The reinvention of a genre is something that, can often be manifested with conflicting results, while this could also be said about the Italian’s ‘Spaghetti Westerns,’ very few people will dispute the importance of and intriguing innovations brought upon the Western genre by famed Spaghetti Western champion Sergio Leone. However there is also a much lesser known Sergio, whose influence upon and innovation within the genre, while less pronounced, was still vast within the cinephile circles, and that Sergio is Sergio Corbucci.
Corbucci, born on the 6th of December 1927 and often referred to as the forgotten Sergio, is considered by many film scholars to be the second most significant Spaghetti Western directors. He wrote and directed a wide multitude of westerns, a few of which are widely thought of as extremely important. Corbucci and his brother Bruno both played important roles in the Italian cinema, however their work only had a very small cult following outside of the Euro-Asian continent. Sergio, who tried his hand at the variety of different genres, began his career in film, as a critic. His critical career, led to his assistant direction under such important auteurs as Roberto Rossellini and the patriarch of the Spaghetti Westerns himself Leone (prior to his foray into the Western genre). It was at this time when he began to formulate his ideals about the cinematic art. From this point Corbucci began his ascent into the world of writing and directing his own features, the beginning of which were Italian comedies as well as some documentary work for Canadian television.

While working with Leone on his feature Pompeii in Spain, Corbucci was quoted as remarking to Leone, “Hang on a minute, we could make an amazing Western here, couldn’t we.” (Frayling, Sergio Leone 95) While Leone neither confirmed nor denied it, it seems as if this (as well as Leone’s close examination of the themes brought forth in Akira Kurosawa’s Yokimbo) was at this point that the Spaghetti Westerns began. Corbucci himself began his foray into the genre with the film Red Pastures (1963, co-directed by Albert Band). While this film as well as the following two subsequent Westerns, Minnesota Clay (1964) and Johnny Oro (1966), were marginalized, Corbucci truly found his stride with his later 1966 film Django. In the beginning as well as throughout his Western career, Corbucci continuously upheld the ideals of the Spaghetti Western, to depict a much more harsh and unforgiving, morally ambiguous, west.

These cinematic ideals were all enormously present in Corbucci’s magnificently over the top Django. Stark photography captures the luminescent reds of both the copious amounts of blood and the hoods of the confederate ‘klan.’ This film, accepted as Corbucci’s first true break through into remarkable film, sparked a stream of non-authorized sequels ultimately creating Western icon in the titular character of Django, played by Franco Nero, who Corbucci saw as his Eastwood. (Simpson 157) Interestingly enough, the initial sketch of the character was based off of jazz legend Django Reinhardt, who at one point in his career recovered from a devastating accident to become an even better guitarist. (Hughes 59) However from the moment that Django walks into the frame it is clear that this is a larger than life persona, this is exemplified by the opening sequence, which is a shot from the ground up as Django walks over the camera and out of the frame dragging a coffin. This is where the mystery begins, and it quickly becomes apparent that Corbucci isn’t going to reveal much to the viewer through, as is custom is a genre where the less dialogue and motive the better.

Motivation becomes a very intriguing concept through this film as Django seems to be completely consumed by a hunt for revenge, yet his intentions are often muddled by extenuating circumstance, and the viewer is never quite clear whose side the brooding, blue eyes hero is on. A perfect example of this is in the first true scene of the film, as the music comes to a close and the camera pulls back to an typical landscape scene in which almost the entire composition is filled by cloudless sky, the viewers attention is quickly torn from this callously segregating shot to a scene brutal scene in which the female lead is being tied up and whipped (a scene which seems to be the prototype for many of the cringe worthy rape scenes in Django’s assistant director, Ruggero Deodato’s later film Cannibal Holocaust (1979)). As the camera rapidly cuts to close ups of the faces of her tormentors, they quickly realize that these men are the roving Mexicans, thus introducing one of the two rival gangs of the film. As this is going on our reluctant hero, Django motionlessly watches from his isolated cliff, after a few lashes shots ring out and the Mexicans fall. From this Corbucci has the camera quick pan and zoom up to a paralleling position across a dried up river where we are introduced to the representation of our second rival gang, the constantly bright red clad ex-confederate ‘klan.’ As these men approach the tied up lacerated woman, it becomes clear that their intentions are certainly no more pure than the Mexicans who they killed to get to her, thus solidifying the Spaghetti Westerns pattern of a west where your heroes are often nothing but yet another form of sadism. In Corbucci’s west, as in Leone’s (and some of the ‘classic’ American westerns), everywhere you turn there is one form or another of danger, and not even your protagonist should be trusted to uphold any sort of moral system.

