If I were to say that the Italian or Spaghetti western came into being because of the Hollywood Biblical epic, people would probably laugh at me or at least raise an eyebrow. But the Italian or Spaghetti western as it was so cruelly nicknamed did begin its life because of events that stemmed directly from the demise of the epic film as produced by Hollywood. For a number of years Hollywood filmmakers had been travelling to the famed Cinecitta studios and utilising the facilities, plus employing literally thousands of extras for the mammoth productions which also gave employment to hundreds of camera crews and a number of second unit directors. As the 1960,s dawned, the cinema going publics taste for these biblical slanted tales began to curtail somewhat, and people looked for something that was different and more exciting. Because of this Hollywood moguls decided that it was time to quit Cinecitta, and by pulling out of Rome they created mass unemployment within the Italian film industry. Italian filmmakers were at first furious and concerned about the future, but decided that they had to think of ways that they could save their ailing film industry, or it could be disastrous for the countries already frail economy. Producers in Italy had begun to notice that a handful of German filmmakers were having some mild success’s with westerns, the sauerkraut western as it was labelled had become fairly popular within the borders of western Europe. If one takes a closer look at these productions one would soon realise that they were basically a clone of the American made B western film. German westerns were very much black and white in their storylines and scenarios, by this I mean the good guys wore white and the bad guys were unshaven and wearing black, and this was quite literally at times.
The plots for these were also very predictable and somewhat clichéd, containing more than their fair share of the Hollywood westerns established format.
So a few adventurous Italian filmmakers decided to attempt making westerns, they at first took the lead from the Germans, and infused a touch of Americana in their first forays into John Ford,s domain, thus creating nothing more than imitations of the German movies, which as I have already stated were themselves clones of American films. Early examples of Italian made westerns included, UN DOLLARO DI FIFA (1960) which was directed by Giorgio C. Simonelli and starred Ugo Tognazzi and Walter Chiari, which was a comedy western that had a musical score by composer Gianni Ferrio. Then came another vehicle for actor Tognazzi in the form of another comedy, I MAGNIFICI TRE (1961), again directed by Simonelli and scored by Ferrio,it was Ferrio who also wrote the music for a third addition in the western all,italano catalogue in 1963 which was another comedy entitled GLI EROI DEL WEST. DUELLO NEL TEXAS followed again in 1963 and although this is not considered as a true Spaghetti western it is an example of film that hinted of things to come, the score was by Ennio Morricone but again did not include anything that could be considered as being original. 1964, brought a handful of key additions to the genre, MASSACRO AL GRANDE CANYON,(which was Sergio Corbucci,s first western) LE PISTOLE NON DISCUTONO (directed by Caianol), BUFFALO BILL,(dir;Mario Costa) MINNESOTA CLAY(dir: Corbucci) and A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS (Directed by Sergio Leone). The formula that Italian film makers had attempted to use on their western productions was not that successful or original and it was not until Sergio Leone stepped into the western arena that things began to change and become a little more interesting. Leone,s style of direction and his story telling abilities were to alter the way in which westerns were made in the future and also his vision of western movies would not only pave the way for hundreds of other Italian made westerns, but also would in time also influence non Italian made westerns that would follow, such as THE QUICK AND THE DEAD, BIG JAKE, 100 RIFLES, THE HUNTING PARTY, HANNIE CAULDER and to a degree THE WILD BUNCH. The Italian western also included a number of examples that were politically slanted and a handful of these stand out as some of the best examples of the genre. When I say politically slanted, they were invariably set in the period of the Mexican revolution, these “Zapata” westerns as they were dubbed were part of a sub genre that sprang up within the spaghetti western genre and were successful because of the popularity of the Italian made western, this collective of films would often introduce audiences to another kind of anti hero or central character who was in essence a Mercenary. But was never seen as the bad guy.
