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The Influence of The Spaghetti Western On American Cinema



From the opening sequence of Ennio Morricone’s score to Sergio Leone’s The Good the Bad and the Ugly, the viewer might be surprised to learn his Civil War Era Western is actually an Italian Cinema masterpiece. Featuring American film star, Clint Eastwood, the international cast performed in their native tongues, eventually dubbing the film in many languages for international appeal. In the 1960’s, Muscleman Epics and American Westerns began to popularize in Italy. The first Spaghetti Westerns were originally low budget copies of Hollywood Westerns employing international actors and inexpensive locations. Sergio Leone’s release of A Fistful of Dollars, legitimized the genre and combines traditional Italian film styles with Western scenery. In addition to the immense popularity of Spaghetti Westerns in Italian Cinema, Quentin Tarantino’s references to Leone and Corbucci’s films highlight the influence of Spaghetti Westerns around the world in film. 

Although American Westerns had dominated the genre, Sergio Leone reimagined the Western through morally ambiguous characters, international actors and immaculate production through props and costumes. Bred in a cinematic family, Leone was the son of silent film star Bice Valerian and Italian cinema pioneer Roberto Roberti. He earned his stripes as a film assistant on De Sica’s Bicycle Thieves. At school Sergio befriended another student named Ennio Morricone, who would go on to become the internationally acclaimed composer who would create the entrancing scores that brought Leone’s westerns to life. Spaghetti Westerns sought to combine the scenery of the quintessential American western with traditional Italian film styles. Themes of violence, vendetta and cynical humour are essentially ingredients to the more successful Westerns of the genre. Leone originally shot A Fistful of Dollars under the pseudonym of Bob Robertson, believing the film would fare better with an international audience. In spite of Leone’s immense influence in American cinema, the director himself spoke very little English and would often use an interpreter to communicate with his international cast. Leone grew up as an American Western fanatic and has insisted, “I know more about the West than most Americans. I feel more qualified to make a good Western than most American directors”, reminiscent of Tarantino’s fascination with Spaghetti Westerns leading to his own take on the genre. Within Leone lies the paradox of the success of presenting a story from an outsider's perspective and an Italian filmmaker creating the most poignant glimpse of the American West. Leone goes further to explain the appeal of the Western genre as a whole, “The universal attraction of the Western is that it is a great fable, a myth like Achilles”, Leone expressed in a 1968  interview, “For me personally, the attraction is the joy of making justice without asking permission”, this unconventional view of justice and the traditional Spaghetti Western theme of vendetta are the embodiment of the Man With No Name in the trilogy of films that made Clint Eastwood a household name. Between The Good The Bad and The Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, Leone would create one of the most recognizable and iconic characters in Westerns, who ironically would be called The Man With No Name. In A Fistful of Dollars, The Man With No Name is a trickster anti-hero who exploits the conflict of the feuding family for his personal gain. He causes the death of innocent members of the Baxter family but saves Silvanito, an innocent caught in the crossfire. The Man With No Name saves the town from the feuding families, albeit through violence. Clint Eastwoood reprises his role in The Good The Bad and The Ugly as the hero of the story. Referred to as “Blondie”, Clint Eastwood’s mystique of the unnamed man stays in tact. Leone’s characterization of the Man With No Name and his sardonic nonchalance to violence has continued to define action films today, “The Italian director’s exaggerated violence, meant to be a “tongue-in-cheek satire on run-of-the-mill westerns”, became almost standard for westerns and historical battle scenes of any kind ever since, very prevalent in those of American director Quentin Tarantino. 

