(The following piece will likely only make sense to those familiar with the six major films of Sergio Leone, but then maybe. I urge the reader to watch A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America as they constitute one of the most exciting and interesting bodies of work in cinema. Most movie buffs are familiar with some of these titles, especially The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which has long been a staple on TV and Cable. But Once Upon a Time in America and especially Duck You Sucker may still be obscure titles to most Americans, an injustice that needs rectifying. Look for them on DVD. Better yet, if you live in a big city or college town, look for special screenings of Leone classics.)
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly begins with grim-faced gunmen–a lone man and a pair of men– solemnly and anxiously walking toward one another in what looks to be a windswept deserted ramshackle town. The only human objects in our view, they seem to be readying for a showdown. But when they finally come to a stop and grab for their guns, they team up and barge into what seems like an empty restaurant. We hear gunshots, and crashing through the window is the bandit Tuco. It turns out the men were bounty hunters after the reward on Tuco’s head. In the next scene, we see Tuco fall off a horse shot by another bunch of bounty hunters. Then, Blondie(Eastwood), yet another bounty hunter, appears out of the blue and challenges themen to a shoot-out for Tuco’s bounty. Blondie kills the men and then takes the hysterical Tuco to the authorities to collect the money. Just before Tuco is hanged, Blondie cuts the rope with his superb skills as a rifleman, and the two ride off together to share the reward money. They repeat this over and over until, at one point, Blondie decides to keep all the money to himself and leave Tuco tied up and stranded in the middle of a desert.
The opening scenes of The Good, the Bad, and Ugly forebode what happens throughout the movie. We first see three gunmen in the first scene, and the story turns out to be about three killers–Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes. We see the uneasy alliances among the three men–united only to kill Tuco–, and indeed there’s no love or trust lost among Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes, even when they work closely side by side. It all comes down to gold, the money. Your ‘friend’ today can be your enemy tomorrow, and betrayal is the game of life. A clear distinction between the law and criminality is lacking. And though Leone films are mainly vehicles for entertainment, they do offer an amusing and cold-eyed view of the machinations of power in society and around the world. What follows is a consideration of the power politics of the films of Sergio Leone.
The films of Sergio Leone can be appreciated for style, action, violence, nihilism, etc. What I’m interested here is the political philosophy of Leone films. This may seem ridiculous given that Leone’s films are myths than reality about American history. They are indeed myths built upon myths–Italian-ized myths of Hollywood myths. One shouldn’t consult a Leone film to learn about the real history of the American West(Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West), Mexican Revolution(Duck You Sucker), or Jewish gangsters(Once Upon a Time in America). Leone grew up in the world of movies and filmmaking. He devoured celluloid like spaghetti and became the master chef of variations on Hollywood styles and themes. We needn’t take the historical allusions in Leone’s films too seriously either. It’s been said that the POW camp and the big battle scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were meant as allusions to, respectively, the Holocaust and trench warfare of World War I, but they seem out-of-place and even offensive within the context of action filmmaking whose main concerns are entertainment and fashionable nihilism.
Even so, Leone’s mythic take on history wasn’t necessarily any more false than the history found in most films, especially from Hollywood. Cecil B. DeMille could even be considered a precursor of sorts. And even a filmmaker as great and intelligent as Sergei Eisenstein gave us myths than accurate accounts of history. Alexander Nevsky and Ivan the Terrible shouldn’t be mistaken for real history. If Leone’s attempts at moral statement tended to seem more dubious, it owed something to the main thrust of his movies where little mattered beyond power and money.
What interests me about Leone westerns from a political-philosophical angle is not what they present in terms of historical reality but what they suggest in terms of human nature and the gamesmanship of power–trust, deceit, conflict, and diplomacy. If Niccolo Machiavelli had been a filmmaker, he might have made something like Leone movies. Every Leone film is about the struggle and psychology of power. Leone’s first major film was A Fistful of Dollars, based on Yojimbo by Akira Kurosawa. Though it has long been a truism(still perpetuated by ignoramuses today) the traditional western was about simple good vs evil and finally gained a measure of complexity only with the arrival of Sam Fuller(Forth Guns), Nicholas Ray(Johnny Guitar), Arthur Penn(Left Handed Gun), and Sam Peckinpah(Wild Bunch), most people who know westerns know that the genre was never a simple morality tale of light vs darkness. A film like My Darling Clementine has a lot of grey areas, and this was true of countless other westerns of the 1930s, 1940s, and the 1950s.
Nevertheless, it is true enough that moral concerns, no matter how grey or complicated, were central to western movies. Because the story of the American West was about the most advanced people on Earth confronting the wilderness–Indian savages, wild animals, rugged terrain, etc–, the moral dynamic of survival tended to be elemental. When a bear is about to claw your behind, you think in stark terms of live or die. When Indians circle your homestead, it becomes a matter of kill or be killed.
Also, the western movie dwelt on the conflict within the soul of the white man in the expanse of newfound freedom. The vastness of the Wild West reawakened the ‘anarchic’ or ‘pagan’ spirit, an essence that favored wits and raw power over law and order. Thus, many westerns conclude with a final battle between the forces of law & order(community values) and forces of unfettered outlaw freedom.
But the western has always been morally ambiguous because one of its main attractions– the love of wide open spaces, pristine nature, fresh air, adventure, and freedom–was often at odds with the civilizational values the heroes fought and even died for. The Indian could be a deadly threat but also the ideal of the noble savage living in harmony with the timeless and sacred nature–like Germanic pagans(romanticized in the 19th century by Wagner and nationalist painters) prior to the spread of Roman and Christian values. If the stark moralism of most earlier Westerns tended to portray Indian as the red menace or savages, there were a fair number of westerns that recognized or romanticized(or fantasized)the finer qualities of the red man(which were later inflated to ludicrous proportions in hokey films like Dances with Wolves.)
The coming of civilization could be good for women and children, but it could also be castrating to the men. Also, civilization didn’t necessarily mean law & order but machine politics and corruption. Take a movie like The Searchers or The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance at whose center is the ambiguous hero. In both, John Wayne plays a rugged manly character. His strength is raw, but he sides with the law, but the world of the law has no need for people like him. In a way, a wild man who sides with the law is digging his own grave. (In a way, that’s how the Jews took power from the Wasps. Wasps used the force necessary to create this country, but Jews used and manipulated the laws to cast the wasp aside and win the power–and the girl.)
John Wayne’s character in The Searchers hates Indians with great passion yet is in some ways more Indian than white; he has the heart of a nomad than a settler. He wants to fight and destroy Indians, but his worth as a man is defined by his violence. Like his arch enemy Scar, he’s a born warrior, and as such, an outsider even among white folks.
Though many westerns and anti-westerns are dark and complex, morality–grappling with right and wrong–is central to them. In some ways, the anti-westerns were even more moralistic than the traditional westerns. A modern western like Martin Ritt’s Hud calls into question the myth of individual freedom. Though the character of Hud(played by Paul Newman) is handsome, charming, and likable, he turns out to be a cheating lout. Another Newman western Hombre exposes civilized white people as heartless and hypocritical, petty and small-minded. Little Big Man deals with the issue of the ‘genocide’ of the Indians. Traditionalist or revisionist, conservative or liberal, American westerns have been, more or less, moralistic. If anything, the stuffy moralism of Clint Eastwood’s Unforgiven is heavy stuff. Though morally relativistic on some level, the film is deeply troubled by the absence of clear truths. It doesn’t embrace nihilism as an opportunity for unfettered fun and freedom(and indeed in some way, Eastwood was trying to come to terms with the nihilist films that made him a big star in the 60s and 70s.)
In contrast to the American western are the Italian Westerns of Sergio Leone. (Though over a thousand Italian westerns were made in the 1960s and early 1970s–and most of them took their cues from Leone’s style-oriented nihilism–, they varied greatly in quality and emphasis. Some were many times more brutal and sadistic than Leone’s films while others were leftist allegories or propaganda for the currently fashionable Marxist inspired Third World movements. Leone stood out from others not only in his unequaled talent as filmmaker but in his deep-rooted cynicism.) Spaghetti Westerns really have very little to do with morality, with concepts of good and evil. What little morality that exists is a matter of sentiment, pride bordering on vanity, or personal vendetta than a matter of right or wrong.
Christopher Frayling, the expert on Spaghetti Westerns, surmised that Japan and Europe were more eager to embrace a moral nihilism in the post-war era because they lost the war and were numbed by defeat and despair. Though US and UK too were deeply impacted by the horrors of WWII, they could at least take national and moral pride in their victory on the side of the Good Guys versus the Bad Guys–Nazi Germany, Fascist Italy, and militarist Japan. Americans were filled with righteous confidence following WWII–and only lost it gradually during the Cold War when the leftist Jews rubbed the white gentile nose in all sorts of guilt complexes. In contrast, Japanese and Italians emerged with little glory and honor. They were defeated peoples who had lost the illusion of their rightness. Italians had to face the fact that they had lived under(and even mindlessly supported) a fraudulent Fascist system for over 20 yrs. Japanese had to face the fact that the emperor was human after all and looked rather like a Tokyo shoeshine boy(especially when standing next to General MacArthur). This loss of innocence was both paralyzing and energizing. In a world without fixed truths and moral values, one could either embrace an nihilism or existentialism. The conflict between amoral nihilism and an existentialist humanism was manifest in films such as Rashomon by Akira Kurosawa. At the end of the movie, a cynical character steals clothes from an abandoned baby and justifies his action on the absence of moral order. It’s every man for himself. Why should he care about the baby when the parents themselves left it to die? Another man, though his faith in man is no less shaken, is appalled by the thief and takes the baby to raise as his own. Most of Kurosawa’s films continued in this vein until he created a new kind of action film with Yojimbo, possibly the first full-blown nihilist Western(in the form of Samurai Eastern). A ronin–masterless samurai–enters a town where everyone is a boss, thug, killer, parasite, coward, lecher, etc. As allegories go, it’s bleak stuff, with mankind presented as irredeemably awful. If the character of Yojimbo is ‘better’ than most, it’s because he’s better looking and very good with the sword. He’s not only bad like the rest of them but badass. Out of contempt for both sides, he tries to ignite a kind of ‘world war’ between them so as to kill off just about everyone.
Of course, deeming the world to be filthy and corrupt isn’t necessarily nihilistic. In the Old Testament, God grows angry with the foulness of man and hurls His anger by flooding the world or demolishing a city full of fruitcakes. This doesn’t make God nihilistic but morally uber-judgmental. God may be ruthless but always for moral reasons.
It is genuine nihilism only when one embraces the lack of moral order as the natural and preferable way of things. Negroes running around with machetes, raping, robbing, and killing all over Africa is closer to nihilism, though it might be more like animalism. After all, nihilism requires some degree of philosophical justification. A nihilist may reject conventional morality, but he still proposes ideas to justify this abnegation. Negroes, on the other hand, tend to run amok like wild chimpanzees because it jes’ be feelin’ so good.
Yojimbo is essentially a nihilist movie though with one crucial caveat. When Yojimbo(who calls himself ‘Sanjuro’ in the movie)witnesses the rare decent woman and child, he acts morally and risks his well-being to save them. But otherwise, he wants everyone–at least most of the adult men–to get slaughtered since they are useless louts. Yojimbo was a huge hit in Japan and proved to be highly influential. Its ‘morality’ may have been more troubling to Americans, but audiences by and large understood it to be a work of black satire.
Leone liked it so much that he decided to remake it into A Fistful of Dollars(without buying the rights, which led to a lawsuit by Kurosawa), and the result was even more nihilistic. The hero of Yojimbo is tremendous with the sword but essentially a man of action than style. He throws himself into the fray when he kills. The Man with No Name, on the other hand, kills without batting an eye. Killing four men in the first gunfight is like lighting a match or puffing on a cigarillo. A Fistful of Dollars is much bigger on style than Yojimbo; it’s almost like a fashion show of nihilistic cool. Even when the Man with No Name is beaten to a pulp, he doesn’t grunt or scream like most men. The world is cruel and he just patiently bides his time to get even. Like Yojimbo, he does make the moral decision to save a woman and her child, but all said and done, he plays with lives like a card player plays with cards. Cold skills and luck of the draw are all he relies on and cares about.
Even though Fistful of Dollars served Leone’s purposes, it was still essentially a borrowing of Kurosawa’s vision. Leone really hit his stride with For a Few Dollars More, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America. In these films, we get to see Leone’s political philosophy. Though limited in terms of historical or intellectual knowledge, evident in all of them is a very Italian take on power, one that is both intensely personal/sentimental and cold/calculating. The winners in this world operate by deceit, cunning, greed, ruthlessness, and even sadism. Positive traits in this world are pride and honor(at least among thieves), but higher morality is an alien concept.
Take for instance the motivation of Colonel Mortimer(Lee Van Cleef)to track down and kill Indio in For a Few Dollars More. It is ultimately a case of personal vendetta than anything else. Mortimer could care less about injustice in this world. He had to get even with Indio because Indio raped and killed his sister. There is a similar motive in Chaney’s stalking of Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s true that Frank is a cold-blooded killer, a sociopathic villain. But Chaney’s main motivation is personal revenge than rule of law: Frank killed his older brother long ago. Leone’s westerns certainly have characters of moral superiority(if not exactly good guys as opposed to bad guys), but it’s hard to imagine even the better or ‘gooder’ guys acting from some abstract sense of justice. They may be moved by instances of sentiment or by personal vendetta, but they seem not to care for the notion of universal justice. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Chaney even helps Frank survive an attack by assassins because he wants to kill Frank personally.
In the Leone universe, sentimentality comes naturally–very Italian–but rarely develops into anything like morality. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, there’s a scene where Blondie(Eastwood) and Tuco(Wallach)cross a river dividing the two armies(in the American Civil War). Upon crossing, Eastwood comes upon and feels pity for a dying soldier. He covers the shivering soldier with his coat and offers him puffs from his cigarillo to the tune of Morricone’s bereaving score. A gentle moment to be sure, but just when Blondie is being most humane, Tuco steals the opportunity to ride off on a stray horse to grab all the gold. Blondie comes to his senses and goes from pity for the dying soldier to cold-blooded target practice on Tuco with cannon fire.
Italian culture is, by its very nature, sentimental and passionate, even hysterical. Italians love to laugh, cry, scream, embrace, hug, make music, and pull hair. That is the operatic/clownish side of Italy, represented by the character of Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly and by Juan in Duck You Sucker. But, there is another side of Italy that is cold, calculating, bloodcurdling, and ruthless. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it is represented by Blondie and especially Angel Eyes(Lee Van Cleef). Both are pure Machiavellians. Maybe this aspect of Italian character has its roots in the power-politics of the Romans. Or maybe it owes something to the deadly conflicts among the rich families of the Italian peninsula throughout its post-Roman history. Whatever the case, no people on Earth love to hug one another with greater passion and stab the other’s back with colder calculation. We are more familiar with the hot-blooded Italian, like Sonny in The Godfather, but Italy had its share of Vito and Michael Corleones.
A distinction must be made between Italian cold-bloodedness and Northern European Protestant coolness. The cool and rational qualities of Anglos and Germanics are associated with fairness, rule of law, impartiality, caution, and centrality of reason. In contrast, the cold-bloodedness of the Italian, no matter how icy or steely, conceals hot iron at the core. Michael Corleone is very cold-blooded, very shrewd and calculating in his judgments, but, in essence, all about family, blood loyalty, honor, and devotion to father(and he expects to show him the same kind of devotion). If Anglos tend to be cool in order to be impartial and objective, Italians are cold to serve nothing but themselves. It’s the difference between universal rationalism vs tribal rationalism. Take the scene where Kay confesses to Michael that she had an abortion; the usually calm and controlled Michael becomes more terrifying than even Sonny.
Machiavelli’s highest ideals favored a moral and fair-minded republic based on rule of law, but he couldn’t help but observe the reality of power-politics as practiced in the real world. His most famous book THE PRINCE was as much a cautionary critique of power as a political guide. Though some confuse Machiavelli with might-is-right, his famous book was more like cold-is-bold. For Machiavelli, power is as much a science and art as a blunt weapon. He was less interested in brute strength than in the techniques of power. He was more a martial arts theorist than a wrestling coach. In Machivelli’s universe, a mouse can conceivably defeat an elephant if it plays the cards right. Machiavelli understood that society wasn’t necessarily like nature where the stronger usually devour the weak; and society certainly wasn’t an ideal moral universe of shared values and rules. The world of man was somewhere between that of animals and angels. It was a world ruled by lawyers than by laws. Whatever the laws, ideals, or values of a community, (much of)power was gained through cunning, deceit, shrewdness, calculation, and ruthlessness. The world of man was of tooth and claw hidden behind smiles and manicure.
This Machiavellian view of power can be intellectual and theoretic OR intuitive and natural. My guess was it was more the latter with Leone. It’s been said that Italians grow up as natural Machiavellians from cradle due to the ‘national character’. Traditionally, Italians were told to maintain strong family bonds–especially between mama and her mama’s boys–and to distrust outsiders. As such, familial bonds among Italians tended to be stronger than among the Anglos, but then, social bonds tended to be weaker among Italians. Indeed, one of the reasons for the high levels–and even tolerance and celebration–of corruption among Italians is due to this shared distrust. With everyone looking out for ‘myself and/or my family’, who cares about society? (Perhaps this explains why both fascism and communism tended to be less brutal in Latin countries. Compare Fascist Italy with Nazi Germany OR communist Cuba with Maoist China. Despite the unifying principles of fascism and communism, the Latins had a tendency to prefer personal passions over communal principles. Instead of carrying out the commands of fascism or communism with dedication and fanaticism, Latins were more likely to look over their shoulders to see if the authorities were watching, and the authorities themselves were more likely to bend the rules. This clearly led to more corruption, but the saving grace–however unintentional–was less effective control in the hands of the dictator or the ruling class over the nation. Ironically, though global leftists tend to romanticize Che Guevara as something like Bob Marley of the revolution, Che was the harshest critic of this Latin slovenliness and wanted to ‘Germanize’ or ‘Oriental Despot-ize’ Cuba and the rest of Latin America so that they could mount a more effective assault on capitalist ‘imperialism’. No fan of Rock music or Mambo, the nation that impressed Che most was the most totalitarian of all communist nations: North Korea.)
The characters of Leone westerns deviate from the Italian ‘ideal’ in one sense. Most of them are without family. The Eastwood character in all three films is a rugged individualist generally lacking in emotionality. Machiavellian in instinct, he is nevertheless passionless, unlike most Italians. But, the absence of passion may explain why he’s capable of higher morality on rare occasion. In A Fistful of Dollars, he helps out strangers because he can cooly assess the wrong done to them.
As the character Manco in For a Few Dollars More, he comes to appreciate Colonel Mortimer and even saves him at the end–after all, he could have let Indio to kill Mortimer, then kill Indio himself, and take the entire loot.
As Blondie in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, he doesn’t take all the gold at the end but goes 50/50 with Tuco, like he’d promised. In a way, he redeems himself for what he had done earlier when he left Tuco to die in the desert. (Of course, Tuco being no angel, Blondie has a peculiar and somewhat perverse way of squaring things with Tuco and himself.)
Leone westerns couldn’t be entirely Italian in feel and feeling since they are myths of the American West, an historical and cultural entity created essentially by Anglo pioneers. It would have been odd for American Anglo characters to act like. Even so, the Anglo hero of the Dollars Trilogy is Machiavellian in a political sense than moralistic in the traditional western manner. And though unkempt from wearing the same clothes day after day, he moves in an impressive, larger-than-life, and self-conscious manner–like Roman statues or Italian male fashion models showing off the latest line of suits.
