07 Mar 10 Ways Sergio Leone Revolutionised Western Cinema
Sergio Leone (1929 – 1989) was an Italian filmmaker who had a huge influence on the Western genre. He created some of the world’s most famous Westerns with his “Dollars” trilogy released between 1964 and 1966 (“A Fistful Of Dollars”, “For A Few Dollars More, “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly”), and with his masterpiece “Once Upon A Time In The West” (1968). But how did an Italian director, who hadn’t even visited the US upon the release of the “Dollars” trilogy, have such an enormous impact on the most American of all genres?
- He Invented The “Spaghetti Western”
Sergio Leone’s films kicked off the “Spaghetti Western” subgenre. The term “Spaghetti Western” refers to Western movies made by Italian filmmakers, using European crews and locations. Leone’s “Dollars” movies were all filmed in Spain, and were first released in Italy before later becomings hits in the US and worldwide. Inspired by the success of Leone’s “A Fistful Of Dollars”, European studios produced more than 600 films between 1960 and 1980, including such classics as “Django”, “Death Rides A Horse” and “My Name Is Nobody”.
- He Revitalised A Tired Genre
By the mid-Sixties, the American Western was waning in both popularity and quality. After a “Golden Age” of directors such as John Ford and Howard Hawks from the Thirties to the Fifties, audiences and critics were bored by Westerns. Sergio Leone’s violent, funny and gritty films were huge box-office hits with American audiences, and made Western films credible once more.
- He Made Clint Eastwood A Star
Before Sergio Leone cast him as the poncho cladded The Man With No Name in “A Fistful Of Dollars”, Clint Eastwood was a TV actor struggling to break into movies. Today, he’s one of the most famous stars in Western films, having gone on from his early work with Leone to films like “Paint Your Wagon” (1969), “High Plains Drifter” (1973), and “Pale Rider” (1985). Eastwood even directed his own Western in “Unforgiven” (1992), following Leone’s legacy in updating the Westerns for new cinema audiences.
- He Redefined The Sound Of Westerns
Ennio Morricone is one of the most famous and prolific composers for the cinema of all time. Leone and Morricone were childhood friends, and Leone hired Morricone to create the distinctive soundtrack of his “Dollars” films. “The Ecstasy of Gold” from “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” would became one of Morricone’s most famous compositions.
- He Turned Heroes Into Anti-Heros
Before Leone, Westerns had a black-and-white morality of good guys and bad guys. In the character of Clint Eastwood’s Man With No Name, Sergio Leone brought us a lead character who lied, cheated, and fought with other “heroes” such as Lee Van Cleef’s Colonel Douglas Mortimer. But Leone’s high point for subverting expectations was “Once Upon A Time In The West”. Jason Robards’ outlaw Cheyenne was a bandit but still a rough anti-hero, and Leone deliberately cast Henry Fonda – known for playing heroes in Westerns – as the villain. By challenging or even inverting the simplistic morality of earlier Westerns, Leone brought new complexity to the genre.
- He Brought Blood To The West
By the Sixties, Westerns had become increasingly safe and sanitised. By contrast, Leone’s films were bloody and gory, with violent beatings, suicides, torture, and corpses piled into a wagon for profit. Leone himself said: “The West was made by violent, uncomplicated men, and it is this strength and simplicity that I try to recapture in my pictures.”
- He Brought True Grit To The West
Leone also brought dirt to the onscreen American West. Not only were his characters morally grubby, they were also physically dishevelled. Both Leone’s anti-hero leads and his villains were an unshaven lot, covered in dirt and sweat, and bringing a sense of dirtiness and griminess that had been absent in earlier Westerns.
- He Made Westerns About More Than America
Leone was an Italian director making films in Spain with Italian, German and Spanish crews. He shamelessly stole the plot of “A Fistful Of Dollars” from Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s samurai film “Yojimbo” (1961). His mix of diverse cultural influences both brought fresh life to the genre, and in turn led to more diverse Westerns as his legacy. It’s doubtful that genres such as horror Westerns, space Westerns, or even martial arts Westerns would exit without Sergio Leone.
- He Made Westerns That Looked At Themselves
By filming his Westerns outside America, Leone made his films even more extreme examples of the genre. His non-American actors looked even more sun-beaten and weathered than their US counterparts. His long shots of Spanish deserts provided an epic scale even greater than classic Westerns. His Westerns have a grand, self-aware nature precisely because he was making them apart from the usual studios and locations. That self-reflecting nature of his films was a massive influence on modern Westerns like “Unforgiven” (1992), “Tombstone” (1993) and even the TV series “Deadwood” (2004-2006).
- He Inspired A Generation Of Directors
Sam Peckinpah’s bloody Western “The Wild Bunch” (1969) shows how quickly Leone influenced Hollywood. Quentin Tarantino has stated that “The Good, The Bad And The Ugly” is his favourite film of all time, and worked with Ennio Morricone for “Django Unchained” (2012) and “The Hateful Eight” (2015). Robert Rodriguez’s “Once Upon a Time in Mexico” (2003), Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” (1991) and even Shane Meadows’ “Once Upon a Time in The Midlands” (2002) are all homages to “Once Upon A Time In The West”, taking the Western around the world. Leone’s grubby, gory, over-the-top style, his mixing of diverse international film influences, and his distinctive visual style continue to influence directors today, in both Western genre films and in the wider world of movie making.