Once Upon a Time this West was full of Radicals: Sergio Leone, Revolution and Religion
Tuesday, 16 July 2024 03:59

Once Upon a Time this West was full of Radicals: Sergio Leone, Revolution and Religion

Published in Films

James Crossley analyses Sergio Leone's spaghetti Westerns, unearthing their twin discourses of a materialist explanation of American capitalism and an expression of a revolutionary Christianity.

Even if someone has somehow not seen Sergio Leone’s Westerns, the poncho-wearing, cigar-smoking, gun-toting, stubble-growing image of its breakout star, Clint Eastwood, as well as the distinctive Ennio Morricone soundtracks, may still provoke some kind of recognition. For those unfamiliar with Leone’s Westerns, the films include the Dollars Trilogy—A Fistful of Dollars (1964; US release: 1967), For a Few Dollars More (1965; US release: 1967) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966; US release: 1967)—and Once Upon a Time in the West (1968; US release: 1969).

 The Dollars Trilogy

 The Dollars Trilogy involves quests for money and focuses mainly on Clint Eastwood’s bounty killer character, often referred to as The Man with No Name, though in each film he is in fact named (Joe, Manco and Blondie). Once Upon a Time in the West shifts the focus to another dangerous figure, Harmonica (Charles Bronson), but he gives way to Jill McBain (Claudia Cardinale), a non-violent former prostitute, effectively the ‘mother’ of the new town of Sweetwater. These kinds of Westerns gained the label ‘Spaghetti Westerns’ because of their origins in Cinecittà Studios, Rome, and for having an Italian director. However, as Christopher Frayling (probably the most influential analyst of Leone) would detail, Leone’s Westerns were also a critical commentary on the American Western, transforming the optimistic view of the frontier into a world of death and corruption. Once Upon Time in the West, however, would be a deliberate attempt by Leone to replace the Dollars Trilogy with a story of, as Leone himself put it, ‘a birth and a death…a cinematic fresco on the birth of America…the end of the Western’s golden age and the demise of the Western as a fable’.

One of the oldest questions (and once among the most popular) in the critical study of Leone’s westerns is, as Frayling put it, ‘why did the “moment” of the Italian Westerns appeal so much to children of Marx and Coca Cola in Europe, especially the generation of May 1968?’, to which we should extend the geography to include North America and widen the timeframe to include its ongoing reception. It has long been noted that Leone’s Westerns can be read as simultaneously celebrating and critiquing capitalism and Hollywood Westerns and that such tensions have always surrounded their various receptions (including Leone’s own understandings).

Eastwood’s anti-authority character and distinctive style in the Leone Westerns, it is often pointed out, resonated with the social changes of the 1960s and stylistic statements of associated Vietnam protests. Yet this individualistic gunslinger with little time for bureaucracy is not too far removed from figures in other films which pick up on various western themes and which represent the next stage in the development of the Eastwood and Bronson personas. Harry in Dirty Harry (1971) and the vigilante Paul Kersey in Michael Winner’s Death Wish films both represent a firm shift to the Right and a reaction against perceived progressive politics of the 1960s.

There are many ways we can try to understand the popularity and survival of Leone’s Westerns. One (and only one) is to look at their ideological fit with changes happening in Europe and North America since the 1960s. The timing of the marketable and pop art image of the recognisable Eastwood persona that emerged from the Dollars Trilogy (and which Eastwood was keen to protect) is crucial because the instant image and PR have become a defining feature of neoliberal or postmodern capitalism emerging from the 1960s onward. More broadly, leftist criticisms of traditional forms of authority, alongside a sustained critique of the dominance of Marxist metanarratives, are also significant for understanding the emergence of neoliberalism. In a prime example of the Law of Unintended Consequences, the rhetoric of freedom, liberty, individuality, and challenges to the role of the state which came out of the 1960s would be appropriated by the Right (albeit in economic terms) and adapted in many parts of popular culture and in the Reaganization or Thatcherization of the media, journalism, universities, economics, and politics. The values associated with Leone’s protagonists are sometimes compatible with, though sometimes critical of, dominant values that have since become associated with neoliberalism. Leone’s amoral, and seemingly unconstrained, entrepreneurial bounty killers are, after all, obsessed with accumulating a personal fortune.

