Sergio Corbucci.

Most of this director’s movies have the reputation for containing copious amounts of violence, but at the same time his films were intelligent and inventive examples of Italian cinema. He is probably best known for his work within the Italian or Spaghetti western genre. But he was at home within any genre, several of his action films contain social criticism of left-wing politics as Corbucci never hid the fact that he was a communist. The art direction he employed within his films was mostly apocalyptic and surrealistic which became one of the film makers trademarks and a mark of his black humour. Corbucci began his career in film within the Sword and sandal days of Italian cinema, and it is probably true to say that he learnt his craft from many Hollywood film directors that had travelled to Italy’s Cinicetta to work on Biblical epics during the 1950,s and 1960,s. He did however contribute several examples of the Sword and sandal variety to the genre.

These included Son of Spartacus, which although nothing remotely like the original Spartacus was an enjoyable adventure romp. In 1965 he directed Massacre at Grand Canyon, which was a spaghetti western of sorts, by this I mean it belongs to the genre, but really contained none of the trademarks that we now so readily associate with the Italian produced sagebrush sagas.

Instead being a replica of what we had been used to seeing as B features in cinemas that were churned out by Hollywood film makers. Music for the film was the work of Gianni Ferrio, who would become one of the prominent composers within the Italian western genre in later years.

 In the same year Corbucci released Minnesota Clay, again an Italian western, but one which still contained many of the clichéd trademarks of Hollywood produced westerns with the production basically updating  the films directed by the likes of Delmar Davies, with stars such as Alan Ladd.

The movie starred Cameron Mitchell in the title role, who produced a solid performance, and, in my opinion, this is probably one of Corbucci’s best movies. The only reason it did not do better at the box office was because of the success of A Fistful of Dollars which was released in the same year.

The score for Minnesota Clay was by Italian maestro Piero Piccioni, the soundtrack being released on CAM records on LP in the same year as the movie was in cinemas.

The score was also very American sounding, with the composer employing brass, strings and percussion, augmented by harmonica, solo trumpet, and woods, which had to it a sprawling and grand  sound that evoked the likes of Dimitri Tiomkin.  

Corbucci entered 1966 full of energy and ideas of how to shape the western all’Italiana and it was in this year that he directed Ringo and his Golden Pistol, which was one of the earlier real spaghetti westerns, containing a gimmicky storyline and a pulsating and thematic soundtrack penned by Carlo Savina. but still had some connections with the Hollywood version of the western within its appearance, storyline and score.

It was Django an ultra-violent western that he also filmed in 1966 that was to be the directors first major break into the commercial film market, the movie’s leading actor was Franco Nero who was to be the leading figure in many of Corbucci’s later movies.

The film became an instant hit in Italy and a cult film throughout Europe, it was and still is notorious for its scenes of graphic violence and also for the number of killings it contained, which led to it being banned in the UK for some 20 years.

In many ways it was a more brutal version of A Fistful of Dollars, with Ku Klux Clan like figures and Mexican bandit’s taking the place of the Rojo’s and the Baxter’s and Django being stuck in the middle playing both sides off against each other. In the same year Corbucci directed Navajo Joe, which was a vehicle for young American actor Burt Reynolds, the film was not received well and even Reynolds in later interviews agreed that it was  something he should not have done.

But it was the success of Django that put Corbucci firmly on the filmmaking map, after this success Corbucci went onto become a director in demand and made numerous other westerns during the period from 1966 through to 1971 that remain to this day original and iconic examples of the genre.

These included, Hellbenders, The Specialist, Vamos A’Matar, Companeros, Banda J and S, What am I doing in the Middle of a revolution.

And two that for me personally stand out, the first being A Professional Gun (The Mercenary) which was released in 1968.

Set in Mexico in 1915, the films storyline takes place during the Mexican revolution which was taking place whilst the so called superior nations fought each other in Europe, it was and still is one of the most polished and well-made Spaghetti Westerns that belongs to the ‘Zapata Western’ sub-genre and remains one of the Italian western genres most entertaining and interesting examples, with its political undertones and its inclination towards the underdog rising up against the system scenario. The film was originally destined to be directed by Gillo Pontecorvo, who decided that he did not want to make the movie, so Corbucci approached Alberto Grimaldi the producer asking if he could do the film, thankfully Grimaldi agreed.  It tells the story of a poor but passionate peon Paco Ramon (Tony Musante) and his ascent from a lowly downtrodden and cruelly treated individual who is forced to labour in a silver mine, to a leading figure within the revolutionary movement.

