Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre

Italian director Sergio Leone made four increasingly popular “spaghetti Westerns” that renovated the Western genre, introduced a wide-screen style, and launched or revived several film careers.

Summary of Event

In 1967, American filmgoers were treated to two Italian-made Westerns featuring a little-known American actor, Clint Eastwood, playing a fast gun who never gives his name. Per un pugno di dollari (1964; A Fistful of Dollars) and Per qualche dollaro in più (1965; For a Few Dollars More) had already made Eastwood and director Sergio Leone celebrities in Europe since their releases. American reviewers did not react positively to the films’ grubby, unheroic protagonists, the “minimalist acting” of Eastwood, the unglamorous towns, the graphic violence, the massive body counts, the intrusive camera work, and the films’ display of cynicism toward society. The fact that Europeans peopled this Western (Spanish-Yugoslav) landscape, their lips not always synchronized with the dubbed English dialogue; the fact that the films were self-consciously based on B-Westerns, with some almost cartoon-like sequences; and finally, the fact that the films broke such time-honored Western conventions as allowing the villains to draw first blood all operated against a sympathetic critical reception. The films were derisively called “spaghetti Westerns,” but young Americans flocked to them. Westerns (cinema)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The (Leone)
For a Few Dollars More (Leone)
For a Fistful of Dollars (Leone)
[kw]Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre (1964-1969)
[kw]Western Film Genre, Leone Renovates the (1964-1969)
[kw]Film Genre, Leone Renovates the Western (1964-1969)
Westerns (cinema)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The (Leone)
For a Few Dollars More (Leone)
For a Fistful of Dollars (Leone)
[g]Europe;1964-1969: Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre[07870]
[g]Italy;1964-1969: Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre[07870]
[c]Motion pictures and video;1964-1969: Leone Renovates the Western Film Genre[07870]
Leone, Sergio
Eastwood, Clint
Morricone, Ennio
Van Cleef, Lee
Wallach, Eli
Fonda, Henry
Bronson, Charles
Robards, Jason

Before 1964 and A Fistful of Dollars, Sergio Leone’s major film credits included work with Italian neorealist director Vittorio De Sica and on “sword-and-sandal” epics, such as Gli ultimi giorni di Pompei (1959; The Last Days of Pompeii) and Il Colosso di Rodi (1961; The Colossus of Rhodes). Through these films, he learned how to stage spectacles, how to use the full width of the CinemaScope frame, and how to renovate a Hollywood genre.

Leone, with several other scenarists, wrote the screenplay for A Fistful of Dollars, basing it upon Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo
Yojimbo (Kurosawa) (1961), the story of an unattached samurai who plays two gang-families against each other, decimating their numbers to the point that he can single-handedly finish the job. Leone may have been inspired too by The Magnificent Seven (1960), a popular Western by John Sturges that had adapted the plot of an earlier Kurosawa film, Shichinin no samurai (1954; The Seven Samurai). Reputedly, legal problems arising from the adaptation created the three-year delay between the Italian and American releases.

For his first Western, Leone called upon student-friend Ennio Morricone to compose the score, Cinema;sound tracks beginning a relationship that was to last to the end of Leone’s career. The resulting sound track defined the Morricone style, which was unlike anything Western fans had heard before: “Nonmusical” whipcracks, whistles, bells, and gunshots were incorporated into familiar guitar and male-chorus tracks; unfamiliar flute motifs or mariachi band arrangements, with lead horns carrying bullfight-style melodies for dramatic moments, punctuated the films. At other points, seemingly under Morricone’s influence, the natural sounds of hoofbeats, the wind, a creaking door, and insects were “played” against the silence of many scenes. Morricone gradually managed to make his sound tracks more integral, sometimes substituting a chorus’s chants for natural sounds or musical flourishes for dialogue. Most memorable in the latter category is the flute motif that accompanies Eastwood’s twitch of a cigar; the music makes a nervous gesture into a kind of comment. Morricone worked so well with Leone that the director is reputed to have planned some scenes only after Morricone had written the music for them. Although he composed distinguished sound tracks for Gillo Pontecorvo’s Battle of Algiers (1965), Bernardo Bertolucci’s 1900 (1977), Brian DePalma’s The Untouchables (1987), and Roland Joffe’s The Mission (1986), Morricone’s considerable reputation rests largely on his work with Leone.

