The good, the bad and the quixotic

Sergio Leone
January 12, 2001

Christopher Frayling's close, intelligent reading of the European Westerns of the 1960s and 1970s in Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (1981) invested a hitherto despised sub-genre with critical respectability and launched Frayling as a major authority on the genre. The "Dollars" trilogy - A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966) - established Italian director Sergio Leone as the master of the Spaghetti Western. So there is a natural inevitability in a biography of Leone by Frayling - surprisingly, the first full-length biography of this quixotic director. Comprehensive in scope, epic in achievement, Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death is likely to be the definitive work on Leone.

He was literally and spiritually a child of the cinema. The son of film director Vincenzo Leone and actress Bice Walerian, he grew up in the mesmerising shadow of Hollywood movies. "America," he later observed, "belongs to a worldwide patrimony and... the American people have only rented it. It is a great shame if America is always to be left to the Americans." Imbued with the myth of America, he found nothing heroic in the GI liberators who stayed to profit from the black market and seduce Italian women. This was always to be a problem for Leone: America in the flesh never quite matched his celluloid dreams.

Frayling's book is as much a chronicle of Italian cinema as of the impact Leone had on classic American genres. Leone had a long apprenticeship as an assistant director at Cinecittà, culminating in his work on pepla , the sword-and-sandal epics popular in Italy between 1958 and 1963. These fantastic retellings of Roman and Greek mythology were the only Italian films with a toehold on the United States market.

Here he experienced further disillusionment with his American idols. Working with visiting Hollywood directors such as Raoul Walsh, Robert Wise, William Wyler, Fred Zinnemann and Robert Aldrich, Leone was eager to converse about the Western. Walsh and Wyler were reticent and Walsh habitually told him: "The Western is finished." This, astonishingly, was in 1955.

This is biography, not hagiography. Leone frequently emerges as self-centred, prone to claiming the lion's share of credit at the expense of his collaborators. He read relatively little, and often associates would read whole books to him, translating them into Italian; yet he adopted an intellectual pose akin to the image Cahiers du Cinema conceived for him. It is one thing to perpetuate one's own legend consciously, but quite another to start believing in it - especially when it is so markedly at variance with the truth. This ungracious, disingenuous lunge for glory attained on others' shoulders was a bone of contention: some of his collaborators never forgave Leone, even at the time of his death in 1989.

Nevertheless, Frayling illustrates that a literary consciousness, particularly Cervantes's Don Quixote , did inform his films. Eli Wallach's Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly , Jason Robards's Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West and Rod Steiger's Juan Miranda in A Fistful of Dynamite are all descendants of Sancho Panza.

The cinematic worlds of John Ford, John Huston and Orson Welles grew organically from novels and history they had read in youth. Leone, like many of today's most feted directors (Steven Spielberg, George Lucas, Martin Scorsese, Quentin Tarantino), was first and foremost a child and disciple of the cinema, whose principal frame of memory and reference was other movies.

Consequently, Leone's Westerns had roots in, and were a direct response to, their Hollywood antecedents. Thus A Fistful of Dollars , derived from Dashiell Hammett's novel Red Harvest and Akira Kurosawa's samurai film Yojimbo (1961), is a quasi-Christian parable and an anti-chivalric reworking of George Stevens's Shane (1953). Frayling indicates that For a Few Dollars More owed much to superior 1950s Westerns such as Robert Aldrich's Vera Cruz (1954), Anthony Mann's The Tin Star (1957) and Henry King's The Bravados (1958).

Throughout the golden age of the Hollywood Western, from John Ford's Stagecoach (1939) to Don Siegel's The Shootist (1976), American film-makers used the frontier to engage with issues of 20th-century US national identity. The Spaghetti Western had little to do with such concerns, but instead engaged with European identity and history, which Frayling's book demonstrates convincingly. The Good, the Bad and the Ugly 's Union prison was explicitly evocative of Nazi concentration camps, for example.

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was the last film Leone made with Clint Eastwood, the megastar he helped to create, and it prompted Eastwood to quip that its scale was more David Lean than Sergio Leone. The joke was both perceptive and prophetic. Leone made only three more movies: Once Upon a Time in the West, A Fistful of Dynamite, and, after a decade's hiatus, the overrated Jewish gangster saga, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), which Frayling generously suggests is Leone's Citizen Kane. From The Good, the Bad and the Ugly onwards, all Leone's films aspired to epic status. Like Lean, Leone ultimately confused quantity with quality and epic scale with excellence. Also like Lean, Leone is now the subject of a mammoth and authoritative biography that successfully fuses quantity and quality, epic scale and excellence. Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death will be invaluable to students of film history, and deserves a wide readership among film enthusiasts. It has taken a decade of painstaking research and hundreds of interviews, but Frayling has produced a true epic: entertaining, informative, impressive and worth the wait.

Michael Coyne is lecturer in film and television history, Open University.

Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death

Author - Christopher Frayling
ISBN - 0 571 16438 2
Publisher - Faber
Price - £20.00
Pages - 570

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