Sergio Leone is a filmmaker who sits uneasily in the canon of ‘great’ directors. As an Italian best known for making European Westerns, American critics have generally regarded his contributions to the genre with suspicion or outright contempt. Conversely, Leone was too populist to ever be completely accepted, at least in English-speaking countries, as an ‘art house’ figure. He directed only seven films, of which six are generally considered ‘films by Sergio Leone’, his debut being a straight forward studio product from the Cinecittà production line. His most famous works are the films of the so-called ‘dollars-trilogy’: A Fistful of Dollars (1964), For a Few Dollars More (1965), and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966). All of these star Clint Eastwood, are extremely violent, and enjoyed great box-office success. None of his last three films were huge money-earners, and his final work, Once Upon a Time in America (1984), was butchered by his American backers when released in the United States. Despite the fact that his stylistic flourishes have now become shorthand for ‘the West’ in countless television commercials and Hollywood movies, his enormous influence on the Western has never been fully recognised in America. To this day, European Westerns are rarely even mentioned in English-language considerations of the genre. To understand why this is so, it is necessary not only to understand something of Leone’s background, but the particular manner in which this background coloured his inflection of American genre conventions.
Leone came from a family with roots deep in the Italian film industry. His mother, Edvige Valcarenghi (stage name Bice Walerian), was a silent movie actress who gave up her profession when she married Vincenzo Leone in 1916. Vincenzo (stage name Roberto Roberti) directed and acted in films during the silent era, but for reasons that are not entirely clear he was prevented from working during the 1930s by Italy’s Fascist regime. (1) He did manage to direct three films between 1939 and 1945, although the last of these was not released until 1951. (2) Vincenzo tried to discourage his son from entering the world of cinema, and Sergio briefly studied law before working as an unpaid fifth assistant on Vittorio De Sica’s The Bicycle Thief in 1948. Sergio also appears fleetingly in the film, as part of a group of German priests sheltering from the rain. (3)
Despite this beginning in the world of Neo-Realism, it was in the highly commercial realm of Cinecittà studio production that Leone was to receive his training over the next decade. By his own reckoning, he worked on about 50 Italian and American films in the 1950s, mainly as an assistant director. Hollywood productions flocked to Rome during this period to utilise the cheap facilities and use up local profits from American films, which Italian law demanded be spent within Italy. Leone’s credits from this time include Robert Wise’s Helen of Troy (1955), William Wyler’s remake of Ben-Hur (1959) and Fred Zinnemann’s The Nun’s Story (1959).
Leone’s first directorial effort came in 1959, when he stepped in to finish The Last Days of Pompeii for his aging mentor Mario Bonnard. The film was released under Bonnard’s name, but its box-office success in Italy allowed Leone to take his first directorial credit with The Colossus of Rhodes in 1960. It seems Leone never regarded these projects as anything more than workaday jobs, and he later claimed he made The Colossus of Rhodes simply to pay for a honeymoon in Spain. (4)
By 1963, the Italian industry was experiencing a sharp downturn as ticket sales dropped and the Hollywood studios withdrew in the wake of such catastrophic financial failures as Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963). Sergio Leone is often credited with starting the European Western craze that saved Cinecittà at this time, and it’s true that when Kurosawa’s samurai film Yojimbo (1961) was released in Rome, Leone immediately recognised the potential for a Western remake. The idea did not, however, come from nowhere. Leone was able to find backing for the project primarily due to the success of a series of German Westerns based on Karl May’s pulp-fiction novels about Winnetou, last of the Mescalero Apache, and his blood-brother, ‘Old Shatterhand’. The first of the Winnetou films, The Treasure of Silver Lake (Harald Reinl, 1962), was a phenomenal success across Europe, and a further 11 Westerns based on May’s books were produced between 1962 and 1968. (5) Several cheap Westerns came out of Spain in the wake of the first Winnetou films, and Leone’s Yojimbo remake, A Fistful of Dollars, was actually made on the back of another bigger-budget Western entitled Pistols Don’t Argue (Mario Caiano, 1964), shot concurrently using the same Spanish locations. (6)
In contrast to the Euro-Westerns that preceded it however, it was clear right from the opening credits of A Fistful of Dollars that Leone wasn’t interested in simply imitating American Western conventions. The film opens with a hazy white spot on a blood-red screen, creating an almost psychedelic effect and immediately setting the tone for Leone’s fantasy vision, with one foot in history and the other in Hollywood dreams. The title sequence resounds to the sound of gun-shots and Ennio Morricone’s distinctive music, strikingly different to the orchestral scores and hokey renditions of folk songs that had characterised the soundtracks of American Westerns up to that time. Ironically, Leone had initially resisted hiring Morricone, and only met with the composer at the behest of his producers. Despite the fact that they had been at school together, Leone considered Morricone’s score to an earlier Western, Gunfight at Red Sands (Ricardo Blasco, 1963) to be boring and derivative. Morricone won him over by concurring with this opinion, claiming the producers had commissioned a pale imitation of American scores. (7) His collaboration with Leone was an altogether more fulfilling affair, and Morricone went on to cement one of the most fruitful composer-director partnerships in the history of cinema by scoring all of Leone’s subsequent films. Drawing on sound-effect experiments he had been conducting since attending a seminar run by the American avant-garde composer John Cage in 1958, Morricone incorporated gunshots, cannon fire, whip-cracks, chanting, whistling and watch-chimes into his soundtracks for Leone’s first three Westerns. The attention-grabbing music proved an ideal complement to Leone’s baroque imagery and playful use of genre iconography.