After having starred for five years on television’s Rawhide, Eastwood was not excited about working on another Western, but he was attracted by the unusual plot, recognizing immediately the outline of Yojimbo. He brought with him to Europe the main accoutrements of the “man with no name”: the woolen serape, the black jeans, and the ever-present cigars. He also cut down the dialogue of his character, creating the cool, often ironic terseness that became an Eastwood trademark.

Lee Van Cleef joined Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More as Colonel Mortimer, a bounty hunter who helps Eastwood take on a gang. Van Cleef brought a mature and premeditated presence to balance Eastwood’s youthful assurance. In Il buono, il brutto, il cattivo (1966; The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly), Leone enlarged his American leads to three, using Eli Wallach to embody a comic emotionality that played well against Eastwood’s steadiness and Van Cleef’s calculating ruthlessness.

A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More were released in European markets from 1964 to 1966 and were enormous hits, but they were not released in America until the summer of 1967. Neither broke into the top twenty moneymakers for that year, but, as of 1971, they had earned a respectable $8.5 million. Released in the United States a year after the first two had paved the way, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, featuring three American leads, with $6 million in American receipts, was Leone’s biggest success in the United States, though it ranked second to For a Few Dollars More in worldwide receipts. In 1969, C’era una volta il West (Once upon a Time in the West), with a different set of lead actors—Charles Bronson, Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, and Claudia Cardinale—earned more respectful critical notices, but its languid, operatic style did not draw action fans as well.


Eastwood’s own career underwent a two-stage takeoff, first in Europe, then in America. When the first two of Leone’s Westerns hit America in 1967, United Artists attempted to capitalize with an all-American spaghetti-style Western, Hang ’Em High, Hang ’Em High (Post)[Hang Em High] directed by Ted Post, which was among the top twenty box-office films of 1968, outstripping the third of Leone’s trilogy. Eastwood became a top-ten box office star in 1968, a position he retained through the 1970’s and 1980’s; his success was fueled largely by the “Dirty Harry” series of films, in which he played a sort of “cowboy” policeman willing to dispense instant justice. Eastwood continued to make spaghetti-style Westerns, including Pale Rider
Pale Rider (Eastwood) (1985) and Unforgiven
Unforgiven (Eastwood) (1992); action pictures such as The Eiger Sanction
Eiger Sanction, The (Eastwood) (1975); and a series of action comedies in which he explored the “cowboy individualist” as performer—in professional fistfights (Every Which Way But Loose, 1978, and Any Which Way You Can, 1980) and in Wild West or musical shows (Bronco Billy, 1980, and Honkytonk Man, 1982). After 1971, Eastwood increasingly chose to control his films by directing and, in the 1980’s, by producing them.

The spaghetti Westerns arrived in time to appeal to two Western-literate audiences, at a time when the genre had passed its classical stage and when Hollywood was struggling to meet the challenge of television. The younger viewers had grown up in the heyday of television Westerns; their parents had lived during the late 1930’s and the 1940’s, when the likes of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Henry Fonda, and Joel McCrea defined the classic Western, and the matinee Westerns of Roy Rogers and Hopalong Cassidy flourished. In the late 1950’s and early 1960’s, only a handful of Westerns found major box-office success; those that did tended to be expensive spectacles (such as 1960’s The Alamo and 1962’s How the West Was Won) or adult-themed films such as The Left-Handed Gun (1958) and One-Eyed Jacks (1961). The Western had entered an ironic or skeptical phase with High Noon (1952), Shane (1953), and Johnny Guitar (1954); the theme of the vanishing West and the isolated hero was strong in such early 1960’s films as The Misfits (1961), Ride the High Country (1962), and Lonely Are the Brave (1962). When the first two of Leone’s Westerns were released in 1967, American fans had recently been exposed to a series of releases that openly questioned the conventions of the classical Western: the comic Cat Ballou (1965), the mercenary The Professionals (1966), the grimly allegorical Welcome to Hard Times (1967), and the anti-idealistic Hombre (1967).

The time was right for renewal, even if temporary: Critics worried that the familiar heroes were aging and that the Westerns themselves had, like their television competition, turned to the less expensive sound stage for too many scenes. With the lower costs of on-location filming in Europe and an established studio to support him, Leone had more freedom to make his kind of Western. After the success of the trilogy, he was lured to America to make the epic end-of-the-West film Once Upon a Time in the West, filmed in “John Ford country,” Monument Valley, and featuring such icons as Jason Robards, Woody Strode, Jack Elam, and, most memorably, Henry Fonda. As a result, 1969 became perhaps the last great year of the Western: Paul Newman and Robert Redford’s Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid (Hill) John Wayne’s self-reflective True Grit, True Grit (Hathaway) and Sam Peckinpah’s Peckinpah, Sam bloody The Wild Bunch
Wild Bunch, The (Peckinpah) joined Leone’s film in commemorating the passing of the cowboy hero. (Easy Rider might even qualify for inclusion on such a list because of the film’s open comparison of its doomed motorcyclists to cowboys of yesteryear.)

