"In this world there's two kinds of people my friend, those with loaded guns, and those who dig."
Though I already wished everyone a happy new year in my supposed final entry of 2014 I would be remised if I did not mention the very special birthday of a very special film series. Many films have significant anniversaries this year, but none have been as influential on modern cinema as Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy. Modern cinema simply would not exist as we know it without these films, they have touched and affected everyone and everything from Joss Whedon to Quentin Tarantino.
Few would have thought that an Italian American director, who hardly spoke any English, making a western when the genre was thought to be dying out, based on Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo and starring the only people who didn’t previously turn the roles down, could become such an astonishing success. The series starts in small backwater towns and ends in epic style with the Civil War as a backdrop, it lacked the sentimental morals traditional westerns would try to shove down your throat, instead the films were filled with violent and sadistic behaviour from its central characters.
The unique style created a new kind of buzz on a global scale, it gave the entire genre new life. With its flawed, more interesting and more relatable characters it captivated audiences on several levels. Humour was laced throughout as well, it was never thought that films like this could contain humour amidst all of the shootouts and gun slinging, but they did. Leone broke all of the rules and he didn’t care about it. Things were done in his own way and nothing demoted the exclusive feel he wanted to generate.
They were not light hearted stories, but they had a deeper thoughts implanted. The Dollars trilogy dealt with betrayal and honour, as well as the American dream and spirit. It is remarkable how well the foreign filmmaker captured the trials and tribulations of the American Civil War. Grand themes such as these could easily be bungled by other filmmakers, but here there is an excellent proof of how Leone took a history that wasn’t his own and filled it with the human heart.
Leone once said that westerns were filled with ‘violent and uncomplicated men’ and although his characters definitely fill the former, they are most certainly an accurate description of the latter. Though they may be, as already stated, violent, emotionally disconnected questionable political beliefs audiences still connect with the characters today. By the time you reach the scene in the graveyard at the end of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly you feel as if you have gone on a genuine journey with these people.
The extra edge has to come from that incredible music score from Ennio Morricone which Leone uses to his full advantage, as well as the inclusion of sound, it’s exclusion from some scenes adds to the terrific tension. The silence, reaction shots, followed by brutal bursts of violence were techniques invented here by Leone. The use of all of these things went against what was considered normal for the most prestigious Hollywood pictures, let alone a blood filled series of westerns.
You don’t have to like the classic John Wayne era of westerns to adore Leone’s films, take it from me because the earlier statement is my answer to the question ‘Do you like Cowboy films?’ Any director that uses wide angle shots probably does so from an influence by Leone. The films somehow heightened the reality of the genre but presented it in a format only plausible on the big screen. Hitchcock and many others saw no potential in widescreen due to the jarring between shots, but Leone used the jarring to great effect, jumping from desolate landscapes to close ups.
I would be lying if I said that the Leone westerns were recognised as classics instantly, they broke the mold at the time as well as today, but it was still regarded as a short craze. But like so many classic films, not only have Leone’s work refused to pass from memory, it gains new audiences constantly, and it will undoubtedly do so for years to come.
So what's your favourite Leone film, or is there something you like about his films in general, leave a comment below and one again, happy new year!