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David F. Walker
Category: SPAGHETTI WESTERN Archive

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – THE GREAT SILENCE

French actor Jean-Louis Trintignant stepped into the title role of what is considered by some to be the greatest spaghetti western of all time, Sergio Corbucci’s The Great Silence (a.k.a The Grand Silence). Trintignant stars as Silence, your typical spaghetti western avenger, only this time with a twist—his vocal chords have been cut out (hence the name Silence—get it?).

The action takes place in and around a bleak, snow covered mountain town that happens to be the hunting ground for a gang of sinister bounty hunters lead by Tigero—or Loco, depending on which version you see—played to psychotic perfection by Klaus “I had sex with my mother” Kinski. These “officers of the law” prey on the outlaws that live in the surrounding region, setting up a clear role reversal that totally subverts the tradition western archetypes of good guys and bad guys. Silence joins sides with the outlaws to protect them from the merciless bounty hunters. But since the outlaws are technically the criminals, and the murderous bounty hunters are technically the law, there seems to be little hope in this brutal deconstruction of traditional storytelling conventions.

Jean-Louis Trintignant as Silence.

The Great Silence is one of only a select few spaghetti westerns that I have watched multiple times, obsessively studying and analyzing it. Over the years, I have begun to see that this is in fact the best film directed by a man responsible for some of the greatest movies in the spaghetti western genre. Django and Compañeros are certainly classics in their own right, but The Great Silence surpasses those films on many levels, just as it surpasses pretty much every film within the genre—except for maybe Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. That said, the film is not an easy pill for some people to swallow. The first time I watched The Great Silence it left me a feeling somewhere between depressed-as-hell, and sick-to-my-stomach. Corbucci pulls no punches with this one, and he delivers those punches full-force with his cynical view of the world.

The Great Silence does much more than turn the genre on its head, replacing the typical dusty, desert locations of so many other spaghettis with a snow-covered wasteland, or literally silencing his hero (who represents the oppressed masses with no voice or power). No, The Great Silence is a decimation of all the sacred conventions of traditional westerns, and Eurocentric folklore with its notions of good and evil, seemingly inspired by the likes of Arthur Penn’s convention-defying Bonnie and Clyde. And even then, there is more to the film. This is, more than anything, an attack on a society that is so corrupt that the keepers of law and order are the villains. Corbucci’s Marxist-esque message is quite simple: the law serves only to protect the rich and powerful—the bourgeois class of morally corrupt elitist. If you are part of the Proletariat—the poor and disenfranchised—justice and equality are beyond your grasp; and you are likely to become a victim of the system designed to “protect and serve.” This message results in one of the most depressing and politically profound endings in film history.

SPOILER ALERT: The Great Silence ends on an incredibly grim note as the “good guys” gun down the hero, killing off any true sense of hope for the notion of justice.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – NAVAJO JOE

Sergio Leone is the director most closely associated with the European-produced westerns popularly referred to as “spaghetti westerns.” Leone’s classics Dollars trilogy starring Clint Eastwood—A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad & the Ugly—are arguably the most popular and well known spaghetti westerns, and helped establish the director as the genre’s preeminent filmmaker. And while Leone is popularly thought of as the director who gave life to the spaghetti western, it would be the other Sergio—director Sergio Corbucci—that gave the genre its soul.

There was somewhere close to 600 spaghetti westerns produced in the 1960s and 1970s; but despite that incredible number, only a select few are worth remembering, let alone any good. Of the westerns produced some of the best the genre has to offer were directed by Corbucci. Among his best work you will find such classics as Django, Companeros, The Great Silence and The Hellbenders, all of which went a long way to helping spaghetti westerns create their own unique, stylish vision. One of his earlier westerns was 1966’s Navajo Joe, a film not among Corbucci’s best, but still better than many of the other genre entries.

Burt Reynolds stars as Joe, a Navajo warrior out for revenge when a gang of sadistic outlaws slaughters his woman and tribe. The gang, led by the ridiculously nefarious Duncan (Aldo Sambrell), a half-breed with hatred for the entire human race coursing through his veins, has been butchering Indians for their scalps, which are then sold for a dollar each. This, of course, leads Duncan and his men to the bad side of Joe, who begins systematically hunting the evil bastards. When Duncan and his men make plans to rob a train headed for the peace-loving town of Esperanza, Joe manages to thwart their plan. From there, Joe convinces the townspeople to pay him a bounty of Duncan and his gang—one dollar from each person in town, for every outlaw Joe scalps—which leads to an inevitable massacre of not-so epic proportions.

