As I've said before, no more existentialist or individualistic strain of European filmmaking exists than Sergio Leone's Westerns and the handful of decent emulations and imitations they spawned. This to me has long been obvious; but curiously it is little if ever mentioned in the attendant literature, either biographical or critical, regarding Leone.
My Merriam-Webster's defines existentialism as "a chiefly twentieth-century philosophical movement embracing diverse doctrines but centering on analysis of individual existence in an unfathomable universe and the plight of the individual who must assume ultimate responsibility for his acts of free will without any certain knowledge of what is right or wrong or good or bad."
That is not a bad definition for a twenty-first century collegiate dictionary. The few equivocations are necessary—the roots of the movement go back a long ways, arguably to some of the pre-Socratics like Heraclitus; and Nietzsche, of course, is widely recognized to be a predecessor or precursor of the movement, and even its father—and the doctrines are "diverse" since nobody can, by definition, be "certain" of anything. But the essential point of existentialism, as British writer Colin Wilson once observed, is that "we are on our own in the universe," and what one makes of that proposition is likewise up to one's self, as well. There are people who see this as a good thing or as a bad thing, as a terrifying experience or an exhilarating one. And there are those, like Sergio Leone, who see it as both.
A lot of powder has been burned over the supposed "political" content of Leone's Westerns, but the fact is that it is virtually nil, and what little does exist is otherwise negligible. The most obvious political characteristic of Leone's Eastwood Westerns is their strong anti-authoritarianism, but most people never see them in this light. Yet again and again the conventional established order is mocked and ignored by Leone's protagonists. And even in Once Upon a Time in the West, which had such trendy leftist co-screenwriters as Dario Argento and Bernardo Bertolucci, and which is ostensibly the "most political" of Leone's Westerns (not counting Duck, You Sucker! which is not, properly, a "Western"), the political distinctions are superficial at best and muddled at worst, one of the film's real but, I think, minor flaws. Henry Fonda's villain Frank is much more the archetypical Marxian "capitalist" than the crippled railroad baron Morton, played by Gabriele Frezetti, since Frank kills for money; yet Frank is clearly identified before the final confrontation with Charles Bronson's Harmonica as "just a man," a member of that "ancient race" that "other mortals" are slowly killing off—in other words, a typical quasi-Homeric Leone gun-warrior, not a cheap Marxist stereotype.
In the film, Morton is something of a vain and tragic dreamer, who clearly understands that money is only a tool. He constantly deplores Frank's many "useless killings," and even tries to get rid of Frank when the gunman acts to usurp him. Morton's dream, that of a relentless, hive-like mechanized industry stretching from sea to sea, runs on without him at the end, a sort of Frankensteinish creation that seems to go hand-in-hand with Claudia Cardinale's bosomy matriarchy—Leone himself said the film was about "the beginning of a world without balls," which is exactly why the so-called "critical establishment" has largely embraced it from the get-go, after dumping mercilessly on the Eastwood films. But there is such an established body of "critical" bullshit about this film now that very few people who talk about it seem to care what's actually in it.
Religion is present in Leone's Westerns, but God Himself is noticeably absent. The villain of For a Few Dollars More makes his hideout in a ruined mission and outlines his plans to his men from the pulpit. "You think you're better than I am," Eli Wallach's Tuco tells his priest brother Pablo (Luigi Pistilli) in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly. "You became a priest because you were too much of a coward to do what I do!" The shell of a bombed-out church provides no sanctuary for a mortally-wounded Rebel soldier, and when Eastwood kicks open Arch Stanton's grave he says, "There's nothing in there," even though the mortal remains of old Arch lie in skeletal repose within—once something, perhaps, when he was alive; but nothing now that he's dead. No afterlife, no hope—the grave Eastwood finds the money buried in could very well be his own, one marked "unknown." Oh, they are on their own in this universe.
One of the strengths of Once Upon a Time in the West is that explicit in it is what I have always felt was implicit in the Eastwood films, what Eastwood may well have removed with the character's background in the first film, Fistful of Dollars, to make the character "more enigmatic"—the fact that it is "The Bad" that creates "The Good." To be sure, Leone's conception of "the bad guy" underwent an evolution in his first three Westerns. Foreshadowings of "The Ugly" might be found in the weaker family of gun-running villains in Fistful, who are clearly more sympathetic than the stronger, more wicked family of villains led by Gian Maria Volonte. But Volonte, who played the central villains in both early "Dollar" Westerns, is an almost demoniacal force in these two films, utterly evil, wicked, cunning, treacherous, and always laughing—raucous laughter and bouts of gunfire are the two salient characteristics of both the Rojos and Indio's gang in the first two "Dollar" films respectively.