Several other distinctive elements of Leone’s approach are apparent from the opening scene of A Fistful of Dollars. The film begins with Clint Eastwood’s character approaching a well in a sun-baked landscape of harsh light and white-washed stone buildings. Whereas many Spaghetti Westerns sought to make their Spanish locations look as much like the American-Mexican border region as possible, Leone’s expansive wide-screen vistas highlight the landscape’s slightly alien feel, creating a setting that certainly doesn’t look European, but doesn’t quite look American either. Leone was a great admirer of surrealist art, and it is perhaps no coincidence that the Spanish locations of his Westerns are the same arid dreamscapes Salvador Dali employed in many of his nightmarish images of the 1930s. Leone was to later comment that the cinematographer Tonino Delli Colli filmed the desert sequence in The Good, the Bad and the Ugly “in a way that was worthy of the great surrealist painters.” (8)
In his first three Westerns, Leone introduced into this landscape an array of grotesque characters with faces as weather-beaten as the countryside they rode through. Leone played up the traditional unshaven image of the Western villain, filling his films with an array of bearded, over-the-top Italian actors who leered at the camera and laughed with sweaty abandon at their frequent acts of sadistic violence. Their histrionics formed the perfect counterpoint to the restraint Leone elicited from his American actors such as Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef, cultivating an icy screen presence in the Americans that had only been hinted at in their previous roles.
Clint Eastwood was known mainly as a ‘TV cowboy’ from the Rawhide series when Leone signed him up for $15,000 to star in the first ‘dollars’ film. His original choice had been Henry Fonda, followed by Charles Bronson and James Coburn. Fonda and Bronson turned him down flat, while Coburn proved too expensive for the low-budget production. Leone reluctantly agreed to sign Eastwood after viewing an episode of Rawhide in Rome. (9) A Fistful of Dollars made Eastwood an instant star in Europe, a status he was not to achieve for several more years in America. Eastwood went on to co-star in Leone’s next two features, developing a persona that by The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was perfectly balanced between detached ruthlessness and sardonic humour.
Leone’s films similarly made Lee Van Cleef a major star in Italy, resurrecting an acting career that had never risen above playing villainous bit parts in American films of the 1950s. After appearing alongside Eastwood in For a Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, Van Cleef went on to make another ten Italian Westerns.(10)
Leone’s most startling use of an American actor was in his fourth Western, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968). Financial backing from Paramount allowed Leone to fulfil his long-held ambition to work with Henry Fonda. Leone transformed the traditionally clean-shaven hero of American cinema into a blue-eyed child killer of ruthless ambition.
Adrian Martin has described all of Leone’s films as “odes to the human face”, and the director delighted in alternating between stunning wide-screen panoramas and extreme close-ups of his actors’ faces and eyes, often within the same shot. (11) The opening of The Good, the Bad and the Ugly is a classic example of this effect, as an apparently empty countryside is suddenly blocked out by a grimy, wizened face swinging up into frame. Appropriately, the final image of Leone’s last film is the face of Robert De Niro filling the screen, shot through hazy black netting as he descends into opium bliss.
The unique style Leone displayed from the opening moments of A Fistful of Dollars made an immediate impact on Italian audiences, and his first three Westerns were huge hits across Europe. They were released in quick succession between February 1967 and January 1968 in the United States, to box-office success and general critical panning. Many reviews echoed David McGillivray’s assessment in Films and Filming, that the European Westerns were “nothing more than cold-blooded attempts at sterile emulation.” (12) It was not until the 1970s that any serious re-evaluation of Leone’s work occurred in English-speaking countries. Christopher Frayling’s 1981 book Spaghetti Westerns played a major part in this reassessment, although as already noted, European films are still largely ignored in American discussions of the Western genre.