It also charts the unlikely pairing and eventual strong friendship between Paco a Mexican bandit and a soldier of fortune Sergei Kowalski (Franco Nero) who has left his native Poland and the war in Europe. The Polack as they call him is in Mexico for one reason and one reason only and that is to get his hands on as much money as he can. He has originally arrived at the mine to strike a deal with the owners The Garcia Brothers to ensure that the silver from the mine arrives safely at its destination.

After his meeting with the mine owners the Polack heads towards the mine, but unbeknown to him Curly a psychotic and vicious homosexual played by Jack Palance kills the Garcia brothers and decides that he will stop the Mercenary and take the silver for himself. Kowalski arrives at the mine to find that the Federal troops that were stationed there have been massacred and Paco and his fellow workers have taken over. After an uneasy first meeting and a battle with more government troops led by Colonel Alfonso Garcia (Eduardo Fajardo) in which the Mercenary teaches Paco (after getting money from him) to use a machine gun in a somewhat unorthodox but effective way.

The Polack convinces Paco that he can help him. He manipulates the Mexican who is somewhat in awe of the mercenary and plants the seeds of ideas in his head getting him to carry out acts against the authorities convincing him and his followers that it was their idea in the first place. Thus, earning himself money and also bringing notoriety to Paco and his men. After a handful of encounters Kowalski leaves Paco and his men and gets ambushed by the unpleasant Curly and his henchman, but Paco and his band arrive in the nick of time to help the Pollock, killing Curly’s men and stripping Palance’s character to his underwear before sending him off into the desert, Curly refusing to leave his pants on and stripping himself naked before he sets off vowing to kill Paco and have his revenge on Kowalski. It is after this that Paco hires Kowalski to teach him how to lead a revolution collecting money from the members of his band to fund the mercenary. Paco and his men travel the countryside liberating villages and towns from the grip of the tyrannical authorities and as they do their numbers grow, at one of the villages that they free, they encounter Columba a beautiful young women portrayed by Giovanni Ralli, and both Paco and Kowalski are attracted to her, thus begins a friendly but at times fierce rivalry between the two.

Columba joins the band of revolutionaries and soon sees through Kowalski, she realises he is in the revolution for the money and tries to convince Paco that he can do without him, Paco and his men decide to make a stand in a town that they have liberated staying to defend the people against a large contingent of federals, Kowalski advises them not to stay, but they refuse to take this advice and Kowalski leaves.

Paco and his men are defeated by the government troops and flee to a nearby village where Kowalski is waiting for them with food and drink. Paco makes another deal with the Mercenary who has this time doubled his rates. Paco agrees to pay him, and they carry on with their revolutionary acts freeing villages and inflicting losses upon the federal forces, after defeating an entire regiment and capturing a town, Paco decides that Kowalski has become too greedy and takes him prisoner taking all the money he has paid him back. Whilst the Pollock is tied up and in prison Paco marries Columba but the town is attacked by Colonel Garcia‘s troops aided by Curly and his henchman. Paco soon realises he cannot handle the situation so has to release Kowalski, a fierce battle ensues and most of Paco’s men are killed as the Government troops enlist the aid of an aeroplane, which is eventually shot down by Kowalski, but things do not go to plan as Kowalski escapes and Paco is trapped, but he is soon released by Columba and they escape before Curly finds them. After a period of some six months or so, Kowalski comes across Paco in a circus dressed as a clown, he is surprised that the Mexican has survived, and is hiding away from Curly. When the performance has finished and the watching crowd has left Curly enters the arena and his men capture Paco, the idea being that Curly kills him. Kowalski intervenes much to the relief of Paco, killing Curly’s men and then hands both Paco and Curly a rifle and a bullet each so that it will be a fair fight.

The showdown ensues and Paco kills Curly shooting him through the heart. But after Paco has done this Kowalski then turns his gun on the Mexican, taking him prisoner and heads off towards the headquarters of Colonel Garcia’s 51st regiment to collect the reward that is being offered for Paco. Columba sees what Kowalski is doing and heads for the headquarters herself pretending to betray Paco telling them where they can find the Mexican and the Polack, the federals believe her and set off to intercept Paco and Kowalski. So, when the troops catch up with the pair Kowalski finds himself under arrest too because he has a bigger price on his head than Paco.