In a television interview exposing Quentin Tarantino as a Leone fanatic, he idolizes the Italian filmmaker, “After the dollars trilogy how can you top that? And then he managed to top that with Once Upon a Time in The West. It’s really an example of how far you can go as a director”. Along with his numerous references throughout his films, Tarantino has championed the Spaghetti Western genre hosting his own film festival in Austin, Texas and closing Cannes Film Festival’s 50’s Anniversary celebration of a Fistful of Dollars. A masterful director in his own right, Quentin Tarantino is at his core a fan- schooled in the cinema classics by means of self education. While most filmmakers of his caliber spent their twenties in film school, Tarantino worked as a clerk in a video store.  In Christopher Frayling’s Once Upon a Time in the West:Shooting a Masterpiece, Quentin Tarantino pens a glowing forward explaining his fascination with Spaghetti Westerns and how they have influenced him as a filmmaker, “The movie that made me consider filmmaking, the movie that showed me how a director does what he does, how a director can control a movie through his camera, is Once Upon a Time in the West. It was almost like a film school in a movie. It really illustrated how to make an impact as a filmmaker. How to give your work a signature. I found myself completely fascinated, thinking: That’s how you do it”, paralleling Tarantino’s signature style, his words provide a revealing glimpse at the inspiration behind his work. Along with Once Upon a Time in the West, Quentin Tarantino frequently heralds the conclusion to Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy, The Good, the Bad and the Ugly as the greatest film ever made.Throughout his films, Tarantino invents a world for his characters to exist through music, in reference to Leone’s style in Spaghetti Westerns. Utilizing Ennio Morricone, the composer for many of Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns and even a number of Tarantino flicks, Leone had a secret weapon revolutionizing how music was incorporated into cinema, “I know there are examples that will be contrary to what I am saying, but it feels as if Leone is the first guy ever to cut picture to music in that way. Before him it just happened by accident where somebody thought it would be cool for a little sequence, but didn’t think they should do it for the rest of the movie. That all started with Leone and Morricone, and particularly with The Good, the Bad and the Ugly”. Following The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Morricone would go on to compose some of the greatest movie scores including the Dollars Trilogy and Giuseppe Tornatore’s Cinema Paradiso, with both Leone and Tornatore utilizing Morricone’s gift as a composter for each and every one of their many films. Along with music, Sergio Leone invents an image of a world through the objects and actors. Compared to the simplistic American Western sets and costumes of the late 1960’s,“With Leone’s westerns, you are literally talking about the best production design, the best costume design, and the movies with the best props of all time. There’s no equivalent to it”, Tarantino expresses in his foreword. Setting this high benchmark for Spaghetti Westerns and legitimizing the genre, Leone is often credited for the immense popularity of Spaghetti Westerns and introducing Italian cinema to the international community. He had the unique ability to transform American Westerns into a cinematic display of an imaginative view of the Wild West. Tarantino explains what sets Leone apart from other Italian directors producing Spaghetti Westerns like those of Corbucci, Tessari and Giraldi, “People sometimes think that Leone was the first Italian to make Spaghetti Westerns. But of course he wasn’t. Sergio Corbucci was doing a Spaghetti Western in 1964, the same time Leone was doing Fistful of Dollars. But he wasn’t trying to do something different at that time — he was actually trying to be more like the American Westerns, and this is reflected in the music, which isn’t operatic at all. It was Leone who put the music to task and turned it to opera”. Compared to the copycat techniques of other Spaghetti Western directors Leone auteured a world all his own. Through his mastery of scenery and sound, Leone transformed how filmmakers approach music in movies. Traditionally, American Westerns  glorify the motives for Western Expansion. Without the parallel of unsettled land, Spaghetti Westerns allowed Italian directors to utilize their imagination to create their own idea of how the Wild West could be portrayed. Tarantino concludes his forward with the grand proclamation, “For my money, I think he is the greatest of all Italy’s filmmakers. I would even go as far as to say that he is the greatest combination of a complete film stylist, where he creates his own world, and storyteller. Those two are almost never married. To be as great a stylist as he is and create this operatic world, and to do this inside a genre, and to pay attention to the rules of the genre, while breaking the rules all the time — he is delivering you a wonderful western”, epitomizing Leone’s brilliance as a director and a curator to his image of the American West and also Tarantino’s model of breaking the traditional rules of what can be done in filmmaking. 