Frayling argues that Leone’s work should be considered in the context of the ‘critical cinema’ produced by filmmakers such as Chabrol, Bertolucci and Pasolini in the late 1960s and early ’70s. (13) Especially in Once Upon a Time in the West, Leone self-consciously evokes the themes, characters and settings of the American Western, divorcing these elements from their ideological and historical base in order to consider aspects of frontier history and mythology that Hollywood studio products had evaded or ignored. Leone’s explicit employment of reflexive genre clichés in Once Upon a Time in the West, and again in his final film, Once Upon a Time in America, would seem to cast him as a trail-blazing post-modernist, but there is an important difference between Leone’s referential system and the ‘blank irony’ that Frederic Jameson identified as being cental to a post-modern aesthetic. (14) Leone has a profound emotional and intellectual investment in the cinematic mythologies he explores, however compromised and clichéd these mythologies may have become. Thus, as his films become increasingly self-conscious about the ‘lost’ classical American filmic tradition they are drawing on, they start to exhibit a meditative, melancholic quality that is completely absent from the energetic exuberance of the dollars trilogy. Adrian Martin admirably summed up this aspect of Leone’s later work in his book on Once Upon a Time in America:
It was as if, for Leone, such disembodied ‘quotations’ – if they could be made to retain their mythic intensity and potency – might provide a kind of catharsis or ecstasy for modern-day cinephiles pining over their precious ‘lost object’. That is why, finally, form can never be ‘pure’ in Leone’s work: at stake in it is a psychic investment, a whole elaborate machine of selfhood, culture and longing…(15)
In this sense, Leone’s films are above all about living with the image of ‘America’, but never being American. His films form a small but potent body of work that may be read as an extended celebration, interrogation and finally mourning of the myths underlaying 20th century American cinema, as seen from afar. From his first Western, Leone’s films revolved around a vision of America as a ubiquitous cultural presence always seen from a distance, through the image. An image that is thrilling, violent, extreme, repulsive, and often ridiculous.
The source material for Once Upon a Time in America is indicative in this regard. The film is based on The Hoods, a 1952 autobiographical account of criminal life during Prohibition. The author, an ex-gangster writing under the non de plum Harry Grey, had set out to counter the glamorised Hollywood vision of the era. What fascinated Leone was the fact that Grey’s writing was steeped in the very Hollywood clichés he claimed to be combating, as if it were impossible for the writer to separate his memories from the movies. (16)
In a similar (though obviously more reflexive) manner, Leone creates a world in his films rooted in historical detail, but refracted through the looking-glass of Hollywood movies. The closer Leone’s films came to contemporary America, the more explicitly abstract they became, and the more his vision appeared as a hallucination, dragged up from our collective cinematic unconscious.
Leone’s investment in Hollywood dreams stretched back to his childhood growing up in Mussolini’s Rome. He was obsessed with American movies and stars such as Errol Flynn and Gary Cooper, and after the entry of America into the war in 1941, its cultural products gained the added allure of ‘forbidden fruit’. In this context, Leone’s first contact with American soldiers following the invasion of Italy from 1943 came as something of a shock. He later remarked:
In my childhood, America was like a religion…Then, real-life Americans abruptly entered my life – in jeeps – and upset all my dreams…I found them very energetic, but also very deceptive. They were no longer the Americans of the West. They were soldiers like any others…materialists, possessive, keen on pleasures and earthly goods. (17)
This disjunction between American mythology and the reality of America crucially informs all Leone’s work. His films are essentially about what America means to those who have never seen America except through its cinema – for those millions in the world who grow up with a displaced sense of being part of a nation that has no consciousness of its part in them. Towards the end of his life Leone commented; “I can’t see America any other way than with a European’s eyes, obviously; it fascinates me and terrifies me at the same time.” (18) For Europeans of Leone’s generation, growing up in a post-war continent being rebuilt with US dollars and politically determined by US foreign policy, the experience of dreaming American dreams while resenting the reality of American domination was particularly acute.