The two men are sentenced to death and are told they will die by firing squad. However, Columba puts her plan into action and with the assistance of a handful of men and two machine guns, She manages to free the pair and then Paco, Columba and Kowalski make their escape, eventually meeting up in the desert. Kowalski says to Paco that they should team up and they could form a company, working for both sides in a revolution anywhere in the world and make a lots of money and retire rich. But the Mexican is wise to the ways of the Mercenary and laughs as he and replies. “I would like to have a partnership with you Polack, but I have a dream and My Dream is in Mexico”, referring to the revolution. Kowalski looks at Paco puzzled as the Mexican continues, “Do you ever dream Polack, No I don’t think you do”.

With this Kowalski and Paco part ways and head off into the sunset, but Kowalski notices that a handful of Federals led by Colonel Garcia are lying in wait for Paco, the Mercenary kills all of them when they are about to shoot Paco, he then calls to the Mexican “ Keep dreaming, but do it with your eyes open”. Paco then rides off into the desert to join Columba who is waiting for him in a nearby town. A Professional Gun is a classic spaghetti western, and the relationship between the principal characters Kowalski and Paco has certain noticeable similarities to that of Sean and Juan in Leone’s Gui La Testa, (A Fistful of Dynamite) and also between Chuncho and Bill Tate in Damiani’s excellent Quien Sabe? (A Bullet for the General). It remains a firm favourite with fans of the genre and has certainly stood the test of time, as it has not aged or become clichéd as other examples of the genre have over the years. It is a well-made, inventive and entertaining motion picture, with so many comedic encounters and lines that act as an effective balance to the more intense action pieces within the movie. The movie contains a powerful and effective soundtrack from Ennio Morricone and Bruno Nicolai, who were both key composers for the genre. It also contains brilliant performances by Alessandro Alessandroni who’s whistling talents are flawless.

And the distinct sound of his choir Il Cantori Moderni. It’s a prime example of the Italian western score, with vibrant themes for each of the central characters, and a gunfight piece which is heard at the end of the movie.  

The second stand out western from Corbucci again in my opinion is The Great Silence, which was perceived to be so violent that it too was banned from several countries. The film had two endings shot, one being happy and upbeat where the good guys triumphed, and everyone lived happily ever after, the other being more down to earth gruesome and dark, with the villains being the ones who walked away from the shootout at the end of the movie.

Unlike so many Italian made westerns The Grand Silence, was filmed in Italy in the Dolomites and not in Spain, it is set in a snow-covered landscape rather than an arid and dusty one or the mud laden location as in Corbucci’s Django. The cast is impressive with the lead being taken by French actor Jean Louise Trintignant who plays the part of mute gunfighter named Silence. The movie also starred Klaus Kinski who as always was excellent as the villain Loco the leader of a band of bounty hunters. The love interest was provided by actress Vonetta McGee who made her debut in the movie. Plus, there were some familiar faces in the form of Frank Wolff, Luigi Pistilli and Mario Brega. Trintignant’s character is pitted against Loco and his killers as he defends a group of outlaws who are hiding out in the hills and a vengeful widow played convincingly by McGee.

Corbucci not only directed the film, but co-wrote the story and screenplay, it is said that the story was inspired by the deaths of both Che Guevara and Malcolm X. The story is set just prior to the Great Blizzard of 1899 in Utah State USA. The movie was distributed in most territories by 20th Century Fox, but received a rather tepid reception upon its release, but like so many of the director’s films, its popularity grew, and it has attained cult status.