As in most other spaghetti westerns, Italian-ness in Leone’s films is embodied through the Mexican characters; and even though the Anglo characters seem more impressive–taller, cleaner, cooler, and self-controlled–, the heart of Leone’s films is with the Mexicans. [Interestingly enough, the Anglos generally dominate and triumph in Dollars Trilogy, whereas ‘minority figures’–half-breed(Chaney), Mexican(Juan), Irish(Sean), and Jews(Max and Noodles)–dominate the Time Trilogy.] While the worst villains of A Fistful of Dollars are Mexican, so are the characters who win our pity–the woman, husband, and the child. And though Tuco is the UGLY Mexican, he is by far the most engaging character in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly–though in the end, Blondie gets the better of him. And Chaney in Once Upon a Time in the West seems to be part-Indian or part-Hispanic. And of course Juan and his brood, as uncouth as they are, are the liveliest characters in Duck You Sucker. Indio of For a Few Dollars More is a demented killer of Mexican or Indian origin but, in some ways, the emotional center of the movie. His is the only psychology to which we are given access(through flashback sequences–similar to the memory streams in Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America). Indio’s psychological makeup is very Italian for its blend of wild passion and cold cunning. He’s a macho-vellian. Sometimes he acts like a wild drunk and parties like a loon. Other times, he coldly plots and remains ahead of the game. But unlike most characters, he also seems to have a dream life, sinking into a memory hole hidden from others(and partly accessible only to Colonel Mortimer).
If there’s an element of poetry in Leone’s films, it arises from this sense of exiled emotions. An element of poignancy is discerned through the fact that man, by nature, is a social creature whose well-being depends on sharing one’s feelings and dreams with others but whose most precious feelings may have significance or meaning only to the self. Some dreams and feelings can be shared, like political idealism or sense of community. But some feelings, personal and autobiographical, cannot be shared(and indeed may not want to be shared) with most people or with anyone. Perhaps these emotions, thoughts, and memories were meant to be shared with or pertains to a special person, but the meanings may be lost to that person or the person may be lost from the world. The paradox of life: What makes us most human is a shared social life, yet what makes existence most precious is the hidden inner life. And though we’ve all heard things like ‘the personal is political’, things are far more complicated. Ultimately, what matters most to Sean is not saving humanity through the revolution but his remembrance of friend and lover in Ireland.
In the most romantic scene in Once Upon a Time in America, Noodles lowers his usual guard and sincerely pours his heart out to Debra, hoping that Debra will accept his love. Debra, though appreciative and partly reciprocative of his feelings, has other priorities, which fills Noodles with despair and bitterness(and may account for the sexual violence that erupts soon thereafter, which kinda reminds us of Indio’s rape of the woman in For a Few Dollars More. Noodles not only feels rejected but betrayed and humiliated by Debra. She was the ONLY person he could tell these secrets too, but she has other things on her mind. She also has her own private dreams, which mean little to Noodles.)
In Duck You Sucker, robbing the bank in Mesa Verde is more than about money for Juan. It’s been a personal dream all his life, and he doesn’t just want to use Sean(Coburn) to rob the bank but to share in the passion. Juan, being of superstitious nature, thinks it was DESTINY that brought them together–both of whom have the same name, variations of ‘John’.
But, one’s most intense dreams may seem the most ridiculous to others. It’s like Linus almost wins the school election but blows it by invoking his great obsession, the Great Pumpkin.
Leone had his greatest box office success with the less personal stylistic exercises of the Dollars Trilogy. His Time Trilogy–Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker(aka Once Upon a Time in a Revolution), and Once Upon a Time in America–had a more limited success(mostly in Europe) and were huge failures in the United States. Leone’s grandest statements on the mythic history of America were paradoxically drawn from his deepest and most private, almost hallucinatory, dream zone. They were his Great Pumpkins. (In fact, many critics who had characterized Leone as a skillful but empty stylist of the Dollars Trilogy were perplexed by and hesitant to appreciate his later films precisely because they couldn’t believe he had an inner soul, a wellspring of private dreams and imagination.) The strangeness of these films is rather like mood throughout Orson Welles’ Citizen Kane. On the one hand, they declare NO TRESPASSING into the fantasy territory of Leone, the secret world of his Rosebuds.
But we are drawn in through the magic of cinema, both the most public and private of all art forms, where we sit with an audience but watch alone in the dark. Leone, in this sense, was like Indio, Juan, Noodles, and Max. He wanted to hide and show his dreams at the same time. He wanted the audience to feel not so much as though they were watching his movies but peering into his dreams.
Art unites us differently than politics, religion, social life, or even family life does. Politics is about shared ideologies, values, and goals. Religion is about common faith and tradition. Social life is about conforming to the norms of a community. Even within the bosom of family life, there’s much that can’t be said or shared. And what one can share with family members cannot be shared with friends, and vice versa.
It is through art–at least the kind centered around the individual that developed in the West–that a person can express his deepest feelings, fantasies, and dreams; and it is through art that people can access the mythic dimensions of others. Art, in this sense, is both the most enclosed and most exposed of human experiences. When we go to a political rally, we listen to the leader or spokesman speaking to all of us on issues of public importance. But when we read a novel, we enter the writer’s private world, and he enters our private consciousness.
Though the novel or movie was created by someone else, through identification and wishful fantasy we see the characters and the stories as extensions of our hidden desires. Of course, few people have genuine artistic talent, and this is why failed art is so often embarrassing, laughable, and/or painful. Because art reveals so much, the what and why something was revealed and how it was executed are crucial. Mediocre prose is just that whereas bad poetry brings forth jeering laughter. Great poetry, on the other hand, mesmerize us. What can be powerful and sublime in the hands of a great artist can be pretentious and ridiculous in another. Consider the difference between a master director like Ingmar Bergman with an insufferable nonentity like Lars von Trier.
Entertainment, as opposed to art, tends to be formulaic and less personal, giving the audience what it demands–a kind of cultural Happy Meal. The Dollars Trilogy is essentially great entertainment(though the masterly filmmaking and technical originality almost elevate it to art). The Time Trilogy is strange for hovering between entertainment and art. Though it reworks genre formulations, it is less about movie cowboys and gangsters than about Leone’s personal psychology, his fevered dream of Hollywood. It’s less like watching a western or a gangster movie and more like a Proustian gazing into Leone’s mental processing of movie myths.
In a way, National Socialism may have been the strangest movement of the 20th century because it was, at once, so public and so private. It was a nationwide movement with grand pageantry and million man rallies, but its vision flowed from Hitler’s personal and artistic vision of the Germanic Realm. Hitler not only appealed to Germans as a political leader but accessed their hearts through his and their dark dreams, neuroses, and fantasies. And of course, Hitler thought of himself as primarily an artist.
Personal memories are precious for belonging to the self alone, but they are also the source of loneliness. We surmise that the young Noodles found a measure of solace by remembering Debra and his friends–especially the young Dominic killed by Bugsy–while in prison, but it may have created a rift between himself and other inmates. Dreams were his private gold hoarded away from a leaden world. If gold has a literal presence in the Dollars Trilogy, it tends toward psychological metaphorism in the Time Trilogy. Most golden to Noodles are his memories–and indeed gold-tinged leafing has (too)often saturated the cinematic language as a shorthand for nostalgia. Once Upon a Time in America is one of the few movies where this visual convention rose above cliche.
In For a Few Dollars More, Indio can laugh and drink with his henchmen; he can coldly come to terms with Mortimer. What haunts him most–and leaves him catatonic and almost helpless–is the memory of his rape and murder of a woman. It was not just another crime because the woman was beautiful, something far above a cretin like himself. And when she had the opportunity to shoot him, she chose to kill herself instead. It is a memory of a vile crime, but there is a perverse poetry in Indio’s romantic fixation to the chimes from her stolen watch under the sway of marijuana.
On some level, the dichotomy of US and Mexico in spaghetti westerns serves to highlight the relations between Northern Europe and Southern Europe, especially richer, stronger, and more disciplined Germany and poorer, weaker, and wilier Italy. One senses an admiration for ruthless, efficient, and deadly gringo but also a fondness for the expressiveness of the Mexicano-Italiano. (This is somewhat complicated in Duck You Sucker where the ‘Anglo’ figure is the Irishman Sean. Though culturally and racially closer to Anglos, Irish are Catholics known for their hot temper and clan loyalty.)
Leone may have even felt a certain affinity for Indio, who has something like an ‘artistic temperament’. He’s not only a killer, thief, liar, and cheat but also a dreamer. On the one hand, a movie director has to be a cold businessman and a wily wheeler-dealer, very much like the producer and studio executives. But he has to have something extra, a vision, a dream, a poetic desire, a ‘yen for the seashore’–as Noodles says in Once Upon a Time in America.
There is some of this in Indio. Had he attended film school, he might have become an Oliver Stone, Gillo Pontecorvo, or maybe even a Sergio Leone.
And to the extent that the Ramon in Fistful of Dollars was obsessed about the woman, he too was a dreamer. Indeed, dreams are often crazy and indulgent(and self-centered) and can be very dangerous. Seen in this light, art is perhaps a safe outlet for dreamers–better than robbing banks or radicalism in politics. (On the other hand, bank robbers don’t control the fantasies of hundreds of millions of people as filmmakers do. Robbers rob and may even kill real people, buttheir victims are limited to those directly affected by the crime. Artists, especially filmmakers, give us a world of make-believe where everything that happens on page, stage, or celluloid is fake or fiction; but they have the tools to unlock and slip into the dreams of millions all over the world. Robbers steal money from a few, artists steal the souls of all. The real Bonnie and Clyde left several victims in their wake, but Arthur Penn’s movie of their adventures robbed an entire generation of its conscience. Encouraged to experience the violent thrills of the duo as a kind of romantic rebellion, young moviegoers identified with the killers than with the hapless victims. And this too is the moral problem of Leone’s films, especially Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America where Juan the outlaw and Jewish gangsters take center stage and direct our sympathies.)
Juan in Duck You Sucker is not just an ordinary thief but a dreamer of sorts. He doesn’t just want to rob a bank; he wants to rob THE bank, the one in Mesa Verde. It’s been his lifelong dream. He even tells Sean that Sean can have the lion’s share of the money as long as he helps rob the bank. Gaining entry into the bank is almost like finding the Holy Grail for Juan.
In the first third of the movie, Juan dreams forward–robbing the bank in the near future–and Sean dreams backwards–of his time in Old Ireland of fading past.
And Leone surely identified with both kinds of dreaming. He was both a cutting edge innovator looking forward to the next great triumph and a nostalgic dreamer of a bygone era and mythic past. We have a similar dichotomy in Once Upon a Time in America where Noodles is always dreaming backwards–of his childhood, Debra, the assumed death of Max, etc–while Max is always dreaming forwards–more money, more power, possession of Debra, etc. Even though most dreamers don’t become artists, dreams are the place from which creativity grows.
Among all the artists, the filmmaker may be situated in most precarious place between dream and reality. A writer can write his story and a painter can still paint his painting, but a dreamer in cinema needs money to make his film. More than any other artist, the film artist must be as much a dealer in reality as a wanderer in dreams. Indio very much lives in the real world of guns and money but also drifts through a haunted dreamworld.
Though we tend to think in terms of reality as opposed to dreams, dreams can be the stuff of greater reality. Great architectural wonders are not merely the materialist products of brick and mortar but of someone’s impassioned or inspired vision. The clothes we wear had to be dreamt up and designed by creative people who saw what most people could not see. We don’t just produce; we design, and design comes from the aesthetic corner of the human psyche, the place of dreams. Without poetic imagery, music, and design, our lives would be lacking in beauty and meaning; just as without the art of cooking, spices, and sauces, food would lack taste and flavor.
One of the alienating aspects of communism was the greyness of existence, a disconnect from the joyful meaning of life found naturally through color, beauty, and individuality. Many found Protestant puritanism wanting for the same reason.
Leone was of the exuberant, colorful, and rich Italian(and Catholic) tradition of music, imagery, and design. But then, the moral(and political)question remains as to how all of this rich culture had been paid for through the ages? Artists needed patrons among the rich and powerful. Churches which funded lavish projects needed donations from kings and noblemen and/or even their own enterprises. So behind the beauty and wonders of Italy was the Machiavellian power of business. At one point, Tuco says the reward money that Blondie(the bounty hunter) got for turning him in should be used to pay for his funeral. Later, Tuco says he will spend a lavish sum to honor Blondie’s memory if Blondie only tells him where the gold is buried. The sacred and the profane are thus merged in the Leone universe, as in all of Italian history(perhaps more so than most other nations since Italy, in terms of square mile, probably possesses more artistic wonders and treasures than any other place on Earth. As Harry Lime said in The Third Man, Italy was a place where corruption and creativity went hand in hand. The Third Man is set in post-war Europe where life is difficult for most people but where the opportunity is golden for anyone ruthless and cunning enough. Like Tuco, Angel Eyes, and Blondie, Harry Lime and his cohorts find advantages in disadvantages and rewards in the risks. In the wake of mass killing among nations, they can make a killing with their cynical schemes.) Not only the sacred and the profane but the lawful and the unlawful of course. Blondie both turns Tuco into the law and saves him from the law. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Chaney plots with Cheyenne to turn the latter over to the law in order to collect the reward money with which to buy and save Jill’s land from the Frank’s hand; of course, Cheyenne planned beforehand to have his men rescue him from the law. Even some of the nobler actions in Leone movies are carried out through morally dubious or questionable means. It’s almost as if every good thing has to be paid for by a bad thing in the world. It’s contrary to the notion of the pie growing larger for everyone according to Northern European and Anglo-American libertarian or classical liberal economic theory.
If someone gains, someone must lose. It’s like if a mother cougar is to feed her cubs, another animal has to die. If in the American western the good was achieved by vanquishing the bad, in the Leone western the good is often achieved by hurting the innocent. Cheyenne’s turning himself in for the reward money is good for Jill, but his planned escape most certainly requires killing some of the lawmen. It’s especially complicated when ‘bad guys’ or outlaws decide to do something good.
Leone probably identified with both Max and Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America. Like Max, he had to be a businessman and make big plans. Like Noodles, he guarded his private world of memory and fantasy: a sense of life and history filtered through the magical mythmaking powers of movies. (Steven Spielberg has also been adept at mixing business with dreams.) Though Leone wasn’t particularly political, his instincts were closer to those of a populist visionary, whether communist(Lenin or Mao), fascist(Mussolini or Hitler), or capitalist(Berlusconi). Like Mussolini, he was obsessed with power and pride. Like Lenin or Mao, he was excited by the idea of rebellion and revolution. Like Berlusconi, Leone loved money, fame, and success. Though Leone was a man of many passions he was, above all, a political cynic and Machiavellian.
In Duck You Sucker, Leone was no doubt excited by the idea of the revolution, war, and glory. But the film also mocks and sneers at the notion of progress. And Leone doesn’t just blame the system or the powers-that-be but humanity itself.
Duck You Sucker begins with rich white people mocking and insulting what seems to be like a poor Mexican peasant, a salt of the Earth. The rich look like stinking hypocrites while Juan looks like a helpless victim. But we soon learn that Juan is a crafty bandit, and when the tables are turned, he robs the rich and rapes a woman; his sons kill several men. They are thugs and killers, and everything said about stinking Mexican peasants by the rich people prior to the robbery unfurls before our eyes. If Leone and the leftist screenwriters had greater sympathy for Juan, it partly owes to the romanticization of criminals and outlaws in movies. Cinema is escapism, and naturally what bandits do–rob, rape, and loot–is more ‘fun’ than going to Sunday school. Also, Leone may have had a chip on his shoulder as he grew up. He was born into a comfortable family but by no means a rich one. Paradoxically, many people who aspire to be rich(and/or powerful) identify with those who wage war on the rich and the powerful(of the status quo). We saw this in cartoon form in Scarface, both the original and the remake. And in a way, it is something of the American ideal that the lazy rich should fall from their pedestal and be replaced by hungrier and more romantic socio-economic rebel climbers.
Preferably, social climbing should operate within the rule of law, but movie audiences have often preferred the dramatic rise by cunning, ruthlessness, and crime–naturally, more exciting, thrilling, and cinematic. And since the rich had their turn, it’s time for new blood to enjoy the wealth and glory. In this sense, Juan is actually no better(but then, no worse) than the rich people who insulted him and whom he robbed. He too is one greedy bastard, but since he’s poor, he dreams about being rich, and it is this dream element that captivated Leone and the movie audience. Part of Oprah’s appeal is her billionaire mammy persona. If a fat ugly black woman, the sort who used to suckle white babies on plantations, can become the ‘richest and most powerful woman in America’, it gives hope to every suckeress and makes white people feel partially cleansed of their sins. You see, they had crucified the black race–or so the secular historical narrative religion tells us–, but now they are making amends by showering some fat ugly black woman with heavenly wealth and praise. To be sure, Oprah plays the game of “I forgive you because I’m so noble and kind… and have been given a chance to rake in all your honkeyass money.” In our culture, Oprah is the madonna and Obama is The One, the messiah.
Juan’s family is pretty grubby and gross, the dregs of society, and it’s difficult to feel any love for them. Leone makes this abundantly clear, but his heart is still with Juan for personal reasons. To some extent, the short stocky Juan is Leone’s alter ego. Leone knew he wasn’t much of a looker or tough guy in life. He was a fat geek. Like so many other geeks–Hitchcock, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg, Walter Hill, etc–, Leone withdrew into his dream world(of movies)as a child. He admired the larger-than-life stars of the silver screen, but he knew he could never be like them. But he could learn to make and control the images. He could be the god behind the heroes. But an artist, especially a filmmaker, is more like a pagan god with limited powers than an omnipotent god. The film director has to serve even the bigger god of producers and moneymen. And though the director often came up with the vision, producers took most of the money and the stars got most of the glory and fame. In the end, the Dollars Trilogy was better for Eastwood than for Leone. One of the villains of Once Upon a Time in the West is the crippled rich and powerful railroad tycoon, Morton, but he’s presented with a degree of sympathy. He may be ruthless, but he too is a dreamer. (Even though he hires goons like Frank to muscle out competitors, he isn’t particularly cruel, and at one point, admonishes Frank for killing an entire family when the order had been just to scare them off. Ill of health–Frank, at one point, calls him a ‘turtle without a shell’–, Morton senses his power being chiseled away piecemeal by piecemeal by Frank and his men. Money goes far, but it’s not enough; one needs wits and will to control other men. Morton’s failing health saps much of his attention from matters of business. He feels the rug, indeed the tracks, being pulled out from under him.) He wants to extend the railroad all the way to the Pacific Ocean. Leone had a soft spot for any character with a dream and/or physical disadvantage. Maybe Leone regarded his shortness and fatness as a kind of physical disadvantage(and indeed he was in very poor health by the 1980s). In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, two men that Angel Eyes kills in his introductory scene are both crippled. One has a limp and the other is bedridden. Later at a Union POW camp, a superior officer with gangrene on his legs admonishes Angel Eyes to stop torturing/exploiting the prisoners. And Blondie becomes most human when he’s dragged into the desert and reduced to a crusty-faced dehydrated limp mass of doddering flesh.
