I was born in the Sonoran Desert, an hour north of the border between Arizona and Mexico. My grandfather, a cattleman from Texas, was incredibly fond of Sergio Leone’s Spaghetti Westerns, often aired as Sunday movies on our local television network. We’d drink iced tea under the ceiling fan and watch a replica of our wind-torn and operatic horizon on a 12-inch black and white screen. Trains. Agave. Adobe. It was the landscape of my early world.
The Dollars Trilogy was produced in Cinecittà Studios in Rome, Italy, the place of Leone’s birth. His father was a film director and an avid art collector, and his mother was a silent film actress. His parent’s passions and professions influenced his use of gestures and eye for framing an image. The films were made in Italy and Spain, and Leone was known for the uncanny effect of his close-up and wide-angle camera shots. The long shadow, the chin and hat brim, eyes, a horse’s dust were the images he narrated to himself before fleshing out his characters and storyline.
Leone said that his best dialogue and screenwriter was the great composer Ennio Morricone, who wrote the soundtracks to all of Leone’s films following A Fistful of Dollars. Morricone scored Leone’s films at embryonic points in the script’s development, allowing Leone to realise the story around the images and music, so visuals and sound were the directives of character and setting.
The Dollars Trilogy did not have the budget for a full orchestra, so Morricone, true to his reputation for diverse arrangements and instrumentation, used harps, piccolos, cracking whips, gunshots, church organs, a choir, an electric guitar, and whistling. The music emphasised the scenes and defined each character. It also mimicked recognizable desert sounds, creating a disquieting familiarity, much like the howl of a coyote can sound almost human. The tempo of each scene is punctuated by music or sound effects, like wind, spurs, or sawing, chosen to amplify the silence.
Leone, who had never learned English, would perform each scene for his actors, which gave the characters the nuance of an Italian. “Instinctively, Leone had taken the American Western hero, who was stiff and closed, and had imbued him with the ironic, rotten, clever, and daring traits of a Roman bully that lie unconscious in Sergio,” explains director Franco Giraldi. Leone, conscious of his actions or not, turned our idea of a cowboy into an anti-hero. And, because facts are not as transformative as ideas, our social psyche adopted his European landscapes as the visual narratives of the American Wild West.
The films capture the persona of the American West as presented inside the imagination of our culture, as well as the damaged, forgotten worlds of borderland places. Leone was able to reimagine the genre because he did not carry the narrative burden of the god-fearing ‘American dream.’ He used sound and image to illustrate an imagined frontier that rang close to the truth in soundscape and landscape. Consequently, Spaghetti Westerns mirror both the idea of frontier life and the actuality of living at the edge of recognized civilization. For an image to be iconic, it must perform the dual function of symbolising both the eternal and the attainable by becoming a relatable myth.
The myth of the American frontier lives like a wild heart in my country. It is the story that underpins our belief systems around justice, opportunity, and freedom and remains at the core of American social lore. However, myths survive because their lack of reality keeps them adaptable, so they often fall prey to ideology, and ideology is never without its violence. In The Dollars Trilogy, Leone directs the mythical alongside the realistic and shows the characters stripped of their moral gloss and the frontier in a raw, violent form.
The desert is full of violence—the violence of nature, elements, and human survival. Leone’s characterization of violence gives it a voice, complete with a soundtrack and body language, where savage conditions challenge our earthly understanding of a place where loyalty can exist without morality. Living conditions are shown realistically within their wretchedness, which puts the violence in proportion and keeps it from feeling overly heartless.
Every anti-hero in a Spaghetti Western is searching for something lost, money or dignity, and must invent a new form of justice to find it. The folklore of the outcast resonates because it allows our rejected part to win. Ultimately, I think my grandfather connected to the idea that an anti-hero like himself might win. My grandfather’s body was poisoned by insecticide, and my father was a Vietnam veteran. There was no place for them in contemporary society. The desert mapped the harsh reality of their mental terrain and became the providence of those who live beyond the romance of nations and understand wrongful deaths. Redemption for the outcast has a cultural crossover and knows no border.
All great films exist as repositories of time and work in the way that memory works, seizing moments where we relinquish our censored selves and surrender to fate, love, or disease. History doesn’t remember the mundane years, instead uses story, image, and myth to sculpt the timeline of our lives.
In one of my favourite childhood photographs, I’m sitting with a bucket, spade, and sunhat in the shade of a dune with Lobo, the half-wolf, half-mutt puppy my father had rescued from poachers. Often, we would drive our jeep into Mexico, where my father, an archaeologist, would dig for remnants of past civilizations. In the same way, returning to The Dollars Trilogy after all these years has found me excavating a poignant truth about my history; all the questions I should have asked my grandfather are locked inside the few images of him that remain. The senses and visuals keep an accurate record of time and reattach our stories to the present when much of the past has been forgotten. And, if memory is the dynamic landscape of our individual consciousness, then undoubtedly, the film medium is the dynamic landscape of our social consciousness. I am confident Sergio Leone would agree.