Mexico was a very explosive and dangerous place to be during the days of revolution, many of the movies would reflect this atmosphere and also include villains that were more often than not from foreign lands, Austrians, French or German, the scenario for many of these political westerns was very often that a corrupt Mexican government would be supported by an even more greed driven and corrupt foreign power, who assisted the corrupt government with arms , troops and money, to assist in the intimidation and persecution of the ordinary people, this Foreign power would also take great delight in systematically annihilating the majority of the peasant population. Enter then the Mercenary figure, who would themselves be of either European or American extraction. This character would then befriend one of the peasants who would normally be a ruffian or bandit, the foreigner then schools the peasant in the art of warfare, revolution and sabotage and after a few minor success against government forces this peasant then takes on the status of a Simon Bolivar or Pancho Villa figure amongst his fellow Mexicans and they look to him for leadership. So a Mexican peasant or bandit has been elevated to the status of a freedom fighter and a saviour of the people. Instead of robbing banks to line his own pockets he robs the banks to give to the poor, in the same way we are told Robin Hood did in England centuries before. The foreigner or soldier of fortune to label him correctly has then been successful as he has gained out of his training because he has been paid for his services and his knowledge out of the money from the banks. But in effect the Mercenary has become the bandit because he takes the money and invariably wants more and more as the story progresses. This scenario is best seen in Sergio Corbucci’s, A PROFFESIONAL GUN, but it also present in A BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, COMPANEROS and DUCK YOU SUCKER. Maybe it is a little different in DUCK YOU SUCKER and BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, as in these two films the foreigner does not exploit the Mexican for gold or payment as much, but instead use him to get closer to their own personal goal, for example in BULLET FOR THE GENERAL, Ninio (LOU CASTELL), uses Chuncho (GIAN MARIA VOLONTE) to get close to the General of the revolutionary forces so that he can assassinate him and in DUCK YOU SUCKER the Irish rebel and explosives expert played by James Coburn befriends the Mexican bandit played by Rod Steiger to free prisoners from the vaults of a bank, Steiger and his gang think that the vaults are filled with gold but instead find hundreds of imprisoned revolutionaries. After this escapade the Steiger character is hailed a hero of the revolution, at first he is an unwilling candidate but soon he warms to the idea.
This type of scenario or partnership is also seen within other examples of the spaghetti western genre, DAY OF ANGER being one of them, Frank Talby played by Lee Van Cleef takes the town down and out under his wing teaching him the ways of the gunfighter, but this backfires on Talby when the town idiot played by Giuliano Gemma, becomes better than his teacher. Sergio Sollima believed that his Cucillo character in THE BIG GUNDOWN and CORRI UOMO CORRI was representative of the third world, eventually Cucillo rebels against his so called masters, ie Walter Barnes in THE BIG GUNDOWN, the Barnes character representing the capitalistic west, Sollima believed very strongly that the third world would one day rise up against the rich countries of the west and he put this notion into the scenarios of some of his movies, but presented them in the guise of a blood spattered and all action western.
THE BEGINNINGS OF THE GENRE AND MUSICAL CHANGES.
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS was a Franco/Spanish /Italian co production, it starred a little known American actor in the principal role. Clint Eastwood, who’s claim to fame had been up until then bit parts in Universal movies and a role on an American TV western show called RAWHIDE, took on the persona of the man with no name, a soldier of fortune, an anti hero and a character who the audience could not really identify as a good guy or a bad guy. He offered his services to the highest bidder, and was a servant to two masters or more at times. Sergio Leone had originally wanted American actor James Coburn to play the Man with No Name, as he had been successful in THE MAGNIFICENT SEVEN, but Coburn proved to be to expensive for Leone’s meagre budget, so Eastwood was given the role. Leone cast Gian Marie Volonte in the role of the head villain and dubbed the actor Jon Wells and also changed his name to Bob Robertson, this was something that Italian film makers did at times, thinking it would make the film more acceptable to American audiences and even composer Ennio Morricone went under the name of Dan Savio.
The film proved to be a breath of fresh air for cinema goers, and one which soon became popular, leaving audiences wanting more of the same. Leone returned as did Eastwood with FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, this time the cast was beefed up with Hollywood bad guy Lee Van Cleef, who played an unlikely ally to Eastwood in the role of Colonel Douglas Mortimer, Leone also recruited the brilliant Klaus Kinski and again cast Gian Marie Volonte as the villain of the piece, or at least the character who was the most evil, on this occasion Volonte was not asked to alter his name. The movie was a little more ambitious than its predecessor and because of the success of FISTFUL OF DOLLARS it had the advantage of a slightly bigger budget. As with any successful genre, imitations soon began to appear or at least movies in the same style of the dollar films. Italian producers and directors were quick to realise that this formula was working and fast becoming popular. But it was not just the films that were being noticed, the music from them was also starting to gain recognition, at first it was Ennio Morricone’s music for A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS that turned audiences heads, and then his theme and chiming watch theme from FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE.