There are numerous nods to Spaghetti Westerns throughout Quentin Tarantino’s filmography. Tarantino joined forces with longtime Leone collaborator, Ennio Moricone, winning him an Oscar for his score to Tarantino’s Hateful Eight. Before Morricone and Tarantino’s official partnership, Tarantino employed some of Morricone’s work in Leone’s Dollars Trilogy in films like Kill Bill Volume I and II. Kill Bill Volume I and II incorporates an impressive amount of violence very reminiscent of a Leone Spaghetti Western. Kill Bill Volume I is greatly influenced by Toshiya Fujita’s Lady Snowblood and features an Japanese Anime sequence telling the tale of O-Ren Ishii, portrayed by Lucy Liu. Leone also incorporated Japanese influence in his films and was greatly inspired by Japanese auteur Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo in the making of A Fistful of Dollars. Along with Leone, Corbucci was a significant influence on Tarantino’s style. Tarantino borrows the title and theme song of Corbucci’s masterpiece Django in Tarantino’s Django Unchained. In Django Unchained, Tarantino fuses together Spaghetti Western music, rap and rock and roll. He explains this melange of styles originating from influences of directors like Leone and Corbucci, “one of the big influences that Spaghetti Westerns have had over me cinematically is how they used music and how they bring it to the forefront. There is a part of me that likes to go in from time to time for those big operatic effects. It’s like we’re telling the story and setting everything up, and then there’s the equivalent of what in a musical would be a big dance number or a big musical sequence. I think I did learn that from Italian movies”, Tarantino explains in his New York Times Feature. Franco Nero, the star of Corbucci’s seminal classic Django, made a cameo as the owner of the losing slave during the first bare knuckle brawl. In Tarantino’s Django Unchained, a freed slave by the name of Django Freeman teams up with a bounty hunter portrayed by Christopher Waltz, much to the contrary of his Inglorius Bastards portrayal of a Nazi- the two embark on a quest to free Django’s still enslaved wife Brunhilda. The story fuses together a traditional German tale in the setting of the pre Civil War America. The story forces viewers to confront the violent and atrocious racial history of our country, brilliantly depicted as a Spaghetti Western. In Sergio Corbucci movies the line between good and bad is blurred, “Corbucci dealt with racism all the time; in his Django, the bad guys aren’t the Ku Klux Klan, but a surreal stand-in for them. The Mexicans kill the Native Indians, but it’s a secret organization where they wear red hoods — it’s all about their racism toward the Native  people in this town”, pushing boundaries at the time period. In Corbucci’s The Great Silence, he employs a brisk and snowy image of the Utah mountains. This unique arctic image of the American Western greatly inspired Quentin Tarantino’s Django Unchained  and also The Hateful Eight incorporates a snowy setting in reference to Corbucci’s style. Tarantino’s recent release Once Upon a Time in Hollywood is immensely influenced by Spaghetti Westerns and specifically Sergio Leone. The name is a nod to Once Upon a Time In The West and Once Upon a Time In America. Leonardo DiCaprio’s portrayal of Hollywood film star turned Spaghetti Western dynamo is a picture perfect homage to Clint Eastwood as the Man With No Name. Moving to Spain to create Spaghetti Westerns, a historical reference to how many Spaghetti Western films were outsourced elsewhere to reduce the cost of production. The first Spaghetti Western Rick Dalton completes is called Nebraska Jim, a real Spaghetti Western directed by Sergio Corbucci who, as Al Pacino’s character classifies in Tarantino’s Once Upon A Time In Hollywood as, “the second best Spaghetti Western director”. Corbucci is also referenced when Sharon Tate’s character, portrayed by Margot Robbie, goes to the cinema to see herself in The Wrecking Crew and there is a poster of  The Mercenary, directed by Corbucci. There are numerous Spaghetti Western movies mentioned throughout the film in addition to the countless easter eggs to the glamour of Hollywood Cinema. Once Upon a Time in Hollywood isn’t the only Tarantino film to reference the Spaghetti Western genre. Inglorious Bastards, Tarantino’s grand experiment in rewriting history is actually inspired by Castellari’s Spaghetti Western Inglorious Bastards. In the penultimate scene of Tarantino’s Inglorious Bastards, Brad Pitt attends the Nazi Film Premiere disguised as an Italian director Enzo Gorlami, Castellari’s real name, and the director himself makes a cameo in the climax of the film. Brad Pitt’s portrayal as Aldo the Apache and his brigade of the Bastards who scalp Nazis in Vichy Occupied France in reference to Corbucci’s Navajo Joe and the Mexican killers scalping Indians in the town. In an interview with the New York Times, Tarantino goes as far to classify Pulp Fiction as a Spaghetti Western, “I’ve always been influenced by the Spaghetti Western. I used to describe “Pulp Fiction” as a rock ’n’ roll Spaghetti Western with the surf music standing in for Ennio Morricone. I don’t know if “Django” is a western proper. It’s a southern. I’m playing western stories in the genre, but with a southern backdrop”, taking a note out of Leone’s playbook in his revision of the American Western, Tarantino represents a long line of genre fusion in filmmaking. His nods to Italian Cinema are evident throughout his career but his particular fascination with the Spaghetti Western and numerous references to Leone and Corbucci, underly the influence of Italian Cinema around the world. 

Throughout the references to traditional Spaghetti Westerns in Quentin Tarantino’s Hateful Eight, Django Unchained, Once Upon a Time in Hollywood and Pulp Fiction, the global impact of directors like Corbucci and Leone is evident. Spaghetti Westerns reinvent the genre of traditional American Westerns to provide a more realistic and compelling glimpse at Westward Expansion and Civil War Era America. Creating household names of the likes of Clint Eastwood employing international stars to incentivize an international box office appeal, major American directors like Tarantino himself have created movies inspired not only about Spaghetti Westerns but Eastwood’s experience himself in Once Upon A Time In Hollywood. Tarantino has masterfully championed and replicated Leone’s revisionment of the West. This ability to incorporate influences seamlessly has become one of the defining characteristics of Quentin Tarantino movies. Tarantino’s fascination with masterpieces like Django, The Mercenary, The Good the Bad and the Ugly, A Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More, epitomizes the impact and influence of  Italian filmmakers on the wider world of cinema. 


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