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Spaghetti Westerns Special

Clint Eastwood in The Good, The Bad & The Ugly

Interview by James Morgan & Jack Foley

Q. Welcome, Sir Christopher and thank you for joining us. You have previously written Sergio Leone: Something to Do With Death, which is frequently referred to as the definitive book on Sergio Leone. What inspired your passion for spaghetti westerns and Leone in particular? How long have you been researching them and writing about them?
A. I remember going into the cinema in 1967 to watch Fistful of Dollars. I was in a foul mood, having had an argument with my girlfriend and I remember being hit by the style of the film.
At the time the film had been receiving terrible reviews by the critics and it was very unpopular to like. But what hit me was the whole visual and overall feel of the film, the cynicism of the anti-hero with the designer stubble; it really hit the moment of the time.
Here is this movie saying to us most men worked solely for cash. It just captured this cynical feeling in England about America.
I remember trying to get all my friends to see the films who were really not keen at all so it became sort of a crusade. I saw myself as a lone voice crying in the wilderness in support of these films. What I particularly like are films that add a new take on a tired and old threadbare genre.

Q. Have there been any other films in recent times that you have thought similarly about?
A. Well I suppose Resevoir Dogs springs to mind as does the first Alien, I like films that take an old, tired genre and breathe new life into them.

Q. The Dollars trilogy is obviously the best-known of the spaghetti westerns (apart from Once Upon A Time in the West). What makes them so special in your opinion?
A. Fistful of Dollars was not the first Italian Western, in fact it was the 25th, but it was the first one which was not a complete copy of the American ones.
The reason these Italians were making these Westerns was because the Americans were not and there was still a European audience who wanted to see them.
The idea of the magnificent stranger not wanting to get involved in someone else’s war was something that was still in the minds of the Italian and European people.
Leone was the first post-modernist filmmaker, that is to say he was making films that he wanted to see as a film fan. Film buffs making their own films about films they have seen and loved, in Leone’s case it was the John Ford Westerns.

Q. Which of the three is your favourite? And why?
A. My favourite has got to be The Good The Bad and The Ugly, the films were originally never conceived as a trilogy.
But as the first two were becoming more and more popular Leone was given the money to conclude his films in the perfect way and bring the story full circle. For me, it’s a perfect mix of the other two films, the music the photography, the characters and the direction all come together in such a great way.

Q. How important do these westerns remain in the genre? And how important were they at the time?
A. Well the impact that these films made was far reaching and is still today, I think it is widely acknowledged that The Wild Bunch was made possible by these films. Pekinpah even said it himself. Peckinpah almost made ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’. It would have been very interesting to see the two of them together: Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah present.
At the time it inspired film makers to have more anti-hero characters and get away from the whole James Stewart clean cut leading man, to characters that people could relate to, the rugged mercenary creating a new kind of hero. So I think that was the immediate impact that the films made.
In the longer term, I think that Leone’s use of music has really influenced today’s cinema. He and Morricone used to stress the importance of sound design; that is a lesson that the likes of Spielberg, Lucas and even Tarantino have all taken on board.

Q. At a time when Hollywood continues to look to other cultures, like Japan, for inspiration to remake films (witness the current horror explosion, Ring, etc), is it any coincidence that Japan once again provided the inspiration for some of the best westerns of all-time (Yojimbo for A Fistful of Dollars; Seven Samurai for Magnificent Seven)?
A. I think that Leone was definitely influenced by Kurosawa but I think there was a definite mutual appreciation between the two. I think that Kursawa took a great deal of inspiration from the early John Ford films and added a new dimension to them.
For example, the final scene of Seven Samurai in the rain added a new darker direction to the Western. Hollywood has always taken inspiration from outside cultures and films and it will continue do so.

Q. It’s difficult to think of anyone else other than Clint Eastwood playing The Man With No Name, yet Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson were reportedly offered the role first. Does this intrigue you in a kind of ‘how would they have fared sort of way’?
A. Originally James Coburn was due to play the lead but he was too expensive. Also, I think he had too much charm to play the character – too many teeth in that grin of his!
Bronson was asked and was given a script which was a very poorly translated version of the Italian script and I think he said it was the worst script he had ever read and unsurprisingly passed.
Henry Fonda would have been interesting as he would have been playing a character totally against type but he turned it down. The myth is that William Morris gave a photograph of Clint Eastwood in the TV series Rawhide to Leone and he started colouring it in, then and there, adding the stubble and the cigarette. I don’t think that’s true but it’s a nice thought.