Sergio Leone had struck gold when he recruited American television star Clint Eastwood to star in his film A Fistful of Dollars. Eastwood was the star of Rawhide, and was looking to make a transition to film. Because of the tremendous success of Leone and Eastwood’s pairing, other Italian filmmakers tried to recapture the magic with films like Navajo Joe. At the time, Reynolds was a television actor, best known for his recurring role on the popular series Gunsmoke, and trying to recreate the miracle of Eastwood must have seemed like a no-brainer. Unfortunately, Reynolds was working with a director who had yet to find his vision, in a movie that was destined to be mediocre at best.

The key to truly appreciating and understanding Navajo Joe is appreciating and understanding the spaghetti western genre. By and large, these were films that were put together very quickly, with little regard for quality or story. The best of the genre are the ones with compelling stories, told with distinct visual style, in a manner that makes sense to people outside the working class audiences of southern Italy. These films are few and far between. After the truly good films, there comes the films that are just plain okay—at least within the context of other spaghetti westerns. That is to say that these are the films that are nearly as bad as the vast majority of genre entries, but they certainly don’t stand up to much discerning scrutiny outside of the genre. Navajo Joe is one of these films. It is a better-than-average spaghetti western, but it certainly is not one of Corbucci’s better films, nor is it really all that good (unless you’re comparing it to something ridiculously bad like Django Kills Silently).

The problems with Navajo Joe are plenty, and typical of the genre. First and foremost is a script that is just plain bad. There’s no getting around it, or making excuses for it—the script is simply bad. But making matters worse is Reynolds’ performance, which registers almost no charisma whatsoever. Reynolds looks like the last thing he wants to do is be starring in some Italian-produced film being shot in Spain, in which he stars as murderous Indian. And that lack of enthusiasm shows during the thankfully few times he opens his mouth to deliver the already banal and lackluster dialog.

Where Navajo Joe succeeds is in the visual flair of Corbucci’s direction. Again, this is far from his best film, but he is clearly laying the groundwork and developing the style that would make films like Django (made the same year as Navajo Joe) and Companeros among the very best of the genre. Cinematographer Silvano Ippoliti also shot Corbucci’s The Great Silence, and it is easy to see the chemistry between the two during the scenes that actually work. You can also see early signs of some of the recurring themes that pop up in his films, including nontraditional protagonists—in addition to Joe, the film’s other “heroes” include an aging musician and his show girl companions. Corbucci is also fond of torturing his heroes, often to the point of near death, only to resurrect them in time to vanquish evil (the notable exception being the seminal filmThe Great Silence, one of the most bleak movies of all time). Ennio Morricone, who composed the scores for close to 40 spaghetti westerns, including all of Leone’s and several of Corbucci’s better films, provides one of his most distinctive and memorable soundtracks with Navajo Joe.

Not a great film by any stretch of the imagination, Navajo Joe is a movie that will appeal to true fans of the spaghetti western, But anyone looking for a film that can be considered “good” in the more traditional sense of the word, will most likely be disappointed by this uneven film, You’ll be better off watching Corbucci’s Companeros, The Great Silence or Django, all of which are infinitely better films.

Get this review and dozens more in my electronic book, BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – COMPAÑEROS

I’m not sure if Sergio Corbucci was a balls-out Communist, or a Marxist, but he was definitely a cynic who leaned far to the left, which was reflected in his westerns as early as Django. In his earlier films, Corbucci merely had the same anti-establishment attitude that was found in much of the southern Italian world of cheap, working-class commercial filmmaking. The best of these directors—and to be sure, Corbucci is among the best—all had something they were trying to say. There were ideological and dogmatic messages lurking in the shadows of some of the best spaghettis, and by the time the genre was an unstoppable juggernaut in the late 1960s, some writers and directors felt comfortable enough to employ all the subtlety of a stick of dynamite with a fast-burning fuse shoved up your ass. For Corbucci, this change in how he projected his cynicism on the screen kicked into high gear with The Mercenary, carrying through to his next few films and right into Compañeros.

In a role that is pretty much the same character he played in The Mercenary, Franco Nero stars as Yodlaf “the Swede” Peterson, a professional arms dealer come to Mexico during the height of the Revolution to sell weapons to the tyrannical General Mongo. The big problem is that Mongo can’t get to the cash, because it’s locked in a safe, containing “great wealth.” Only one person has the combination to the safe, Professor Xantos (Fernando Rey), the pacifist leader of the revolutionary movement, who happens to be locked in an American prison. The Swede agrees to bust the professor out of the joint—in exchange for half the contents of the safe. Accompanying the Swede is Vasco (Tomas Milian), one of Mongo’s soldiers. The shaky alliance of the Swede and Vasco finds firmer ground when they run up against John (Jack Palance) an old enemy of the Swede. Of course, our heroes are successful in rescuing the professor, but now they must face the Mexican Army, the Americans (represented by Palance and his crew) and Mongo’s men, all of whom want Xantos dead. None of this should be a problem, since Vasco is one of Mongo’s men, and since the Swede is only in it for the money—right? Of course not! Because in the grand tradition of all ZRFs (Zappata-esque Revolution Film) our heroes are about to discover convictions and a sense of honor they never knew they had.

