Sergio Leone at Liberty Center: Taking a step back to the lessons of classic spaghetti westerns

The very first movie I can remember seeing was A Fistful of Dollars when I was four years old. I had seen it a year before on Channel 19 but it was something I had watched with my mom while she canned tomatoes. Our house didn’t have air conditioning but I didn’t care. Our television back then was color, but it barely had good enough reception to see what was going on through the static. But when it did Sergio Leone’s westerns were the coolest thing on television and I watched them in pools of my own sweet as my first conscious memories. If it could be said that I had a primary influence on my life it was in those moments of watching Leone westerns with my mother well before I ever turned five. Back then all I remembered of A Fistful of Dollars was the end where Clint Eastwood chained a steel chest-plate to his chest hidden under his poncho and taunted Remon Rojos to aim for his heart. Each time a bullet struck Eastwood he’d fall down but keep getting up again until he closed in on the villain with honor and killed him with a great final standoff. I used to watch the entire film not understanding anything anybody was saying just so I could see that ending over and over again. Back then there were no DVDs so you’d have to wait for it to come back on television at some unforeseen time. So I learned to read by going through the TV guide and looking for old Sergio Leone westerns looking hoping A Fistful of Dollars would come on again. To learn more about Leone as a person and director watch this fantastic documentary on him to understand why I enjoyed his work so much.

Sergio Leone had more influence on me as a result of those continuous viewings than I’d typically give credit. Because I was always looking for A Fistful of Dollars I’d sometimes confuse the films with For A Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, and Once Upon a Time in the West because I learned that they were directed by Sergio Leone which was easier to remember than the title of the movies. So I watched them all often disappointed that they weren’t the one where Clint Eastwood kept getting shot, yet continued to get back up. Sergio’s impact on cinema was incalculable. He directly influenced the Star Wars films and literally hundreds of future directors, actors, cinematographers and many others not even in the show business industry. His westerns were stunningly passionate yet dystopian. He did so much with so little money that each frame of film was made as if it were his last. His use of sound effects, music and the visual medium of film is something that very few directors were ever able to achieve. He was simply stunning.

Like me Sergio Leone loved classic American westerns, which were a primary export to his home country of Italy. Unlike me, he didn’t live in the United States, so when he met Americans for the first time coming to Rome as conquerors after World War II they didn’t live up to his expectations and the director sought to reconcile that disappointment with his westerns. After all Leone was living in a Marxist oriented European mindset looking to the West with a bit of hope—but the people from that land were less than valiant which put his unique spin on the American western—famously known as the spaghetti westerns.

That disappointment was never more clear than in Once Upon a Time in the West where the primary villain was the clear-eyed Henry Fonda—the star of many American westerns. He was a classic bad guy cast against a break-out role for the young Charles Bronson. The anger I felt toward Fonda because of the scene where the hired gun for the railroad tycoon known as Morton killed the land owner McBain and his children with a brutal hanging was excessive. That anger lasted most of my life, because I have since seen that type of evil firsthand. Sergio Leone as an Italian who was in love with the image of America was poised to make films that criticized the western while at the same time relishing in them. Leone captured the raw personality of evil in his films in a way that nobody else had or has since—never with such grandiose passion. But for me, the trilogy of films that embodied the “Once Upon” films, which would make eventual stars of many actors were not the best work of Leone. As he became older and had attended several film festivals, he leaned more toward Marxism—which was the home philosophy of Italy. The hope of his youth had left his films by the time he made Once Upon a Time in America. More and more Leone was obsessed with the evils of crony capitalism as if to justify his Marxist leanings which essentially helped fuel the Hollywood insurrection more toward the political left.

Quentin Tarantino who is about to release the modern western The Hateful Eight, which I’m eager to see and shares with me a love for Leone leans more toward the later part of Leone’s career as opposed to the front with the Fistful of Dollars trilogy. Most of Hollywood for that matter saw how Leone turned the American western on its head and thought that prevailing trend was “high art.” So they turned their eyes to Europe and made movies that punched even deeper holes into the American mythology of the Old West. But that approach was misguided and doomed from the start. While I really enjoyed Leone’s later work, especially his Once Upon the Time in the West, it was his Dollars films that I think are the hopeful musings of a would-be capitalist and his yearnings for the kind of America that it should have always been—as represented by the self-reliant individualist Clint Eastwood. Tarantino pays many tributes to Sergio in his films, but he never quite gets it, which I’m sure will be a continued problem in his The Hateful Eight. Tarantino is a broken person because he loved the wrong Leone.