As unlikely as this may seem, children also have a special place in Leone’s films. In the simplest sense, his films remind us of the old Mexican village chieftain in Sam Peckinpah’s The Wild Bunch: ‘We all dream of being child again. Even the worst of us, perhaps the worst most of all.’ We all have fond memories of childhood, and since the 20th century, the magic of movies became an essential part of childhood memory, just like Pop Music Oldies are an integral part of nostalgia for one’s teenage yrs.
Because Leone, like countless other kids, spent his younger yrs at the cinema, a childlike romance pervades all of his movies; it’s possible that the childhood scenes in Once Upon a Time in America reflect Leone’s own childhood.
A child is, at once, more innocent and more corrupt(or corruptible) than an adult. Paradoxically, the child is more corruptible precisely because he is more innocent. German children in the Hitler Youth, Soviet children in the Young Pioneers, and Chinese youths of the Red Guards were more easily corruptible by the powers-that-be than adults equipped with greater measure of skepticism and rational thought borne of experience andlearning. Many of the most brutal killers among the Khmer Rouge were children. And all across Africa, bandit armies kidnap and train children to go around raping, looting, and killing. Children are innocent, thus more impressionable, thus more willing to believe what they are told and do what they are ordered, thus more corruptible. They are like dogs in a way. Dogs can be the most innocent of animals but also the most dangerous. Because they are so trusting, they will do as the master orders them to do. As Mao said of young people prior to the Cultural Revolution: ‘They are like blank pages. Beautiful words can be written on them.’ Leone’s films have both the innocence and corruption found in the childhood mentality. We get a strange, even eerie, feeling from movies like The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, which is, at once, a childlike fantasy of playground pranks and an exercise in cynical mayhem. And the young gangsters in Once Upon a Time in America are both innocent and brutal.
There’s another key significance of children in Leone’s films. As the Leone universe is devoid of clearly outlined boundaries between good and evil–oftentimes, it’s really a case of bad vs worse–, the really bad guy must do something especially odious to earn our ire. In A Fistful of Dollars, we loathe Ramon and his men because they would dare to hurt a child. In For a Few Dollars More, Indio orders his men to kill a woman and baby. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Angel Eyes guns down a father and son. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Frank coldly kills a weeping child. In Duck You Sucker, the Mexican military kills a bunch of civilians, and prominently shown among the corpses is Juan’s youngest child. In Once Upon a Time in America, Bugsy kills Dominic, the youngest member of the gang. However cynical and nihilistic Leone’s world may be, some things are still beyond the pale, and the most prominent among them is the killing of a child.
But there’s an element of irony for Juan’s youngest child is a nasty little urchin, and Dominic is no angel either; his last words before he dies is, ‘Noodles, I slipped’–he dies young but as a gangster.
The treatment of women is also a gauge of moral worth in Leone’s films, and in the Dollars Trilogy and Once Upon a Time in the West, the ‘good’ or ‘better’ guys treat women a lot better than, say, Ramon, Indio, Angel Eyes, or Frank. But things are complicated in Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America, where the heroes do the raping.
Though Leone wasn’t anti-human or misanthropic, he had few illusions about people. Even ‘innocent’ people turn out to be not-so-innocent. In the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Angel Eyes introduces himself by killing two pitiful old men, but they too were involved in a robbery plot, and each pays Angel Eyes to kill the other. In For a Few Dollars More, the first thing Indio does after breaking out of jail is track down an old compatriot who’d stabbed him in the back. The man now has a wife and child, but his life of peace had been bought by betraying Indio to collect the cash. Indio has the man’s wife and child killed too, and indeed one could say they were innocent, but the larger point is that corruption and the betrayals of life taint everyone. A corrupt man’s child may be innocent but shall enjoy the fruits of his father’s corruption. There is almost a perverse twist of the Biblical concept of Original Sin. Every man, woman, and child is tainted. Of course, the Bible says God is the ultimate judge, but the world of Leone is essentially godless, and so it’s up to man to judge other men–or do as other men do, which is to betray and steal.
Since the amorality of the world is founded on the immorality of man–even the ‘good’ is only less bad than virtuous–, there isn’t much room for idealism and ideology.
A part of Leone’s world view was rooted in Italian-ness, politics and business of which have been more cynical, clannish, and self-serving than in other major European countries. Italians are not born into a world of idealistic innocence but one of clan survival. Since the clan–and the self within the clan–matters most of all, universal ideals be damned. (As Italian as the spaghetti westerns are, part of their appeal to Italians at least may have been their element of un-Italianness–or their rebellion against or refutation of Italianness. While the bulk of the Italian soul clung to the Family or the Clan, yet another part longed for freedom. For many Italians, the Family, the Fascist State, the Church, the Mafia, and Marxism became stiflingly anti-individualistic and anti-freedom, and it was through Hollywood cinema that they sought refuge in a land of individuality and liberty. But if Hollywood movies also had their own stuffy moralism, Leone removed it and made westerns where the heroes were completely liberated from obligations, moral or otherwise.)
A certain (Southern)Italian mentality is made clear in the scenes between Michael and Kay in The Godfather. Kay is troubled by the realization that Michael is married more to the Clan than to her(and America of rule of law). If Anglos have emphasized the individual and the legal state(or the imagined nation), the Italians tended to prefer the family or clan over the individual or any abstract political-legal entity. It’s Blood and Olive Oil.
She tells him that Senators and Presidents don’t have people killed. Michael says SHE is being naive. In a way, they are both right. All power is corrupt, and even the best of men must be ruthless and cynical at times. But there is a difference between pragmatic(necessary) use of dirty power(when all else fails) and the embrace of dirty power as the very essence of ‘business’. There’s a difference between“two burgers for the price of one” and “we’ll grind you to sausage if you don’t sign the contract” when one says, “I’m gonna make you an offer you can’t refuse.”
Anglos too have been defacto clannish and ruthless in their own way, but they were still guided by a set of stated principles and ideals, much of which were taken literally by idealists who pushed for reform and change. Italians and Latins, on the other hand, have long suffered an idealism-deficit. They are quicker to be craven, cynical, and opportunistic. This makes them both more bullying and cowardly. Italians–or proto-Italians–were most idealistic during the height of Roman glory when they owned much of the world. Maybe idealism comes with a sense of victory and power. Idealism is expensive and risky because it can undermine’s one’s own status, wealth, and power. Generally, elites have been wary of too much idealism, preferring to control the masses through taboos, fear, and superstition. But when a people become very powerful, they may relax and take their power for granted. They no longer feel threatened. They feel that their power, glory, and influence are fixed and permanent. They also want to believe that their awesome power is morally justified–historically, politically, and spiritually–than earned and gained through greed and bloodlust. In other words, they grew more powerful not because they were worse but because they were better than other peoples. God or gods favored them because they are noble people with a divine mission. Thus morally justifying their past, they can justify future expansions of their power. So, they become more idealistic.
The concept of universal Roman citizenship developed when Rome had no credible rivals. Romans had conquered most of the known world and believed they would march onward forever to greater Roman glory and power. They thought Pax Romana was the End of History. And so, Romans thought they could afford to be more tolerant of diversity–as long as non-Roman peoples accepted the New World Order created by the Romans. This sense of power made the Romans increasingly complacent, corrupt, and lazy. And the flooding of non-Romans into the core of the Empire undermined the unity. Soon, there were Judeo-Christian subversives in Rome itself. Even elite Roman women were addicted to gladiatorial fights where African warriors triumphed and became the object of sexual worship, thus leading to miscegenation. As the system began to rot, idealism gave way to infighting and backstabbing. Things got so bad that Romans embraced Christianity as a means to cleanse their rotten society, but the high idealism of Christianity couldn’t raise the Roman Lazarus. If idealism is a luxury that a powerful and wealthy people can afford, by the time Christianity was embraced by the Romans, the empire was already weak and rotten. Christianity only hastened the fall of Rome. (Similarly, neo-idealism of Gorbachev in the 1980s couldn’t save the USSR. It only sped up the collapse.) But Christianity did have a long-term advantage to the fallen Romans–and rest of Europe. Unlike previous forms of idealism, it wasn’t devised and imposed by the elite but one that had been directly created by and for the people. Though Jesus and Paul were intellectuals in their own right, they were never part of the political or cultural elite. They lived and preached among the people. They ‘democratized’ ideas and values, a notion that was frightening to both Jews and Romans. For Jews, knowledge was essentially held and disseminated by elite rabbis; for Romans, ideas belonged in the realm of scholars, politicians, and priests. The idea of men of humble origin going around spreading ideas and values of ‘the people’ was bound to appear highly subversive.
Anyway, once Rome fell like Humpty Dumpty, it could never be put together again. The once ‘noble and idealistic’ Romans became the bickering ‘mama mia’-screaming Eye-talians. The Italian genius remained but the peninsula was ruled by competing principalities, provinces, and clans. This division–plus its geographical position between Europe, North Africa, and the Near East–made Italy vulnerable to attacks and invasions from all sides. If during the Roman era, Italy had been ideally situated to conquer all, Italians later found themselves to be ideally situated to be conquered by all–Germanic barbarians, Saracens, North Africans, the French, the Austrians, etc. There was a strong sense of pride and honor in the Italian character, but since this could no longer be molded into global power, it became associated with something vain, petty, and small-minded. Italy was the home of the Vatican, the capital of the Universal Church, but even the Catholicism practiced by various Italians were rife with local rituals, superstitions, and socio-political compromises and adaptations. This was the Italian character that developed and shaped the outlook of generations of Italians–and even Italian-Americans–, and it shows in the Leone westerns.
One wonders if fascism and communism were appealing to Italians for they promised something beyond the pettiness and duplicity that came to define Italy. Though Italy had been united in the 19th century, Italians lacked a unifying sense of vision, destiny, and purpose. The bourgeoisie were largely responsible for the creation of new Italy, but they seem to represent the rich and the middle class in a country where both comprised a minority. And though most Italians were Catholic, many had grown cynical with church authorities–often corrupt, stupid, or self-serving. Communism offered to Italians what Lutheranism offered to Germans: a cleansing of the rotten past and messy present–politically, economically, and ‘spiritually’. Though Fascism was ideologically opposed to communism, it too offered a new and spirited unifying vision. Mussolini unified and redefined the entire history of the Romans/Italians. Ancient Rome, he said, isn’t just past history but living history, one that could be revived by modern Italians. And the nationalism of the Fascists had a unifying populist appeal all across the peninsula that had been lacking under the ‘democracy’ controlled–and bought and sold–by bourgeois capitalists. Fascism won out over communism because it appealed to both the hunger for idealism and instinct for cynicism among Italians. It promised the New and Improved, but its rulebook was more flexible and ‘creative’–Machiavellian–compared to the puritanical communist rulebook. (In a way, it’s not surprising that the most ‘creative’ kind of Marxism–the concept of ‘cultural hegemony’ by Antonio Gramsci–also developed in Italy. If many Marxists stuck to the old formula of revolution by class dialectic, Gramsci saw further and understood the subtler shades of power and influence.)
Other than Leone’s Italian character, his view of social reality and humanity also seems to have been formed by WWII and post-war poverty and politics. The children in his films–the shrewd child in For a Few Dollars More, Juan’s children in Duck You Sucker, and Jewish delinquents in Once Upon a Time in America–could have been lifted from streets of war-devastated Italy. It’s a world where even kids hustle to survive. In a world where kids grow up fast, where they develop ‘political’ than personal skills. Not politics as in ideology and government but in terms of power, self-interest, game playing, and survival. In many black and Hispanic inner-city neighborhoods, friendships are often more like alliances. It’s like being on the same sports team than being genuine friends. There are almost no permanent friendships among nations, and the same applies to the characters in Leone’s films. Eastwood in A Fistful of Dollars develops a fondness for two old men, but they never become friends. Mostly, the Man with No Name–aka Joe–makes alliances with Rojos and Baxters to play realpolitik. He has a Anglo style but has a Machiavellian soul. Of course, to be a true Machiavellian, one has to hide one’s true feelings–which is why Sonny wasn’t really cut out for the role of Don in The Godfather. He got too personal with ‘business’. If Anglos have the calmness but lack the requisite cynicism to be truly Machiavellian, Latins seem to have the cynicism but lack the control to be true Machiavellians. Mussolini and Berlusconi are too flamboyantly clownish to really play the game effectively. Eastwood characters in Leone films are fascinating for having this perverse balance of calmness and cunningness.
But it’s not just Leone’s characters but his style and execution that tend toward Machiavellianism. There have been many spaghetti westerns which were even more cynical, bloody, and nihilistic than Leone’s films, but they didn’t amount to much stylistically; consider the vastly inferior film Django by Sergio Corbucci.
If Machiavellianism is about the proper science, form, and exercise of power, its cinematic equivalent is Leone’s style. Though Leone’s films have been called operatic, they are also methodical and schematic. Though things appear crazy on the surface, there is a hidden mechanism in the form, as if to suggest that knowing the hidden rules makes one come out ahead. Consider the economic way Colonel Mortimer stops the train in the opening scene of For a Few Dollars More. Consider his mastery over his arsenal. Consider the game Blondie and Tuco play as bounty-hunter and outlaw to collect and share reward money. And even though Tuco is often impulsive and childlike, he has the requisite professionalism and foresight when necessary. He shows his knowledge of and proficiency with firearms in a gun shop. He knows well enough to come through the window than through the door when seeking vengeance against Blondie. When he drags Blondie through the desert, he’s well-prepared with lots of water and even a parasol. He acts like an animal but is capable of calculating with foresight. Similarly, though Leone’s style has its crazier moments, there is always a sense of form and structure. His world may be nihilistic but it’s not really ‘anarchic’–at least not to those who know the rules beneath the surface. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Baxters and the Rojos are perplexed by recent events, but we know the logic behind them though the perspective of the Man with No Name who carefully pulls the strings. Both Chaney and Frank sense that something is wrong when the latter steps out of the tavern in Once Upon a Time in the West. It’s almost as if they can read the world like a sundial or hear the ticking of every clock; and indeed it turns out Morton hired men to assassinate Frank. Being Machiavellian means not only knowing all the moves on the chessboard but having a kind of sixth sense.
It is a world of distrust and deceit, where one extends one hand for a handshake while concealing a knife in the other. I can’t think of any other director who was as astute and instructive in political science 101 as Sergio Leone. Though plenty of historical and political films are about the deceitful game of power, they tend to focus on the moral or dramatic aspects of the conflict. The Godfather is essentially a family drama, Bad Sleep Well(by Akira Kurosawa) is primarily social criticism and cautionary drama, The Damned(Visconti) is an opulent vision of corruption, and Barry Lyndon is a morality tale. In contrast, Leone’s films present with great clarity the very dynamics of power. The cat-and-mouse among Manco, Mortimer, and Indio in For a Few Dollars More is almost like political gamesmanship among cold-eyed diplomats. They form alliances while wasting no time to out-maneuver the other and stay one step ahead. Though generally lacking in sympathy, they aren’t necessarily lacking in empathy since they need to be able to ‘read’ what others may be thinking. Leone’s characters–especially in the Dollars Trilogy–may lack ‘psychology’ in the conventional dramatic sense, but they think psychologically in the Machiavellian sense. This imbues Leone westerns with something found in the Mystery genre, but the ‘psychology’ of his films tends to be more ‘political’–power-centric–since the principals are more or less evenly matched in wits and will. And of course, physicality matters much more in westerns or gangster films than in mystery–though Once Upon a Time in America is a fusion of gangster and mystery genres, which may explain why it has long stretches that are psychological than physical in its impact. (It is also a historical epic and romance.)
If political science professors demonstrate the dynamics of political power–at least on the global scale among nations–, they can do worse than to show Leone westerns to their students. This isn’t because Leone’s films are solely interested in power–they are not–, but because more than most movies, they show how power is an obstacle to sentiments/virtues/ideals and vice versa.
We cannot simply choose power alone because we’ll end up like Angel Eyes or Indio–sociopath monsters. Ironically though, even Angel Eyes and Indio are not without certain human qualities, and indeed it is that which bring about their downfall. After torturing and exacting information from Tuco, Angel Eyes doesn’t do the same to Blondie. Angel Eyes gives his reasons, but there seems to be an ulterior motive: Angel Eyes sees Blondie as an equal, just like Hitler saw the British as an equal. Partly out of sentimentality, Hitler allowed the British to escape at Dunkirk–and sought an alliance with Anglos who were deemed as racial cousins. Similarly, it appears as though Angel Eyes, for all his greed and ruthlessness, doesn’t want to destroy a beautiful and impressive creature like Blondie. He’d rather form an alliance, and this later proves to be his undoing, as Blondie switches sides and rejoins Tuco and ultimately shoots Angel Eyes dead in the final showdown.
Blondie, like the Anglos during WWII, reject Nietzschean will-to-power ubermensch-ism and betrays Angel Eyes’s offer. And Indio too loses his edge because there is something human in him after all. He’s a mad killer but not necessarily a cold-blooded killer. His rape-murder of a woman long ago both titillates and haunts his conscience, pushes him into drug induced dissipation. It’s almost as if he has a deathwish. It is this emotional instability that indirectly leads to his demise at the hands of Mortimer.
And Tuco ends up getting hurt most, emotionally or physically, whenever he gets too sentimental. He greets his brother with open arms only to be rebuffed and reproached. And though he’s initially suspicious of Angel Eyes when invited to lunch at the POW camp, the wine, food, and easy conversation makes him relax and fall into Angel Eyes’ trap. And Angel Eyes’ henchman Wallace gets killed by Tuco when he finally does something half-decent: he turns away so that Tuco can take a pee in peace. Even the slightest acts of decency or kindness can hurt or kill someone in Leone’s films. If it’s a game of survival, it’s best not to take any chances. “If you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk”, Tuco says to a dead bounty hunter who almost had him but lost his chance by talking too much. Someone who acts like Neville Chamberlain–out of goodwill and trust–comes out much the worse.
The Leone moral logic/conflict is spelled out in Once Upon a Time in America where, after a massacre(of Burt Young and his men), Noodles explains to Max that if they only go after money and power, they’ll end up killing one another. And of course, Noodles loses because he is at heart a sentimentalist. Both Noodles and Max are romantics, but Max is without sentiment, which makes all the difference. He’s a visionary who wants it all–most power, most wealth, the dream girl, etc–, but he knows it can only be gained through ruthless determination.
To carry one’s fever dreams far, the heart needs the coolant of icy blood.
Generally in Leone films, good deeds coincide with self-interest than arise from virtue. The most illustrative example is the bridge explosion scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. It’s not so much that Blondie and Tuco are utterly without moral sense. Gazing out at the battlefield, Blondie says, “I’ve never so many men wasted so badly.” But Leone’s world is not one where goodness in and of itself is rewarded. If in the traditional western the man who chooses to do the right thing usually comes out on top, goodness is most often an hindrance in Leone’s films.
In Sam Peckinpah’s Ride the High Country, the old man gets killed in but achieves his goal and dies an honorable death; the entire film is framed within the moral concept of doing what’s right regardless of the consequences(and in almost every American western, this is rewarded with goodness prevailing over the bad. Shane may have been mortally wounded in the final gunfight but not before killing the bad guys.)
