Reviewed by Gerry Donaghy
One of this summer's most curious films was Quentin Tarantino's Inglourious Basterds, which the trailers depicted as a straightforward Dirty Dozen (maybe Kelly's Heroes would be a better comparison) type picture, but can in fact be best described as a Spaghetti Western populated with Nazis -- substituting a suave Nazi for Lee Van Cleef's ruthless killer, hidden Jews for missing Confederate gold, and setting it all to a soundtrack by Ennio Morricone. (One could also call it a meditation on the power of cinema, a thank-you letter to the French for their appreciation of the auteur, or a kosher snuff film, but I digress.)
Whether you buy into QT's cinematic bouillabaisse (steeped specifically in the films of Sergio Leone) or not, there is no denying that long past the genre's heyday, an apotheosis arguably reached in 1968 with Leone's Once upon a Time in the West, Spaghetti Westerns continue to fascinate and influence viewers and filmmakers alike.
One such filmmaker is Alex Cox, director of Repo Man and Sid and Nancy. In 1987 he made his own Spaghetti Western pastiche Straight to Hell, and, more recently, has written an assessment of the genre in 10,000 Ways to Die. To this task, Cox brings a lifelong appreciation of all Westerns, as well as experience behind the camera, both of which give him a unique perspective to the genre.
Instead of going for the academic approach (such as that typically exercised by film scholar Christopher Frayling), or exhaustively thorough (see Howard Hughes's Once upon a Time in the Italian West), Cox takes a more cut-and-dried approach, presenting a chronological listing of films, cast and crew, and synopses, along with his critical appraisals. This more laid back style frees Cox to give his opinion and to point out shortcomings while finding enjoyment in these films that were dismissed as vulgar trash when first released (one critic, on Fistful of Dollars, wrote that "Brutality is piled unskillfully on brutality in what appears to be a blatant plea for the X-certificate the censor has awarded it.").
Cox's critical writings here are relaxed and conversational (even in his footnotes), and free from unnecessary jargon or posturing. What's appealing is that he contextualizes the films within the conventions of the genre, not in the larger scheme of cinema and its aesthetics. And Cox is not afraid to dissect what is good, bad, and ugly about a given film. When writing about $1,000 on the Black, he declares that it is a "Western of the highest order. It's visually stylish, bursting with effort, almost". A page or two later, however, he has not so many kind words for the film's heroic lead, played by Anthony Steffen, saying he "is not particularly strong or engaging. He's good in fistfights, but boring the rest of the time. He's literally wooden." (Things don't get better for Steffen. When examining a subsequent film he starred in, Cox writes, "Given its solid, uninteresting director and its routine leading man, Django the Bastard, is an extraordinary film").
What is most enjoyable about the book is that one gets the feeling that, for Cox, Sergio Leone is not the end-all-be-all in Spaghetti Westerns (notice the absence of "Squint" Eastwood on the cover). Here, Cox shines a loving light on two masters of the genre, Sergio Corbucci and Giulio Questi who directed some of the most explosive films in the canon: Django and The Big Silence (Corbucci) and Django Kill: If You Live, Shoot! (Questi -- the only Western he ever directed). Imagine the bloodless Westerns of John Ford filtered through an acid-tinged Grand Guignol spectacle. These were films where the villain isn't dispatched in a gunfight, he's burned alive while being drizzled with molten gold, and a hero drags a casket behind him through the mud. It's not that these are neglected directors; it's just that Cox's reverence for them is more palpable in this book than in other writings on the subject.
Ten Thousand Ways to Die is a welcome addition to the relatively small body of work (in English) on Spaghetti Westerns, not only serving as an exceptionally well-informed and accessible primer on the subject, but also providing some intimate insight to Cox's own creative processes by revealing the passions that inform his own films.
Books mentioned in this post