Watching Sholay has started me thinking about Spaghetti westerns. It’s possible that I saw Sergio Leone’s Dollars trilogy first but I’m pretty sure I was ten, or possibly 11, when I first saw Sergio Corbucci’s Django. It had been banned in the UK for many years but videos brought new possibilities. A video shop opened up in Thringstone, about a mile from where I lived and I would walk there with my dad. Sometimes we’d get chips to eat on the way back. The videos we watched over the next couple of years – a spectacular list of pulp and B movies - I remember clearly: Excaliber, The Sword and the Sorcerer with Lee Horsley (remember Matt Houston, TV fiends?), The Beastmaster starring Marc Singer (who we remember from V of course), Krull, Hawk the Slayer, Spacehunter: Adventures in the Forbidden Zone (Molly Ringwald AND Michael Ironside!), Harry Tracey with Bruce Dern. What a terrible movie education! [Apart from Boorman’s Excalibur OBVIOUSLY]. Luckily I was watching lots of new and old films on the TV too.
Django is different I think, as were all the Spaghetti westerns that I searched out or stumbled upon during my teenage years: all of Leone; most of Corbucci; Damiani’s A Bullet for the General. I watched Django almost as many times as I watched Flash Gordon. I loved the politics - though it was often pretty superficial and rarely profound. Even more, I loved the style and tone – the different way of seeing things and the lack of romanticism, the music (so often Morricone), landscapes, the close ups, the violence and the comedy. And despite the focus on stylisation they had heart too. All those things were present in Sholay and it made me reflect on how difficult it is to get right. Tone I mean. How does Sippy navigate so effortlessly between violence, comedy, melodrama, singing, dancing, buddy movie? Why is it that I found the violence unobjectionable yet I increasingly hate the heartless, sterile and clinical brutality of modern action films (Star Trek anybody?). As much as I debate this with people or go to meetings I’m not sure there’s a good answer. Why is it that I love (the violence in) Die Hard and Kill Bill (1) but couldn’t stand Iron Man 3. Of course it’s partly subjective but it’s (also) definitely about tone I think. Answers please.
Most of the Italian and Hollywood Spaghettis were truly terrible with regard to women, of course, so I’d love to know if any women enjoy them. Sholay is much better on this score; way ahead of its time, despite the fun Sippy has with Basanti’s garrulousness.
And my favourite Spaghetti? Corbucci’s The Great Silence – one of the bleakest films ever made. I didn’t see it till I was 18 when it was on BBC2’s Moviedrome. Klaus Kinski and Jean-Louis Trintignant fight it out in the snow with one of Morricone’s best scores. But I still love the title tune to Django – I could of sang it to you at any point over the last 30 years - and was thrilled when Tarantino’s film began the same way.
Books btw: if you visit Alex Cox’s website you can download his excellent book 10,000 Ways to Die as a pdf for free. You can also download his Moviedrome introductions. Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns is still probably the best introduction. He communicates his enthusiasm but is never soft on their weaknesses and contradictions.