Saturday, January 14, 2023

Sergio Leone: The man who repainted West in its violent image

 On the occasion of the Italian maestro’s birthday, we look at how he managed to set into motion an entire genre of Spaghetti Westerns, which would have an immense impact on Indian and global cinema.


By Divy Tripathi

January 3, 2023

“I’ve seen your movie. It’s a very good movie. Unfortunately, it’s my movie.”

Supposedly belonging to a letter written by the Japanese legend Akira Kurosawa to Italian filmmaker Sergio Leone, about the similarities between his movie Yojimbo and the latter’s A Fistful of Dollars, these words are a part of cinema legend today. While the legal issues were eventually settled, A Fistful of Dollars, an Italian Western under a Spanish-German co-production with a pan-European crew and then relatively little-known American lead used Kurosawa’s story to wreak enough havoc on the box office to set in motion an entire genre of films which came to be called “Spaghetti Westerns”.

But it wasn’t just the Yojimbo effect, as the success of the director’s next two movies showed. Leone’s cinema worked because it was revolutionary. The filmmaking was informed by a medley of director’s signature sequences (Such as Close-range shots interweaved with wide shots), Ennio Morricone’s simple yet profound tunes, and inverted themes.

The director sought to revise the genre of Westerns which had been popular in the United States for decades, to deconstruct the usual tropes of the clean “Old West” such as a meek town, idealistic sheriff, damsel in distress, law-abiding hero, and rascal villain. His stories always sat on a powder keg, the plot fuelling up the tension through several confrontations and opportunistic alliances, eventually setting itself up for the big finale, which saw the inevitable face-off between the competing forces.

This held true for a relatively moral tale like For a Few Dollars More wherein Colonel Mortimer takes on Indio for vengeful justice as well as The Good, The Bad and The Ugly wherein the three opportunistic leads fight in the cemetery for hidden gold.

Informing these storylines were rich characterisations, which were yet again different from the conventional westerns. Your typical hero (Clint Eastwood’s “Man with No Name” in the Dollars Trilogy) was an amoral lead, competing for monetary rewards with the others, as cunning and brutal as the villains of the film, with only fleeting moments of “niceness” such as saving Marisol in A Fistful of Dollars.

Similarly, the villains had greater depth, Indio suffered from hidden torment of a past crime, and someone like Tuco had the pain of failing as a son, and never having a fruitful relationship with his brother. Even the minor actors added colour, their gritty tales told in a fashion to impress upon the viewers that these lives went beyond the imaginary constructs of the movie, such as the drunk pacifist Union captain who hated war in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly or Klaus Kinski’s violent hunchback in For A Few Dollars More.

None of this discussion on Leone’s reconstructed West would be complete without paying a tribute to Ennio Morricone, whose soul stirring music lifted these movies to another level. In fact, as shown in Sergio Leone: The Way I See Things, music was of utmost importance to Leone’s cinema even while he went about narrating scripts to movie producers.

The iconic Mexican stand-off in The Good, The Bad and The Ugly gains its cult status from Morricone’s masterly piece which is able to imbibe and fit in the tension of what is at stake, the emotions of three vastly different men, and the fleeting nature of life all into one.

This cinema would go on to spawn an entire set of movies which ruled the roost in the late 60s and 70s. Iconic creations such as Django, Sartana, and Sabata came into existence in this period, while there were also spin-off genres such as the Zapata Westerns, the revolutionary cousins of Spaghetti Westerns that discussed political themes such as colonial exploitation more openly than most movies in the Western sphere at the time.   

Over the decades, the impact of this genre and Leone has become more obvious. While Quention Tarantino is heavily indebted in his cinematic approach to the genre, having created Django Unchained and used Morricone’s music time and again in his movies, others such as Gore Verbinski’s Rango give a nod to the Leone Westerns by giving his creation “The Man with No Name” a cameo.

The impact was quite profound on Indian cinema as well. In comparison to the usual Hollywood fare, these movies were “spiritually” closer to Indian films, with their heavy use of music to evoke emotions and push the narrative being similar to the usage of lyrical song narratives in Indian movies. It is without a doubt that the genre of Indian curry westerns wouldn’t have existed without Leone’s ingenious “Dollars trilogy”.

Perhaps the biggest beneficiary was Sholay, a movie with a very Indian story which nonetheless used a Western setting to its benefit. The main leads, Jai and Veeru, the criminal misfits were as grey as Indian heroes could have been back in the day. The villain: Gabbar was moulded in a fashion reminiscent to villains from Leone’s Westerns. Ramgarh’s relative isolation was similar to the vulnerable Western towns in Leone’s films, almost always under the threat of an attack from bandits.

There were also instances such as the use of Harmonica, Gabbar’s background theme and a bittersweet story which seemed directly out of a Western. However, no other influence was so obvious as the Thakur family massacre in the film which seemed to have been directly inspired by the McBain family massacre from Sergio Leone’s Once Upon a Time in The West.

Through his cinematic vision, the director was able to marry art with action and make it popular among the wider audience. His movies remain a guiding point for the modern-day filmmakers to re-define conventional ideas with adequate masala content while keeping them thematically relevant at the same time.


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