For all their anti-Western cynicism about community values, and for all their grotesque violence Cinema;violence so criticized by reviewers, Leone’s films arrived in an America that was seeing more violence in its films, an America growing accustomed to linking violence with a breakdown of national unity. The assassinations of public figures, racial disturbances, and the divisions fostered by the Vietnam War created a ready market for the rough justice meted out by James Bond; for cynical or darkly humorous war films such as The Dirty Dozen (1967), The Blue Max (1966), and Dr. Strangelove (1964); and for a variety of successful pictures that called into question the moral stability of society. A culture in such conflict readily “read” the new anti-Westerns as explorations of the present. The politicized young, in particular, were ready to accept Leone’s depiction of impotent, absent, or corrupt public officials; vengeful shoot-outs; fine lines dividing the good from the bad; senseless deaths; and the brutality of corporate capitalism as both good revisionist history and a reflection of where “the establishment” had led America in the late 1960’s. Leone’s subsequent films Duck, You Sucker!
Duck, You Sucker! (Leone) (1972) and Once Upon a Time in America
Once Upon a Time in America (Leone) (1984) continued to explore these themes through American history up to 1968.

Of course, the first result of Leone’s success was more of the same by other European directors. Most of these three-hundred-plus productions were never screened in U.S. theaters, although cable television and video rentals have made many available. Lee Van Cleef became a B-Western star in his own right, but none of his vehicles achieved the popularity of his Leone Westerns. The broadly comic Trinity series, directed by Enzo Barboni Barboni, Enzo and starring Terence Hill Hill, Terence , achieved American box-office success in the 1970’s. Whether American productions directly reflected the spaghetti Western “look,” as did Eastwood’s High Plains Drifter (1973), there was no looking back to the simple heroism of the classical Western except in such self-consciously mythic or patchwork productions as The Legend of the Lone Ranger (1981) and Silverado (1985). Nor could violence that was cleansed of impact sounds and exit gore be deemed realistic after the spaghetti Westerns, as evidenced by Sam Peckinpah’s films made after 1965 and by the Godfather films of the 1970’s. The few Westerns that achieved popularity after 1970 tended to feature antiheroic, often outlaw, protagonists and often involved the revision of Western history, especially with regard to the treatment of Native Americans, in such films as Soldier Blue (1970), Little Big Man (1971), and Dances with Wolves (1990). More broadly, the spaghetti Western motifs of the righteous avenger or the antihero operating outside and sometimes against the law have surfaced in countless action pictures. Westerns (cinema)
Once Upon a Time in the West (Leone)
Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, The (Leone)
For a Few Dollars More (Leone)
For a Fistful of Dollars (Leone)

Further Reading

  • Carlson, Michael. Sergio Leone. Harpenden, Hertfordshire, England: Pocket Essentials, 2001. Monograph in the Pocket Essentials series, covering the life and works of Leone. Bibliographic references.
  • Cumbow, Robert C. Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone. Metuchen, N.J.: Scarecrow Press, 1987. The best general guide to Leone’s films, with chapters on each film; on Leone’s moral themes, typical images, actors, and production company; and on Morricone.
  • Frayling, Christopher. Once upon a Time in Italy: The Westerns of Sergio Leone. New York: Harry N. Abrams, 2005. Detailed study of Leone’s work, published to accompany a major retrospective at the Autry National Center in Los Angeles. Filmography and index.
  • _______. Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone. London: Routledge & Kegan Paul, 1981. The best resource on the Italian film industry and on the ideology and style of important German-Italian Westerns.
  • Johnston, Iain. The Man with No Name: The Biography of Clint Eastwood. London: Plexus, 1981. A brief, illustrated recounting of Eastwood’s life and career through the 1970’s.
  • Kaminsky, Stuart. “The Samurai Film and the Western.” In American Film Genres: Approaches to a Critical Theory. New York: Dell, 1974. Explores the connection between Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars and Kurosawa’s Yojimbo.
  • Ryder, Jeffrey. Clint Eastwood. New York: Dell, 1987. Very readable and sound study of Eastwood’s film career up to Heartbreak Ridge (1986).

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