By DAVID A. KING, Ph.D., Commentary | Published July 18, 2013
A few weeks ago, I attended and presented at a conference of Catholic educators in San Francisco. Among the keynote lecturers was Jesuit Father Robert Spitzer of the Magis Institute. Father Spitzer literally astonished his audience each day with marvelous lectures on the creation of the universe; listening to him teach, I actually felt my mind ache as I tried to contemplate the vastness of the cosmos that are in fact the carefully designed product of a master Creator.
Like Walt Whitman, who writes in his poem “When I Heard the Learned Astronomer,” I felt myself too become “tired and sick,/Till rising and gliding out I wander’d off by myself,/In the mystical moist night-air, and from time to time,/Look’d up in perfect silence at the stars.”
While science is indeed a marvel, sometimes we need to experience things for ourselves, and Whitman’s poem is a testament to one great purpose of art: it allows us to transcend the everyday and experience for a moment the mystery of what can only be expressed in the imagination.
So when, like Whitman, I wandered out of the lecture room, I found myself gazing at the golden hills of Marin County, California, and there, far west, at the edge of the continent, I thought of the landscapes of Sergio Leone’s famous series of “spaghetti Westerns” and remembered that Leone was one of those rare filmmakers who could articulate in images what might otherwise be impossible to understand.
Sergio Leone was born in Rome in 1929 and like most Italian boys of his generation was raised in the Catholic Church and educated in parochial schools. Like the other great Italian filmmakers of his era, his immersion in Catholicism shaped his imagination and his view of the world. At the age of 12, he was already acting in the burgeoning Italian film industry, and by 1944, he was working as an assistant director. Leone would work with some of the greatest international directors of the time, including Vittorio De Sica, William Wyler and Robert Wise. In fact, he even appears in De Sica’s masterpiece “Bicycle Thieves” as a young priest.
Leone had directed a few films of his own prior to making the Italian Westerns that would not only redefine the genre, but also make him an internationally famous auteur. Called “spaghetti Westerns” because of their Italian authorship and financing, the films were really quite cosmopolitan. They were shot in Italy and in Spain, featured international casts, and often borrowed subject matter and storylines from other international sources. Though Leone did not invent this sub-genre of the Western, he became its acknowledged master.
From 1964-1966, Leone created three of the greatest Westerns ever made, the films that would become known as The Dollars Trilogy, or as they are sometimes also called, The Man with No Name Trilogy. “A Fistful of Dollars,” based on Kurosawa’s “Yojimbo,” appeared in 1964; “A Few Dollars More” was released in 1965, and the concluding masterwork “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” followed in 1966. Each of the films features Clint Eastwood in mysterious roles that would make him an international star.
Of the three movies, “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” is the most fully realized and is indeed a masterpiece of international cinema. Robert Rodriguez has called it one of the best examples of “pure cinema”; Quentin Tarantino has repeatedly referred to it as the best film ever made.
The film concerns three drifters wandering through a barren west during the time of the American Civil War—Blondie, “The Good,” played by Clint Eastwood; Angel Eyes, “The Bad,” played by Lee Van Cleef; and Tuco, “The Ugly,” played by Eli Wallach. Each of the men is searching for a rumored cache of Confederate gold. At times they work together; at other times they each try to deceive the other. As is the case with most great Italian films, however, the story matters less than the style.
And the style of Sergio Leone is completely unique. The opening of “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly” is a brilliant condensation of the primary elements of the Leone style. The first shot presents a strangely familiar Western vista; strange because it’s Spain, not the American Southwest and familiar because it immediately positions us in the realm of archetypes we associate with the genre. Yet even as this vista represents nature—and for a Catholic artist like Leone, nature is crucial—it also stands as a modern wasteland. Suddenly, a grotesque face of a man, shot in an extreme close up, fills the frame, literally blocking the natural view. The man is a part of nature, yet he consumes nature; he is a part of creation, yet his grotesque and expressionless face represents almost a complete blank. As the scene continues, the bleakness is accentuated. Cuts are spare, and the first one reveals another archetypal scene: a ghost town, its barren street crossed by a starving dog. There is no dialogue, no sound at all except that of the wind. The scene that unfolds could be understood by any person of any culture, the speaker of any language. The visual reveals everything. At the end of this quiet, languorous scene, there is a moment of sudden violence, a blast of gunfire that acts like punctuation to conclude the opening of the film.
Leone creates a distinct rhythm through his use of alternating extreme close-ups and wide panoramic shots. He extends this rhythm through the juxtaposition of silence and the shock of sound. He incorporates metonymy and a dissociation of sound and image. He completes this cinematic brushwork through an editing style that contrasts inertia with sudden frenetic movement. Watching a Leone film is like living life; the ordinary routine passes almost unnoticed until something happens, and all our senses heighten.
Facing death, we come to life. Perhaps this is the greatest paradox of Leone’s films and one of the most Catholic themes in his work. Death comes often in Leone’s cinema, and yet the moment of death is marked by a profound awareness of what it should really mean to live. This is where another of Leone’s great Catholic themes becomes apparent, the act of mercy. Leone described the Clint Eastwood character, Blondie, as “an incarnation of the Angel Gabriel.” He is a messenger and in a world of mercenaries, he alone is merciful.
Other Catholic themes are also apparent in the film. Like all of Leone’s spaghetti Westerns, Roman Catholic imagery is prevalent. There is an important scene in a monastery. The motif of the desert, and the wisdom to be found in the desert, is crucial to an understanding of the film. The motif of the grave, a memento mori, is also central, especially in the film’s brilliant last scene.
And the characterizations—reduced to types of Good, Bad, and Ugly—are also important. The least angelic character, the brutal Angel Eyes, is ironically named, unless one considers that as a constant harbinger of death the last thing one sees before dying is his steely gaze offering a glimpse into the life to come. Blondie, the Good, is an almost messianic figure; he represents the good that is in all of nature, even those who seem lost. Yet the character closest to Leone’s heart is Tuco, the Ugly. Grotesque, disfigured, rotten, he too is capable of redemption; even in his ugliness mercy is available to him. As a Catholic artist, Leone knows that indeed our singular human nature contains aspects of good, bad and ugly. They cannot exist apart; they become one nature created in the image of God, corrupted by the Fall, and therefore in need of redemption both because of and in spite of our corruption.
Sergio Leone’s spaghetti Westerns had a profound influence upon the Western in this country and served to revitalize one of our few uniquely American art forms. At the same time, they remind us that even in the vastness of the universe, our own little lives matter and can make a difference in the end. Gazing upon the carnage of the aftermath of battle, Blondie says “I’ve never seen so many men wasted so badly.” His lament is Leone’s own lament for a modern age in which lives are cast away without regard for what they really mean.