After the two separate ‘gangs’ have been introduced, Corbucci adds the third entity into the battle, the force of nature Django. Equally as quickly (if not more quickly) as the small band of reds had done away with the Mexicans the confederates all fall to the ground and the camera pulls back revealing Django to be the cause of their deaths. The most intriguing aspect of this first scene is the way in which it beautifully establishes the three separate forces involved throughout the film, without actually telling the viewer anything. By relying on instant read icons as well as simple and lack of dialogue, as well as close ups and eye matches Corbucci, sufficiently places the upcoming events into a sort of veiled context. The film is still filled with mystery, and the viewer still isn’t sure the exact identity of any of the three forces, and there is certainly the looming mystery of Django’s dragging coffin, yet there are certain allusions to truths to be further unraveled as the film goes on.

However, at this point as Django helps the woman down from her metaphorical ‘cross,’ through lack of dialogue Corbucci leads the viewer to believe that he’s our moral character, the one with which our sympathies are supposed to lie, but this is an interestingly played omission of motive. Yet this is merely the beginning of the omissions of motive through the entire picture, the only real suggestion that Corbucci gives us as to the motives of our protagonist is in the scene where Django’s sitting playing solitaire with his meaningfully blank stare through piercingly icy blue eyes, and in response to the ex-confederates allusion to the war he replies with something regarding the fact that he is fighting his own private war. This holds true through motivational twist and turn, right as the viewer has decided that Django has feelings for Maria (the woman he saved played by Loredana Nusciak) he turns her over to his ‘friend’ Gen. Hugo Rodriguez (José Bódalo) the leader of her initial sadistic torturers. However, these are just a few of the twists and turns regarding Djangos motivations and his muddied sense of morality seems mirrored by the use of setting.

Throughout the picture setting also plays a key role, whether it’s the sun bleached dry outskirts of the town, the gloomy mud covered town itself or the climactic use of quicksand, the landscape seems to play the role of the forth force, danger lurks at every turn. While the muddy facet of the town aesthetic may seem rather atypical for a Western, it seems to play well into the ideals behind Westerns as a dirty unforgiving genre through which to tell a story. Apart from that though the mud seems to represent something further, the ideology of ambiguous, conflicted and confusing morality (or ‘muddy’) that is firmly rooted in the past. As Django slowly and laboriously lugs his coffin through the mud of town it seems as if death looms over his him weighing him down as he strives forward, to the point where has can ‘bury Django,’ avenging the death of his wife and relieving himself of the pressures and weights of the coffin.

While Corbucci’s Django most definitely has its moments of ridiculousness, the mud wrestling scene, the many scenes of machine gun round after another mowing enemies down and the ear severing/force feeding scene (which Tarantino obviously ripped off for his famous scene in Reservoir Dogs (1992)) to name a few, the core of the film is firmly rooted in typical Spaghetti Western tradition, and Corbucci’s style begins to shine through. While the film contains many typical elements such as the quiet loner protagonist and the jilted fallen woman as well as the pompous and racist ex-confederate villain Major (Maj. Jackson played by Eduardo Fajaro) Corbucci’s ideals regarding the political left versus the right, as well as his tendency toward tight close ups, often brought upon by a quick zoom and in contrast to wide landscape pans are more than apparent in this picture.

