men of Saint Miguel. He lets them sort their problems out on their own. This forms the ideological rationale as to why the Italian westerns are violent; God has left us already, so we can do whatever we want. Even Joe’s deeds do not bring peace to Saint Miguel. He simply annihilates the men and leaves the town before the American and Mexican armies enter.