This divided relationship with the United States, equal parts derision and longing, love and resentment, perhaps helps explain the difficulty American critics have had in coming to terms with Leone’s work. David Thomson’s perfunctory and dismissive entry on Leone in his Biographical Dictionary of Film is typical of the critical reaction to Leone’s films since the 1960s: “I think Leone really despised the Western…we never feel we’re in America or with people who think in American. He makes fun of the very mythology and obsession that underlie film art”. (19) At a Festival in 1981, one of Leone’s American stars, James Coburn, defended the Italian against oft-repeated charges of ‘disrespect’ for the Western genre with the motion “let’s hear it for irreverence.” (20) Yet both these assessments miss the deep sense of ambivalence that informs Leone’s relationship to America and the mythology upon which that country is built.
Especially in the ‘dollars’ trilogy, Leone distilled Hollywood Western mythology down to its most base and alluring elements, taking the promise of total untrammelled freedom to its logical extreme. The West in his hands became a mythical landscape where a man could reach beyond the pall of civilisation to a fantastical space where enrichment depended on one’s skill with a gun and ability to deceive an opponent. Hollywood Westerns had always invoked this dream of pure freedom only to subsume it by film’s end under the sheen of domestic white ‘civilisation’. Leone, in contrast, dared to embrace the dream wholeheartedly, and in doing so reached into the dark heart of the American capitalist ethos, constructing a savage vision of the West that American critics found largely unpalatable. Not because it was false, but because it spoke a certain truth about American mythology undiluted by the rhetorical tropes of ‘civilisation’, ‘justice’ and ‘manifest destiny’. Leone portrayed an America stripped of all rhetoric beyond that of burning self-interest and murderous individualism. For all their historical liberties, Leone’s films seem to embody certain essential truths regarding the illicit appeal of American foundational mythology in a way that few, if any, American movies have ever done. As Christopher Frayling noted in his ground-breaking study of the Spaghetti Western phenomenon, “Leone’s films contain no universal moral messages (as many Hollywood Westerns have claimed to), and his heroes are not intended to set an example for today.” (21) Instead, Leone’s camera celebrates the visceral energy of America’s mythology of violent individualism while remaining coolly ambivalent about its morality. His West is the savagery of the frontier without the posthumous, self-justifying liberal veneer with which American films of the classic era liked to coat it.
Although ambivalent regarding American notions of freedom and progress, Leone was equally suspicious of the left-wing politics embraced by many European filmmakers of the late 1960s. His 1971 film Duck, You Sucker is set during the Mexican revolution, and can be seen as a rejoinder to some of the more overtly left-wing Italian Westerns of the period, such as A Bullet for the General (Damiano Damiani, 1966). While Leone’s film doesn’t condemn revolutionary politics outright, it refrains from the unambiguous endorsement of violent political activity seen in many Italian Westerns set in revolutionary Mexico. Originally Leone had intended only to produce Duck, You Sucker, and his decision to take over directing the film several days after shooting had commenced possibly contributed to its slightly uneven quality. Despite this, it does feature some of Leone’s most affecting set-pieces, especially in the scenes depicting mass executions during the revolution.
Leone dedicated most of the 1970s to preparing Once Upon a Time in America. The strain of shooting the film in 1982-83 worsened an already serious heart condition, and the legal battle he endured with the studio in trying to preserve the film’s 228 minute running time further eroded his health. Despite his efforts, the Ladd Company excised 84 minutes from the film, and re-edited the carefully constructed cross-cutting between three different time zones into a nonsensical chronological narrative. Thankfully, Leone’s original cut is available on video.
Since his death in 1989, Leone’s films have become something of a template for directors wishing to imbue their self-conscious use of genre iconography with a sense of dream-like nostalgia for imaginary lost times. But few filmmakers have matched Leone’s skill at deconstructing Hollywood dreams while at the same time retaining a melancholy longing for their revalidation. Although he remains a controversial figure in critical circles, his stylistic influence is everywhere in ’90s American cinema, from Back to the Future Part III (Robert Zemeckis, 1990) to the work of Quentin Tarantino and his associate Robert Rodriguez. Leone-like imagery and Morricone-sounding scores have formed the basis of countless television commercials – surely the final proof that his stylistic traits are now firmly entrenched in the lexicon of cinematic clichés. His Spanish-flavoured images of the Western frontier, dramatic flourishes and prolonged pauses have become a thoroughly internalised part of the Western genre’s iconography. The Leone style, some forty years after he made his first Western, has become absorbed into the same mythology of twentieth century cinema to which so much of his work was devoted to exploring.
