I first started watching Westerns for research for a book I was writing at the time. However, I became increasingly frustrated with watching 1950s Westerns over Netflix. Hondo was lackluster and insultingly racist for me. Shane was boring and had an annoying kid to top it off. It was not until a friend turned my attention to Spaghetti Westerns that I started getting somewhere.
By the end of the 1950s, Westerns had become trite and, one could argue, preachy. These offerings were also very clean. 1953’s Shane follows an ex-gunslinger who has to choose whether or not to stop a group of outlaws from harassing the farmers and the town. But the message feels forced and is essentially a call to action, not to mention most of the supporting characters came off as annoying. These films also featured bloodless violence and villains who were honestly not scary. In High Noon, we see the villain for a total of maybe ten minutes. Of course, in that film, it could be argued that the town itself is the villain, but that is a discussion for another time. And then there was the realism or lack thereof. I mentioned that these Westerns were overly clean and they were also clean in clothing and appearance. The Wild West is dirty and brutal. The Western films of the 1950s did not get this fact across. It was time for a change.
Enter The Spaghetti Western
The Spaghetti Western first saw prominence in the early 1960s. They were so named because they were usually foreign-made and featured a predominantly Italian cast both in acting and production. The man who helped usher in the Spaghetti Western was Sergio Leone, an Italian director who could not speak English but had always been fascinated with the Old West. So how was the Western changed with the rise of the Spaghetti Western?
Grit and Realism
The American Westerns of the 1950s were clean and unrealistic. Most likely, this was because filmmakers sought to make films that were family friendly and thus could make more on tickets. Nevertheless, in 1964, Sergio Leone introduced to a new kind of tone for a Western with A Fistful of Dollars. The environment was harsh and brutal. Forget walking along the street in broad daylight. You could get shot and killed in the very next instant. The characters were also rugged. Most had beards or just did not shave often.
We were also given a new kind of character, the anti-hero. Clint Eastwood had been working on a television series called Rawhide but wanted something more challenging than always playing the stereotypical white hat hero. His character in A Fistful of Dollars was just that, an anti-hero. He was not a virtuous character trying to apply justice. Rather, he was a quiet, cigar-smoking stranger who was just trying to get by like everyone else. But unfortunately for him, he got thrown into situations and had to fight his way out. The cinema had never seen this sort of character in a Western before.
A Fistful of Dollars was also the first time that director Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone teamed up. Suffice to say, this duo changed the course of the Western sound. Leone had bemoaned American Westerns for having an overly symphonic sound to them. He wanted a completely different sound. The producers of Dollars urged him to meet with Morricone, who had just finished composing a Western for them. It turned out the two of them wanted the same thing.
Morricone not only changed the sound for a Western, but redefined the expectations for Western music. His work used nontraditional instruments like vocalizations and a mariachi-sounding trumpet. The main theme for The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly featured a coyote-like yell that was unheard-of at the time but is now legendary. And one cannot forget that a harmonica was a lead instrument in Once Upon A Time in the West. No other composer would dream of trying something like that, but not only does it work, but it was also pivotal to the sound and plot for the movie. Expect to hear more from Ennio Morricone in this December’s The Hateful Eight.
Westerns were never quite the same after the rise of the Spaghetti Western. Even John Wayne movies started changing with the advent of the Spaghetti Western. True Grit and Big Jake both saw an edgier, dirtier, and rougher side of the actor than in his earlier work. Music for Westerns has also changed with Morricone’s frontier sound providing a template for modern-day composers. Imagine playing through Red Dead Redemption without hearing the occasional strum of the electric guitar. It all goes back to Ennio Morricone. But most important of all, Westerns are now realistic and gritty in true representation of the real Old West of the mid-1800s. We don’t often see Westerns, but all Westerns owe a debt of gratitude to one visionary director who wanted to overturn all expectations for the Western.