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How Sergio Leone’s Dollar trilogy reinvented the Western.



With A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) Italian director Sergio Leone at once shook up and revitalized an ailing film genre: the western. At a time when audiences were getting bored with cowboys and Indians Leone’s westerns broke box office records worldwide. Over the years, the films also demonstrated an enduring influence with their utter lack of sentiment (Quentin Tarantino), unflinching violence (Brian DePalma) and unsavory characters (Martin Scorsese).

Initially, however, critics dubbed Leone’s films “spaghetti westerns,” implying that these films were less authentic than homegrown American westerns because they were directed by an Italian.

Well, the critics said one thing, and the audience another: theatergoers worldwide ate up Leone’s “Dollars” trilogy. In large part this was because the films were like no westerns before them. Leone and his screenwriters created cowboys that didn’t pick up guitars and sing by the campfire, fall in-love with bonneted frontierswomen or help townsfolk without there being something in it for them. These elements made the “Dollars” trilogy “revisionist westerns” — movies that shook up the way people looked back at the Wild West.

Sergio Leone For A Few Dollars More

For A Few Dollars More

The Man With No Name

Gone was the noble, moral cowboy of American movies. In his place was the wry-witted, quick-drawing Man with No Name played by Clint Eastwood. This cowboy was slow to anger, but once spurred, he took no prisoners. Somebody was going to get killed – and how! Both American- and European-produced revisionist westerns to follow would feature mounting body counts and a “hero” who was as cold-blooded as the “bad guys.”

Similarly Leone’s depiction of the Wild West was groundbreaking. Gone was the American myth that the Wild West symbolized the battle between civilisation (European-Americans and the city/town) versus savagery (the Native American and a nomadic/tribal life). Leone’s Wild West had no Indians, and his cast of gringos seemed more like mercenaries and thieves than, say, settlers or frontiersmen.

Since their release from 1964 to 1966, the “Dollars” trilogy has been pored over by film historians and critics who’ve cast an almost mythical aura to what in essence are three cowboy flicks. Leone has been called a genius, the films groundbreaking and their legacy is said to include debunking Manifest Destiny, the idea that America must expand to spread civilization across the continent. This begs the question: Did Leone and company set out to rewrite history and change filmmaking forever?

Sergio Leone - The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

The Good, The Bad and The Ugly

Anti-Establishment views

That Leone had anti-establishment views is beyond question. He lived under the repressive Mussolini years, and like many Europeans was skeptical about the government line, including “official” accounts of history. To some extent, he did intend to challenge America’s story of how the West was won. However since Leone’s death in 1989, several of his collaborators, including screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni, have implied that the success of the three westerns had as much to do with dumb luck as good filmmaking. Leone, Vincenzoni and others wanted to make money, and making an entertaining Western was one way of doing this. It is no secret that Leone adapted For a Few Dollars More almost scene for scene from Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961), about a stoic avenging samurai very similar in spirit to the Man with No Name. It does seem a stretch to say I intended to rewrite history and debunk myths by copying somebody else’s movie.

Whatever the truth, the “Dollars” trilogy has had a profound effect on film. Could there have been a Popeye Doyle, the rogue cop of The French Connection (1971) without Leone’s rogue cowboy, Clint Eastwood? Arguably not. And Leone was a technical pioneer – the haunting, absurd musical score of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, with its hoof beats and yodel-like vocalizations, remains perhaps the most recognized theme in film history. And freeze-frame credits and close-ups of actor’s gritty faces are just two of his stylistic signatures that filmmakers still emulate today.