You've been Djangoed! Ten Spaghetti Cowboys that shaped the genre
|LISTS - MOVIE LISTS|
Before Tarantino, there was...
Keeping up with his career plan of paying homage to every film genre going, Quentin Tarantino has moved onto the spaghetti western with Django Unchained (2012). It’s not a remake of the pasta classic Django (1966), or indeed a spaghetti western, but it has clearly taken its inspiration from those violent Italian productions that swamped the late sixties.
Hollywood may have dominated the field since the beginning of motion pictures, but European westerns are not exactly new; the earliest known one was filmed in 1910. Sixties German cinema made good use of Karl May’s western heroes Shatterhand and Winnetou, and the British produced The Savage Guns (1961), Hannie Caulder (1971), A Town Called Bastard (1971), Catlow (1971), Chato’s Land (1972) and Eagle’s Wing (1979). When the genre showed signs of flagging in the mid-sixties, a clever Italian director named Sergio Leone took it upon himself to reinvent the western – spaghetti style!
What made the spaghettis different from their Hollywood rivals was the gritty realism and extreme violence that made an average John Wayne film look very clean and wholesome by comparison. Leone’s cowboys were unshaven, unkempt and ruthless; you could almost smell their cigar-chewing breath with every facial close-up (a Leone trademark). Above all there was no honour among these men. To put it in simple terms, you got shot in the back!
Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars (1966) kicked-off this new, grittier style. Such was the film’s impact, Hollywood subconsciously imitated the spaghettis. Occasionally it worked; Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch (1969) being the best example of extreme western violence.
A Fistful of Dollars is also notable for making Clint Eastwood a big star. Previously known as the fresh faced Rowdy Yates in the TV series Rawhide, Eastwood’s legendary gun-slinging ‘Man With No Name’ became his screen persona, a loner who never says much but is always quick on the draw. His bearded, scruffy look was the opposite of John Wayne’s ultra-conservative, clean-cut image.
Thanks to Eastwood’s successful transition to movie star via the spaghettis, struggling supporting actors Lee Van Cleef and Charles Bronson followed suit. Even established stars such as Henry Fonda, Jason Robards, Joseph Cotton, Eli Wallach and Yul Brynner furthered their leading man status in the genre. The spaghetti westerns had enough local talent to provide solid support to the Americans. Some of these actors even became stars in their own right. Here are ten notable cowboys who preferred their spag bol laced with lead!
[Mild spoilers for several spaghetti westerns, including Leone's Dollars trilogy, follow]
10. Franco Nero
Django himself! Nero’s bearded lone gunman is similar to Eastwood’s violent drifter, with one exception; Django dragged around a coffin with a machine gun inside! The film itself (Django) is a lot more violent than anything Leone showed on the big screen (it was banned in the UK for many years). The Italian-born Nero makes a charismatic anti-hero despite his reluctance to play the part. The character (or rather his name) has appeared in thirty unofficial sequels, with Nero reprising the role in Django Strikes Again (1987).
Despite notable performances in Camelot (1967) and The Virgin and the Gypsy (1970), he never quite became an international star but he did score a personal success on TV in the Harold Robbins mini-series The Pirate (1978). His high-profile supporting role in Die Hard 2 (1990) led to a busy career as a character actor.
Nero’s guest appearance in Django Unchained has brought his spaghetti career full circle.
9. Gian Maria Volonte
Rome-born Volonte was a successful Shakespearean actor when he began his spaghetti career. Billed as Johnny Wells in A Fistful of Dollars, he made an excellent impression as the violent but refined Ramon Rojo. Handsome and charismatic, one can see the sadism behind the good looks and piercing eyes.
In Leone’s next film, For a Few Dollars More (1966), Volonte plays the psychotic; drug-addicted outlaw El Indio. This is a much more interesting character and his performance has an ambiguous air about it. Intelligent and ruthless, Indio is also wracked by guilt. Volonte had enough clout to get above title billing (under his real name) alongside Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef. He also used his own voice. His other notable spaghetti western was A Bullet for the General (1967).
Interestingly, Volonte never took the genre seriously – it was all cash to help finance more serious film and stage work. Turning down the part of El Toco in The Good, The Bad, and the Ugly (1967) because he could not provide the humour that was needed (Eli Wallach replaced him), Volonte tackled a variety of genres that included first-rate performances in Investigation of a Public Citizen Above Suspicion (1970) and Lucky Luciano (1973). He remained a busy, working actor until his early death aged 61 in 1994.
8. Terence Hill
The spaghetti westerns had their fair share of spoofs, and most of them starred the handsome, easy-going Terence Hill. Born Mario Girotti in 1939, Hill was raised in Germany. An actor since he was a child, Hill racked up an impressive list of movies that included a lead role in Visconti’s The Leopard (1963). He appeared in several German westerns based on Karl May’s novels, before returning to Italy (and changing his name). Playing the title role in They Call Me Trinity (1971), Hill’s easy-going performance as the laid-back lone gunman was strictly for laughs. His co-star was Bud Spencer, and as a comedy double act, they starred in several spaghetti spoofs throughout the seventies. There was more serious work with My Name is Nobody (1973) opposite Henry Fonda, but attempts at international fame (using his own voice) with March or Die (1977) weren’t too successful.
When the genre played out, Hill starred as Lucky Luke (1990), a screen adaptation of the popular comic strip (a successful TV series followed). He remains a busy actor, mostly on Italian TV.
