“Two hundred thousand dollars is a lot of money. We’re gonna have to earn it.” - Blondie
Sergio Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was neither the beginning of the Spaghetti Western movement nor was it the sum of its parts, yet somehow they are the films of the era that stick in a casual filmgoer’s mind. Leone’s Westerns have become so ingrained in pop culture that today it wouldn’t be odd for someone to whistle the main tune from The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966) without even knowing where it’s from and how they even know it.
By the time Michael Carreras’ The Savage Guns (Tierra Brutal) came along in 1961 to herald the beginning of the Spaghetti Western era, the Hollywood Western genre had long since entered a rapid decline in popularity. The films dominated by figures such as John Ford, Howard Hawkes and John Wayne had lost their audience. The appeal of the frontier, the lone rangers and the raiding Indians had vanished. The Western genre needed a revision and it was the Italians who decided to take up the challenge.
Film production all over Europe had been booming since the end of World War 2, particularly in Italy where sword and sandal epics were cheap to produce and popular among audiences. Young directors were beginning to carve out a career and make a name for themselves in the industry. Sergio Leone himself began as an assistant to Vittorio De Sica on the Italian Neorealist film The Bicycle Thieves (1948).
Spaghetti Westerns emerged as a European review of the classic Western. There were still saloons, gunslingers, sheriffs and shootouts, but it wasn’t the same Wild West that Gary Cooper and John Wayne had ridden out into. Indians were abandoned in favour of Mexicans and Latin Americans and the dominant language in most of the films was Italian. And the films were violent. The gloss of earlier Westerns had vanished; men died face down in the dirt.
Leone officially oversaw seven films in total, although he would come to be defined by his work in Spaghetti Westerns. Per un Pugno di Dollari (A Fistful of Dollars) was released in 1964, the first collaboration between Leone, Clint Eastwood and immortal composer Ennio Morriconne. It was an unsanctioned remake of the Japanese samurai classic Yojimbo (1961), directed by Akira Kurosawa. Over the years, Kurosawa’s films have provided the blueprints for a number of remakes, perhaps most notably Shichinin No Samurai (1954) being remade as The Magnificent Seven (1960) and later Kakushi toride no san akunin (1958) being remade as Star Wars (1977).
A Fistful of Dollars was a colossal success, particularly in Europe, and would be followed shortly after by a superior sequel Per Qualche Dollaro in Piu (For A Few Dollars More/1965). These two films would be enough to establish Leone as a financially viable director and secure him a far greater sum of money to back his third film, almost titled ‘The Two Magnificent Tramps’. Luckily, screenwriter Luciano Vincenzoni came to his senses and suggested The Good, The Bad and The Ugly just before production commenced.