Yet in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Once Upon a Time in the West, the villains are steel-nerved doppelgangers of the protagonists, and their laughter, though wicked, is low and knowing, not loud and raucous. They are still in many ways demoniacal, especially in their fiendishness, but both Lee Van Cleef's Angel Eyes and Fonda's Frank are cold, calculating men who know that nothing is really funny about life, and are as detached and alienated as Eastwood's nameless gunfighter and Charles Bronson's harmonica-playing avenger. Their cruelty is almost clinical, barely passionate. It seems a vice to be practiced for the sake of being a vice, as a moral man might practice a virtue. And while God may well be "dead" or gone away in this world, "the Good" still has to live with himself, and his fine moral distinctions are in fact a creation of the unrestrained actions of "the Bad."
For it is the arrogance of "the Bad," his hubris if you like, his belief that he is godlike or demoniacal—as I once described an antagonist in one of my own unfinished Westerns, "God in his own world, the Devil in everybody else's"—in what he can do and get away with, that is his weakness, for this blinds him to the real strength of "the Good": that he still feels, and as a consequence sets limits upon his own actions.
It is with an undeniably hubristic contempt that Fonda's Frank leaves Bronson's Harmonica alive as a kid, after fiendishly hanging the boy's brother and making him into an unwilling participant; this is the "little" act that dooms Fonda's "the Bad" in Once Upon a Time in the West. Despite the dolorous wail of Bronson's musical namesake, Fonda's Frank has killed so many—Bronson recites a litany of the dead whenever Fonda asks him who he is ("They were all alive until they met you, Frank")—that he clearly doesn't even remember the incident that has created his Nemesis, literally not until "the point of dying." And so great is Bronson's need to provide Fonda with this ultimate act of self-identification that we are treated to the ironic spectacle of Harmonica defending Frank when Morton has paid his men to kill him: "I didn't let them kill him," he tells Claudia Cardinale's cynical but good-hearted New Orleans whore, "and that's not the same thing." And it isn't; for Frank to die in an anonymous ambush would negate Harmonica's entire reason for living.
And this is the tragic dimension of the Leone avenger; unlike the American Western's avenger, whose problems are unfailingly "moral," Harmonica's are wholly ontological: what is he, and what will he be—what, indeed, can he be, once he has returned his musical namesake to its owner, and he has at last validated his right to existence? It is a Nietzschean point expressed overtly by John Milius at the end of Conan the Barbarian, when James Earl Jones' evil ancient sorcerer tells Arnold Schwarzenegger's barbarian swordsman, "I am the wellspring from which you flow. When I am gone, what will you be?"
This, my friends, is existentialism. It is almost textbook existentialism, questions of being and becoming; and Leone's heroic gunslingers, cut from the same mythic cloth as Arnold's barbarian—the ancient Indo-European hero who is motivated, not by collectivist codes of "altruism" or the slave morality of Judeo-Christianity, but by a sense of personal responsibility and honor—philosophize with a gun, equivalent to a sword, and not too far from Nietzsche's metaphorical hammer.
Frank looks surprised when Harmonica beats his hand in their final confrontation. He has not expected this. While Harmonica has ruthlessly sought the advantage throughout the film (as Eastwood began to do in the preceding The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) variously concealing his gun in his carpetbag and under his hat, his triumph over Frank seems as inevitable as the fall of a stone; as one perceptive critic noticed, the weight of Frank's hubris itself seems to slow him down. Like Van Cleef's Angel Eyes, he seems destined to discover that, God or Devil he may think himself to be, he is indeed in the end "just a man," and hence neither immortal nor infallible. Knowledge and understanding, in a sense, passes between Harmonica and Frank in that moment in the lethal form of a bullet.