7. Bud Spencer
Terence Hill’s comedy partner is without doubt the biggest man in spaghetti westerns. The burly, ferociously bearded former Olympic swimmer was born Carlo Perdersoli in 1929. He acted in small roles before achieving pasta fame as Trinity’s little (?) brother Bambino in They Call Me Trinity. As the bad-tempered one of the two, Spencer made a perfect foil guy for the ever-smiling Hill. He was excellent at physical comedy and proved very nimble for such a big guy.
Spencer also celebrated some solo success of his own right, but remained popular in knockabout comedies with Hill; and like many before him, the humourous individual branched out into writing, business and politics, whilst remaining popular on Italian TV (like his partner-in-crime Hill).
6. Mario Brega
The hefty-built, heavy-bearded Brega was a scary-looking guy, but certainly useful to have around. After a spell as a butcher, Brega moved into films as a character actor. He provided solid support in Leone’s celebrated trilogy: Chico in A Fistful of Dollars (featuring his legendary death by barrel of wine!), Nino in For a Few Dollars More and Corporal Wallace in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. He also appeared in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) and played opposite Terence Hill in My Name is Nobody.
Brega’s massive frame always added menace, a gritty reminder of the frank nature of the spaghetti western, but his Nino remains the most interesting. The character is so devoted to Indio that there are hints of homosexuality, especially when he does Indio’s bidding by getting the rest of the gang to carry out a double-crossing cat-and-mouse game with bounty hunters Eastwood and Van Cleef. After playing a variety of western heavies, a slimmed-down Brega moved into comedy roles and art-house films for Fellini. He died in 1994.
5. Luigi Pistilli
A former student of the Piccolo Theatre in Milan, the lean, fit-looking Pistilli made his name as one of Italy’s best interpreters of Bertolt Brecht. Had it not been for his extensive theatrical commitments, he would have made more movies. That said, his two western appearances will remain forever memorable.
In For a Few Dollars More, he is well cast as Indio’s canny second-in-command Groggy. Unlike the rest of Indio’s dim-witted gang, Groggy is intelligent enough to see the double cross. Pistilli followed up his good work with a nice cameo as Eli Wallach’s sensitive brother Father Pablo in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The well-acted scene between Wallach and Pistilli is so moving, one regrets that Italian cinema never quite made full use of his remarkable talents.
Busy on the stage for the rest of his career, he was due to appear in Terence Ratigan’s Tosca when he committed suicide in 1996. He had been thrown into a deep depression following the break-up of his long-term relationship with singer Milva Biolcati and the critical backlash for his performance in the play.
4. Al Mulock
A spaghetti cowboy from the UK! Canadian-born Mulock studied method acting at Lee Strasberg’s famous Actors Studio before coming to England in the fifties to set up a similar school with David de Keysey. He starred in a variety of British films, including two excellent Tarzan adventures starring Gordon Scott, and a scene-stealing comic performance in the science fiction film Battle Beneath the Earth (1968).
With his weather-beaten face, shown in sweaty close-up, Mulock provided the opening scene in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, as one of three bounty hunters gunned down by Eli Wallach (he turns up later in the film minus an arm – only for Wallach to finish the job!). After playing a few sleazy outlaws in some lesser spaghettis, he made his final screen appearance as another hired killer in One Upon a Time in the West.
Sadly, Mulock's fate was similar to that of Pistilli. Dressed in his cowboy costume, Mulock, an alleged drug addict who couldn’t get a fix, threw himself off a building in an apparent suicide. When Leone heard what happened, he told the production manager to retrieve the costume and find a replacement. It seemed he was more concerned about the film than his actor’s death. Mulock survived the fall but died in the ambulance, the bumpy ride to hospital causing a broken rib to pierce his lung.
3. Tomas Milian
One of many unknown American actors who made their name in the genre. Born in Cuba, Milan was a former student at the Actors Studio in New York. After extensive Broadway experience, he was appearing on stage in Italy when he caught the attention of film director Mario Blognini. After playing sensitive or decadent youths in a variety of Italian movies, he toughened up his image to play sadistic killers in The Bounty Killer (1967), Fuccia a faccia (1967) and Django Kills (1967). He was equally effective in several giallos and crime thrillers. When his star career faded he returned to America in the 80s where he works mainly on stage, but continues to take on supporting roles in high-profile films such as Traffic (2000).
2. Klaus Kinski
Although more famous as a horror star, Kinski deserves a mention for his prolific workload in all genres. Alternating from impressive starring roles in films for Werner Herzog to a junk load of cinematic rubbish, Kinski has appeared in some of the worst spaghetti westerns going. Intensity was his middle name, and he attacked each role like a lit gunpowder keg on the verge of exploding. His most memorable role was Wilde the hunchback in For a Few Dollars More.
Wilde by name and wild by nature, he features in the best-known scene where Lee Van Cleef’s bounty hunter scratches a match on Wilde’s hump to light his pipe. Wilde cannot fight back as the gang are part of an intended bank robbery, but the anger on his face and the eye-rolling gestures says it all. Without uttering a word, Kinski runs off with the acting honours on the strength of that one scene.
1. Gordon Mitchell
Before the spaghetti western, Italy specialised in low-budget sword-and-sandal epics, many of them featuring American bodybuilders such as Steve Reeves and Gordon Scott. Among the most versatile was former World War II / Korean War veteran Gordon Mitchell.
Born Charles Pendleton in Denver, Mitchell adopted his stage name when he moved to Italy. After a good spell showing off his biceps in several musclemen epics, he successfully moved into spaghetti westerns, most notably Django Always Draws Second (1971) and A Gunman Called Dakota (1972). Reinventing himself years later as a dependable character actor, Mitchell worked steadily in a variety of continental potboilers. After a spell making action movies in the Philippines, he retired to California where he died in 2003.
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