But, as Austin Fisher in particular has shown, the Italian Westerns of the 1960s were engaged in radical left-wing political debates and this includes Leone’s Westerns. Basic influences can be seen, for instance, in the form of corporate greed (e.g. the railroad boss, Morton [Gabriele Ferzetti], in Once Upon a Time in the West) and relatively sympathetic treatments of bandits as symptoms of socio-economic circumstances (e.g. Tuco [Eli Wallach] in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly) who can gain popular support in small rural towns (e.g. Agua Caliente in For a Few Dollars More). But Leone’s Westerns were not radical enough for some. The Italian actor, Gian Maria Volonté, who played the roles of Ramón and Indio in Fistful of Dollars and A Few Dollars More respectively, was a Communist Party member who, despite his prominence in Leone’s westerns and growing fame, turned down the role of Tuco in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly in favour of what he saw as more significant political roles.

Volonté may have had a point as the political critique is largely muted in Leone’s amoral universe. And when Leone gets to the more cynical Duck, You Sucker! (aka A Fistful of Dynamite) in 1971, the political critique is levelled more at the ‘intellectual’ concept of revolution, post-’68 disillusionment, and the Italian Westerns of the Zapata variety, though the film is hardly unsympathetic, puts class distinction in sharp focus and adds degrees of chaos to understanding revolutionary commitments and attitudes.

The First Transformative Stage of Capitalism

The political mark of the Italian Western still runs deep in Leone’s Westerns. Taken collectively, they provide a materialist explanation of the origins of American capitalism which further helps us understand their political ambiguities. There are effectively two transformative stages of capitalism in Leone’s Westerns which resonated with the tensions leading to the emergence of neoliberalism. The Dollars Trilogy represents the first transformative stage of capitalism where death and chaos rule. In this stage, the deceitful, untrustworthy, morbidly entrepreneurial masters of the new technologies thrive, latching onto death as a commodity, and wiping out the lingering feudalism of the Rojos and Baxters in A Fistful of Dollars or the outdated peasantry and peasant technology at the beginning of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (recall the boy endlessly circling a well on a mule) overpowered by the solitary killer and his gun.

Unlike the two opposing families in A Fistful of Dollars, Joe can move freely across the boundaries and sell his services to both sides. As Timothy Campbell argues concerning such issues, Joe ‘comes to stand in for a technological form linked to that mode of postmodern capitalism in which circulation of bodies, objects, and labor power is key’. Once the macabre market has dried up, Joe moves on to make more money from death elsewhere in a world increasingly suited to his particular talents. And so the beginning of For a Few Dollars More explains to the audience the reason for the bounty killers: life may not have value but death did sometimes have a price.



The seemingly appealing disregard for traditional authority by the main characters is a marked feature of Leone’s first transformative stage of capitalism, represented by the Dollars Trilogy. Paralleling the overturning of the lingering feudalism, state, government, and local authority are not only corrupt or outdated but are constantly undermined, used, or humiliated by a form of individualism represented by Leone’s main characters. In this stage, the corrupt sheriff is no longer loyal, courageous and especially honest, as Manco points out in For a Few Dollars More. With no other authority than his own, Manco can remove the sheriff’s badge and toss it away with impunity. But traditional authorities are not simply involved in petty corruption. The Northern prison camp can be used by Angel Eyes (Lee Van Cleef) to carry out torture in his pursuit of Carson’s gold. Indeed, we might say that the bigger the authority, the more destructive and the more indifferent to suffering it can be. As we see in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, both sides in the Civil War are presented as wasting life on such a mass scale that it even provokes a response of near disgust from a seasoned killer like Blondie.

Alongside the money and the pervasiveness of death (a theme typical of the Italian Western generally), Christianity is one of the most prominent discourses in Leone's films which illuminate this first transformative stage of capitalism. In striking contrast to American Westerns is Leone’s representation of Christianity, which is almost always Catholic and Latin rather than Protestant and white. As has long been noted, however, this representation is typically a profaned version of Christianity in the period of Leone’s historical schema, where death knows no boundaries. The normative family structure for Leone is presented in terms of the Holy Family (particularly in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More) and is either uprooted or its members murdered. Throughout the films, de-sacralised Christian imagery is clear enough in rowdy Last Supper scenes, broken statues, disused and ramshackle crosses, crumbling churches, churches as bandit hideouts, and ominous church bells.

Main characters are presented in similarly ironic ways. Indio provides a parable from the pulpit explaining how the bank of El Paso might not be impenetrable after all, the bounty killer Mortimer is first introduced dressed as a priest reading the Bible, Blondie is labelled (by the vicious Angel Eyes) a golden-haired angel just before he dupes Tuco, and Blondie and Harmonica both take on the role of ‘Judas’, which is as much a compliment as insult in a world where betrayal and trickery in pursuit of money are the closest things to virtues. In this profaned world, resurrection plays a transformative role for at least three of Leone’s main characters (Joe, Blondie, Harmonica) which leads to the ultimate deaths and to the ultimate prize.