For there is something besides "something to do with death" in Leone's Westerns; it is something to do with pain and suffering, with feeling, and even with empathy. "The Good" and "the Bad" are almost mirror images; the distinctions are subtle and razor-sharp. The moral distinction is simple and basic: the "Good" preys only on those who prey on others. But in a deeper sense than the moral, feeling leaves one vulnerable; the "Bad" perceives it as a weakness. For the "Good" it seems a strength. Yet there has to be a balance. Too much feeling gets Eastwood in trouble in Fistful of Dollars. Not enough feeling toward Wallach's "Ugly" does the same in Leone's masterpiece. When this balance is restored—invariably after being made to suffer terribly himself—Eastwood can act, decisively, to his own advantage. Bronson's Harmonica maintains a fine balance of feeling throughout Once Upon a Time in the West, suffering only for a bit of eagerness and hubris at the beginning, and by a purely symbolic wounding, when he pushes Frank's three men into a gunfight. ("You brought two [horses] too many.")
And it is this balance of feeling, of emotional tone, that elevates The Good, the Bad and the Ugly above the rest of Leone's work. This seems almost an emergent quality in the film, something not apparent in the storyline itself, but which rather arises out of the music and photography. This, rather than "insecurity," may explain why Leone kept reediting and rearranging the film right up until its release—to the point that when Eastwood went to New York to dub the English-language version when it was finally being prepared for its U.S. release in 1967, he found himself handed a completely different script to read from than the one the one he had used during the film's shooting. The film became, in the process of making it, perhaps something different from what Leone had envisioned, something more than he intended.
For again, the balance of savagery and sadness, of joy and sorrow, of frenzy and anguish, is unprecedented and still unmatched and unparalleled in the history of cinema. All three central characters experience great pleasure in being alive: the "Ugly" enjoys the visceral, tangible pleasures of life, the "Good" enjoys his moments of mocking triumph in outwitting his opponents, and even the "Bad" relishes his own fiendishness. But only the two sympathetic characters experience pain. And the war is laid over this for an added dimension of ironic contrast, to the point at which Leone can get away with having the cold-blooded Van Cleef actually seem dismayed by the war's devastation, and Eastwood's as cold-blooded gunslinger lament the "waste" of the carnage at the bridge.
These are qualities that Once Upon a Time in the West simply does not have. Surely, too much of the later film seems "stagy," too aware of itself, too conscious of itself; whereas The Good, the Bad and the Ugly seems wholly unforced, and on the rare occasion when Leone's masterful camerawork draws attention to itself, it is secondary to the passion of the scene—the wonderful shot in the "missing" fort scene where Van Cleef surveys the wreckage is a perfect example, the camera cranking around counter to Van Cleef's head as he turns; one is looking at what is being revealed on the first time through, not fully aware of the cleverness of the shot. By contrast, the way Charles Bronson's face moves into view from right or left in profile continually in Once Upon a Time in the West eventually becomes something of a cliché and a parody of itself.
Still, reading the kind of superficial analyses these films have been subjected to since they first appeared, one might think it strange that I find so much passion and emotion in what are, admittedly, stark and often bleak fables about tight-lipped, stoic loners who communicate more with gunfire than words; but Leone was a visual artist, and it is in the visuals that Leone's feelings emerge, aided and abetted by Morricone's superb music. Eastwood has said that Leone "knew how to make things important," and "making things important" means engaging the viewer's emotions—nothing else will suffice.
There are competent, journeyman directors who know where to set up the camera to get the shot. There are overpraised wunderkinds who like to do all sorts of clever things with the camera to show off how clever they are. And there are a rare few artists, like Sergio Leone, who try to find the heart of the scene and shoot from there, who try to find the rhythm and flow of the action and capture its essence, its dynamic. Words can't really describe it because what I am talking about is in its essence nonverbal. You must watch the films and see it. And very few—if any—who have been "inspired" by Leone, either among his contemporaries or those of a later generation, have ever seemed aware of what it was that he really did, when he really did what he did best. The "amazing camerawork," which it truly is, is at its best secondary and barely noticeable on first viewing. Primary, and all-important, is what the amazing camerawork reveals to the eye and mind.
And in this, too, Leone's work is existential, for cinema is perhaps the most existential artistic medium of all. Existence is primarily visual and aural for human beings; and cinema, independent of the shared consensus of song, poetry, fiction, and even other visual art, creating its own ersatz reality, its flickering illusion of reality—twenty-four frames a second, a literal trick played on the human eye and brain—poses ontological questions by the very nature of its existence.
That cinema's ultimate existentialist was in many ways its ultimate artist comes, then, as no real surprise.
(Note: The U.S. DVD version of Once Upon a Time in the West will be released by Paramount in November.)
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