Spaghetti Westerns and Politics

by Scherpschutter

During those last stages of the war, when Mussolini had founded his Empire in the North, Italian communist partisans fought side by side with their fellow Italians against Mussolini and his black coats. After the war, and after a short period of cooperation and strong feelings of togetherness, Christian-democratic leader De Gaspari formed a right-wing government that would embark on a strong pro-American (and anti-communist) course. De Gaspari's  decision to accept American help (Marshall Plan) to build up the country and to leave the communists out of his government, was felt by many left-wing intellectuals as betrayal and created strong feelings of disillusion among them. Added to the fact that the Catholic Church had not been very courageous during WW II, many Italian intellectuals developed strong anti-American and anti-Catholic feelings. They would be reflected in many films made in the sixties, among them many spaghetti westerns.
One of the most illustrious names of post-war, left-wing Italian cinema is that of screenwriter Franco Solinas. He wrote the script for the Oscar winning (non-western) The Battle of Algeria, and was responsible for the scripts of two of the most influential political spaghetti westerns, The Big Gundown and Quién Sabe ?

  • Political, non-Zapata westerns

In Sergio Sollima's The Big Gundown (1967), bounty hunter Lee van Cleef has done so much for peace in the state of Texas (he has killed nearly all criminals!) that he has become popular among local dignitaries, who offer him a more respectable job – in politics. But first they ask him to catch an outlaw, a young farmer, who allegedly has raped and killed the daughter of a rich land owner. Trailing him, he starts to have doubts about the guilt of the young man, and finally he must make a choice between the innocent poor man and the guilty rich people, who pay him and who can help him with his new career. The theme of the bounty hunter as a ruthless killer paid by the rich returns in Sergio Corbucci's masterpiece The Great Silence (1968), one of the very best, but also one of the most depressing westerns ever made. The Specialists (1969), also by Corbucci, is about the bourgeoisie playing judge, jury and executioner at the same time when they hang an innocent man, accused of robbery. They are shown as nearly insensitive but react upset when the protagonist burns their money. In Django Kill! (Se sei vivo … spara!), by Giulio Questi, a former partisan, Mussolini's black coats are ridiculed by referring to them as a bunch of homosexual muchachos, while capitalist forces, devouring each other, are represented by two businessmen falling out when dividing the money they have stolen from bandits. The political subtext is less obvious here, seems to play second fiddle to the visual audacity. It's by far the most outrageous spaghetti western ever made, a near surrealistic blend of horror, comedy and western.

  • The Zapata westerns

When the spaghetti craze broke loose, in the mid-sixties, communism, or Marxism as most Europeans prefer to say, had become an considerable social force in Europe, especially in France and Italy. As said, it was particularly popular among intellectuals (writers, artists, journalists) and students. The works of Adorno, Marcuse, Lyotard and Foucault were read and discussed, and many thought a Revolution was imminent. In A Bullet for the General (Quién Sabe , 1966) a young gringo joins Mexican gun-runners who steal weapons for the revolutionaries. He is in fact a foreign agent, sent to Mexico to eliminate a revolutionary leader. Many considered the film as a comment on America's foreign policy in South-America. The film set the tone for a special kind of political spaghetti westerns, the Zapata westerns, in which the Mexican revolution is used as a substitute for the possible revolution in Europe. The protagonist is usually a European (a gun runner, an arms specialist) who sells his professional skills to the highest bidder, but gradually becomes friends with a revolutionary leader, most of the time a peon, a simple farmer, and ends up teaming up with him. In both Corbucci movies The Mercenary (1968) and Compañeros (1970) this pattern is respected, still the first one is a rather optimistic film, ending with Nero saving the peon's life, while the latter is much darker, pessimistic movie, ending with Nero's famous suicidal attack, screaming the line “let's go and kill, compañeros". The reason for this was the failure of ‘May ‘68', the uprising of Parisian left-wing students of the Sorbonne. Although it wasn't a genuine revolution, the failure gave many left-wing intellectuals the idea that chances for a radical political chance had gone. In Tepepa (1969), by Giulio Petroni, the theme of betrayal is elaborated, while the revolutionary from the title is shown as a man who isn't always aware of the consequences of his acts. Sergio Leone's Duck, you sucker! (1971) is a sour comment on both the Zapata westerns and the left-wing ideas of the men who made them.
Essential films (Political, non-Zapata):

  • The Big Gundown
  • The Great Silence
  • The Specialists

Related film:

  • Django Kill!

Essential Zapata westerns:

  • A Bullet for the General
  • The Mercenary
  • Tepepa
  • Compañeros
  • Duck you Sucker!
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