But undoubtedly, the sounds most associated with the genre of the Spaghetti western was to be the cries and shrieks heard over the credits of Leone’s third Dollar movie, THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, I remember hearing this original theme and being just amazed , but then I heard the cover version by Hugo Montenegro being played on the radio and thinking what is that, of course Montenegro’s version got to number 1 in the chart in the UK and I think it also reached the top of the pile in the USA, so maybe it did do Morricone some good, because if it had not been for Montenegro covering the theme, maybe Morricone’s music would not have reached so many people, In fact a number of people are still under the impression that Montenegro wrote the theme. As with popular genres of film etc, popular music too had its imitators, some good, some bad and some really ugly. A cover of FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE courtesy of Leroy Holmes, appeared and this was not just the theme but the entire score, or at least certain themes from the score,which to be honest sounded nothing like the originals, but again maybe this did gain more recognition for Morricone an also placed Italian western music into the public eye. Holmes also released versions of the themes from A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS, THE BIG GUNDOWN and ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST all of which were included on compilations by the musician on the United Artists label. Holmes and also orchestra leaders such as Geoff Love in the UK, recorded albums of western themes and included were versions of Italian examples.
ARIZONA COLT for instance was covered by Holmes, and to be fair it was a fairly good version as was his version of DAY OF ANGER composed by Riz Ortolani, Geoff Love did a great arrangenet of Marcello Giombini,s SABATA and Hank Mancini got in on the act with A MAN A HORSE AND A GUN from the movie THE STRANGER RETURNS by Stelvio Cipriani. But what we have to take into account is that at this time during the infancy of the Spaghetti western soundtrack, collectors were glad of what they could get hold of.
It was probably because companies such as UA began to notice collectors buying these cover versions that Italian/Euro soundtracks started to get UK issues, THE SICILIAN CLAN for example was issued on STATESIDE records in the UK, items such as THE BIG GUNDOWN were given a release on UA as was a collection entitled THE BEST OF ENNIO MORRICONE, which included selections from NAVAJO JOE, THE BIG GUNDOWN, DEATH RIDES A HORSE and THE GOOD THE BAD AND THE UGLY, If they knew then what we know now, I don’t think they would have called it the best of Morricone. Then came GREAT WESTERN FILM THEMES VOL 2, now this just highlighted how popular and influential the Italian western and its music had become. It included THE HILLS RUN RED, FACE TO FACE and NAVAJO JOE and the subsequent VOL 3 in the series, showcased the infectious theme INDIO BLACK from THE BOUNTY HUNTERS by Bruno Nicolai. I always thought even back then, well if they have got one cue from the score they must have the complete score, so why don’t they release it. I even wrote to Alan Warner who was at UA records at the time asking this question, I got a short reply back, remember this was in the days when people actually wrote letters,
Mr Warner told me “It is not as easy as you may think to issue a score or soundtrack on a recording, costs and also copyright issues are very difficult to negotiate, especially with foreign movies”.
During the 1970,s Michael Jones appeared on the soundtrack scene in London, and was responsible for the stock at SOUNDTRACK, this was situated in the foyer of the Arts Theatre Club in Soho and later moved to 58 DEAN STREET in London. It was here that many soundtracks from Italy began to filter through, CORRI UOMO CORRI, LANDRAIDERS, QUIEMADA, FIND A PLACE TO DIE, QUELLA SPORCA STORIA NEL WEST, A PROFFESSIONAL GUN, THE FIVE MAN ARMY, THE GREAT SILENCE, JOHN IL BASTARDO, THE BOUNTY KILLER etc etc and composers such as DE MASI, FERRIO, FIDENCO,CIPRIANI and NICOLAI also began to become known to collectors in the UK.
Jones I think was responsible for establishing what is now referred to as a specialist soundtrack outlet, his was the first and soon others followed in the guise of Harlequin records, who dedicated near entire shop space to the soundtrack section. Michael Jones brought in the first Japanese releases on LP, these included SABATA. He also promoted composers such as Bacalov, Romitelli, Calvi, Rustichelli, Micalizzi, and De Angelis. It was also around about this time that record producer Lionel Woodman began his mail order business selling Italian long playing records and various other outlets popped up here and there and in Italy we had Consorti Roma in the Italian Capital and Bongiovanni records in the industrial town of Bologna. But now some 50 years on, we collectors are still waiting for certain scores, and as RCA in Italy are rumoured to be preparing to trash or destroy all their master tapes of soundtracks (so we are told), collectors can but dream and hope that their holy grails are not thrown out and maybe someone somewhere will step in and rescue them all. I think it was during the late 1970,s that I decided, I wanted to find out more about Italian film music, Italian movies and also the composers, directors, producers and actors that had brought these magnificent examples of cinema to life. I wanted to know what made them tick basically, what was their inspiration, their drive and their vision, so that’s why I started to interview the composers.