In A Fistful of Dollars, for instance, Joe escapes in the coffin, complete with a shut lid and a few seconds of black screen, followed by his ‘resurrection’ in (of course) a cave. The new Joe dramatically returns, seemingly immortal thanks to the trickery of his protective metal vest. But this profanation of Christianity as grotesque, macabre, macho, and something integral to the pursuit of money and transformation of the world of the American Western, is part of a world that also gets transformed in Leone’s schema in order to hasten the development of modern American capitalism.

The Second Transformative Stage of Capitalism

Whilst Once Upon a Time in the West continues Leone’s critical engagement with the American Western, he would now incorporate his Dollars Trilogy as part of his critique in what is the second transformative stage of capitalism in Leone’s schema. At this point in Leone’s story, the age of the gunslinger is coming to an end, as Leone pointed out and as Frayling has documented in detail, as they die off or, in the case of Harmonica, leave the boomtown. By the end, it is Jill McBain, the mother of Sweetwater, who now represents the American future. The gunslingers had their uses in protecting Jill McBain from the remaining ravages of the first transformative stage of capitalism but it is the investment in building materials for a strategically-located town that guarantees its long-term future.

This second transformative stage of capitalism in Once Upon a Time in the West involves the shift to a different form of capitalism. In sharp contrast to the Dollars Trilogy, financial gain is not a primary motivation for the gunslingers in Once Upon a Time in the West. By the end of the film, the successful use of money is now associated with investment and the emerging business class. Death is also controlled and regulated once the wiping out of the old world and its values is complete. Harmonica and Cheyenne (Jason Robards) defend and aid Jill McBain in her development of Sweetwater before their departure from the historical stage. The development of the railroad (a staple of the American Western) picks up on conventional Western themes but with a Leone spin. This new technological advance brings death, whether troops and criminals in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, bounty killers in For a Few Dollars More, or Frank (Henry Fonda) and his gang of killers in Once Upon a Time in the West.


 Once Upon a Time in the West: Final Scene

 Once the railroad is in place, however, and the McBains have taken control of water and labour, the development of the railroad becomes domesticated in the next stage of capitalism as the old killers are all removed. Already in Once Upon a Time in the West, the trains bring or will bring commerce, Jill McBain, and different ethnic groups, including Native Americans who are conspicuous by their absence in Leone’s previous westerns. As Leone himself implied, this harnessing of a more ethnically diverse community—and labour force—is part of the construction of new boundaries and new towns in this stage of capitalist development.

A re-sacralised Christianity is also found in Once Upon a Time in the West, especially in the plans of Brett McBain (Frank Wolff) for a church within the town. The profaned Christian imagery of the era of the bounty killer and gunslinger accompanies Harmonica, Cheyenne, and Frank, but by the time Jill McBain secures the train station and guarantees the future of Sweetwater at the end of the film, the murdering angels, resurrected killers, and trickster Judases are dead, long gone, or in the process of leaving town. Gone too are the decaying statues and crooked crosses. The construction of a de-sacralised religion is associated closely with bygone eras, either in its decline or as a time when, as Tuco pointed out to his brother amidst the crumbling statues in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, you either become a bandit or a priest (the latter being the easy option).

But in Once Upon a Time in the West, religion is controlled and put in its place, though not obviously Catholic. At a push, it might be argued that Jill McBain picks up on the holy mother and whore tropes which have been associated with the two most famous Marys of the New Testament and in some aspects of Catholic traditions, and Leone clearly had interest in Holy Family imagery. Yet from what we see of Sweetwater at the end it could be a town from the Hollywood mainstream rather than a distinctly Leone one. But whatever we make of it denominationally, the church is now domesticated and, as Harmonica and Cheyenne discovered, put in its place alongside the post office, corral and water tank in Brett McBain’s plans for the building of the town.

A Different Kind of Revolution

Culmination of a Marxian reading of history though it may be, Once Upon a Time in the West still ends optimistically and is hardly an overt condemnation of American capitalism found in other Italian Westerns. The Dollars Trilogy may well have turned the world of the American Western upside down, they may have linked capital with the forces of death, and they may have challenged traditional forms of authority and community in a way that would be appealing to 1960s counterculture, but Leone’s second transformative stage of capitalism showcases the values of amoral capitalism, untrustworthiness and a certain form of individualism which are hardly alien to emerging neoliberalism.

