Friday, 6 April 2012

Sergio Corbucci and the Italian West

Original Air Date: 14-8-2010

"Wherever he goes, the silence of death follows..." 

When people think of Spaghetti Westerns, two names come to mind: Sergio Leone and Clint Eastwood.

According to most critics, there's not much else to recommend this genre. They'd be right. Most Spaghetti Westerns are, admittedly, pretty shite. But, Leone aside, there were a few filmmakers around who felt it worthwhile to spend months getting sunburned in the deserts of Spain. Ironically the most successful of Leone's rivals was another Sergio, Corbucci, who took the genre into new weird and grotesque directions.

Blackly comic, violent and gruesome, Corbucci created a cinematic universe every bit as memorable as Leone's, though considerably less friendly. While Leone was content to place Clint Eastwood against various desert landscapes, Corbucci was not so restrained, throwing his heroes into the least accommodating environments imaginable. From a deserted frontier town sinking into a muddy quagmire (DJANGO) to a snow-covered wasteland (THE GREAT SILENCE) and an eerie Indian burial ground (NAVAJO JOE), Corbucci's films could easily be mistaken for Spaghetti versions of the Seven Circles of Hell.

And the characters who were forced to trudge through these picturesque settings were as far from the Man with No Name as could possibly be, and were Corbucci's most innovative contribution to the genre: The wounded hero. Most of his heroes don't start out that way. Like most movie gunslingers they are always the best shootists, blasting away cocky opponents with aplomb. However, since this is Corbucci's universe, this does not remain the norm for very long. In DJANGO (1966) the hero is captured and has his hands crushed by a stampede of horses, while in THE GREAT SILENCE (1968), the titular hero had his vocal chords cut as a child. Damaged both psychologically and physically, Corbucci's anti-heroes are amoral bounty hunters and gunfighters who are only marginally less callous than the villains. Which is generally the main reason why they end up losing.

Over time Corbucci's endings became more nihilistic: In DJANGO, the hero beats the villains but he loses the use of his hands, the girl and the gold. In NAVAJO JOE (1966) the hero kills the villain but is himself killed at the same time. By the time he made THE GREAT SILENCE (regarded as his best film), all bets were off: Silence and the woman he is trying to protect are murdered by the bounty hunter villains who then depart to spread more death and misery.

But if this all sounds a bit depressing, don't worry. Corbucci, whether he admitted it or not, was a born entertainer and shares more in common with modern day filmmakers than you may realize, especially in the one area he can be said to top Leone: action. While Leone turned his gun fights into highly stylized Mexican stand-offs, putting the brakes on visceral excitement in favor of mounting tension, Corbucci preferred to go off with all guns (and all barrels) blazing. Long before the ADD-afflicted editing styles of Bay, Scott and their ilk took over the Hollywood blockbuster, Corbucci was slicing and dicing his action sequences into high-speed, high impact montages of pure mayhem.

In another precursor to later action stars, Corbucci refused to arm his heroes with standard six-shooters and repeating rifles, preferring to upgrade their equipment with only scant regard for historical accuracy.

Hence Django (Franco Nero) utilizes a machine gun (hidden in a coffin) to wipe out small armies (three of them!), Navajo Joe (Burt Reynolds) utilizes the guerrilla tactics and improvised weapons of his tribe, and Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) utilizes a fancy German pistol in his failed vendetta against his foes. But as I stated earlier, superior weapons and skills are of little real aid to Corbucci's anti-heroes. There is always a double cross, a crippling injury which sends events out of their control, spiraling toward disaster. In the case of DJANGO and THE HELLBENDERS (1967) the protagonists are brought down by their own greed and amorality.

When left to his own devices, as in DJANGO, Corbucci's pessimism and penchant for the grotesque could overwhelm his films (and scare off producers, who often attempted to prevent this via co-directors), but, as he matured, led to films as unique and compelling as THE GREAT SILENCE and THE HELLBENDERS, the suspenseful tale of an ex-Confederate's (Joseph Cotten) attempts to re-ignite the US Civil War via a gold stash hidden in a hearse.

Taken as a whole, his work as a Western director may be both bleaker (unless you don't mind downer endings) and more accessible (the imagination and proficiency he displays in shooting action should serve as a lesson to any modern filmmaker looking to let off some squibs) than the far smaller back catalogue of Sergio Leone. And since Corbucci worked at a far faster pace than Leone, he left us over ten (I'm not sure exactly how many) westerns within the space of around eight years, meaning there is a greater variety of stories (not all of his Westerns are action films) available to the discerning viewer. While not all of his Western work is memorable or even very good, you can find most of his best films (DJANGO, NAVAJO JOE and THE GREAT SILENCE) readily available in new restored editions.

Today almost forgotten under the shadow of his more illustrious colleague Leone, the work of Sergio Corbucci acts as a fine introduction to the breadth and depth of work within the Italian Spaghetti Western, and the films of other directors such as Damiano Damiani, Sergio Sollima, Guilio Petroni and Gianfranco Parolini.

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