Q. Leone clearly has his favourite actors, re-using people throughout the Dollars films (Lee Van Cleef, Gian Maria Volonte), and returning to Fonda and Bronson for Once Upon A Time In The West. Is this indicative of the determination of the man in pursuing his vision?
A. I think that Leone definitely had a genius for casting and yes I think he did have actors that he preferred to work with. But he wasn’t afraid to take risks like casting Lee Van Cleef, an actor who was generally considered as washed up and, at the time of casting, was struggling to pay his electric bill.
After Lee Marvin pulled out of the role to play Colonel Mortimer (for which he won an Oscar) they needed someone quickly as filming was due to start soon. Van Cleef showed up to meet them one night in a hotel when it was pouring with rain and he came in soaking. Leone took one look at him and said “Don’t say anything to ruin it, your hired.”
Leone called him the man with the gun sight eyes. They got him to sign that night and he was filming in Italy in the next couple of days, which may explain the startled look on his face in some of the scenes.

Q. You have had the privilege of interviewing Sergio Leone, what was the man like in person?
A. He was a small, round man with a big beard and an Orson Welles-type pesona who had no shortage of tall stories which would get exaggerated every time they were told. But underneath this I think he was a very sensitive person.
He was also very extroverted in some of his behaviour, the first time I met him in a hotel we were talking and all of a sudden he reached across and scoffed an entire bowl of Cashew nuts.
He told me that he was so pleased that some people were taking his work seriously. I did some research before we met and found out some information on his father who was a film maker in the silent era and found out some information on him that even Leone did not know and I think we built a rappour after that. I remember being in his personal cinema at his house and watching Once Upon A Time The West and he gave me a personal commentary and talked me through each scene of the film.

Q. And Clint Eastwood? Have you met him in person and how does he look back on the Dollars films? I gather he did fall out with Leone after The Good, The Bad & The Ugly and refused to cameo in the opening of Once Upon A Time in the West?
A. I have had the pleasure of meeting Clint Eastwood on a number of occasions. He is very unlike the character he portrays on screen. He has total recall and has a very refined persona, he eats very well and actually a very anti smoker. He looks back on the films with a fondness and sees it as the opportunity he was given to launch his career. It could have ended better and they did have a bite at each other in the press occasionally, Leone famously said: “Michaelangelo looked at a big block of marble and saw David, I looked at Eastwood and saw a big block of marble which is what I needed.” Eastwood had turned down the cameo at the beginning of the Once Upon a Time in the West, which was a shame as the other two had agreed.
The scene would have been the three of them waiting for a train in the desert and it would have been a nice way of coming full circle and saying goodbye to that story, before beginning a new. But it didn’t turn out that way.
In the end, though, it ended very well between Leone and Eastwood, towards the end of Leone’s life he had dinner with Eastwood who said that that dinner was Leone’s way of saying goodbye so the pair ended things on very good terms.

Q. Given the stature of Eastwood as a film-maker today, and the quality of films he directed like The Outlaw Josey Wales, how much of an impact did Leone have on his early career and how much does he continue to have today, do you think?
A. I think that Eastwood certainly took lessons from Leone as a film maker but I also think that the direction he has gone down as a director is a route of his own, for which he deserves credit. In the final scene of Pale Rider as he rides out of town there are a pair of gravestones with a tribute to Leone and Siegal. I guess maybe he thought of it as a learning experience and when he felt ready to move out on his own he didn’t hesitate.

Q. The Dollars films are populated by interesting characters, which is your favourite and why?
A. Tuco definitely, I think Eli Wallach recently said that on his gravestone he wants written, “here lies the ugly”. Eli Wallach took quite a bit of his character for these films from Leone himself, Leone used to wear a belt and suspenders and that’s where the line comes from “How am I going to trust this man, he wears a belt and suspenders he cant even trust his pants”. His comic timing and the fact that much of his speech had to be added on later in the editing studio meant that he had to have great comic timing and miming skill to pull of that role so spectacularly.
(In fact if you look closely at the shop keepers father in Mystic River (the recent Clint Eastwood film) you will find its Eli Wallach.)

Q. Can you talk about Ennio Morricone’s contribution to the films. His score was an integral part of their success and enduring appeal…
A. I love that soundtrack I constantly have that playing in the car and I recently had it as one of my desert island discs. Yes I think that the film will be remembered as much for the music as for the film but the combination of both make something really special. With Leone and Morricone working so closely and well together it influenced a generation of film maker Spielberg and Williams being a perfect example. I think the line that describes what Leone

Q. And finally, the western continues to deliver some interesting films today (Unforgiven, The Missing, the upcoming Brokeback Mountain). How do you perceive the genre now? And how much does it (and film-making in general) continue to be indebted to Sergio Leone? And how special is this DVD collection?
A. I don’t really think the Western really exists these days, not the way it did. There was a day when the Western was the back bone of Hollywood in the same way that horror films are today. Cowboy films these days tend to be more costume movies than anything else.
The DVD collection finally produces a print which is worthy of the films themselves. In comparison to some of the prints I have seen of this film this is second to none and in terms of extras it offers a great insight into the way the films were made and how they came to be.