But I didn’t, I saw through that conflict before I was age 7 and was beginning to understand these strange western films from a foreign director who couldn’t even speak English. People like Tarantino and his producers at the Weinstein Company gravitated toward the Marxist Leone, not the hopeful treasure hunter of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly—where the good guy played by Clint Eastwood gets the treasure, gets his revenge, and rides off into the sunset alone. He does the same thing in For A Few Dollars More and to a lesser degree in A Fistful of Dollars. In that first film released in 1964 Eastwood has more of a classic showdown with the bad guys as he comes back to town to save a friend of his from hanging. Hanging in these western films which are now 50 years old represented the brutality of unjust application of authority and the abuse of the strong against the weak. In those films Eastwood played a classic avenger, which he would go on to build a career on. Smartly, Eastwood turned down the role of the lead protagonist in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West—which was a brilliant film wonderfully shot, but did not have the capitalist message that had made Eastwood such a superstar. Good move on Eastwood’s part because even though Sergio Leone had larger budgets to work with and studio backing that he never dreamed of a decade before—like George Lucas his vision began to be tainted as his hope for America moved from tradition to progressivism. When most of their Hollywood friends were jealous European sympathizing Marxists and are all left-leaning at film festivals, the lens of their vision changed from hopeful capitalists to regulated Marxists. As a result the American public generally began to reject Leone films whereas critics began to praise them—because they were moving toward the left as well. American however stayed center-right and just stopped paying attention to Leone.

This was on my mind because I was shopping with my wife at Liberty Center and couldn’t help but notice a fashion trend that was emerging—perhaps 40 years too late, but it’s emerging. The influence of Leone’s spaghetti westerns is rising into the mainstream as many of the high-end clothing designed for affluent types look like they are coming straight off the screen of Leone’s classic westerns. This is a great thing as they are not the type of westerns that Tarantino loved, but the kind that I did. America is slowly beginning to wake up to the sleep it has been under and is turning back to its origins—sharing that bright-eyed hope that Sergio Leone once had that America could be a place for personal gain and intact justice. Clint Eastwood’s character in the Leone westerns never had doubt in himself and was always able to slug through any situation presented to him. He just kept getting up and up which my four-year-old eyes never forgot. That movie is as part of me as anything else is and it all started with my mother watching that film with me knowing that it would somehow be important. That’s why she’s such a good mom. She launched me in the right direction which apparently the rest of the world is just starting to understand—perhaps not deeply, but at least emotionally as it is started to show itself in our fashions.

For a long time I’ve had the hunch that all aspects of American culture needed to go back in time to that precipice of history to when A Fistful of Dollars was released, and start over. Instead of hating the crony capitalists Rojos as a reason to steer society toward Marxism we should focus on the capitalist that played both sides against the other for the personal gain of reward while doing good for those around him as a natural by-product. In those days nobody in the world understood capitalism better than Sergio Leone and his good friend Ennio Morricone. America should have listened then. But it’s not too late. I saw several women standing at the corner of Bales Street and Haskell who looked like they stepped right off the set of For A Few Dollars More. They may not have been aware of it, but it was obvious to me that the fashion designers for their clothing were clearly fans of early Sergio Leone westerns likely for the reasons I just mentioned. European Marxism has taken the world nowhere. So its time to re-evaluate our philosophy and to step back to that very first film, A Fistful of Dollars and see it through the eyes of its maker—and not make the same mistakes going forward. I received the message the first time, and I have never looked back and been with any doubt. Tarantino and the modern films schools have it wrong—they need to go back to Leone and understand what it was in the beginning that made him so great—and its not that he cast Henry Fonda as a villain.

Rich “Cliffhanger” Hoffman


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