In Leone films, doing the right thing is a matter of opportunism and chance than commitment or principle. Blondie and Tuco stumble upon a battlefield and need to cross the river to get the gold. They’re frustrated by the fact that they cannot as long as the battle rages on. Even so, they come to observe that war isn’t just an obstacle but a tragedy devouring the lives of so many ‘good men’. So, they decide to kill two birds with one stone. Their opportunism gains an element of humanitarianism, if only by accident. Like the character Pasqualino in Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties, Blondie and Tuco are mainly interested in staying alive and getting what’s theirs. They are apolitical and don’t really care one way or the other about the war. However, when opportunity presents itself, they are capable of acting ‘moral’. Their motives aren’t pure, but they aren’t opposed to carrying out good deeds when it’s to their own advantage.
And of course, luck is a major factor in Leone films. In Once Upon a Time in America, the men mix up the baby tags in a hospital to blackmail a police chief(who desperately wants his son back). Though intended to gain leverage for their partners, the gangsters have callously altered the fates of all the babies; some will have it good(in the home of rich parents), some will ‘get it up their ass’. It has added significance in the movie for Max does a switcheroo on himself to succeed as a legitimate businessman. And in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, more than one character hides under the name of ‘Bill Carson’. And of course, one of the official contracts of the ‘American Dream’ is to abandon the Old World identity and put on the mask of the ‘American’. In Godfather II, Vito Andolini becomes ‘Vito Corleone’. And even people of non-European immigrants in the US name their children ‘Paul’ or ‘Mary’. Many Jews have Anglo-ized version of their names. And in a way, the spaghetti westerns was a way for Europeans to play at being Americans. Indeed, the first Leone Western, A Fistful of Dollars, credited Sergio Leone as ‘Bob Robertson’ and Gian Maria Volonte as ‘John Wells’, rather like how Max Berkowic hides behind ‘Christopher Bailey’ and Noodles behind ‘Robin Williams’. Though one rises to the top and the other sinks to the bottom, they both hide behind new identities. The Man with No Name goes by ‘Joe’, ‘Manco’, and ‘Blondie’ in the three Dollars movies. Jill tries to bury her past as a whore and become a respectable wife and mother in Once Upon a Time in the West. Chaney also goes by various names to get closer to Frank. And when Frank and his men kill the McBains, they disguise themselves as Cheyenne’s men.
Movies are all about make-believe, but there was something like a triple layered make-believe about the spaghetti westerns. The first layer of make-believe was the facade of movie art itself. Then, there was the second layer of make-believe in Jewish Hollywood’s telling of mostly non-Jewish American myths. So-called ‘American myths’ created by the movie business was largely a Jewish invention. Just as much of the American Indian myths was told by whites than by Indians themselves, much of Anglo-American history and myths(at least in movies) were told by Jews than by gentile whites themselves. And even the white tellers of these myths were often been influenced or cherry-picked by liberal Jews. Finally, there was the third layer of make-believe in Europeans(especially Southern Europeans)pretending to retell the myths of the American West dominated mostly by men of Northern European lineage.
The Good, the Bad, and Ugly’s historical backdrop is as perverse as it’s interesting. A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More take place in self-contained nihilistic universes. They distill elements of the western and samurai films into pure style, and nothing gets in the way of enjoyment. But the Civil War figures prominently in The Good, the Bad, and Ugly–especially odd since most westerns set in the Southwest rarely dealt with the Civil War. If Leone’s main concept was to purify and revamp western myths, why take on the Civil War of all things, which was, besides, a conflict between industrial North and agrarian South. It was not about the tension between the settled East and frontier West, about cowboys and Indians(another people Leone’s westerns barely touch upon–indeed, the only Indians we ever see are a frightened woman at the train station in the opening scene and several braves getting off the train somewhat later in Once Upon a Time in the West), nor about lone gunman facing other lone gunmen. There was the western cavalry movie, but they were about whites fighting Indians, not about white armies fighting white armies.
Leone’s interest in the American Civil War may owe something to his experience of Italian history. World War II for Italians essentially turned into a conflict between northern powers vs southern powers. Northern Europe was more industrialized, more powerful, and more advanced than a southern European power like Italy, which under Mussolini failed to industrialize substantially. And Italy’s political and moral place in the war was far from clear. Though the majority of Italians had supported Mussolini who forged the Pact of Steel with Germans, Italy was at best a weak junior partner–indeed, in many ways, a joke, like Mexico has been alongside the US. And when the war began to go badly, most Italians switched allegiances almost overnight, remaking themselves into heroic resistance fighters against Fascism and the German occupation of northern Italy. Both Mussolini’s Italy of Invincible he-men and the Italy of the Resistance Myth had been more hot air than reality. More than most nationalities, Italians learned the art of the bluff, deceit, and con–politics as a game of poker. (The final shoot out in the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is structured like a poker game, where it turns out, Blondie has a card up his sleeve. And Colonel Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More plans his moves with the keenness of a poker player; he even has a mini-pistol up his sleeve, which is used to kill the hunchback–Klaus Kinski.)
Though it’s often been said that Leone was not very educated or political, he strived for respect as a serious filmmaker following the Dollars Trilogy. Many dismissed it as intellectual pretension or moral vanity–as well as historical nonsense–, but in retrospect and upon closer inspection, it hardly seems farfetched to argue that Leone did convey something of substance in his films, especially Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America.
The backdrop of the Civil War in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly not only gave Leone an opportunity to expand the scale of vision and production but also to question and challenge the rules and assumptions of the genre he’d created with his two previous films. If dialectics lead to something new, the conflict between stylistic purism(perfected in the first two Dollars films) and historical involvement in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly paved the way for the next three films more serious in tone. The Good, the Bad, and Ugly, in this sense, was clearly meant as a swan song. It serves as both the final chapter of one book and the introduction to another.
Leone had created a very hot item and could have cashed in by making more such films, but he wanted his future films to be as meaningful as entertaining. The film he wanted to make right after the Eastwood trilogy was an adaptation of Harry Grey’s gangster novel The Hoods(which eventually became Once Upon a Time in America), but his association with the western made it difficult to raise funds except for another western; and so, he made Once Upon a Time in the West instead, to be followed by Duck You Sucker.
The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly has all the elements of Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. What sets it apart is the intervention of history between the adventures of the protagonists. In a restored scene, even the cold-blooded Angel Eyes is emotionally affected on some level by the tragedy of war. He arrives at a Confederate barracks and sees tired and wounded soldiers subsisting on boiled corn cobs. (But then, he’s back to his merciless and sadistic self as he and his henchmen torment and steal from prisoners.) History in the form of the Civil War becomes many things to the principal characters. It is an inconvenience, an opportunity, a danger, a savior, a tragedy, and a farce. The gold that Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes seek is Civil War gold, existing as it does because of the war itself. War is hell, but it is also heaven for war profiteers, which is what Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes are in their own brazen manner. War is a closed gate but also an open door for those who can pick the lock. It just so happens that the gold is buried in a war cemetery. War serves as a cover for their greedy adventures. (David O’ Russell’s Three Kings probably took some ideas from Leone’s film.) But Blondie and Tuco must also risk their lives through cannon fire and, at one point, become prisoners of war–disguised as Confederate soldiers and captured by Union cavalry. At times, military men appear as wanton destroyers and bullies who terrify civilians around and reduce entire towns to smoke and ashes. At other times, especially in the POW camp and on the battlefield, soldiers are pitiable as cannon fodder. The most sentimental scene in the movie is when an ensemble of Confederate POWS is ordered to play a tune while Tuco is pummeled to a pulp by Wallace, Angel Eyes’ top thug.
On some level, Leone’s words to the effect that the scene alludes to the Holocaust is morally offensive. Is the invocation of the Holocaust appropriate in a comic western whose main purpose is to entertain the audience with mindless bloodshed and violence? Should a Jackie Chan movie allude to the Nanking massacre, the killing fields of Cambodia, or the Boat People of Vietnam?
A movie can certainly be serious and funny at the same time, but a movie centered so much on style and bloodlust–and promotes nihilism as the ultimate cool–sounds off-key, to say the least, when it lurches into tragic mode.
It’s one thing to introduce moral keynotes within the relevant narratives of Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More but quite another to go full-blown operatic with tragic overtones about WWI–the battle by the river–and the Holocaust–emaciated prisoners at the camp. Not surprisingly, they evaporate from our conscience once Blonde and Tuco resume their search for the gold. Lina Wertmuller’s Seven Beauties also features an absurdist blend of comedy and tragedy, but there’s no question that the laughter and tears belong in the same world, this world, our world–the history that devours clowns, monsters, heroes, saints, and rest of humanity alike. The ethical problem of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is that the comedy of violence and the tragedy of history don’t meld into a unified version, and indeed belong to two different films. It’s like Looney Tunes blended with Sophie’s Choice. (Of course, in our age of Tarantino, this lesson seems to be more lost than ever.) Since the focus of the movie involves three obsessively self-interested characters whose outrageous exploits occupy our main interest, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is a rather foul failure of moral imagination.
On the other hand, we can’t help but feel that Leone is onto something though not quite in the way he intended–the implication that while history is a tragedy, idealism is a farce and politics is a game. We tend to remember WWII as the ‘Good War’, but this may owe to the fact that US was relatively untouched by the war–except for Pearl Harbor–and the narrative where ‘we good guys beat the bad guys’. But, WWII was not something that could be simply designated as a ‘good war’ for most nations. Germans, Italians, and Japanese came around to accepting responsibility for the evils they’ve committed, but their main remembrance of the war is suffering than defeat of evil. And placed on a moral defensive, they–or at least the Japanese and the Italians–sought to justify their post-war redemption by asking questions of all sides, even of the ‘good guys’. Thus, many Europeans and Japanese condemned American ‘imperialism’ in Vietnam. Not a few Western Europeans during the Cold War pretended as though Americans weren’t liberators but occupiers who merely replaced the Nazis.
For people in Eastern Bloc nations, WWII was less about Good vs Evil than about being trapped between Nazi Germany and Soviet Russia. Italy, though one of Nazi Germany’s main allies until the early 1940s, turned out to be not only a weak but an unreliable ally. Weak militarily and in will power. It was part of Italian nature to switch from praising Fascists to supporting communists, from admiring Germans to hating them, from welcoming Americans as liberators to vilifying them as imperialists in the post-war order.
And so the title The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is ironic. It as though badness is the given of human nature and social/historical reality. Goodness, on the other hand, is relative than essential or absolute. Blondie isn’t really all that good. He’s just slightly better than Tuco and Angel Eyes. And in a way, this may have been the Italian view of Americans and Germans. If Americans tended to see themselves as the good guys, Italians might have seen WWII as a battle between American Blondies and German Angel Eyes. The Blondies were better but not exactly good.
Leone observed history as merciless and tragic, conveyed well enough in the POW camp and battle scenes in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Even so, there are winners and losers; politics and economics are a game where some do indeed win. Realpolitik and realeconomik rule the world. Though Churchill and FDR are lionized as the great moral heroes of WWII, the fact remains that both let Stalin keep all of Eastern Europe. And many German civilians in the East was punished by postwar policy. However we may define goodness in personal or individual terms, politics is a different story. Even politicians of nations renowned for their commitment to human rights must play the game–make compromises, resort to cunning and deceit, and use the cheat sheet of diplomacy. Consider how the US had at one time supported Saddam Hussein to contain Iran. And arch-anti-communist Nixon traveled to China to meet mass murderer Mao, and the liberal press hailed him as a man of peace. History is tragedy but politics is comedy(where the winners earn the right to laugh than cry; the trick is to make sure that the joke is not on you, something understood well enough by Max). And on that level, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly presents the dialectic between the tragedy of history and the comedy of politics. In a way, Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes are like diplomats and secret agents, with something of 007 in them. They acknowledge the suffering all around them and know what actions to take to remain above the fray. If not, you get trampled by history. Leone must have noted the dominance of politics over morality in post-war Italy liberated by the Allies. Though Allies had no compunction about dropping big bombs on Italy and killing ordinary people, many bureaucratic bigshots of the Fascist era not only went unpunished but were allowed to grow even wealthier and more powerful. Of course, some Fascists were executed or lynched, but more often than not, they happened to be the little fish than the truly big fish. Especially with the rise of the Cold War, many former supporters of the Fascist government were ‘rehabilitated’, protected, and permitted to prosper in the new order that was supposedly founded on morality, truth, and liberty. (And so Juan says in Duck You Sucker, politicians get to play while the people get fuc*ed. Politics trumps history, just as shepherds control the sheep. Of course, the main characters of Leone films are not political in the conventional sense. Rather they are the practitioners of the art of politics as a means of gaining advantages. It could be said criminals–like Al Capone, for instance–, are politicians who seek to serve themselves than the people(though real politicians seem to do that pretty well too.) They want the money so as to remain untouched by history. They neither trust nor believe in the rule of law; the only real assurance in life is to outplay the competition.
If Leone removed moralism from action in his westerns, he also seems to have removed idealism from politics. It’s as if Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes want power not to own but to disown the world. Each wants the gold to go off to a world of his own, one impervious to the blows of history. Consider the partnership between Manco and Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More. Alliances in westerns are nothing new, but they tend to be about honor, friendship, or morality. Shane chooses to fight for the sodbusters. Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday become good friends.
(In High Noon, the sheriff is alone to face Frank Miller and his men, but this isn’t necessarily because no one cares; it’s just that everyone is afraid. In the Dollars Trilogy, almost everyone seems to have no concern beyond himself.) But Manco and Mortimer forge an alliance for materialistic reasons–and then continue to con one another. Only later do Manco and we discover, accidentally by the way, that Mortimer has personal reasons for going after Indio. In a pitiless world, one shouldn’t expect sympathy from strangers. Mortimer knows his rage and vendetta are his alone and expects no one to understand or come to his aid for that reason. So, he tells Manco that he’s after Indio purely for the money. At one point, Manco does inquire about Mortimer’s past, only to be rebuffed. It’s clear that Mortimer sees Manco as a cold-hearted mercenary, thus someone incapable of sympathy and unworthy of trust. It is for this reason that the scene where Manco comes to Mortimer’s rescue has a special emotional charge. Manco does have a heart and a sense of honor after all. Even so, it’s something Manco is likely to forget soon enough, and indeed we see him counting up the bodies to collect the bounty.
In a way, one could argue Manco’s aiding of Mortimer is an adherence to the rules of the game–honor among gunmen–than any genuine commitment to moral principles. Manco is less concerned that Mortimer should win than he should be given a fair chance in the showdown. (But in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Blondie cheats in the final gunfight by having removed the bullets from Tuco’s gun the night before.) Manco is like a spectator who wants to see a good clean fight–more exciting that way. Of course, Manco doesn’t kill Indio himself because he respects Mortimer desire for personal revenge. He understands that though Mortimer could be killed in a gunfight by Indio, Mortimer would not have it any other way. It’s less important that Indio dies than that he is killed by Mortimer. When the personal meets the political, the why and the ‘by whom’ matters as much if not more than the what and the ‘to whom’. In Once Upon a Time in the West, it’s important to Chaney that HE kill Frank. He even spares Frank from other killers at one point so that he could kill Frank. And Max understands this too in Once Upon a Time in America. He has many enemies who want to kill him, but the only person he could take it from is Noodles. With others, it’s business but what he did to Noodles was personal.
There is a certain paradox in Italian social dynamics. Strong passions among Italians often lead to weaker bonds whereas cool emotions make for firmer bonds among Anglos and Germans. One would assume that passions and bonds are synonymous, but this isn’t necessarily true. For starters, emotions not only serve to bond but to barricade. An emotion-based(as opposed to a value-based)person may choose family loyalty and honor laws, rules, and shared values. By choosing emotional loyalty on a purely personal or tribal basis, he forsakes the possibility of trust with members of society outside his narrow clan or circle of family members/friends. He chooses brotherhood over humanity. There’s less sense of what IS right/wrong and more a sense of what FEELS right/wrong.
Another problem with emotions is instability. Unless they are cooled by rationality and given ethical form, emotions are often dark and dangerous or wild and disruptive. In the Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Tuco is very Italian in this sense. He’s cynical despite or precisely because of his emotionalism. At one point, he feigns sympathy for Blondie(to pry out the name of the grave where the gold is buried), but on some level, he can’t help feeling a certain bond with Blondie. Even when he fakes his emotions, he can’t help getting all emotional. He feels most alive when crying, laughing, or growling. Because of his wild passion that goes instantly from hot to cold, sentimental to sadistic, pushy to mushy, his emotions never land on a firm set of moral values. When he meets his brother, he goes from chummy to respectful to bitter to furious; and then with Blondie back on the road, he feigns contentment, then grows meditative, and then licks his chops thinking of all that gold. It’s ironic that when killing a long-winded bounty, he, of all people, says, ‘when you have to shoot, shoot, don’t talk.’ Shutting up isn’t one of Tuco’s main virtues.
Even so, Tuco is indispensable to The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly as the life of the party. He channels the wild energy of the Toshiro Mifune character in Seven Samurai. In Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, the hero has both the calmness of the Man with No Name and the rambunctiousness of Ramon, Indio, and Tuco. With the Man with No Name, Mortimer, and Angel Eyes playing it so cool, calm, and collected in the Dollars Trilogy, the dramatic energy really comes from the impassioned fury of Ramon, Indio, and Tuco. (Perhaps the difference between coolheadedness and hotheadedness in the Dollars Trilogy partly reflect the differences between Northern Italy and Southern Italy. Though the world thinks of all Italians as wild and expressive, within Italy itself the Northerners look down on Southerners as wild and uncouth–like Tuco–while Southerners resent Northerners as cold and snobby–like Angel Eyes. This was certainly the case in the Wertmuller film Swept Away, with mostly calmer & lighter skinned Northerners and wilder & darker skinned Southerners, though the blonde woman, though a rich Northerner, had a temperament closer more akin to Southeners.)
There is, of course, a key difference between Ramon/Indio–played by the dark and brooding Gian Maria Volonte–and Tuco–originally offered to Volonte but taken by Eli Wallach. One wonders how The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly might have turned out had Volonte played Tuco. Tuco might have been a darker character than an almost cartoon-like figure. With Wallach as Tuco, the movie is more like The Good, the Bad, and the Funny. Even when Wallach-as-Tuco robs the old gun dealer, he’s less hateful and loathsome than if Volonte had done the same. Also, the significance of Wallach’s ugliness is rather simple; he looks and acts ugly. But Volonte had a certain charisma, a blend of brutish and handsome features. He was both beauty and the beast. Volonte’s ugliness would have been closer to that of Angel Eyes. Ugliness as a kind of manly toughness. After all, there seems to be almost two meanings to ‘bad’ as applied to Angel Eyes. Bad as in evil and bad as in ‘not to mess with’–bad to the bone.
A love-hate mutual reliance develops between the Blondie and Tuco. Blondie, being Anglo, has cooler emotions, and his emotions are always under the lid, like his gaze is often hidden under the brim of the hat. Because Tuco is volatile emotionally, he vacillates between softness and hardness at the drop of the hat. He works closely with Blondie to blow up a bridge. They even exchange the names of the cemetery and grave, where Tuco tells the truth while Blondie tells a lie–or at best a half-truth. After crossing the river, Tuco takes off on a horse to grab all the gold for himself, thus justifying Blondie’s lie about the name on the grave.
The partnership between Blondie and Tuco is one of constant backstabbing, almost a microcosm of politics. Though ostensibly working together, each eyes every opportune moment to gain the advantage. Leone not only captured the competitive brutal essence of human nature but articulated the art by which this game is played by those with the wit and will.