All of the ideals come to a much more mature fruition in that film that is widely considered his masterwork, The Great Silence (1968). While Corbucci made a few films between Django and The Great Silence these are generally considered his the two films where Corbucci’s flair for the Western truly shined. This offering from Corbucci provides the viewer with many ways in which to do a proper deconstruction. From Corbucci’s use of a slightly agitated camera style, the interesting shifts in perspective (often voyeuristic with some amazing point of view compositions) to the thematic elements of rich right versus underprivileged left and the silent dutiful protagonist to the hauntingly poignant soundtrack provided by Ennio Morricone (these only being a few of the intriguing aspects of the film) there is certainly no lack of depth to this picture.

With this film Corbucci seemed a lot more grounded in his message, as well as quite a bit more comfortable and in control of his cinematic out put, and through this he provides the viewer with one of the most brutal visions of the west the cinema has ever seen. The first striking element of the film is the setting. In contrast to the typical Western setting of the bleak arid desert, Corbucci presents us with the snow-blanketed winter of Utah. Once again Corbucci plays with the use of setting showing once again that the desert is, not the only suitable setting for a ruthless severe Western. The frigid winter setting once again provides an interesting and equally unforgiving landscape for the narrative to follow.

In this film the viewer is confronted with a drastically different and conflicting view of the bounty hunter than Leone’s westerns. In this film the bounty hunters are the villains, running around killing the outlaws, who were merely forced into a life of crime because of extenuating circumstances (stealing to stay alive). The foremost villainous bounty hunter, Loco, is played scathingly by infamous German actor Klaus Kinski, with his amazing devilish blue eyed stare. With human life merely a source of monetary funds, Loco ravages the land savagely killing with ruthless disregard justified by its ‘correctness,’ with further justification in the ‘patriotic’ nature of the ‘job.’ “All according to the law,” he declared with a devilish grin and an elated faux-naïve look in his eyes.

The antithesis to Loco’s exaggeratedly evil character, who smoothly talks his way out of trouble with skewed justifications and sly demeanor, is the tragic protagonist of the story, the aptly names ‘Silence’ (Jean-Louis Trintignant). With this character Corbucci took Leone/Eastwood’s idea of the silent loner with minimal dialogue to the extreme. Silence is the representation of the righteous downtrodden left with which Corbucci obviously associated. Silence’s association with this demographic comes from the death of his parents, which we find out through flash back (which was brilliantly switched to through the use of light, candle in a relatively dark room goes out of focus and when focus returns the viewer is presented with a much brighter scene) was the result of crooked a crooked lawman and devious bounty hunters. Because of the tragic death of his parents, which he himself witnessed, hence the bounty hunters cut his vocal chords so that he couldn’t tell what he had witnessed, Silence became somewhat of a mercenary “avenging justice and defend(ing) the innocent.” Silence’s lack of voice is made up by Corbucci’s constant focus on extreme close up grounded heavily in eye-match, his cold facial expressions and cool eyes seem to tell it all, and in direct disparity to the eyes of Kinski’s Loco. Another way in which Silence is given a voice is through the score. In Howard Hughes’ essay “Since When Are Wolves Afraid of Wolves?” he stated that, “Morricone’s music is Silence’s voice and the voice of the landscape.” (Hughes 200)

Along with Corbucci’s characteristic use of eye match and focus upon facial expression (which isn’t so much singularly typical to his work as it is to the Western genre), he utilized the camera slightly differently in this film in comparison to Django. In Django the compositions were always very sharp, however while the majority of composition through The Great Silence are also in sharp focus (often an interesting deep focus on a bleached white landscape) here Corbucci is not afraid to float in and out of focus adding a sort of voyeuristic realism to the cameras views. As he shifts the focus of the composition he employs a slower focus adjustment, whether this was a purposeful tactic, it serves to add an additional air to the film.