Like Django it was refused a cinema release in America and did not receive an actual release in the States until 2001, when the DVD was made available. Eleven years after the release of the DVD The Great Silence got its theatrical premier and was then re-released in 2017. The movie is a bleak and somewhat unforgiving one, that is dark and violent but at the same time because it is so well directed and purveyed by the cast it comes across as sheer perfection within the genre of films. Henry Pollicut is a corrupt banker and a self-appointed justice of the peace in Utah. Pollicut has a man and his wife killed by Bounty Hunters and to prevent their son telling anyone they cut his throat making him mute. Years on in 1898 the boy has grown into a man and is a gunfighter who is known as Silence. Pollicut is still around, and Silence works with the community and a group of men with bounties on their heads against Pollicut and the unsavoury characters in his employ. It is an interesting plot and one that has many twists, turns, and ups and downs, but I have always found it to be a rewarding watch. Looking at the film’s alternate endings, I personally prefer the one that allows good or at least the antihero of the piece to triumph and looking at these endings there is also I think a link with Sergio Leone’s A Fistful of Dollars, with Silence’s metal gauntlet maybe being a reference to the stranger’s metal breast plate.  The musical score too is impressive, Ennio Morricone’s rather soft and highly themeatic approach also supports and elevate the films storyline, and again we have the scenario where a softer sounding soundtrack is instrumental (forgive the pun) in making the moments of violence even more shocking and affective. The composers opening credit’s theme in-particular is soothing and calming Restless theme accompanies Trintignant as we see him riding through the snow-covered landscape as the credits appear on screen. Strings, choir, and percussion combine to create a haunting melody that is given various outings throughout the movie in differing arrangements.

Apart from Once Upon A Time in The West, and Duck you Sucker. Il Grande Silenzio, is probably one of Morricone’s more melodically themed works for a western and considering the amount of violence and bloodshed within the movie the score works well with the desolate and unwelcoming snow filled locations, there is an easy sounding persona to many of the compositions within the score and as always Morricone fashions haunting and attractive melodies that linger in the listeners mind long after they have finished listening to them.

There are also some interesting choral performances via Alessandroni’s Il Cantori Moderni, who’s performance brings an almost celestial yet ethereal sound to the work, Alessandroni also performs Sitar within the score, which is an unusual instrument for a western soundtrack, but this is the genius of Morricone we are dealing with, Sitar, harp and choir combine at times to create stunning fragments of themes that are a delight. As well as this there are an equal amount of raw and savage sounding pieces within the score, but it is the fragility and melodious moments that attract and make an impression. The music was released on LP and then given a re-issue also on vinyl as a special collector’s edition in the BEAT records Gold Series. The score then made it to compact disc and finally was re issued with a few extra moments of music.

Corbucci became the most successful directors in Italy after Sergio Leone. When the genre of the Italian western had run its course and the ideas for the genre had been explored fully and exhausted by filmmakers, Corbucci concentrated mostly upon comedies which was a genre that he also excelled in.

These movies often starred the singer/actor Adriano Celentano, many thought that Corbucci’s contributions were not important examples of Italian cinema at the time of them being produced, but over the years he has become an extremely significant and highly regarded figure within the world of film making.

Sergio Sollima.

Like many of his colleagues,(Corbucci, Leone, Damiani)  Sergio Sollima began his career as a film critic before gaining entry into the movie industry as a screenwriter. After several books on the history of cinema Sollima used his contacts in the industry to launch his career as a script writer and assistant director. His early writing credits include scripts for Italian-produced “sword-and-sandal” fantasy sagas or Peplums such as Ursus (1961) (The Mighty Ursus), Goliath Contro i Giganti (1961) (Goliath Against the Giants), and I Dieci Gladiatori (1963) (The Ten Gladiators).

Working on peplums, Sollima acted as writer and assistant director  working for numerous  directors such as Gianfranco Parolini and Domenico Paolella,  he would mainly be assigned to filming action scenes as a second unit director. This provided him with invaluable experience, and he was soon able to move confidently into the role of a fully-fledged director. Although it is true to say that Sollima is best known for his work within the Italian western genre, he also excelled in other genres. After the short film La Donne and the comedy L’amore difficile (1962). Sollima changed direction and helmed three spy films which were designed to take advantage of the popularity of the British produced James Bond film series. Sollima also wrote the scripts to the first two films, Agente 3S3: Passaporto per l’inferno (1965) (Agent 3S3: Passport to Hell), and Agente 3S3, massacro al sole (1966) (Agent 3S3: Massacre in the Sun) on the condition that he would direct them personally. The films were shot back to back with Sollima credited under the pseudonym of ‘Simon Sterling’, which is something that was often done in Italy to make movies more acceptable to UK and USA audiences.
Sollima’s third spy film, Requiem per un Agente Segreto (1966) was a far more ambitious project that is seen as a more involved re-working of the James Bond series. Sollima moving away from the cool, suave, sexy, and sophisticated exterior of Bond by portraying the Italian spy Bingo (played by Stewart Granger) as a cold and sadistic bully.