In this sense, Leone’s universe is nihilist-elitist, or nihelitist, where only a few can play and win. Just as regular players are no match for professional poker players, most people in Leone’s films shouldn’t even try to play the game. In the warehouse scene in Once Upon a Time in the West, a man attempts to draw his gun to capture or kill the outlaw Cheyenne, but Cheyenne sternly warns him that he ‘doesn’t know how to play’, and so he better not even try. Killing is for killers, not for civilians, who’ll only get hurt trying to be the ‘hero’ or ‘tough guy’. There was some of this in Hollywood westerns too, most strikingly in the scene where Jack Palance guns down a sodbuster with too much pride. However, even the biggest star of the Western, John Wayne, was never more than human–and Gary Cooper really had to duke it out in High Noon to come out on top. There is an almost Euro-aristocratic grandness about the top killers in Leone westerns. Their superiority is taken for granted, and it’s almost as if they belong to a special breed or race of man. They may be loners and drifters, but they are to rest of humanity what the knights were to the serfs in the Middle Ages. They are not to mess with. There’s the Best–the natural elite–and then the Rest–most of us. This is especially true of characters like the Man with No Name, Mortimer, Ramon, Indio, Chaney, Frank, and even the laconic Cheyenne as representatives of the Best. Tuco and Juan somewhat break away from this mold because they are odd runts or nobodies–by look and manners, part of the Rest–who’ve learned to play the game and come out on top. By the look of him, no one would mistake Tuco for a great killer, but he somehow manages to play the game with the Best–just like the bogus samurai in Seven Samurai played by Mifune fights like and hangs in there with the real samurai. When Chaney bemoans the fading of ‘Man, an Ancient Race’, he means the fading of the aristocracy of the western gunmen, the westocrats who gained demigod status as the knights of law & order or of rape & plunder. Good or bad, they are cut above the Rest; they are the Best. And according to the law of this universe, the best can only be killed by the best, like when Angel Eyes is finally killed by none other than Blondie, who’s bester than the best. The rest–civilians–might as well not even try lest they get hurt or worse. (This may also be a reflection of Italy under the thuggery of Fascists, Nazi occupiers, Mafia, and post-war communists. Generally, a mindset developed among Italians that tough guys could do as they pleased and nobody better get in their way.) This rule is finally broken in Once Upon a Time in the West when we find out that Cheyenne has been fatally shot by the gimpy Morton. Morton represents the bourgeoisie that is poised to usurp power from the warrior caste, which in the West constitutes the gunmen. The coming of big business is driving out the ‘man, the ancient race’–the warrior as ruthless hunter or noble defender–and creating a world where ‘the rest’ than ‘the best’ shall hold sway through the dominance of money over manhood and rule of law over rule of gun. It’s a transformation that must happen for the well-being of Jill and other women and children, for businessmen, for workers, for civilians, etc. This of course was also the theme of Shane and The Searchers. Even so, the rise of the Mortons of the world depends on the use of force, and so, there is an uneasy alliance between Morton and Frank, just as there is one between Jill and Chaney. Morton himself needs to hire the guns and muscles of others, and Jill needs to be protected by the guns and muscles of others. In this sense, the Rest will always depend on the Best. Dirty Harry, in this sense, is an updated western where San Francisco depends on men like Harry Callahan to stop the serial killer and other thugs. The Rest may be averse to violence and especially to the rule of violence, but they need to hire one form of violence to stave off other kinds of violence. (Though Dirty Harry has been called ‘fascist’, it might actually be closer to neo-aristocratic, implying that a society ruled and guarded by a firm warrior caste may be safer than one ruled by craven politicians elected by dumbass liberals.) Of course, the difference is that gunmen of the West had some degree of autonomy and individuality–also true of the aristocratic class in Europe–whereas the police and military forces of modern democracy are utterly slavish to the civilian government(which happens to be controlled by venal liberal Jews pushing a degenerate and anti-white agenda.)
Indio is not any stronger than any of his henchman, but he commands their respect because he is the brain of the operation. He has the wit to power as well as the will to power. The humpback played by Klaus Kinski in For a Few Dollars More is certainly tough but also very stupid, thus easily tricked and killed by Mortimer. In A Fistful of Dollars, the Man with No Name thinks he’s outwitting everyone until Ramon, who’s smarter than most, finally figures out the game. The Leone universe favors men with the quick draw and superior aim, but those alone only go so far. They also need luck–lots of them–, as when Blondie is saved from the noose by cannon fire and later from Tuco’s gun by the arrival of the stagecoach carrying ‘Bill Carson’. But luck easily runs out. To win, one needs superior smarts, skills, and knowledge. Angel Eyes and Blondie are brilliant strategists and expert readers of other people’s minds. As chess players, they would see more moves ahead than their opponents. Tuco isn’t as bright but has enough animal instinct, grit, and cunning to squeeze through tight spots. And in For a Few Dollars More, Mortimer’s advantage comes from his superior array of arsenal and special skills, like opening safes and picking locks. Man with skills is valued over those without. Indio has plenty of tough guys who can pull the trigger but none that can open the safe without blowing it. Though people with higher intelligence and special skills may be less trustworthy–naturally possessing ideas and wills of their own–, having them on one’s side can be crucial at timese. Hitler kicked out Jewish scientists, and German science firmly fell into German hands, but the exiled Jewish scientists played a key role in the making of the atomic bomb in America. Big plus for America and big minus for Germany. But then, many of these brilliant Jews had ideas and agendas of their own and later passed atomic secrets to the Soviets. Jews to gentile white Americans have been like Mortimer to Indio and his gang. A plus and a minus. Mortimer helps Indio open up the safe without dynamite–which might destroy half the money–, but he also intends to take all the money and kill Indio in the bargain. Similarly, thanks to Jewish brilliance in business, science, technology, media, and culture, America gained a great deal in the latter half of the 20th century. But thanks to Jewish influence, white Americans have been largely dispossessed in elite circles and culturally/morally disgraced by the New Jew Order. Russia, in contrast, lost most of its Jews since the end of the Cold War, and one can say Russia is politically controlled and owned by Russians, but the loss of Jewish genius has meant far less innovation and socio-political reform. Jews have been great social critics and reformers but also vicious subversives and vengeful radicals. No people have been such a mixes blessing as the Jews. Jews will build you an atomic bomb but then pass the secrets to your mortal enemy. Jews will criticize and reform social problems but then rob you of historical pride and moral justification. Jews will bring forth greater freedom and then use that freedom to tighten their grip on all of us. Consider how the Jewish-controlled ACLU brought about greater freedom for everyone but now looks the other way as the Jewish elite enforces ever greater speech codes to silence all dissent(from the Right). Mortimer similarly has a dual role in the company of Indio and his men. He acts like a partner who just wants a piece of the pie, but in fact, he conceals a vendetta against Indio. Mortimer puts on a friendly face, but his main goal is to kill Indio. Similarly, though Jews act like they are our best friends, the agenda of most Jews is to take revenge on white gentiles for all the perceived evils of the past. The Jew comes to us with one hand open but with the other holding a knife behind his back. Of course, this is not true of all Jews, and even not all liberal Jews are rabidly and virulently hateful. In their own way, they think they are being virtuous for all humanity. But there are enough Jews in positions of power who do hold a kind of Eternal Grudge against people of white European origin. George Soros is one of them, and there are many others like him.
Paradoxically, Jews grow ever more paranoid with ever greater power. Because Jews are a minority in most nations, they feel nervous about their expanding power. They fear the return of ‘Jews own and control all’ mindset among non-Jews. Therefore, just as Jews gain more wealth and power, they try to fool us–or force us to swallow–that they are powerless and helpless; and people like Abe Foxman labels anyone who speaks Truth to Jewish Power as an ‘antisemite’ or ‘cryto-Nazi’. To demonstrate that they have no power, Jews use their power to silence and blacklist anyone who says they are powerful.
Sadly, there is no shortage of Far Right dummies who expound the kind of nonsense–Holocaust Denial, Hitler Worship, dumb or false racial theories, etc–that lends credence to the likes of ADL and SPLC. Dummies on the Far Right make it difficult to sensibly speak truth to Jewish power by staining criticism of Jewish power with shrill neo-Nazism. Worse, even some of the legitimate critics of Jewish power have been too closer for comfort with the neo-Nazi Stormfront types. Why does Jared Taylor, for example, hang around morons like Don Black and his son?
This is like the Popular Front mentality of the Left during the inter-war period which declared ‘no enemies to the left’. A genuine and honorable Rightist should always uphold truth as truth and justice as justice. The fact that he’s ideologically opposed to the Left and Jewish power shouldn’t mean that everything leftist or Jewish is wrong while everything on the ‘right’ is true. This is the sort of mentality which came to discredit both the Left and the Right in the 20th century–more the Right since Germans lost the war, Nazism was worse than communism, and Jews took over the brain centers of the West. During the Spanish Civil War, the Left, by allying with Stalinists, came to be murdered by Stalinists. And the German Right, by allying with Nazis, came to be owned by Hitler and his radical henchmen. Of course, this mentality is understandable and only natural. If the Left embraces far left radicals, why shouldn’t the Right embrace far right radicals–or vice versa? The obvious danger is the radicals have a chance of taking control and then destroy the moderates on their side as well as the ideological enemies.
Communists didn’t just get rid of capitalists and reactionaries but all the rival leftists. And Hitler didn’t just crush the German Left but severely censored the non-radical German Right
What have liberals really to gain from associating with Stalinists and Maoists? What have conservatives to gain from embracing Holocaust Deniers or religious bigots?
Of course, due to leftist(Jewish)control of the media and culture, being associated with the Far Left is less harmful than with the Far Right, but that explanation alone is insufficient. In its universality and egalitarianism, even the Far Left comes across as broad-minded and fair-minded compared to the ultra-tribalist and supremacist Far Right. Furthermore, liberals also own the title of elitism. Conservatives often attack liberals as ‘elitists’, but being an elitist sounds a lot better than being a supremacist. Elitism is an individual quality under a system of fair rules whereas supremacism is a collective quality enforced through violence and oppression. The idea behind elitism is that the ‘best and the brightest’ should govern and manage society in politics, business, culture, etc. Modern elitism ideally chooses the elite class from individuals with superior qualities and abilities regardless of race, religion, class, etc. (Of course, due to ‘affirmative action’, modern elitism tends to subvert its own ideals of meritocracy in favor of something called ‘diversity’, which basically boils down to elite liberal Jews and turncoat liberal Wasps elevating token ‘clean cut’ blacks and browns at the expense of ordinary whites.)
Modern elitism is also committed to the idea of justice. Elites are instructed not just to expand or safeguard their wealth and power but to use their advantages for the good of mankind.
Conservatives have been bitching about elitism since the great majority of top winners have been liberals and leftists–often of Jewish origin. This makes a joke of conservatism since when conservatives not attacking elitism, they are busy attacking egalitarianism. If liberals are elitists, how can they be egalitarians? Of course, a clever conservative might say his beef is not with people becoming rich and gaining elite status but using their wealth and elite status to gain control over everyone else. And there is some validity to this criticism since contradictions exist on both the Right and Left. If conservatives look foolish attacking liberals for being both elitist and egalitarian, liberals(especially Jewish ones) look foolish for gaining/hogging elite status while preaching endlessly about equality. It is indeed amusing to observe the most unequal people–the Jews–bitching most about equality. (A libertarian, as opposed to a conservative and liberal, may oppose both elitism and egalitarianism as a kind of collectivism, an enemy of individualism. Egalitarianism forces individuals to share their wealth with other people in a collectivist community, and elitism places control of society in the hands of a ruling class of either the very rich or the so-called ‘best and the brightest’ intellectuals. Libertarians believe that no person, no matter how rich, intelligent, or knowledgeable, should have the power to RULE over other people and dictate how they should lead their lives. A libertarian is not averse to the idea of people rising to the top in whatever field, but winners should succeed only as individuals and shouldn’t get together with other individuals to form a collective entity called ‘an elite’ to enforce their values and agendas on everyone else. Libertarianism has an undeniable appeal but is naive about how humanity operates and society works. Its extreme anti-utopianism is a kind of utopianism, based on the assumption that there can ever be a society where everyone eagerly embraces total personal freedom and complete self-responsibility commensurate to it. There should be no reason to oppose such society if it were ever possible, but of course, it’s not. Critics of socialism often focus on the stupidity or misguidedness of selflessness or altruism, but they often overlook the fact that the REAL appeal of socialism is greed on the part of the masses. People often prefer something for free than freedom without handouts. Even in the so-called Wild West capitalist USA, countless Americans, conservatives included, are dependent on big government in one form or another. And many rich people support big government because wealth isn’t enough in their often vapid and empty lives. Awash in too much cash, they want to gain power and forge political dynasties. In this regard, there’s precious little difference between the Democratic Kennedies and the Republican Bushies.)
Anyway, due to the contradiction within the conservative criticism of liberal elitism/egalitarianism, most conservatives have settled for a kind of populist individualism. The emphasis is less on excellence–owned mostly by liberal wasps and leftist Jews–than on the sheer enjoyment of being a free-loving individual. But this is on politically shaky grounds since many conservatives are Christian Evangelical types who’d like to see ‘community standards’ enforced on everyone. They want ‘government off our backs’ not for the sake of unfettered individual freedom but to enforce ‘Christian values’ via the removal of the separation of church and state. Many social conservatives resent government power not because it interferes with their freedoms but because it allows freedoms they don’t like. Similarly, white Southerners opposed the reach of the federal government not because it violated their rights and took away their freedom but because it undermined their power to keep the Negro in his place. ‘States rights’ may be a good principle, but for Southern whites it simply meant the white right to keep the Negro a second class citizen. Freedom, in this sense, meant white people’s freedom to curtail or repress the freedom of the Negro. It is for this reason that the idealistic-and-principled sounding Southern White defense of states’ rights has always been disingenuous. It would have been better for Southern Whites to defend their way of life and racial arrangement on the principle of preserving SAFETY AND SECURITY–than freedom and liberty– for white folks. The distinct social and political order of the South was predicated on denying full rights and freedoms to blacks, and the ONLY WAY this could be justified on moral grounds was by stating the fact that blacks pose a physical threat to white people(via crime and bullying), sexual threat to the white race(via increased miscegenation), and psychological threat to white males(via black males winning in sports, beating up white boys, and taking increasing number of white women). But for this argument to stick, whites would have to admit that blacks are tougher and stronger, thus posing a threat to the white race. But white males, filled with centuries of alpha male pride due to having subjugated the world with their guns and knowhow, simply couldn’t swallow their dumbass pride and admit the obvious. They simply couldn’t admit to themselves, their own women, and to the world that they feared the muscular and big-dicked Negro. To mask their own fears and insecurity, they put on the tough guy act and called blacks ‘niggers’ in front of TV cameras. People like MLK and liberal Jews cleverly found a way to exploit this, presenting to the whole wide world images of helpless defenseless blacks being attacked by tough ultra-macho white bullies and toughs. Though whites had every right to fear the stronger, tougher, and more aggressive Negro, the image that was disseminated around the world was the very opposite–saintly blacks fearing big tough whites. White Southerners were too dumb to realize that their empty macho man act was actually doing great harm and no good at all. Sure, it made Southern white males feel tough and badass, but it also undermined the only compelling reason that they had for opposing integration–fear of tougher Negroes. Since white guys put on the I-can-kick-any-nigger’s-ass act, they were telling the whole world that they had nothing to fear from the Negro. White males, too proud to admit their fear of being victimized by tougher blacks if integration were to become law, just took out their fury and frustration by yelling ‘nigger’ and throwing bricks. And this paradigm has stuck to this day, not least because the media are owned by liberal Jews and because most white males are STILL unwilling to swallow their dumb pride and admit their fear of the Negro with the harder muscle and the bigger dick. So, even as the white race faces ever mounting racial threats in both America and Europe, the ONLY rationale that can save them from Negroes is nowhere to be heard in the political discourse of both the Left and Right. It is anathema to the Left which is committed to false notions of racial equality–where whites are not more intelligent than blacks and where blacks are not stronger than whites–, and it is anathema to the White Right–where supremacist white males still can’t admit that blacks can beat their honkeyass and take more white women. White males with wounded pride go into childish name-calling, dismissing mudsharks as ‘skanks’ when, in fact, rise of black-male-and-white-female interracism is the NATURAL result of racial dynamics–where pretty women flock to stronger, bigger penised, and more musical males. This is why ONLY racial separation from the black race will save the white race. As long as these two races co-exist, more white women will go with Negro males, and more white boys will get their asses handed on a platter by tougher Negroes. This is the truth, but who’s listening? Empty pride is a stupid thing indeed.
Anyway, even the mantra of populist individualism among conservatives is bound to prove counter-productive since most fun liberties and freedoms in the US are associated with popular culture owned and dominated by liberals, leftists, gays, Jews, and blacks. The posterchild of populist individual freedom today is Lady Gaga or black rappers. Is that what conservatives are all about? I suppose some do, if only out of desperation, which may explain political phenomena such as ‘hip hop Republicans’.
If the Dollars Trilogy show the naked dynamics of power and is centered around material interests, Once Upon a Time in the West and Duck You Sucker explore another aspect of power. In the end, money means little in Once Upon a Time in the West. The power dynamics are rooted in personal emotions than in naked greed. Chaney has no interest in money, and his main agenda is to avenge the death of his brother at the hands of Frank. He comes to the rescue of Jill(Claudia Cardinale)due to the accident of circumstances–she inherited the land coveted by a railroad tycoon and his main henchman–, and she becomes both an hindrance to and an instrument for his vengeance; one could say she’s even used as a bait to lure Frank for the showdown. He has humane qualities, but his main agenda is to get even with Frank. In this regard, he has something in common with Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More–who also cares more about vengeance than money. But if the main narrative emphasis of For a Few Dollars More is about grabbing all the loot–and indeed the final image is of Manco riding away with the cash prize–, all the particulars in Once Upon a Time in the West are motivated more by passion or dreams than by money. The railroad tycoon, for instance, has more money than he can ever use, and besides, his days are numbered; his grand obsession is to reach the Pacific Ocean before succumbing to his disease. What interests him is not so much the money as what he can achieve with the money. Crippled and dying, he wants to build a lasting monument to himself–maybe an echo of Colonel Nicholson(Alec Guinness) in Bridge on the River Kwai. (Juan, who has little money, is obsessed with money itself, while Morton, with too much money, is obsessed with what money can do. Though Morton is a villain of sorts, we can’t help but admire him as the kind of big-thinking American capitalist who built this country. At the very least, he’s not just an hoarder of wealth like the old nobility that cared only for big mansions and costume balls. Morton, who could be taking it easy in his twilight yrs, still has an iron work ethic and the granite will to see his vision through. He’s a dreamer and a tireless enterpriser. Alas, dreams can only be realized through schemes. One can dream of a nice big steak but ain’t gonna happen unless a cow is slaughtered. Chaney can dream of revenge all he wants, but he’s only gonna get it by a cold determination to kill–not just Frank but everyone standing between him and Frank. Similarly, for Morton to reach the Pacific Ocean, he must ruthlessly remove all obstacles between him and his dream. And this requires a Machiavellian blend of mental bluff and physical force. In Once Upon a Time in America, dreams are an opiate–a haven and refuge– for Noodles and a fuel–weapon and agenda–for Max. Dreams help Noodles to escape from the world; dreams energize Max to conquer the world. But poor man or rich man, if there’s an area they both share, it is the alleyway of the mind where dreams live. In this sense, it is significant that Noodles and Max get beaten to a pulp by Bugsy and his gang in an alleyway. After the beating, Max says he’s gonna kill Bugsy while Noodles says, ‘it looks like they killed us’. It’s as if their dreams began in the alleyways of America and of the human psyche; if Noodles tends to be resigned to fate when things go badly, Max is not only willing to fight back but to climber higher whatever the cost. And so, Noodles and Max ultimately end up going separate ways, but they are always connected by the same alleyways of memory–the side entrance of Fat Moe’s diner via the very alley where they got beat up by Bugsy and by the dreams they shared as boys. There is both a social and psychological significance to this: social in the sense that Noodles and Max are poor minorities–Jews–without a key to the front door entrance to the American Dream and therefore must break in through side streets; psychological in the sense that all dreams are hidden and private. When Noodles and Max meet again, they can’t connect through the open space of words. Max pretends as if all accounts can be settled with money and vengeance. And Noodles pretends as if he’s addressing Mr. Bailey and not Max. But in their emotions around the corner of the words spoken, in the alleyways of their hearts, there is still the memory of shared dreams and something like love. So, it is fitting that Noodles is shown an exit through a hidden door and that their last moment together is in the back street–a kind of alleyway–of the mansion where we see a garbage truck, a vehicle we generally associate with backstreets; no matter how far Max came, he is in some ways the same Jewish rat who had the dreams of a lion and the heart of a shark. Significantly, there are two doors in the reunion scene with the aged Noodles and Debra: the main door of ‘official reality’ and the hidden door, a pathway to dreams. Likewise, the side alleyway door of Fat Moe’s serves as a passage to both the pure & beautiful young Debra–before Noodles goes to prison–and the criminal enterprise of bootlegging–after Noodles leaves prison. The irony is the righteous represented by Debra and the dark represented by Max lead to the same destination. It’s as if Debra played respectable to gain power, and Max played powerful to gain respectability. Debra wasn’t being good to be good, and Max wasn’t being bad just to be bad. ‘Good’ and ‘bad’ were mere tools to “get to where I’m going.”)
