When I lived with my parents, in the long ago days before video and DVD players, it was a family tradition to watch any westerns that came on the television. This usually occurred on the weekend, most specifically on a major TV network (NBC I think) on Saturday Night At The Movies.
It was on Saturday nights that I sat with my folks, and later my bother as well, watching The Duke,Gary Cooper, and Robert Mitchum. In fact, all the old actors who had moved into the genre when they got too old to play romantic leads any more. We popped lots of popcorn and then rushed in to watch The Sons of Katie Elder, Rio Bravo or some other John Wayne “Americana” western. Or indeed whatever western happened to be on. If we didn’t watch westerns on the television, we saw them at the Drive-In.
It was at the Drive-In that I first saw Sergio Leone‘s “Spaghetti Westerns.” Specifically the “Man With No Name trilogy. I was enraptured and captivated by this anti-hero. I was so enthralled by this character that I lost the tendency to emulate The Duke and began to squint a lot and speak softly through gritted teeth. This was at the ripe old age of ten. Oh I never fell out of love with the John Wayne westerns or old Duke’s characters. I could still do the swagger and do the “Well, Pilgrim” drawl like a trooper.
I remember staying over at a cousin’s house and horse riding for hours, wearing the standard western uniform of cowboy boots and hat, riding for about three days straight from sun-up to sun-down. We were both so saddle sore it was hard to sit in a chair let alone walk. But every minute spent in the saddle was a minute spent recreating our favourite scenes from westerns of the day. I believe we were both about twelve.
I remember at the ripe old age of seventeen, playing “Spaghetti Western” with my younger (and only) brother. We would strap on toy guns in the fashion of Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef to do battle as “Blondie” – The Good – and “Angel Eyes” – The Bad – oddly neither of us had the urge to portray Tuco (the Ugly); even though Tuco was the more “overblown” and fun character to emulate. I mean really, who doesn’t admire actor Eli Wallach’s portrayal of “Bandito’s?”
It wasn’t just “film” westerns I was infatuated with either. I also devoured every book I could read by the authors Zane Grey and Louis L’Amour. Zane Grey was my fathers perennial favourite. I liked old Zane, but, didn’t care for his colloquial dialogue that he insisted on using. All his characters said words like pahdnuh and mistuh just to name a couple. They were all spelt just like that, it could drive you to distraction after a while. L’Amour’s characters talked in the archaic language of the cowboy without the colloquialism’s.
Unfortunately Hollywood stopped making decent westerns just after the bumper crop year of 1969. 1969 saw great westerns like The Wild Bunch, True Grit, Butch Cassidy and the Sundance Kid to name but three out of the many that were released that year. Then “The Dream Machine” started making psychological westerns instead of traditional or spaghetti westerns. These were a complete waste of celluloid. One such film did not have one gun in it. What kind of western is that?
I knew though, that if I waited long enough that Hollywood would start making decent westerns again. I was right. My old Man-With-No-Name hero came out with the odd gem now and then.The Outlaw Josey Wales, High Plains Drifter and Pale Rider (really just a re-working of Drifter, but still good) and then…Unforgiven.
Unforgiven showed that not only did old Clint still have the chops as a “western” actor, but that he was still one hell of a director as well. I still feel that Unforgiven was the “last hoorah” of the genre. I know I still like the cross genre westerns and some of the “modern” westerns (No Country For Old Men being the best thus far) and I even enjoyed the True Grit re-make that came outin 2010. But I do miss the old fashioned westerns as well as the “anti-hero” ones that came out in the late 60’s.
Now I watch my old favourites via the DVD player and remember how much I loved them the first time I saw them. Watching them makes me feel simultaneously young and old. They also make me feel like strapping on my guns and looking for my brother to see if he remembers our gun battles and also feels young enough to have a go again. I think I might even want to play Tuco.
- Django Unchained – A Western Tarantino Style (mikesfilmtalk.com)
- The Maestros of Spaghetti Westerns (wqxr.org)
- Spaghetti Western or Eye Makeup Shade? (bellasugar.com)
- What Does Spaghetti Have to do with a Western? – Fistful of Dollars, in review (youmayclap.wordpress.com)
- Retro Dude: Clint Eastwood Makes Our Day (shedens.com)
- More Spaghetti, Per Favore (wqxr.org)
- The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (quilterinmotion.com)
- Dream: High Plains Drifter (hitchhikeamerica.wordpress.com)
- Arts & Leisure: A Spaghetti Western Roundup at Film Forum (nytimes.com)