Many of the different aspects of Corbucci’s typical thematic as well as cinematic elements are perfectly illustrated through the unexpected and powerful finale to the film. The end of this film is quite possibly Corbucci’s biggest break from Hollywood Western tradition, for the simple fact that the protagonist falls and the villain smirks and rides away untouchable, as it was “all according to the law.” However this scene truly embodies Corbucci’s ideals from its beginning. As in Django our protagonist has narrowly escaped a previous battle where his hand, his weapon, has been badly wounded leaving him seemingly unarmed. But, as in Django where Django says “I gotta deal with this in my own way,” Silence also has to confront his fate. Both men are firmly grounded in their sense of duty, whether or not morality plays any part, they are obligated not to shy away from opposition. So as Silence ventures out into the austere black of night, with little light, other than that reflecting upon the large snowflakes that fall around him, obviously injured he still has a very stern collected look in his eyes. As he ventures forth Morricone’s music plays liltingly and ominously in the background, as the hero practically stumbles into the face of insurmountable odds, the kind of odds audiences are used to heroes overcoming. Yet through the use of soundtrack as well as compositions the harsh reality of the situation becomes uncomfortably real to the viewer, and as Silence walks out of the shot and his lover, Pauline (Vonetta McGee), run into a composition where her whole face aside from an noticeably perturbed eye is obscured into back by a house, the inevitable looms over the viewer.

As Silence moves into the paralleled position to that of the lawful villains, all of his personal tactics are used against him as the camera focuses on the naturally calm Loco sits soothed in his ostentatious fur coat with a piercing stare into no where, as his henchmen inform him of Silence’s arrival. After a few moments of tension building pause, where Corbucci’s camera quickly cuts in closer and closer on all of the characters faces, shots ring out and Silence’s already impaired hands are rendered useless. As he had done to many different amoral bounty hunters, they (not Loco, but one of his cronies) shot his thumbs off. At this point Loco slinks over and slowly opens the doors to the saloon, and standing triumphantly centered in the composition with the camera pointing up at him as if from Silence’s perspective then switching to the camera looking down at Silence as if from Loco’s. And after a long pause Silence reaches for his gun, and just as Silence has done all his life Loco waited for this moment and reacts, out of ‘self defense.’ Two shots ring out, first from someone else and then a head shot from Loco, and Silence falls in slow motion. The brutality continued and in the end only the villains are left alive, and the final scene brilliantly illustrates the brutality of the film, as the camera focuses on Loco riding away in a windows reflection, and then shifts focus to the dead housed inside said window.

In the end, Corbucci provides the viewer with what are in some ways typical Spaghetti Westerns, but in many ways challenge not only the ideology of Hollywood Westerns, but also the Westerns of his contemporaries such as Sergio Leone. His stylistic and thematic principles were incredibly interesting and helped him to convey certain messages through each film. The films of Sergio Corbucci are violent, relentless, harsh, stark, off the wall and introspective, offering Western fans arguably a more realistic unsympathetic view of a tired west.

Works Cited

Edwards, Daniel. “Sergio Leone.” Senses of Cinema. Sept. 2002. 5 Mar. 2009 <http://archive.sensesofcinema.com/contents/directors/02/leone.html&gt;.

Frayling, Christopher. Sergio Leone: Something To Do With Death. London: Faber and Faber Limited, 2000.

_________________. Spaghetti Westerns Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (Cinema and Society). London: I. B. Tauris, 2006.

Hughes, Howard. Once upon a time in the Italian West the filmgoers’ guide to spaghetti westerns. London: I.B. Tauris, In the U.S. and Canada, distributed by Palgrave Macmillan, 2004.

Simpson, Paul. Rough guide to westerns. London: Rough Guides, Distributed by Penguin Putnam, 2006.

Weisser, Thomas. Spaghetti Westerns – the Good, the Bad and the Violent: 558 Eurowesterns and Their Personnel, 1961-1977. Jefferson, NC: McFarland & Company, Inc., 1992.