Morton can barely walk but is constantly on the move across his iron-railed empire. He’s a businessman but also a dreamer. Though Frank initially appears as a man of greed, he later realizes and admits he’s not a ‘businessman’. He becomes self-conscious of his real nature–mythic man of the West fated for extinction. His villainy notwithstanding, he is a romantic than a materialistic figure. It’s almost as if he understands that his days are numbered, and there is but one way to make a properly meaningful and grand exit. If he must die, it must be at the hands for someone who has the right to kill him. (This is echoed in the final encounter between Noodles and Max, who feels that if die he must, it must be at the hands of Noodles, the only person who has the ‘right’ to kill him. However wicked Frank and Max may be, when faced with the near-certainty of death, they want it to be about something other than money.)
Frank is a stark contrast to Morton the railroad baron in the nature of their power. Morton is physically weak but equipped with business sense while Frank is physically tough but has much to learn about soft power. Frank is no dummy, but he’s used to getting things his way through naked force, which means he’ll always be an outlaw than a businessman. Business may be crooked, but the trick is gaining an advantage without mudding or blooding one’s own hands. Frank’s hands will always be stained with blood, so he’ll never master the art of business. (It’s interesting that this inability to make the transition from outlaw to businessman depicted in a manner that is both despairing and romantic–even redemptive. On the one hand, it’s too bad that Frank cannot put aside his outlawry and become a legitimate businessman; on the other hand, it is precisely this failure which earns him our respect as one of the dying breed of ‘man, an ancient race’. Similarly, we are made to sympathize with Noodles when he says to Max that he’s not interested in going into legitimate business with the labor union once the Prohibition is over. Noodles would rather ‘carry the stink of the streets for the rest of his life’. In the Leone universe, the so-called legitimate world of politics and business is inhabited and controlled by cutthroats and crooks. It’s a very cynical Southern Italian view of society, echoed also in The Godfather movies which would have us believe that the Mafia is really no different than any other kind of Big Business or Big Politics. So, when Noodles says NO to the offer, it’s as if he’s choosing the life of an honest thief than a dishonest businessman. A gangster admits his crookedness while big businessmen and politicians, though thieves themselves, pretend otherwise. This is also stated by Juan in Duck You Sucker when he spews his disgust at intellectuals and revolutionaries who talk about ‘justice’ and ‘equality’ but really seek power and privilege for themselves. Personally, I think this worldview is corrosive; for one thing, it is a self-fulfilling and self-justifying prophecy. It’s too easy for cheaters and crooks to rationalize their behavior with: ‘I do it cuz everyone else does it too.’ It is mentality such as this which made Greeks and Italians more corrupt, crooked, rotten, and untrusting than Northern Europeans.)
Morton, one might say, is more Jewishy, while Frank is more like a pagan warrior. Frank’s final showdown with Chaney is party to test his fading strength as a gunfighter. If for Christians, ‘he who lives by the sword dies by the sword’ is a cautionary moral tale, it is the most honorable exit for a pagan warrior. Frank loses to Chaney, but in one sense, he dies an honorable death(at the hands of another great warrior)for a man in his profession–much more so than Cheyenne who unluckily gets shot by the physically decrepit and pitiful Morton. (It’s a like boxing champion would prefer to lose to another great fighter than get sucker-punched out by a palooka.)
If there’s no future for guys like Frank in the changing West–after all, he’s not a ‘businessman’–, then the only that’s left is a meaningful death. In a sense, all warriors have a deathwish. If they don’t die in the battlefield, they are fated only to fade away. What Frank gains is not so much a conscience as a kind of self-consciousness. (It’s like the scene in Excalibur where Arthur explains to Guinevere that he wasn’t ‘born to lead a man’s life but to be the stuff of future memory.’ And the hero of 13th Warrior gains a kind of mythic consciousness as death looms before him. Sometimes, a meaningful moment–even in death–has more value than a lifetime of humdrum nothingness. Memory, personal or historical, is highly discriminatory and ‘unfair’, neglecting and forgetting almost everything but the relatively few moments and figures of special significance. Everyone savors those special figures and moments–as objects of worship or emulation. Mishima chose what he deemed a meaningful death over a gradual aging into senility. In Downfall, Albert Speer explains to Hitler that it’s the Fuhrer’s destiny on the world stage to die in the bunker than flee for safety. In the Wild Bunch, the fellas choose a grand exit promising mythic glory than safe exit offering little more than the usual outlawry and growing older. People wish for the special moment made possible by a set of circumstances, much of which is beyond their control. In the Graduate, Benjamin Braddock’s mythic opportunity comes with the chance to save Elaine. Of course, after he triumphs, he’s back to the humdrum. It is for this reason that deathwish has a special appeal–life ideally ends with or immediately following the great meaningful act. The men in the Wild Bunch die in the greatest moment, the climax, of their lives. For a movie to have an happy ending, it must end or die with the happy ending. If the story goes on, happiness fades and the humdrum returns. In this sense, all happy endings are sad because stories must end or die with them in order for the happiness to linger in our minds as the defining moments of the stories. Ben and Elaine come together in the end, the climax of their lives, but then what? Mike Nichols shows us an inkling of what lies ahead: the dull plateau of life much like that of like their parents. This is also true of meaningful sad endings. Tragedies have a mythic resonance in our minds because of the final imagery of elegy and despair. If the story of King Lear had continued after the death of Lear, the tragic element would dissipated and overwhelmed by mundaneness. Tragedies grapple with the ugliness of life but attain poetic beauty by crystallizing pools of despair into a moment of nobly agonized emotions. Of course, some stories manage to juggle both the happy and the sad. The endings of Seven Samurai and Siberiade survey the entire spectrum of emotions. The mythic element of death may explain the recklessness of many rock stars in the 60s who brazenly played with fire. Rock music was about reaching the climax, the peak of human sensuality and madness. It’s almost as if rock stars wanted to be immolated in their own music, as suggested in Light My Fire. Or consider The Who and ‘hope I die before I get too old.’ Though the Man with No Name comes out on top in the Dollars Trilogy, what could be sadder than watching him grow old and lose his abilities as a killer? Indeed, the presence of Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More is poignant because he’s an aging killer on a last hurrah mission.)
There is a similar dynamic in Max’s contract with Noodles. Max knows his days are numbered–he’s gonna be bumped off one way or another–, and so, he wants a meaningful death(on personal than business grounds). If not for money or fame(and influence), power is fueled by desire for vengeance(or resentment), or dreams. Of course, there are more than one way to take revenge. When Noodles refuses to kill Max, he is both letting go(if not outright forgiving Max) and taking revenge. By refusing to play Max’s game, Noodles rises above Max. Besides, killing Max would be doing him a favor and once again playing by his rules. This is one thing Noodles cannot say ‘Agreed’ to. In a way, Noodles is throwing Max to the sharks who’ll kill him for purely business reasons. (Ironically, Noodles, who hated himself for so many years for having failed to save Max, fails to ‘save’ Max again–offering him a meaningful death–by walking away. The last he sees of Max is possibly Max’s remains being devoured by a garbage truck, though it’s unclear what really happens.) Max, smart though he is, is not without emotional vulnerability. In a way, he may be so ham-fisted because he’s so thin-skinned. He strikes first because he can’t stand to be touched. Max unconvincingly insists everything between them has been straightened out because Noodles got the million dollars and the opportunity to get his revenge. But if it’s all about money, why does Max need to be killed by Noodles? Max, monstrous as he is, cannot suppress the real affection he had and still has for Noodles. Also, Max’s betrayal of Noodles and others wasn’t only about money. Like Morton the railroad baron, he wasn’t just interested in the money–as Tuco might be–but in the dreams money can buy. Max wanted from the world something other than fear; he wanted respect. He wanted status, to be part of the inner circle of American power. And in his own way, Max was fueled by a sense of vengeance and/or resentment. He grew up as a Jew in a mostly gentile country; if his kinsmen in Russia joined the NKVD, Max chose to join the brotherHOOD. Even in his youth, he felt smarter than and wanted to rise above everyone else. He relishes being a gangster but has bigger ideas. Everything is a rung on the social ladder to step onto something better–and this goes for friendship too. As a Jewish hood, his friends were the guys he knew from childhood. As a man with money and ambition, his old friends become a drag–and dispensable. If you enter professional football, you don’t hang around old friends in highschool sports. Max wants to join the Big Leagues and bury his minor league past. He’s a bundle of contradictions; though he’s a vengeful Jew, he’s also a self-loathing Jew who wants to shed his Jewishness and remake himself into a member of the wasp uberclass. His soul is a morgue of demons. The more he goes for ‘straight’, the more crooked he must play.
Max may also have been resentful of Noodles because of the latter’s handsomer features, stiffer hard-on and the affection of Deborah. Max may also resent Noodle’s capacity for inner peace, something that always eludes him. (It’s as though Max has to control the world around him because he can’t control the rage within him.) Of course, Noodles has his dark side too; he kills people for money and, in frustration, rapes Deborah. But, it remains that Deborah really did love Noodles–and never lost affection for him–, something that can’t be said for her ‘political’ relationship with Max. Max knows he can own her body(and maybe even her soul) but never her heart. Max might even have heard rumors that Noodles raped Deborah, the woman of his dreams, and thus developed a special bitterness toward him. Half of Noodles is clearly a thug and a hood, but another half is a man who’s able to let things go and find inner peace. This is not possible for Max who, by nature, is always on the prowl. Max is a classic workaholic, like a shark that sinks if it doesn’t swim. For this reason, Noodles becomes to him both a burden and a reminder of his faults–especially the inability to be happy with what he has. Most frighteningly, Max is both the craziest and the most rational person in the movie. He’s like a ‘political’ Bobby Fischer–unhinged but better than most at the game of power. But he’s not completely devoid of an heart. He wants to lead but also values and honors Noodles as a dear friend and equal partner–before the betrayal which, btw, didn’t come easily. It may even be true that he really wanted to succeed WITH Noodles. At one point, he proposes to Noodles an idea to expand their enterprise with the help of unions; with the looming end of the Prohibition, Max knows he has to play his cards right or else miss out on a golden opportunity. For Noodles, the money they’ve made during the Prohibition is enough. As far as Noodles is concerned, the great passion of his life–Debra–is gone from his life, so he might as well just take it easy and settle down with some nice girl. For Max, his life hasn’t really even started yet. Despite all the money he’s made, he sees it as a mere prelude to what he can really accomplish. In a way, Noodles and Max represent two sides of George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life. One part of George Bailey, like Max, wants to dump everything in Bedford Falls and go for the big times, whatever the cost. Another part of Bailey, like Noodles, is emotionally drawn to Bedford Falls and his memories there. And like Once Upon a Time in America, It’s a Wonderful Life also eschews chronological narrative and travels back and forth in time. And George Bailey’s long angel-induced hallucination is like Noodle’s opiate daze.
It’s worth asking, would Max have turned on Noodles and his friends if Noodles had agreed to go along with Max’s plan of doing business with the unions? Did Max have a long-term secret plan to knock off his friends, or was it something he was ‘forced’ to improvise in response to Noodle’s recalcitrance to go for bigger things? Max is more like one of the characters in the Dollars Trilogy; winning means more than loyalty. Noodles would never throw Max overboard for personal gain, but Max is capable of doing that. Like Blondie, Tuco, and Angel Eyes, Max is capable of betrayal (This is somewhat complicated by the fact that if the young Noodles goes for Debra, he’s betraying his friends; and if he goes with his friends, he’s betraying Debra. Given Max and Debra end up together, it’s as if they both betrayed Noodles.) Since the three principals of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly were without principles, the constant deceptions and betrayals were part of the fun than matters of moral concern. But betrayal has gravitas in Once Upon a Time in America since there are genuine emotional bonds between the men. Max and Noodles were best friends. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Frank and Morton are partners in crime who work behind each other’s back, but it’s all about business. Max, in contrast, violates the personal sphere with matters of business. Ideally in the gangster universe–like in the Godfather–, the personal shouldn’t interfere with business and vice versa. Michael tells Kay not to ask about his business in the ending of The Godfather. And Max wasn’t supposed to violate his personal life with business. But in one sense, the friendship between Max and Noodles was shaky from the beginning. Unlike Noodle’s relations to other guys–Cockeye, Patrick, and Dominic–, the friendship with Max began in their teens than in childhood. They didn’t grow up together in the same tenements, but Max moved into the neighborhood, and his first act was to cheat Noodles and his friends(by ‘rescuing’ a drunk that was supposed to be ‘rolled’ by Noodles). Thus, Max stole the watch from the drunk that Noodles was supposed to grab. Max and Noodles soon meet again–as enemies–and become friends only because a corrupt cop takes the watch from both of them. They become friends almost by accident than by design. (To be sure, something clicks between them when the policeman walks away with the watch. They instinctively feel a certain chemistry, as if they were meant for each other. Though Noodles knew Cockeye, Patrick, and Dominic longer, he takes an instant and deep liking of Max. Max is not only nearer his age but seems to have qualities other than that of street punks.) Also, friendship in crime is based more on material interest than personal feelings. Furthermore, the bond between Noodles and others, especially Max, grew deeper because Noodles had to serve time for killing Bugsy(and perhaps a policeman) in order to avenge Dominic and save the others. Because of Noodles’ ‘sacrifice’, he gains a special respect among his friends. So, even though the friendship between Noodles and Max is genuine, it was built on sand. It developed by accident and convenience, similar to the partnership between Tuco and Blondie, Frank and Morton, Chaney and Cheyenne, and Sean and Juan. The first encounter between Chaney and Cheyenne in Once Upon a Time in the West is very instructive in this regard. Both are filled with distrust and curiosity. They carefully gauge and provoke each other, testing each other’s strengths and weaknesses. They could have as easily become enemies as friends. Nothing is for certain in the Leone universe. What begins as rivalry can develop into a deep bond–like Sean and Juan first attacking one another and then becoming genuine partners. It is almost by accident and chance that Chaney and Cheyenne become friends than foes. Noodles and Max begin as foes, then become friends. Business comes between them, and Max forces(or manipulates) Noodles to betray him(in the idea of saving him)all the while plotting a grand betrayal of Noodles(and others).
Because Max can be so out-of-control, he’s entirely, indeed frighteningly, convincing when he says he plans to rob the Federal Reserve. Ironically, it’s a totally crazy idea concealing an wholly rational, albeit ruthless, idea. Max is only diverting Noodles and others’ attention to the crazy plan while plotting to wipe them out and grab all the money for himself. Max sometimes puts on a sane facade to hide his hot-blooded craziness and sometimes puts on a crazy facade to hide his cold-blooded rationality. He’s not only a man of many faces but of many minds and hearts. He is one crazy Jew. What this shows is that a man who wants power needs to be a great actor, whether in business, politics, crime, etc. The game of politics is not only about making deals but bluffing, conspiring, and deception. One can’t win in poker by being honest. Even if one plays by the rules, the art of poker is deceit. So are physical sports like boxing, baseball, and football. Strength alone won’t win games. One psyches out the opponent by moving as if to throw a right-across while throwing a left hook. (Quentin Tarantino may have been alluding to Leone films when an undercover police officer tells Tim Roth that, ‘if you aint a great actor, you’re a bad actor, and bad acting is bullshit’. And it is when the older Debra is a ‘lousy actress’ that she can’t hide the truth from Noodles anymore.)
In Leone’s universe, as in reality, greed for money and vengeance are often bedfellows. When Blondie ditches Tuco in the desert and rides off with the money, Tuco not only goes after the money but to get even with Blondie. And despite their cooperation to get the gold, Blondie takes revenge on Tuco in the final scene by scaring him half to death. Money leads to greed, greed leads to betrayal, betrayal leads to revenge, and revenge leads to counter-revenge. And there is the element of pride too. The reason why Blondie abandoned Tuco in the desert was because the latter rubbed salt into his wounded pride after having failed to cut Tuco’s hanging rope with one clean shot. Blondie’s pride rests on being the best gunman in the West; it was bad enough that he missed, but it’s even worse to hear a no-good punk like Tuco dig into him. So, Blondie’s cruel toying with Tuco in the final scene is not only revenge for what Tuco did to him in the desert but to prove to Tuco and himself that he is indeed the best gunman of the West. Italians are probably very familiar with this kind of male pride. And of course, the idea of the vendetta is very big in Italy. Where a people don’t have nor believe in the rule of law, the only justice is to get even.
The theme of vengeance is as old as mold in fiction and commonplace in Western movies. But if vengeance in most traditional westerns tends to be moralistic, vengeance in Leone’s films tend to be personal. It’s less about right-or-wrong than you-did-me-wrong. This is inevitable since Leone films are almost entirely devoid of lawmen(as significant characters) and instead populated with gunmen, drifters, outlaws, bounty hunters, gangsters, and moneymen. And the few lawmen that do exist tend to be as corrupt as everyone else–this may be a reflection of Italian social and political reality. In A Fistful of Dollars, the gun-running boss Baxter is supposed to be the sheriff of the town. In For a Few Dollars More, a sheriff turns out to be a stooge for the bad guys and even informs Cavanagh’s pals that their friend is being stalked by a bounty hunter(Manco). In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Angel Eyes becomes a prison camp commander and uses his legal authority to rob and torture prisoners. There seems to be very little in the way of law and order in Once Upon a Time in the West. Power is a matter of the fast gun or how many gunmen one can buy. In Duck You Sucker, the government troops are presented as the main enemy of the people. In Once Upon a Time in America, we see a horny cop on the take banging a young Jewish girl, and later we see Danny Aiello as a police chief with cozy ties to Big Business. It’s a very Southern Italian view of the world, where no one can be trusted and where law & order is for suckers.