I was amazed that so little was known about Italian composers of film music. There was a short section on a handful of composers in Laurence Staig’s excellent book ITALIAN WESTERN- OPERA OF VIOLENCE, but this was short and sweet with most of the section being given over to Morricone, this is in no way a criticism of the book as it is a Bible as far as I am concerned when it comes to the Italian western, because at the time information was sparse and hard to come by, remember this was pre-internet days, but Staig unearthed information that delighted collectors, and is still in use, referred to and quoted from today. OPERA OF VIOLENCE is a perfect description of the Italian western, and also a gentle poke at a remark that was made by one film critic about Leone’s ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, the critic saying that it was a western that contained operatic like scenarios but the arias were stared and not sung. Within Staig’s book there are many explanations and theories explored and explained giving a unique insight into the world of the western All’Italiano. Music in Italian westerns as we have already established was different from anything that had gone before within the genre of the western film as a whole, whether it was a Hollywood production or a European movie there had never been anything like this.
The new approach to scoring and the originality of this scoring played a major role within the movies themselves and it is fair to state that music in an Italian western was not just background to the action but an integral and important component of the film and the movies storyline. There are a number of examples of Italian western scores that take this integration to another level, by this I mean that there are more than a handful of examples within the genre where there is a musical instrument utilized within the story and obviously the composer has been able to use these and integrate his score further with the action of the movie, prime examples are of course Leone’s FOR A FEW DOLLARS MORE, where the pleasant sounding chiming of a watch penned by Maestro Morricone becomes more of a sinister and foreboding sound because it is used by one of the movies main protagonists to begin a gunfight and also it is utilized to mark the time when each party in this gunfight must draw their weapon and shoot as it winds down and eventually stops. Probably the best known use of an instrument within an Italian made western is from ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST, Leone and Morricone again, this time the instrument being a Harmonica, which in the hands of the films central mysterious figure, who has taken his name from the instrument takes on an ominous and fearful persona.
Then we have SABATA scored by Marcello Giombini, and directed by Frank Kramer, now in this example there are a number of instances where the score becomes integral to the action because of the instrument used by one of the main characters, Banjo played by William Berger, walks around town plucking out a lovely little tune on his ukulele and even plays his adversaries a tune before gunning them down in the street or where ever they might be. The instrument has a sawn off rifle concealed inside it and when Banjo has finished entertaining his opponent he uses the instrument to dispatch them. Giombini even incorporated the use of sleigh bells within his score because the character Banjo wore bells on his trouser legs and jingled as he walked. Also Banjo played music to another of his victims in SABATA this time on a church organ, Giombini also made good use of this within his score and not just within that scene. In fact music for gunfights were the pinnacle of any Italian western score, and were often magnificent set pieces filled to brimming with soaring trumpets solos, aggressive sounding guitars, choir and bells and chimes. It is hard to actually describe just how much impact the Italian western score has made upon film scoring in general, even today in adverts and television programmes and motion pictures when a confrontation between individuals or parties of people is being acted out on screen, invariably music either from an Italian western or written in the same style as an Italian western is utilized, and people watching “get it” they understand the concept and the connection . They realize either consciously or sub-consciously where the idea comes from and where the music has originated from, so the impact and influence of the spaghetti western score has lasted and is still popular and recognized now some three decades on. The most recent examples of Italian western style music being utilized in a movie have been in one of the latest PIRATES OF THE CARIBBEAN movies and also the same composer worked in a spaghetti sounding theme into his scores for the Guy Ritchie directed SHERLOCK HOLMES capers. So although many of the Italian Maestro’s who wrote these atmospheric, original, quirky and attractive western scores have passed away they left the world a rich and full musical heritage to draw upon, listen to savour and enjoy.
My quest to find composers to interview was not an easy one, I began before I had internet or even a fax machine, so I had to write letter after letter, in fact my first interview with Alessandro Alessandroni was carried out via letter, only meeting him some 4 months later in London. My interviews with Piero Piccioni, Nico Fidenco, Franco Micalizzi, Francesco De Masi, Stelvio Cipriani and singer Peter Boom were also carried out via letter, only meeting Micalizzi later in Rome and also meeting with Piccioni’s son Jason when he was in London. But all of the Maestro,s were very helpful as was BEAT records who put me in contact with these composers and artists. Let us not forget that Italian cinema did not consist solely of western movies, as we all know genres come and go, audiences tire of certain types of movie and want something different and I think more than any one else Italian filmmakers were able to gauge this shift in taste and also were able to adapt to it, especially after they had been nearly ruined by Hollywood’s film companies exodus from their shores years before. Cinecitta produced, many types of films, sex movies, romances, crime capers, giallo’s, comedies, period dramas, historical pieces, political slanted pictures, horrors, war films etc and excelled at all of them and accompanying all these movies were infectious and original musical scores, written arranged and conducted by numerous Maestro,s, some of which are interviewed on this blog.