Along with Django and The Great Silence, this is arguably director Sergio Corbucci’s best western, and definitely one of the shining moments in the genre. Corbucci covers areas in Compañeros that he explored earlier in The Mercenary, and both films share more than a few similarities, especially as both examine how industrialized nations serve to manipulate the political process in third world countries to their own benefit. But Compañeros approaches its politics with a mixture of lighthearted comedy, and over-the- top action that isn’t as finely crafted in The Mercenary, and when all is said and done, Compañeros is simply a better film. Jack Palance is at his nuttiest as Nero’s archenemy, a refer-smokin’ psycho with a wooden hand and a pet falcon named Marsha. Franco Nero and Tomas Milian both give stand out performances, and their chemistry together is right on the money. For Milian this is the type of role he best became known for—the Che Guvera-like revolutionary. As for Corbucci, this would be his last truly great western.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL

The spaghetti westerns weren’t far along chronologically—although there were already a ton of movies—when the genre began to splinter off into specific sub-genres. In time there would be comedic spaghettis (the most notable being the Trinity films), spaghettis with a touch of horror, and even cross-over spaghettis that brought in Asian elements in the form of samurais and kung fu warriors. But the most important of these spaghetti sub-genres would have to be the politicized westerns. Usually set within the Mexican revolution (or at least something passing itself off as the Mexican revolution) some of the best films within the larger body of Euro westerns are found in this particular sub-genre, starting with Damiano Damiani’s brilliant A Bullet for the General.

Along with Leone’s Duck, You Sucker, A Bullet for the General is the “highly political” film people talk about whenever they mention politicized spaghetti westerns. “Oh, those movies were soooooo political”, they say; like they’re tryin’ to impress somebody, when in fact they are just stating the obvious. Which means I’m not impressed by the so-called critics who point out how political an obviously political movie happens to be. I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again—unless you can perform oral sex on yourself, I just ain’t impressed. Especially if you don’t know the driving forces responsible for the political nature of films like A Bullet for the General, and how these films came to exist.

The target audience for spaghetti westerns was working class Italians, primarily in southern Italy, which is where many of the filmmakers hailed from. In the years following Italy’s defeat in World War II, and having grown up during Mussolini’s fascist reign, many of these filmmakers harbored leftist, Marxist, and Communists sensibilities, and a distrust of government and symbols of authority that is reflective in some of the better films of the genre. These sensibilities catered to the anti-establishment views of the working class and younger audiences. The result would be films by populist directors like Sergio Corbucci, that spoke to the cynical nature that prevailed in Italy and much of the world during the turbulent 1960s, as well as the films like A Bullet for the General, which was the handiwork of a Communist director, writer, and actor.

A Bullet for the General is, in fact, one of the most politically charged spaghettis—and one of the best films of the overall genre—but at its heart and soul it is more than just a leftist indictment of colonialism, industrial globalization, and exploitation of third world nations. Yeah, sure, the film is that, but it is also an excellent character study, that makes up the backbone that allows A Bullet for the General to stand firmly over so many other films in this subgenre.

Gian Maria Volonté stars as El Chuncho, the leader of a gang of ruthless banditos. El Chuncho likes to fancy himself a member of the Mexican Revolution, when in reality he’s just a two-bit outlaw who steals guns from the government and sells them back to revolutionaries. While robbing a train carrying a shipment of weapons, the mysterious gringo Bill Tate (Lou Castel) joins El Chuncho and his gang (which includes the always bat-shit crazy Klaus Kinski). With Bill the Gringo along for the ride, the gang steals another load of weapons from a fort, which they plan to sell to the leader of the revolution. For a brief moment, El Chuncho considers staying and helping a village of peasants protect themselves from Mexican soldiers after they rise up and kill an evil land baron (NOTE: all land barons in spaghetti westerns are evil). Of course, our sorry excuse for a hero doesn’t stick around, giving in to his greed, leaving the town unprotected, and eventually the victim of a government massacre. All of this is going on while Bill the Gringo subtly plays members of the gang against each other. And, this raises the burning questions of exactly who is the gringo, and what is his eventual goal? Well, let’s just say that Bill ain’t exactly down for the cause, and this flick ain’t called A Bullet for the General simply ‘cause it sounds like a cool title.