The plot and action in Budd Boetticher and Anthony Mann’s westerns are big on vengeance, but there is a (somewhat puritanical)questioning of motives and outcomes. According to the morality of the traditional western, vengeance cannot be justified as a matter of pride or personal vendetta.
Nor should justice be a matter of financial gain, which is why bounty hunters tend to be among the most despised characters in the traditional westerns; they are to justice what mercenaries are to war(and what Jewish money-lenders were to traditional Christian society); they kill for money. Frank Miller is out for personal vengeance in High Noon when he arrives in town; he wants to kill the sheriff. It doesn’t matter to Frank Miller that he’d been put away because he committed a crime. Right-and-wrong has no meaning for him. All that matters is someone locked him up, so he must kill that person. In the traditional Western, vengeance is justified when a clear moral wrong–universally recognizable–has been committed, as when, for example, someone kills an innocent person. Also, the vengeance must be directed at the wrongdoer.
This is not the case in Leone films where vengeance is often personal or a matter of pride; it is also often indiscriminately directed at the entire world. When Tuco comes out of the desert after Blondie’s betrayal, he hurts, humiliates, betrays, and destroy anyone in his path to get back at Blondie. He relishes stealing the guns and money from an old gun dealer. He then goads some buddies to help him go after Blondie, using them as bait to surprise Blondie; naturally, they end up dead by going through the door while he enters through the window. There is a lack of moral focus in many of Leone films where characters will hurt any number of people to take their vendetta on the entire world. Sean(James Coburn) in Duck You Sucker carries bitter memories of Ireland in his heart and takes out his rage by blowing things up in Mexico. Sometimes, vengeance is kind of a game. When Juan(Rod Steiger) shoots the tire of Sean’s motorbike, Sean blows up a part of Juan’s stolen coach. When Juan shoots up the bike some more, Sean blows up the entire coach.
Juan is both apolitical and highly political depending on how we define ‘political’. He’s certainly not an intellectual or an ideologue. He tends to be very cynical about all sides, subscribing to a kind of “won’t get fooled again” mentality. But the apolitical can be political too since it is a philosophical interpretation of and approach to power. Since an apolitical person has to cope with the pressures of the real world like anyone else, he must devise his own way of navigating through the socio-economic powers-that-be. An apolitical person is essentially a political person without the illusion of ideals. Since he rejects collective or higher ideals, the game of power becomes looking out for number one–himself, his clan, or his tribe. For Juan, politics is banditry. It feeds him and his family and lets them enjoy moments of power over their rich victims. It is a form of tribal anarchy where blood matters above all else.
Pasqualino, the main character of Seven Beauties(directed by Wertmuller), is similarly apolitically political. He has no illusions about ideologies or the larger community; instead, he believes in his own survival–to be buttressed by a large family. If the world is filled with strangers, sharks, and charlatans, then there’s no one to care for and trust than oneself and maybe blood kin. Though it may be honorable to die for one’s nation or higher cause, the game of survival favors the rat over the lion.
Germans fought with great resolve and courage(and idealism, no matter how misguided)in WWII and lost millions. Italians acted like opportunistic cowards and surrendered more quickly but lost far fewer lives. It’s interesting that Italians, who are so big on pride, are also so quick to swallow their pride and kiss ass. Perhaps, Italian cultural consciousness is more about style than substance. Or, maybe Italians need to exaggerate their pride precisely because they have so little of it–just like a poor man might show off his one precious possession.(Consider the poor man with the top hat in DeSica’s Miracle in Milan). In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, we see scores of soldiers running into combat and dying for a ‘great cause’ while Blondie and Tuco watch from a distance; if they are going to risk their lives for something, it’s gotta have some gold attached to it. No use dying for abstract ideals commandeered by people in high(and safe)places.
In A Fistful of Dollars, family bonds are the strongest. There is Baxter, his wife, and son. There are Ramon and his brothers. And there is the husband, wife, and the child who are saved by the Man with No Name. For a Few Dollars More ends with the revelation that Colonel Mortimer’s main motive had been to avenge his sister(raped and murdered by Indio). And arguably the most sentimental scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is between Tuco and his brother. Unfortunately for Tuco, things don’t turn out so well; even so, his brother apologizes to Tuco as latter takes leave. In Once Upon a Time in the West, a sense of meaningful community is represented by a family out in the middle of nowhere–tragically gunned down by Frank and his men. And Chaney’s entire modus operandi is to avenge his brother by killing Frank. And even the bandit Cheyenne reflects on his mother when saying kind words to Jill.
In Leone’s universe, genuine sympathy exists mainly within the family. Among characters without family ties or attachments, some are better than others. Eastwood characters in the Dollars Trilogy have some degree of empathy and conscience while guys like Angel Eyes are self-serving arch-individualists. Angel Eyes may be the most sinister person in the Dollars Trilogy for being so utterly without feeling for anyone but himself. Ramon in A Fistful of Dollars, though murderous and psychotic, is still a brother to his brothers. Indio, though without family and love, goes into strange moods partly because he wants something other than money. He keeps stalking the memory or the memory keeps stalking him of the night when he held something of beauty and warmth in his brutal arms. Just when he was making love to her, she took his gun and shot herself; she chose to die than be defiled by a beast–perhaps an echo of Birth of a Nation. So, there is an element of self-loathing in Indio. He knows he’s scum of the Earth in the eyes of respectable society, and he takes his revenge on the world through robbery and murder. Even so, all the money in the world cannot make him happy. A part of him longs for love. When he has the wife and child of a man who betrayed him shot, he seems almost envious of the thing he cannot have–family. Angel Eyes is different. He’s a near-sociopath incapable of feeling pity toward others. He has no use for human emotions, which is something that cannot be said for Ramon and Indio. Ramon, in his sick way, loves Marisol(Marianne Koch). And we know that Indio goes crazy because he does, on some level, have human emotions that are gnarled and tormented. But Angel Eyes is pure ruthlessness. Frank of Once Upon a Time in the West isn’t much better, but there is still some sense that he wants to settle down and be respectable, perhaps, even as a family man. And there’s something romantic about him, at least to the extent that he realizes that he’s not about The Money but about the (Moment of)Truth. His acceptance of the duel with Chaney is not without honor.
The Time Trilogy–Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America–has a psychological angle on power that is more or less missing in the Dollars Trilogy, which is essentially about the naked mechanics of power. Though complications arise–Man with No Name saves the family in A Fistful of Dollars and Mortimer is out for revenge than money–, the Dollars Trilogy is about guns and, well, dollars.
But from the very outset of Once Upon a Time in the West, we know Chaney isn’t out for money. In fact, he always seems to be gazing into the distances–into past and future. The present is merely the stage carrying him into the future to redeem the past.
When facing off against three killers in the opening scene, he’s looking beyond/past them to the eventual and inevitable confrontation with Frank. Though a ‘good guy’, he’s a disturbing bundle of intense rage and utmost patience, a hard man who takes it ‘easy’. He does right by Jill(Cardinale) partly because they have something in common: family members were killed by Frank. (There is a crucial difference though. Chaney lost a real brother whereas Jill loses a family she gained by marriage. Thus, Jill’s sadness over the McBain Massacre cannot match Chaney’s smoldering rage over the hanging death of his brother. Indeed, when she finds nothing of worth in the McBain McMansion, she is prevented from leaving by Chaney’s intervention. He wants to both protect her and force her do the right thing. She was a prostitute for whom human relations amounted to fleeting transaction of money. She found the promise of a new life by marrying McBain, but when finding him dead with his entire family, she decides to return to her old profession, which she calls ‘civilization’. It’s important for Chaney to prevent this because a world where everything is about money belongs to the likes of Morton and Frank. For life to have meaning, people must put down roots and follow their dreams.)
Cheyenne(Jason Robards)makes his introduction as a cutthroat bandit, but he softens up later for two reasons: the influence of the lovely Jill, a hooker with a heart of gold seeking respect(and not without a kind of inner dignity). Like Jill the whore, Cheyenne is something is an outcast looking for a piece of redemption and respect. Especially since Frank fixed things to frame him for the murder of Jill’s husband and family, Cheyenne is forced to fight to restore his ‘good name’–or at least take revenge.
Another major theme of Once Upon a Time in the West is the relation of age and power. The motif of old age or aging was already introduced in A Fistful of Dollars where the Man with No Name befriends two old men–restaurant owner and coffin maker–, is later rescued by them, and finally goes off to save one of them. The Dollars Trilogy is essentially dominated by young men with fast guns and good eyesight. Indeed, one of the reasons why Baxter loses out to Ramon is the difference in age. Ramon is in his prime whereas Baxter is a middle aged father and husband. It’s young turk vs old turk. Things are more complicated in For a Few Dollars More with Lee Van Cleef as the older bounty hunter Mortimer. In the opening scene, he hunts down a young bandit and shoots him dead with superior weaponry and skills. Later, he faces off against Manco, whereupon the younger and stronger Manco knocks him to down and then shoots his hat hither and thither. In terms of brute strength and fast draw, Manco has the edge on Mortimer, but Mortimer has a better strategy, greater patience, superior weapons and skills. After Manco unloads his pistol, Mortimer manages to shoot Manco’s hat into the air repeatedly with a pistol at longer range. Manco and Mortimer become uneasy allies, and we eventually learn that Mortimer had set his sight on Indio for a very long time. Indio, like Manco, is the younger and stronger man than the older Mortimer, and so Mortimer has to compensate with wit and brainpower. In the final scene as Mortimer rides off into the sunset, we know he doesn’t have too many good yrs left in him.
In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Angel Eyes makes his appearance by significantly killing two older men. Though Angel Eyes is clearly older than Tuco and Blondie, it’s as though he wants to put off or suspend aging as long as he can. (And ill characters–prison commander in the Good, the Bad and the Ugly and Morton in Once Upon a Time in the West–in Leone films try to put off dying as long as they can.)
Once Upon a Time in the West is an epic elegy where most of the main characters are doomed either to die or fade away. Frank, though a ruthless and magnificent killer, knows he’s not getting any younger. He wants to secure something for his old age. Since he can’t overpower people with guns forever, he wants to become a businessman. He uses Morton the railroad baron, who uses Frank in turn. Their alliance is shakier than one between Manco and Mortimer in For a Few Dollars More. Frank is an aging killer. He can go for money and settle down into senility or he can die like the gunfighter he’s always been.
Cheyenne, who comes around to being, more or less, a ‘good guy’, is an aging bandit who senses that his days are numbered. Though Morton and he end up killing one another, both are aging men seeking their last hurrah in rapidly changing West. (And of course, by the time Once Upon a Time in the West was made, the very Hollywood actors Leone had idolized in his youth had aged considerably and gained mythic status, and his movie could just as well be called Once Upon a Time in the Western.) Chaney is somewhat younger–though not exactly young–, survives the gunshot in the opening scene, and finally kills Frank, but he’s doomed too. The core motive of his existence having been revenge–climaxing in the moment of truth between him and Frank–, his life has no meaning beyond it. (If life sustains itself biologically by killing and feeding on other life, this is also true of moral/spiritual sustenance. Even cultures that put an end to human sacrifice never ceased to produce stories of killing and counter-killing. Much of our fiction narratives are a reformulation of human sacrifice into morality tales. The bad must kill the good–or the good must be sacrificed on the altar at the hands of the bad–to clarify the meaning of good. After all, light is clarified in contrast to darkness, and health in relation to disease. To restore or reclaim the good, the forces of good must kill the forces of bad–or the bad must be sacrificed on the altar by the hands of the good. This is the staple of much fiction in books and movies and will always be so. Most of us don’t want to be harmed by violence, but our lives gain meaning through fiction and non-fiction–history or storytelling–involving wanton violence. Morally, no less than biologically, life feeds on life, which is to say death. Thus, Christians never let go of the killing of Jesus, and this explains the appeal of Mel Gibson’s blood-soaked movie. This is why Schindler’s List has an almost spiritual hold on many movie viewers. Jewish justification for life–pride, power, and influence–relies on the death cult of the Holocaust. Every people or culture have wanted to struggle against and triumph over their enemies to attain physical security and moral justification, but the meaning of existence fades after victory. Thus the need for a death cult(through the constant retelling of the narrative through fiction/non-fiction and ritualism/symbolism)to revisit the past struggle in mythologized form. At the end of Seven Samurai, Kambei the elder warrior feels empty of purpose. Samurai, defined by the art of death, are left without a canvas in times of peace. White Americans, in conquering and settling the New World, found justification for life through death. From this historical process arose the myth of the American West. It was a story of the white man fighting and killing ‘red savages’ and outlaws(and other varmints). The culture of white life–its hope and promise–was built on causing death to non-whites(and other whites)standing in the path of Anglo-Americans. Once white Americans gained total mastery of the country–and even much of the world after WWII–, a complacency and a weakening of moral certitude set in. No longer threatened by external forces and feeling secure in a vast and rich/powerful country, white Americans began to take life for granted. A life no longer justified by the cult of death became sapped of its essence. And some Americans began to revisit past history(of blood and sacrifice)not to justify but to condemn white people as the forces of evil in the violent struggles between whites and Indians, whites and blacks, or whites and Mexicans. This trend was aided by the fact that while white Americans had defeated their external enemies, they had within their midst an internal enemy–liberal and leftist Jews–committed to the destruction of the white race. And this element also began to show up in Westerns. Though many traditional Westerns acknowledged the Red Man as a noble being in his own right, they had no doubt about the rightness and righteousness of the white man’s struggle in conquering and settling the West. But, some Westerns of the late 60s reversed the moral dynamic completely, arguing that the whole foundation of America was evil, a case of evil ‘racist’ whites trampling on the sacred grounds of a peace-loving people who were wiped out as Nazis killed the Jews. Once Upon a Time in the West sits somewhere between the Old Western and the Anti-Western. It embraces the grand myths, but the main conflict in the movie is between the good half-breed Chaney and the blue-eyed white devil Frank.
If one way of justifying the Life of a People is through death cults hearkening to the past, another way is through death cults aimed at the future. The problem with death cults of the past is memories fade. Thus, to keep alive a People’s resolve to LIVE, leaders of a nation often promote the death cult of future struggle. American conservatives relied on this mindset in the 50s, with communism as the great looming enemy of decades to come. The close of the Cold War without a war between the two superpowers left American conservatives feeling rather empty(after a brief period of euphoria). Since Americans hadn’t lost any blood in the defeat of the Soviet Union, no death cult could be spun out of the Cold War to morally justify White Conservative America–as the bloodletting of WWII had been the basis of the myth of the ‘Good War’ or Sacred War. (The Civil War still looms large in the American consciousness because of the amount of blood spilt on both sides. For many Union-ists and today’s liberals, the spilling of white blood was necessary for cleansing the sin of slavery. In contrast but in a similar vein, the Confederacy have been mythologized and sanctified by Southern whites and conservatives in terms of blood sacrifice. Even while conceding the injustice of black slavery, white Southerners feel entitled to pride of history and heritage because it was paid for with blood. It’s also worth noting that even though Southern racism has been compared with Nazism, it was the Union that declared and started the war, just like the Nazis in WWII. Blood justifies a lot of things, even for the side tainted with dubious morality. If Soviet Union had first attacked Nazi Germany, we would probably be speaking of heroic Germans who spilled their blood to defend the fatherland. Though US invaded Iraq to take out evil Hussein and introduce democracy, the fact that Hussein loyalists and even terrorists gave their lives to fight a foreign occupation lent them an aura of heroism. And though American Indians were hardly practitioners of human rights and were quite brutal themselves, the tragedy of their defeat etched in blood elevated them to eternal nobility.) Today, America’s blood justification for its political existence and life–pride, confidence, power, and influence abroad–comes from the so-called War on Terror derived from a strange blends of Clash-of-Civilizations concept and Wilsonian Democratic Idealism. The strangeness arises from the incompatibility of the two worldviews. Clash-of-Civilizations assumes that certain civilizations are fundamentally antagonistic–indefinitely if not permanently–, and therefore, each should remain within its own comfort zone. Wilsonian Democratic Idealism assumes that the American political ideals and values can be exported and planted in most parts of the world. The War on Terror simultaneously portrays Muslims as the Eternal Terrorist and as Instant Democrats(if we only help them a ‘little’).
Duck You Sucker’s main characters are Sean(James Coburn) and Juan(Rod Steiger). Both are middle aged and past their prime. Sean feels old, even dead, to the extent that his life as an Irish freedom fighter and friend/lover is buried and gone forever, remaining only as ghostly memory.
He gains spurts of youthful exuberance by blowing things up–drug-induced highs never substantiating into reality. The Mexican Revolution is a narcotic aiding the constant replay of his psychodrama. Rather than personal commitment to the political(as had been the case in Ireland), it’s a political channeling of the personal. In Ireland he’d fought the uniformed British, thus his aversion to everyone in uniform–interestingly enough, Coburn played a similar role as a German soldier in Cross of Iron. Juan has his aversions too, especially to the privileged class, be they pompous snobs in the opening scene or intellectuals who lead the revolution, though, to be sure, he’s both attracted to and appalled by his social superiors. His gripe is not so much that the rich feel contempt for the poor but that he happens to be one of the poor. His anger is personal than political. In the opening scene, he doesn’t just rob the rich but takes off in their luxury stagecoach to enjoy the lifestyle. Later, Juan gushes about his ultimate dream–robbing the bank in Mesa Verde. It’s not just a vault with money but a holy shrine. (There is a sense in Leone films that prisons and banks are related in some way. Banks are where money and gold are hidden from society, and prisons are where criminals are hidden from society. And those breaking into banks may end up locked up in prisons. In Duck You Sucker, the bank at Mesa Verde has literally been turned into a prison, and Juan, looking for gold, unwittingly ends up releasing the prisoners. Noodles would rather go to prison than rob the Federal Reserve Bank and decides to take Max with him. Indio hears of the special bank vault while locked up in prison from an inmate who designed it. Cheyenne escapes while being taken to the prison in Yuma and attacks Morton in his bank-like locomotive. Thematically, banks and prisons are also linked to cemeteries and graves, which is fitting since death is a possibility in the game of wealth and power. The gold is buried in a grave in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Once Upon a Time in America cuts from young Noodles entering prison to his old self standing outside the mausoleum where his friends are buried. It is there that he finds the key to the locker holding a suitcase with a million dollars. Banks, Prisons, and Cemeteries: Wealth, Risk, and Death–and dreams. Ironically in Once Upon a Time in America, Noodles is punished twice in by trying to do something good. His first prison sentence results from saving his friends from Bugsy, and his long exile–kind of a prison sentence–results from trying to save Max from himself.) Banks and vaults are the repositories of dreams for the money, gold, and jewels they hold; prisons are places of dreams too, for what is a prisoner to do but to dream and hope? Juan’s feelings about the bank are both sacred and profane. It is like a cathedral of prayers but also a whore to rape. There is something of both Noodles and Max in Juan. Juan has something of Noodle’s romantic streak. He’d been to Mesa Verde as a young boy and always longed to return to his first vision of paradise. His arrival in the city is like Noodles’ return to the train/bus station as an old man to find out the truth. Interestingly enough, Juan finds ‘the truth’ than the money at Mesa Verde whereas Noodles ‘finds’ the money(before finding the tragic truth)in NY. Sean, Juan, and Noodles are creatures of memory. Sean thinks of Ireland, Noodles think of NY of his younger days, and Juan holds onto the dream of Mesa Verde. But Juan is also like mad Max. Of course, the difference is Max is a lot smarter than Juan. Juan, clever as he is, is easily duped in the bank robbery. In contrast, Max dupes others with his bogus plans to rob the Federal Reserve. Juan has Max’s greed but not his cold brilliance. Max can have his best friends killed, take the money, and remain remorseless. Juan, greedy and cunning as he is, is a more trusting and sentimental creature.
