Spaghetti Westerns and Politics

by Scherpschutter


The Risorgimento (from the verb risorgere = to resurrect), the movement towards the unification of Italy in the 19th century, is a very complex historical event, and it would take several pages to explain even the outlines. What is important to us is that it was a movement  that would prove to be more favourable to the industrial North than to the rural South. The opposition between a richer, industrial North and a poor, rural South is felt even today, and certainly was important for the popularity of the already mentioned Civil War westerns among moviegoers in the southern Italian provinces. But it was also of importance for the growing power of Italian crime rings like the Mafia, Camorra and n'Dragheta. In Italy they are often referred to as 'Cosa Nostra' (= Our Business); the idea behind this is: we can't trust the (Northern) authorities, so we take care of our business ourselves. Of course these crime rings are engaged in things like drugs and gun running, but their main interest is to exercise control over local politicians and other dignitaries. Usually they try to appoint their own people or to influence residing politicians by blackmailing or threatening them. This is reflected in a type of spaghetti westerns in which dignitaries usually function as villains. Unlike the Zapata movies these films do not transmit a political message or take a political stance. They simply reflect some rather typical Italian ideas about politics and society.

One of the most outspoken movies of this type is Giulio Petroni's Death rides a Horse (1967). In the horrifying opening scene we see how a family is butchered by five men. Fifteen years later, when the only survivor of the massacre is preparing his revenge, these men have become respected citizens, who control local authorities. In Sabata (1969) Lee van Cleef is rewarded for recovering the money of a bank robbery, but then discovers that those responsible for the heist were three respectable men, a judge, a saloon-keeper and a rich land owner. Van Cleef's Sabata is dressed in black, traditionally the colour of the 'bad guy'. The black clad of the 'hero' of course mirrors the deceitful appearance of the villains. Another 'good guy' wearing black is Sartana, usually played by Gianni Garko. In the lovely I am Sartana, your Angel of death (1969) we see Sartana cleaning up the western town of Poker Falls, a Las Vegas avant la lettre, dominated by crooks. Both the Sabata and Sartana movies are strongly tongue-in-cheek,  but their view of life is pretty bleak and ugly: they describe a world in which nobody can be trusted. Even the sheriff, in the classic Hollywood western the paragon of virtue and courage, is in this world a marionette or simply a coward: Sergio Leone set the tone for this when he gave Clint Eastwood his legendary line in For a Few Dollars More : "this town needs a new sheriff".

It seems the Italian sensibilities even shine through when typical American historical and/or political subjects are tackled. Tonino Valerii's The Price of Power (1969) reshuffles, in western form, some facts about the murder on J.F. Kennedy, but films tend to reflect more the period in which they are made than the period they describe. The assortment of villains responsible for the crime is the typical Italian line-up of corrupt lawyers, lawmen and bankers and most of the dialogue (No gun can ever stop an idea!) sounds more sixties Italian than 19th Century Texas. The presentation of the idealistic president who completely refutes capitalism, is of course also typically sixties Italian, as attentive readers of this article will confirm. Sergio Leone's Once upon a Time in the West is of course in the first place an admirable reverie on the final days of the Old West, but it's also a rather cynical comment on the Way the West was finally Won: Morton, Mr. Tchoo Tchoo, is shown as a ruthless entrepreneur who hires Frank's crime ring 'to remove some obstacles'. Even more significant, and more Italian, is the way the End of the old West is described: to Leone, the Italian, the end of the Wild West is marked by the establishment of the matriarchate – it's Claudia Cardinale who's in control when the West is over, when the outlaws, gunmen, sheriffs and the Last Hard Men have outlived their time. Mama mia!

Essential films:

  • Death Rides a Horse
  • Sabata
  • I am Sartana, your Angel of Death

Related films:

  • Once Upon a Time in the West
  • The Price of Power
  • For a Few Dollars more

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