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In the first segment of class this semester we have already covered quite a bit of ground, from the humble (yet intriguing) beginnings of the genre with The Great Train Robbery (Porter 1903) to some films from the more innovative directors who spearheaded the “classic” period of the western, the most captivating of which would have to be Jack Arnold’s No Name on the Bullet (1959). In this film Arnold, who had already shown himself to be a very versatile director with a flair for noir-ish observant direction, presented the viewer with a new take on the western genre. Instead of having the showdowns and the obvious moral denotations, Arnold creates a western that, not unlike Zinnemann’s High Noon (1952), calls into question the viewers ideals about the western ‘hero’ and the moral codes that seemed to be staples at the time.
In Zinnemann’s film we watch as a whole town one by one deserts the only person who has ever really been there for them, the only character who has really been there and with confidence and morals ‘in spades.’ This idea of the town full of people, who seem a lot more trust worthy than they actually are, is taken in a different direction by Arnold in No Name on the Bullet. With his film Arnold presents another very bleak representation of a seemingly ordinary western town, yet in contrast to Zinnemann’s town of cowards and felons (or felon ‘sympathizers’ i.e. people who profit of the presence of felons), Arnold takes a much more observant psychological approach, much like the methods of the films antagonist, John Gant played perfectly by Audie Murphy.
From the commencement of the film the atmosphere is impeccably set, a very desolate and isolated farmhouse. Two seemingly ordinary stock characters, a barking dog, and ominous music, create the setting in which we first encounter John Gant as he strolls up on his horse and inquires about his destination. Gant’s cold calculated manner coupled with the use of ominous music and the brechtian and uneasy use of the dog bark as well as the slow and seamless flow of cinescope to fashion a broad and vast landscape, brilliantly set the stage for the psychological “chamber” western that Arnold has just begun.
From this starting point Arnold proceeds to build upon this already noir-ish western set-up by presenting us with an austere, façade ridden average western town, and having emotions, or more importantly, tensions run high with the entrance of the ‘force of nature’ that is John Gant. One specific line from the film that wholly emphasizes the general importance of Gant’s character within the narrative as being of chaotic passive initiator is when the physician, while conversing to Gant, says “Right now I’ve got one big public health problem, and I’m looking at it.” (As quoted from you, quoting from Graham 1989; 273) This quote brilliantly describes the effect that Gant has upon this seemingly ordinary, run of the mill town, an effect that runs rampant through the minds of the towns people from the moment the hotel managers’ mistake of calling him Grant is corrected with the perfect stoic-ly delivered line “It’s Gant, John Gant.”
At this point on the seed of destruction has been planted and a growing unease quickly spreads through the town. The only people who appear to be immune to Gant’s force are Dr. Luke Canfield (i.e. The physician, Charles Drake), his father Asa (R.G. Armstrong), his fiancé Anne Benson (Joan Evans), and her father Judge Benson (Edgar Stehli). All of these characters have their own reasons for not being worried, but what’s interesting is that these characters, except for Judge Benson, who represent different pillars of morality seem more closely aligned with John Gant himself than with the rest of the town. Arnold doesn’t seem to place any judgment on Gant, instead he more or less presents the viewer with a characters who, obviously, has a warped vision of his own morality, and leaves it up to the viewer to decide how they feel about him. While the clearest conclusion the viewer can deduce is that Gant is clearly the bad guy, the way that Murphy plays the character coupled with the deplorable conduct of the citizens of the town, brings into question, who really is the monster of the film? Is it Gant himself, or is he simply the vehicle through which the real monsters are revealed?
Another main theme broached through the film is that of calculated reaction, as opposed to action. This is not only evident in the way Gant carries out his ‘occupation,’ but is also skillfully mirrored through the cinematography. The camera plays the part of a voyeuristic omnipresent yet unseen character that watches and waits to see how everything will play out. The compositions of striking scope, often utilize deep focus through which the viewer is given many different choices of where to focus their attention and yet, no matter where the ‘action’ of the scene is, the viewers focus is often beckoned to shift from the action to the reactions of the minor characters in the scene, as well as Gant himself, whose presence seems to be felt in every scene regardless of his physical presence (or lack there of).