It is also perhaps significant that the optimistic and initially heavily-edited Once Upon a Time in the West was not the immediate success that the Dollars Trilogy was, and it was not until Vietnam was comfortably in the past and Reaganism was firmly in the ascendency that its reputation as a cinematic classic began to develop with an extended version released in 1984. And by the time the Westerns of Leone and Italian cinema were being showcased through relentless borrowing (just as Leone himself had done) from the 1990s onward, the radical leftist element of the violence was largely drained (as Austin Fisher discusses), though Tarantino’s Django Unchained arguably intensifies critique of a racist heritage. 


 A Bullet for the General

 Nevertheless, we might contrast two of the most obviously political Italian Westerns of the time: A Bullet for the General (1966; dir. Damiano Damiani) and Requiescant (1967; dir. Carlo Lizzani). Both films cover similar themes of death, revenge, money, and religion, and have considerably more prominent female roles among the fighters than would ever be found in a Leone film. Both films deal with the development of a country but this time Mexico and the ways the American involvement and capitalism, as well as the Mexican government and landowners, play their part, as the films side firmly with peons and peasants. Against Leone (and certain treatments of Mexico in American Westerns), these films use death to further the revolutionary cause, money is more closely associated with corrupt capitalists and imperialists rather than any virtue.

In both films there is an element of Christianity profaned through violence (e.g. the crucifixion on the railway line in A Bullet for the General or Ferguson [Mark Damon] effectively identifying himself with the God of the Bible in Requiescant) but Christianity can use the violence for revolutionary good. At the idealistic heart of both films are revolutionary priests, Santo (Klaus Kinski) and Don Juan (Pier Paolo Pasolini). In A Bullet for the General, Santo is the most hardened of revolutionaries, almost blindly loyal to the cause, and who believes that stolen weapons are being used for God’s work. He tells another priest that Christ sided with the poor and downtrodden and died between two bandits and so a good priest should be a violent revolutionary. He grenades the military in the name of the Father, Son, and Spirit (ending with an ‘Amen’) and, in place of poor prisoners, he puts their captors in a prison cell telling them that they will die slowly and can take the time to think about forgiveness of their sins. He too asks for forgiveness for shedding blood but accepts its necessity in the interim.


Requiescant (Lou Castell), in the film of the same name, follows a familiar path of developing political awareness but the Bible itself is on this path. Brought up by a non-violent preacher, Requiescant embarks on a mission to find his half-sister Princy (Barbara Frey) and the Bible (both physical and in quotation) justifies his actions, accompanies him in his fights, and even protects him from a bullet. But it takes the commentary of Don Juan, beginning when Requiescant’s Bible lands at his feet, to reveal its full revolutionary potential. As Don Juan claims, this is The Book that will bring the people freedom. And in sharp contrast to Leone’s characters, Don Juan denounces individualist revenge and enjoyment of violence. Instead, he claims that violence is an unfortunate necessity in order to fight the Fergusons of this world who will steal their land, and for justice and liberty. The endings of both films make for a sharp contrast with Once Upon a Time in the West: rather than the backdrop of the boomtown of Sweetwater, we get peasants tilling the land as the backdrop of the freedom fighters riding off to fight for the cause (Requiescant) and Bill Tate (Lou Castell)—the gringo assassin of the revolutionary leader, Elias (Jaime Fernández)—is shot dead and sent packing on a train back to the land deemed to put a price on everything: America.

By the time of Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone had become enamoured with the romance of the American West, before moving on to a jaded view of revolution in Duck, You Sucker! Nevertheless, revolutionary Christianity is not entirely overturned in Leone’s deconstruction of the Zapata Western in Duck, You Sucker!, and John/Sean (James Coburn) returns to Juan (Rod Steiger) the cross that he previously ripped from his neck as his new life as a revolutionary general-in-the-making (albeit an accidental and reluctant one) is confirmed, in place of his previous worship of (robbing) the bank at Mesa Verde. Once upon a time this West was full of radicals but like (partly because of?) Leone’s overarching narrative, they have become a thing of the distant past.

But if ever there were a time in recent decades for a return of a more radical past, one that goes beyond contemporary Hollywood in its criticism of bad capitalists in the name of good capitalism, is it not now, as the validity of the assumptions of neoliberalism is being challenged like never before?