The following year, Sollima made what some Spaghetti Western fans would say is one of the finest examples of the genre. La Resa dei Conti (1966) (The Big Gundown) in which the director sought to transcend the traditional limits of the genre by capitalizing on the political aspects of the story. The central clash of the story is that a falsely accused Mexican peasant  Cuchillo (played by Tomas Milian) and a corrupt businessman Brokston (played by Walter Barnes) has a much broader implication, Sollima comparing the two figures to either an American solider to a Viet Cong scenario or a British Army officer against an African native youth situation.

He also remarked in interview that audiences would sympathize more with Milian’s character than a “Cold and remote superhero like Clint Eastwood“. The movie which starred Lee Van Cleef in the role of Corbett a bounty hunter with ambitions to go into government, contained one of the most applauded film scores for the genre of the Italian western which was penned by Ennio Morricone.

The film was released in Italy in an uncut edition but was heavily edited outside of the country and the full version of the movie was not shown until recently in the UK when it was released onto DVD and Blu Ray. The edited version still airing on UK channels from time to time.

After the international success of The Big Gundown, Sollima made another Western entitled Faccia a Faccia (1967) (Face to Face), which the filmmaker claimed was his personal favourite. Sollima said that the movie was born from the idea that people invariably change from good to bad or bad to good when they find themselves in exceptional circumstances where the role reversal of a bandit to a schoolteacher and vice versa came into play.

History Professor Brad Fletcher (Volonte) heads west for his health but falls in with Soloman Bennett’s (Milian) outlaw gang. Fascinated by their way of life, Fletcher finally takes over the gang, leading it in an even more sadistic, calculated and ruthless way. The film starred the excellent Gian Maria Volonte, Tomas Milian, William Berger, and Jolanda Moldio. With a driving and raw sounding soundtrack provided by Ennio Morricone.

Sollima’s final Western and the third in his “trilogy” as many refer to the films in question as, was Corri uomo Corri (1968) (Run Man Run) which is an indirect sequel to The Big Gundown featuring Tomas Milian in his role as Cuchillo, and this is the main reason why Sollima decided to make a sequel,  despite Cuchillo not being the lead in The Big Gundown, the director said in an interview “The reason for this sequel is because the first time in Western film history we had a character that was a Mexican peon, a “dreamer” and a “thief”, yet likable at the same time”.

Although entertaining and a fast-paced action-packed romp, Run Man Run did not match up to the popularity of the first film and was never released internationally outside Italy, although it is now considered a worthy addition to the genre and is available on the likes of you-tube in full. Because of the films limited success Sollima decided to leave the western and to explore different genres, his next project was Città Violenta which was released in (1970) in which the filmmaker took  the themes and concerns he had explored in his Westerns and placed them in a more contemporary urban setting in Milan.

The movie was released as Violent City in the USA, and featured Charles Bronson, Jill Ireland, and Telly Savalas in a rather complex story of betrayal and brutal vengeance.

Despite its commercial success, Sollima had at this point grown tired of filming involved action scenes and in 1972 he directed the low-key, psychological mystery Il Diavolo nel Cervello (1972) (A Devil in the Brain). Sollima argued with his producers who wanted to market the film as a fast-paced giallo, which it clearly was not, and later blamed the pictures misleading advertising for its disappointing box office returns.

Sollima returned to directing crime thrillers with Revolver in 1973, which starred Oliver Reed and Fabio Testi. Transporting the basic premise and characters of The Big Gundown to a modern setting, Sollima also added a darker spin to the classic story of corruption and betrayal. The film, with its rigidly grim finale, is Sollima’s most highly discussed work to date.

Throughout the 1970s and into the early 1980s, Sollima worked almost exclusively for television, finding success with a mini-series of feature films which included Sandokan in 1976, which was an adventure series based on a series of pulp fiction novels by Emilio Salgari. He briefly returned to the big screen with directing a feature film of the Sandokan series and then directed the action thriller Berlin ’39 (1993). His last TV series Il Figlio di Sandokan (1998) (Son of Sandokan) never aired, after which  aged 77, Sollima retired from film making.

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