Western Mythologies

Some directors are made to be seen on the big screen. Sergio Leone is one such filmmaker. The Italian auteur, who is being granted a welcome retrospective this month at London’s BFI Southbank, only made a handful of films, but all merit being seen – whether for the first time or a repeat viewing – in the best conditions possible. Leone, who practically invented the Spaghetti western, understood the power of image and sound like few other filmmakers.

This mini-season takes in the “Dollars” trilogy, the trio of westerns that turned Clint Eastwood into a star with his taciturn “Man With No Name” character, that began with A Fistful of Dollars (1964), continued with A Few Dollars More (1965) and concluded with The Good, The Bad and The Ugly (1966), pitting Eastwood with Lee Van Cleef and Eli Wallach in an epic tale of gun-slinging and double-crossing amid the American Civil War.

With all three featuring sumptuous scores by Leone’s regular composer Ennio Morricone, if you only have time for one, better make it The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. It features arguably the greatest finale in the history of cinema, a Mexican standoff in a graveyard that begins to Morricone’s triumphant clarion call, ‘Ecstasy of Gold’. So compelling is the sequence, metal band Metallica come on stage to it in every gig they play.

Two other westerns feature, the extraordinary Once Upon a Time in the West (1968) with Henry Fonda, Charles Bronson and Jason Robards. The opening, an evocative dialogue-free sequence set at a run-down train station, is worth the ticket price alone (Paul Thomas Anderson surely borrowed it for his curtain-raising scene in There Will Be Blood). There is also the rarely-seen A Fistful of Dynamite (1971), a Mexican Revolution-set tale also known under the brilliantly evocative title Duck, You Sucker!

Leone truly saved the best until last, though, with Once Upon a Time in America (1984). Made after a fifteen year hiatus, this time-spanning gangster epic was butchered upon release in the US, but thankfully the BFI is showing the 255 minute version. Starring Robert De Niro, James Woods and Joe Pesci, not to mention another haunting Morricone score, it’s every bit as influential as Coppola’s Godfather trilogy. Like all his movies, it’s unmissable on the big screen.

James Mottram

The Sergio Leone season runs until 29 April at the BFI Southbank. For more details, click here.

1.Sergio Leone Once Upon a Time in the West Film location.