One of the more interesting ways in which Arnold places Gant in different compositions is through the use of the colossal mirror in the saloon below the hotel. Gant is often shown at a bit of an angle through this mirror, and often in shots where the immediate focus is on the person confronting Gant, or purposefully avoiding a confrontation. Through the wide deep focus scope Arnold is free to show the action and the reaction (or lack there of) of Gant, with the use of the mirror.
In this same vein, the voyeuristic air in the film is well executed through the use of over the shoulder, out the window shots used not only to create a certain atmosphere but also to further the narrative. For example, many of the scenes with which the citizens’ internal fears come to an emotional or chaotic climax, such as the suicide or the scene where the apathetic couple fight about the jilted ex-lover that ‘obviously’ hired Gant to kill them for running off together. Both of the aforementioned scenes begin with an over the shoulder, out window shot, which pulls back creating a change in focus from out the window to the inside where Arnold will now focus on, or allude to the character(s) with whom the viewer has just shared a perspective, reaction to what they (as well as the voyeuristic viewer) have just witnessed (or the implications of the action seen just prior). While the camera stays in the same room, it simply pulls back and changes the focus. This subtle and swift use of cinematography is a perfect example of one of the director’s auteurist stamps (as discussed in class). Arnold has an affinity for less ostentatious shots that have a subtle yet undeniable effect upon the viewer.
Another even more intriguing way in which the theme of reaction is envisioned is the way in which all of Gants’ movements seem very cold and calculated preemptive reactions. This is an aspect that is especially interesting when one gives more than a passing thought to the chess game between the physician and Gant. Through this game Arnold creates a perfect metaphor for Gants’ vocational life. To be successful in chess, the player is reliant on thinking a few moves ahead, all the while trying to lead their opponent into various ‘traps.’ In the end, chess very similarly to Gants’ strategy behind legal murder, is all about entrapment. What’s also fascinating about the use of chess is how the cinematographic and compositional choices during the chess game focus on the dialogue and the faces of the two players showing their reactions rather than the actual action taking place, that of the physical moving of chess pieces. For Arnolds’ vision the action is of very little importance in comparison to the reactions.
Along the same line as Arnolds’ noiresque focus on reaction is his unrelenting focus on the tension-ridden build up toward an ever-illusive climax. From the initial contact with Gant, the aural aspect of the film is heavily weighted with ominous music and well-placed silence, both of which are utilized to instill a sense of anxiety in the viewer, who is constantly waiting for the moment that Gant will strike and break the ever-growing tension. Yet this moment is postponed many times through the film. Arnold repeatedly raises the stakes, only to reveal a pay off much less gratifying that the viewer would have hoped. Through the constant build up and let down, Arnold is also playing with the viewers’ head. The viewer may think that when Gant is confronted by the sheriff that the pay off has finally come, and every aspect of scene, composition (the imposition of blatant oppositional roles) and a drop of soundtrack in particular, leads the viewer to believe that this is the moment, only to be let down by a minor instance of anticlimactic action. While some might assume that the moment Gant shoots the sheriff would be a fairly gratifying climax, the fact is that it furthers the narrative very little, and only serves as a way to bring the tension to a boil and then give the reader no true reward.
Possibly the most interesting scene that truly embodies all of the different aspects discussed throughout this essay, is the scene where the physician leads the charge to try and eject Gant from the town. The viewer watches as the mob amasses and, once again, though the use of voyeuristic camera work we feel as if we are there ourselves, preparing for the confrontation we so desire. Then, as the seeming moral compass of the film, the physician takes the lead, calming the crowd enough to the point where they will allow him to ‘give peace a chance,’ the confrontation is once again prolonged, but tensions are high and as the camera seamlessly switches from the approaching mob to Gant sitting calmly on the porch, it seems so evident that the climax is near. As the physicians pleas are refused, and the camera switches from Gants’ perspective looking down on the mob and the mobs perspective, the mob even starts to move toward Gant with every intention of bloodshed. Yet once again Arnold finds an inspired way to trump your expectations, with the climax leading to a speech from Gant where he calls the mob out by saying that they could kill him, but he would be taking some of them with him. It is then that the camera cuts to each of the characters he claims he’ll take with him. Through the eye matches, in combination with Gants’ confident smirk, and excellently delivered concluding line “That’s my prescription physician, you’d better get it filled,” once again puts a cap on the climax.