The Colossus of Rhodes (Il Colosso di Rodi) (1960)
A Fistful of Dollars (Per un pugno di dollari) (1964)
For a Few Dollars More (Per qualche dollaro in più) (1965)
The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (Il buono, Il brutto, Il cattivo) (1966)
Once Upon a Time in the West (C’era una volta il West) (1968)
Duck, You Sucker (A Fistful of Dynamite) (Giù la testa) (1971)
Once Upon a Time in America (C’era una volta in America) (1984)
Cumbow, Robert C., Once Upon a Time: The Films of Sergio Leone, The Scarecrow Press, London, 1987
De Fornari, Oreste, Sergio Leone – The Great Italian Dream of Legendary America (translated from the Italian by Charles Nopar), Gremese, Rome, 1997
Frayling, Christopher, Sergio Leone – Something to Do With Death, Faber and Faber, London and New York, 2000
_________________, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (revised edition), IB Tauris & Co. Ltd, London and New York, 1998
Martin, Adrian, Once Upon a Time in America, BFI Publishing, London, 1998
Staig, Laurence and Williams, Tony, Italian Western – The Opera of Violence, Lorrimer, London, 1975
Weisser, Thoma, Spaghetti Westerns – the Good, the Bad and the Violent: A Comprehensive, Illustrated Filmography of 558 Eurowesterns and Their Personnel, 1961-1977, McFarland & Company Inc. Publishers, USA, 1992
Unfortunately, the vast majority of material on Sergio Leone is in Italian and remains untranslated. Christopher Frayling’s excellent biography of Leone, listed above, is extensively referenced and contains a fairly comprehensive bibliography. His earlier book on Spaghetti Westerns contains a very comprehensive bibliography of writings on the subject in English and other languages.
Compiled by author and Albert Fung
The Sergio Leone Homepage
A fan site written in slightly dubious English by a Leone aficionado called Cenk Kiral. It contains a wealth of useful and entertaining information. Among other things, there is an extensive interview with Christopher Frayling conducted just before he published his biography of Leone, and an hilarious essay on a Kiral’s visit to Spain in search of Leone locations.
Contains a full list of Sergio Leone videos, DVDs, and books currently available. Also has a brief and not entirely accurate biography.
The Dollars Trilogy
Dedicated to the ‘dollars trilogy’. Although some parts of the site are under construction.
Film Directotors: Articles on the Internet
Links to several articles on Leone here. Just scroll down.
Click here to search for Sergio Leone DVDs, videos and books at
- Sergio Leone claimed that his father was placed under house arrest in the early 1940s, but Christopher Frayling questions this assertion in Sergio Leone – Something to Do With Death, Faber and Faber, London and New York, 2000, pp.38-40
- Ibid, pp.41-43
- Ibid, pp.49-50
- De Fornari, Oreste, Sergio Leone – The Great Italian Dream of Legendary America (translated from the Italian by Charles Nopar), Gremese, Rome, 1997, p.15
- Schneider, Tassilo, “Finding a New Heimat in the Wild West: Karl May and the German Western of the 1960s”, in Buscombe, Edward and Pearson, Roberta E. (eds), Back in the Saddle Again: New Essays on the Western, BFI Publishing, London, 1998, p.141. Interestingly, the music for The Treasure of Silver Lake was the first soundtrack to a German film ever released as an album.
- Christopher Frayling, Sergio Leone, op. cit. p.131
- Ibid, p.151
- Sergio Leone quoted in ibid, p.231. According to Frayling, Leone collected surrealist art from the late 1950s, but began purchasing paintings in earnest in the mid-1960s. His favourite Surrealist artist was Giorgio De Chirico.
- Ibid, pp.134-135
- Ibid, p.185
- Martin, Adrian, Once Upon a Time in America, BFI Publishing, London, 1998, p.71
- Quoted in Frayling, Christopher, Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone (revised edition), IB Tauris & Co. Ltd., London & New York, 1998, p.121 (originally published 1981)
- Ibid, pp.136-137
- Jameson, Frederic, “Postmodernism and Consumer Society”, in Foster, Hal (ed.), The Anti-Aesthetic, Bay Press, Seattle, 1983, p.114
- Martin, Adrian, Once Upon a Time in America, op. cit. p.13
- Frayling, Christopher, Sergio Leone, op. cit. p.242
- Ibid, p.23
- Sergio Leone interviewed by Elaine Lomenzo, “A Fable for Adults”, Film Comment, Vol. 20, Issue 4 (July/August 1984), p.22
- Thomson, David, A Biographical Dictionary of Film (revised and enlarged edition), Andre Deutsch, London, 1994, p.438
- Frayling, Christopher, Sergio Leone, op. cit. p.491
- Frayling, Christopher, Spaghetti Westerns, op. cit. p.191