When it’s all said and done, A Bullet for the General is one of the truly great spaghetti westerns, and one of the best of what I like to call the ZRF (Zappata-esque Revolution Film)—spaghetti westerns set specifically during the Mexican Revolution, with a BTR (Bandito Turned Revolutionary) as the anti-hero (an archetype that actor Tomas Milian would come to define). Damiani’s direction is solid, showing what a capable director with a great story and not-so-subtle agenda can do within the genre. Volonté is terrific as the amoral bandito that develops a conscious. Volonté is best known—at least to genre fans—for his work in Sergio Leone’s classic films A Fist Full of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More; but to be perfectly honest, those performances, for all their power, pale in comparison to his work in this movie. Volonté subscribed to hardcore leftist politics, to the extent that it would eventually dictate the roles he would accept. This movie is an example of the Marxist leanings that Volonté, director Damiani and co-writer Franco Solinas were looking to bring to the screen. Solinas also wrote the politically charged films Burn! and The Battle of Algiers. This combination of talent and their personal politics make for a fist-to-the-face-and-foot-up-your-ass film that is never afraid to say what’s on its mind.

Read this review and others in BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.

BadAzz MoFo’s Spaghetti Western Archive – DEATH RIDES A HORSE

This grim tale of vengeance starts when young Bill Mecita witnesses the brutal murder of his family by a group of marauding bandits. An unseen stranger saves Bill from the family’s burning house, and fifteen years later the boy has grown up to be John Philip Law (Golden Voyage of Sinbad). And if you were to guess that Bill has spent the last decade and a half training himself to become a well-oiled killing machine with only one thing on his mind, then you wouldn’t be too far off base. Bill is looking to send the varmints that butchered his family on a one way trip to Boot Hill. But it seems our hero ain’t the only one looking for a little pay back. A gunslinger named Ryan (Lee Van Cleef), fresh out of prison, has a few scores to settle, and his path of revenge crosses with that of our beloved Bill. Will the two men come to see that they can both join together on their murder-happy spree, or will they allow petty differences like blinding hatred and the all consuming need for vengeance to keep them apart?

Directed by Giulio Petroni, and accompanied by Ennio Morricone’s score, Death Rides a Horse is a shining moment in a genre that was more often than not plagued with some truly crappy filmmaking. Petroni’s only other western is the largely forgotten (but still solidly entertaining) Tepepa (a.k.a. Blood and Guns), starring Tomas Milian and Orson Welles. Yeah, that’s right, even Orson Welles was in spaghetti westerns. Luciano Vincenzoni’s screenplay is one of the better scripts the genre has to offer, which should come as no surprise, since he was one of the writers on Leone’s For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and Duck, You Sucker, as well as Sergio Corbucci’s A Professional Gun. Vincenzoni cannbalizes elements of For a Few Dollars More, but that’s kind of common practice in this genre.

When it comes to leading men in spaghetti westerns, John Philip Law stands somewhere in the middle of the road. He certainly doesn’t have the charism of the best leading men—Franco Nero, Tomas Milian, Gianni Garko, to name a few—but he isn’t the worst. Law’s biggest problem is that at times his performance resembles that of a plank of wood. And even when he’s not wooden, he still seems like he has a pole up his ass. In a lesser film, Law’s acting might break the movie, but Death Rides a Horse is not a lesser film, and balancing out Law’s tepid charisma is Lee Van Cleef. This was Van Cleef’s first Italian western after The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and he steals the film—elevating it to a level well above so many other genre entries—and giving it one of the more inspired performances of what would become a long career in the spaghetti westerns.

With the exception of Clint Eastwood, no American actor is more closely associated with spaghetti westerns than Van Cleef. Before becoming a huge star in Europe, he was an American character actor who’d been turning up in film and television for more than a decade. Despite more than one hundred appearances on just about every television western you can name, plus other shows like Perry Mason, The Untouchables, and The Twilight Zone, and even classic films like High Noon, Van Cleef wasn’t exactly a name commodity. In fact, if Sergio Leone hadn’t cast him as one of the protagonists in For a Few Dollars More, and then again as one of the villains in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, chances are Van Cleef’s career would have never amounted to much more than a series of supporting performances as henchman and heavies on shows like Bonanza and The Rifleman. But Leone’s two films reinvigorated Van Cleef’s career, and turned him into a major star. He would go on to star in over a dozen more spaghetti westerns, including his own franchise film, Sabata. And yet with all these westerns starring Van Cleef to chose from, with the exception of Leone’s film, it is difficut to find one better than Death Rides a Horse, a true genre classic.

Get this review and dozens more in my electronic book, BadAzz MoFo’s Book of SPAGHETTI WESTERNS.