Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone

Frayling2The term “spaghetti western” was first coined as “a nickname for a broad sub-genre of Western film that emerged in the mid-1960s, so named because most of them were produced by Italian studios.” It was a dismissive term really. The films were shot in Spain, or Italy, poorly dubbed into English, and often featured an American actor in the lead role. Clint Eastwood revived his career by starring in a series of these films. He had played young cowboy Rowdy Yates on the television series “Rawhide” from 1959-1966. As the second-in-command to trail boss Gil Favor (played by Eric Fleming) Eastwood virtually defined the character he would become in these Italian flicks. A man of few words, but always ready for action. When he crossed the Atlantic to become the “man with no name,” he defined an entire genre!

The Spaghetti western was far bigger than one actor though, and Christopher Frayling (who is Rector of the Royal College of Art and Professor of Cultural History there) was one of the first writers to look at the genre as a whole, and to write about it intelligently and seriously. His book Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone was first published in 1981 and is now available in a revised, trade paperback. It is a solid, dense book, which seeks to trace the social, political, cultural and artistic background to these films and provide a framework by which we can understand their importance. More than that, it’s a fascinating study of a group of films which took a dying genre, and breathed new life into it, and caused American filmmakers to revisit and revitalize the “old west” in ways they had never imagined. This back and forth influence opened up the whole cinematic world, and led to far richer possibilities than had existed before.

Frayling breaks the book into three sections: The Context, The Critics and The Films, but he begins with a history lesson. He focuses all our attention back to one event…the discovery of gold at Sutter’s Mill.

In January 1848, James W. Marshall found ‘some kind of yellow mettle’ near Sutter’s Mill, in the Sacramento Valley, California. By 1849, claims had been registered all over the valley, on land which had been granted to Johann August Suter (or Sutter) by the Mexican Governor of California some seven years before. At the close of 1850, there were some 50,000 men panning for gold in the area. Up until that time, Sutter’s dramatic rise to fame (which made him the first self-made millionaire in American history) had followed the classic pattern. He had emigrated from Europe . . . desert[ed] his wife and children . . . join[ed] a wagon train west…acquir[ed] letters of recommendation. . . .

He bought land and built a mill, only to have it all collapse when the forty-niners came and stole his land. Frayling relates the way Sutter’s story was portrayed in some early films. And how the details of the story were changed for dramatic effect. He describes an early Eisenstein screenplay, Luis Trenker’s 1936 film “Der Kaiser von Kalifornien” and James Cruze’s “Sutter’s Gold” and uses this myth to set up his discussion of all that would follow.

He quotes a discussion between John Ford and Burt Kennedy, who informs the greatest director of American Westerns that the Italian films are “no stories, no scenes, just killing!” It’s an exageration from someone who had likely only seen one or two of the films. I recall seeing the first three Eastwood films (“A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More” and “The Good, The Bad & the Ugly”) all together on a triple bill. It was a long afternoon, and into the evening. The same extras were killed off in relatively the same order in each of the films. There was plenty of killing to be sure, but there seemed to be enough plot to go round, enough story, and certainly the scenes were wonderfully designed and shot. There was a snobbery factor implicit in North American reaction to the European films.

The Spaghetti Westerns have held up though. They have influenced the films of Clint Eastwood, who has directed some of the finest westerns made in the last few years. But the original films have a look and a style all their own. Frayling understands this, and appreciates this fact. His literate and wide-ranging text is engaging and fun to read. He doesn’t lose the reader in theoretical debate, and he makes the discussion so intriguing that you want to go back and watch the films again. Lee Van Cleef. Terence Hill. Bud Spencer. These are names of some of the actors, but don’t forget that Ringo Starr was featured in a memorable turn as a Mexican villain in the [non-]classic “Blindman”! They are all mentioned! Well, not Ringo, but the film is here nonetheless!

The text is illuminated with illustrations, copies of posters, photographs and cartoons. This is a book for film buffs. The more you care about these movies, the more you will enjoy it. I can only say that I am still enjoying browsing through the 300 pages, checking facts, and photos! Recommended!

(I.B.Tauris/Palgrave Macmillan, 2006)

About David Kidney

David Kidney was born in the Marine Hospital on Staten Island in the middle of the last century, when the millenium seemed a very long way off. His family soon moved to Canada, because the air was fresher. He has written songs and stories, played guitar, painted, sculpted, and coached soccer and baseball. He edits and publishes the Rylander, the Ry Cooder Quarterly, which has subscribers around the world. He says life in the Great White North is grand. He lives in Dundas in the province of Ontario, with his wife.