Leone’s two films where personal psychology is a major factor in the game of power(or ‘politics’) are Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America. Though Chaney of Once Upon a Time in the West is out for personal vengeance, he is mythic than realistic, iconic than individualistic. Juan, though a poor Mexican bandit, is on his own than a representative of a class or collective interest. His example doesn’t plead for our understanding of Mexican poverty or the need for revolutionary consciousness/action. He’s not even a patron saint of outlaw myth or glory. He has no loyalty to anything but himself and his family. He’s happy to rob banks south or north of the border; he’s nomad in his own homeland, which is one reason he takes an almost liking to Sean, another nomad(though for different reasons). He’s a traveling thief, in the way that Sean is a rootless radical. They are weary of larger loyalties or abstract ideals. Sean pours whiskey down his throat and spills nitroglycerin on the world. Sean’s nihilism betrays the hatred, self-loathing, and cynicism at his core, the spiritual scars of his trauma in Ireland. (It’s interesting to note that though Sean suffers the guilt of having killed his best friend, the latter betrayed him to the British authorities. Similarly, in Once Upon a Time in America, though Noodles feels guiltily responsible for Max’s death, it was Max who really betrayed him.) Sean’s nihilism is double-edged, both exiling and liberating him from the tragic/precious past. Having lost his ‘innocence’ and idealism, he’s free to join any cause and inflict harm against what he deems to be the ‘forces of oppression.’ He’s free of future attachments and responsibility; that is until he unwittingly triggers a series of incidents leading to the massacre of Juan’s family. Sean’s shift in mood is unforeseen since he regarded Juan and his family as worthless chicken-stealing scum of the Earth, i.e. less than human, rather ironic given leftist revolution’s romanticization of the poor as noble and heroic. At any rate, it’s because Juan inadvertently participates in the revolution via Sean’s trickery that his family gets slaughtered, and this, in turn, stirs certain feelings–sympathy, warmth, and guilt–within Sean that he thought he was no longer capable of.
It is this psycho-personal element that complicates the power politics in Duck You Sucker. Juan, for all his amoral greed, needed his family as an emotional crutch. And Sean, despite his dried-up heart, does have warmth in his blood after all. Also, as an explosive expert, he’s used to seeing violence from afar. But when he gazes up close at the dead bodies inside the cave, he’s benumbed with silent horror. The Mexican Army committed the atrocity, but Sean also feels culpable, not only because he’s indirectly responsible for the death of Juan’s family but because his own profession is violence. Though, earlier in the day, he’d machine gunned Mexican soldiers and blown up a bridge to kill many more, he witnessed the violence from afar. It was almost as if he’d pissed on a mound of ants than humans. From his standpoint, the soldiers weren’t human but merely ‘uniforms’. He could safely, physically and morally, enjoy the spectacle of destruction, as if watching a movie. But in the cave, he’s face to face with the true nature of violence, regardless of one’s loyalties or motives. Also, there is a sense that war is worse than crime or individual greed. In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, it’s three individuals trying to outwit and kill one another to get the gold. Though there are some innocent bystanders, most of the violence is limited to those involved in the quest. In war, however, many people with no stake in the conflict get slaughtered like cattle. The soldiers killed by Sean’s explosives were surely civilians conscripted into the army. Soldiers follow orders to kill, and they are killed by others in turn. They are made into official thugs but also become faceless victims of the other side. It seems so senseless. As Blondie says in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly during a battle between the North and the South, ‘so many men get wasted so badly’. Paradoxically, conflicts involving the highest ideals, biggest causes, and grandest causes produce the highest body count. We know all about World War II and the many bloody proxy wars during the Cold War. And the Thirty Years War, a spiritual war between Protestants and Catholics, is estimated to have killed one third of the German population. The words of angels make devils out of men.
Politically and morally, the dead bodies in the cave make for an eerie moment in Duck You Sucker, especially when the camera dwells on the face of Juan’s youngest. The dead child’s eyes remain open, and he looks angelic and pure. Yet, this was the ugly kid who’d earlier asked his pa if he could kill all the victims of their heist. It’s as if death sanctifies even the worst and ugliest of us(which recalls the moment of grace upon dying for the worst thug in Los Olvidados). There’s a similar scene in Once Upon a Time in America where Dominic–the kid gangster–get gunned down by Bugsy. Dominic is a thieving street urchin but an angel while breathing his last. Maybe this view has roots in Catholicism’s fetish with death and relics. Sainthood comes after death, and the body parts of saints, or relics, have been revered as sacred. Though Leone’s world is far from spiritual, there is a kind of sacralization of death in his movies. Even Indio is alloweda dramatic death in For a Few Dollars More. Even the villainous Frank gains a measure of respect by choosing to fight man-to-man with Chaney and facing death like a man(for his sins). Prior to the duel, Chaney even said truth shall be revealed ‘only at the point of dying’. And the death of Cheyenne is pretty drawn out; even before he reveals the gunshot wound to Chaney(and the audience), death hangs over him as he drinks coffee and chats with Jill. Morton’s death is also no simple matter. He’s dies alongside a muddy puddle, poetically and pathetically a symbol of the ocean he’d striven to reach for so long.
Leone’s characters are, at once, trying to stay one step ahead of death and taking a bold step into death. Morton is a sick man crippled by aches and pain, and death would be a huge relief, and in a way, he must wish it more than anything; but he is also a dreamer who wants to live just a little longer to see his dream fulfilled. He doesn’t want to live forever; he wants to live just as long as he attains the dream of a lifetime. His train both outraces death and serves as a mobile coffin. And there’s something similar with the captain during the bloody battle scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. He’s sick of watching his men die like flies left and right. Just as Morton fixates on the Pacific Ocean, the captain fixates on the river whose bridge he’s itching to blow up to stop the senseless slaughter. Filled with loathing, he sucks on the bottle like it’s sweet poison. Later wounded and dying, he begs the doctor to keep him alive just long enough to hear the ‘good news’–explosion of the bridge(rigged by Tuco and Blondie).
For a Few Dollars More opens with the lines, “Where life had no value, death sometimes had its price”, but there seems to be more at stake in the Leone universe. Whatever its monetary value, death has worth missing in life. Dominic, the youngest gangster in Once Upon a Time in America, was just a street punk in life, but in death he becomes the saint-angel of Noodle’s memory. Chaney’s brother was killed by Frank, but his death gives meaning to Chaney’s life of personal vengeance and justice. The death of the woman in For a Few Dollars More haunts Indio and Mortimer, and only death can bring peace to Mortimer and Indio. The plot of The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly really begins with secret imparted by a dying man in a stagecoach(and the gold is fittingly buried in a coffin in cemetery, an idea as sacred as profane.) Sean of Duck You Sucker is haunted by the memory of his best friend’s betrayal and his death. Noodles in Once Upon a Time in America thinks his friends died–largely due to Noodle’s unwitting actions–, and his friends, especially Max, becomes ‘sacralized’ in his memory. But just as the graves in the cemetery were switched up in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, Max switched identities to fool Noodles and the world. Max essentially becomes Christopher Bailey buried next to UNKNOWN. In a way, all of Leone’s films have an aspect of horror or ghost story. Death is common enough in Westerns and Gangster Films but rarely has it been fetishized and sacralized as in Leone films. Though some characters get killed as faceless shooting ducks, others haunt the living and can only be exorcised with more death. Even some of the bad guys become holy relics upon death. When Max feels that his days are numbered, he opts for death at the hands of Noodles, a friend he’d wronged. He doesn’t want to end up as just another dead body. He wants to a meaningful death. Something to do with death indeed.
Leone’s vision of the world is such that his movies can easily side with the law or the outlaw. The world of For a Few Dollars More is nihilistic, but the movie sides with bounty hunters over outlaws. Of course, bounty hunters go after bad guys for money than for justice, but this may be the reason for their effectiveness(at least in Leone’s movies); they are honest about what they want: money, a great and ruthless incentive. A sheriff in For a Few Dollars More turns out to be a cowardly shill for one of the outlaws. In other words, justice is less of an incentive for going after bad guys than money is. Justice pays less, which means it can be bought off by those with money–often the bad guys. If you want bad guys dead, you gotta pay other men to kill them. Bounty hunters may not be noble but they are honest and useful in what they do.
Mortimer is a bounty hunter, but we later learn, also of a distinguished family; and he was once a respected figure of authority, a colonel. And given his ulterior motives for pursuing Indio, the movie distinguishes between two kinds of bounty hunters. For Manco, bounty hunting is his stock and trade. He likes being a killer for hire. Mortimer, on the other hand, does it because he has to. He’s fallen on hard times, and he’d rather use his warrior-military skills to hunt down outlaws than become an outlaw himself. It is also a way to satisfy his personal thirst for vengeance against the man who raped and murdered his sister.
Though Manco isn’t a bad guy, he isn’t such a good guy either. Mortimer, in contrast, possesses–or came to possess through personal tragedy–shades of nobility and goodness.
There are some decent military men in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. A conscientious Union officer in the POW camp is distraught over Angel Eyes’ abuse of prisoners. Later, we meet a Union captain who bemoans the massacre of his men on the battlefield.
Tables can easily turn in the Leone universe, and there’s a sense that ‘goodness’ and ‘badness’ are really a matter of who has the power. Though we see Tuco as the victim of Angel Eyes, if tables had been turned, might not Tuco have tortured Angel Eyes for the secret? It may be no coincidence that before shooting the crippled family man and before torturing Tuco, Angel Eyes sits down at a table with either to share a meal.
Moralists prefer the idea of the transcendent good at war with eternal evil–God vs Satan–, and this dichotomy also exists among secular people, especially leftists, who prefer to see the world in terms of permanent oppressors–white gentiles–and eternal victims–blacks, Jews, gays, etc. Leone’s view of morality is more existential or situational. Those with power have the means to do evil to those with less power, and there’s no guarantee that power will remain with one person or one group for any length of time. Nothing is guaranteed; it has to be fought for and kept by threat of violence. The mighty Julius Caesar was murdered by his friends, and the great Roman Empire was reduced to ashes and rubble. (And in the US, Wasps, who came to rest on their laurels and took their power for granted, lost it to Jews, Negroes, and illegal aliens.) In Duck You Sucker, we see a soldier who resembles Mussolini being executed by a firing squad. Perhaps he was deserter or a traitor. Anyway, the allusion to Mussolini has meaning in the sense that he was the seemingly invincible and great Italian of the first half of the 20th century–the lion of the nation. Yet, the manner in which he died was beyond pathetic, and his body was treated worse than Blondie by Tuco in the desert. The titanic leader of Italy was reduced to a dead corpse in the street for people to spit and piss on. (Today, white males have been reduced to kissing Jewish/Negro ass while white women have been turned into bimbo-slave whores to be cummed on by horny Jews and Negroes. And China is rapidly on the rise.) Leone’s view of morality doesn’t exclude the possibility of higher good, but it does remind us of the impermanence and instability of the real world. People may be inspired or guided by ideology, but power is gained and lost through the art and game of politics, and to the extent that we all vie for cultural, social, or personal power, we are all political animals.
The most villainous character, Angel Eyes, is a chameleon of sorts. Sometimes he functions as a bandit and outlaw; sometimes he puts on an official uniform and operates within the system. Tuco too is something of a chameleon, though less convincing in his conniving. He too dons any uniform–Union or Confederate–to get near to what he wants.
The movie begins with Blondie playing a trick on both the law and the outlaw. He takes Tuco, the outlaw with a bounty on his head, to the authorities and collects the reward; then he helps Tuco to escape from the law. When Tuco becomes a burden, he robs Tuco and leaves him in the desert to perhaps die. Blondie is like a cat scurrying inside and outside the door, both pet and beast.
There are similar moral dynamics in Once Upon a Time in the West, Duck You Sucker, and Once Upon a Time in America. Leone presents Morton in both a positive and negative–sympathetic and contemptible–light. He is a great businessman and dreamer being devoured by disease. He is also obsessed with money and power. Possibly, Leone felt a certain fondness for the various fat, crippled, or physically disadvantaged characters in his movies. On the one hand, Leone probably identified with short, squat, and/or ugly characters like Tuco and Juan. Leone probably wanted to be tall and lean, like Coburn, Eastwood, Fonda, or Cleef, in his personal life. Leone was also never in the best of health, and the possibility of premature death loomed over him as early as the sixties. There is a strange dichotomy–wracked with fear and distrust–between the tough guy and the weak, crippled, or wounded character in his movies.
Being big, strong, and fast with the gun comes in handy. For the physically weak or handicapped, the only effective counter-weapon is brains, something Morton has. A man who’s fat, weak, and stupid–like the fat guy who wears both a belt and suspenders in Once Upon a Time in the West–is a real loser. Similarly, Fat Moe lacks both physical strength and mental cunning; he remains a sidekick from childhood to old age. Angel Eyes’ henchman Wallace and Indio’s thug Nino–both played by the same burly actor–represent brute strength without brains, which doesn’t go very far either. Toughness isn’t enough. In A Fistful of Dollars, Eastwood’s character is effective not only for his gunning but his cunning, at least until Ramon outwits him.
(It’s worth keeping in mind there’s no guarantee that a tough guy will always be tough. Chaney is shot in the opening scene, and while nursing the wound, his capacity as a tough guy is limited. Cheyenne the tough guy is drained of his power at the end. And Tuco the tough guy is reduced to a whimpering baby when tortured by Angel Eyes and Wallace. Man with No Name is beaten to a pulp in A Fistful of Dollars. And Blondie is rendered pitiful and pathetic from the long trek in the desert. It’s luck and wit that save him.)
In some situations, the crippled guy ostensibly has authority over the tough guy, but the tough guy smells the blood of weakness and maneuvers to gain the advantage. Angel Eyes kills the bedridden old man who hired him to find ‘Bill Carson’. He later rebuffs his military superior, the crippled Union POW commander. In Once Upon a Time in the West, Morton is Frank’s boss, but Frank aims to take over, piecemeal by piecemeal–like how Stalin took control as Lenin grew weaker.
Leone, short and obese, may have identified with crippled/fat/weak characters while working with big tough actors like Eastwood, Volonte, Coburn, and others with strong wills of their own. But Leone may also have identified with Angel Eyes or Frank when having to deal with producers and moneymen, the Mortons of the movie business.
The politics of power and sympathy(and identification) can go either way or both ways in Leone’s films. Maybe this has something to do with Italian history as well. Consider how Italy became identified as both a major Axis power and a helpless victim of Nazi Germany. And given the role of mafia in Italian society and the utter rottenness of Italian politics, the Italian consciousness probably became more Machiavellian than most.
The power dynamics between the law and outlawry is murky in Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. In the former, ‘respectable’ businessman Morton hires Frank and his thugs while the Jill is rescued by Cheyenne the outlaw. Jill herself is an ambiguous character, a whore in search of respectability. When her hopes are dashed, she rummages for hidden treasure in her dead husband’s house. To save her own skin, she sleeps with Frank and agrees to hand over the land to him. It’s only with the intervention of Chaney and Cheyenne that she becomes a respectable woman after all, but even then a single woman surrounded by lots of men who might like to pat her fanny.
There are facets of the Madonna/whore complex in the portrayal of Debra–a Catholicization of Jewishness– in Once Upon a Time in America. She is the vision of purity, beauty, and righteousness to young Noodles, but she’s later revealed to be as ambitious and power-mad as Max. She has the flesh of a goddess and the mind of a devil, and yet, there is something of the angel in her heart too; she never loses her affection, even love, for Noodles. In a way, they both know and understand that they betrayed one another.
In a world of ruthless and bloodthirsty men–where decent and law-abiding men seem ineffectual–, what is a woman to do? Since she cannot compete with the men on their terms, she needs a few cards up her garter belt. A woman’s beauty can be her doing and undoing. In A Fistful of Dollars, Marisol’s beauty makes her the prisoner of Ramon. But it’s her beauty that probably inspires the Man with No Name to risk his life to save her. Would he have bothered if she were a 300 lb hag? And in Once Upon a Time in America, Debra’s beauty takes her very far in Hollywood and Theatre, but it also gets her raped by Noodles. Beauty is both a weapon and a liability in the game of power. Powerful men want to possess beautiful women, and women use beauty to manipulate powerful men. Generally, it helps if a woman has something more than beauty; like toughness, beauty alone isn’t enough. If a beautiful woman has brains(Debra) or strength(Jill), she has more cards to play with. In their own way, Debra climbs as high as Max and Jill becomes the master of her destiny.
A woman can also exert power through her angelic and/or ghostly presence. In a way, Indio is destroyed by the woman(or memory of the woman)he raped and killed. He’s driven mad because he cannot exorcise her ghostly presence from his dreams. And Noodles is haunted by Debra all through his life, both a blessing and a curse. But to the extent that he did have her through rape, she is also a reminder of his fall from grace. His memory of her is of boundless love and bottomless shame. (Indio, though a thug, is also not without shame when recalling the rape/murder of the woman.) .
In A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Once Upon a Time in America, The Woman is a prize in the contest of manhood. Ramon flaunts his passion for the woman taken from her husband. The husband, weak and defenseless, has no manhood left–like a pussified white male helplessly watching his girlfriend go off with a Negro stud. It takes a manlier man–the Man with No Name(or Joe)–to save the family. In For a Few Dollars More, Mortimer is motivated by the need to avenge his sister’s honor. For Indio, she was the most beautiful and precious thing of his life, and in a way, her suicide with his gun was worse than if she’d killed him; it killed his pride. How gross and beastly he must have appeared to her for her to have taken her own life while he was humping her? Jill, in Once Upon a Time in the West, becomes the center in the destinies of three men.
The female figure in Duck You Sucker exists in Sean’s memory, and we learn of a happy yet uneasy political and romantic alliance between him and his friend. They joined the same cause and loved the same girl, but in the end, both lost the cause and the girl. The cause and the girl bound the friends together but, in the end, tore them apart. In Once Upon a Time in America, there are hints and indications throughout that Max, though concealing his interest in Debra, is as crazy about her as Noodles is. Max, less attractive physically and personality-wise, probably thought his only chance of winning Debra was through power and money–and he proved to be right.
The political morality of the Leone universe is both fluid and murky. Fluid in the absence of rigid definitions of right and wrong, thus allowing for smooth navigation among forces of goodness, badness, and ugliness, greased with slickness, style, and music.
But in searching for denser meaning in Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America, Leone’s signature amoral lubricants lose their luster, accruing a certain murkiness. Duck You Sucker is a movie of conflicting visions and emotions. Leone plays idealist and cynic, humanist and nihilist. Sometimes, he cares too little, sometimes he cares too much.
There’s the political morality of committed revolutionaries fighting a pitiless reactionary force. Freedom fighters vs death squads. The atrocities by right-wing reactionaries are shown in harsher light than violence committed by the revolutionaries(or bandits like Juan). Juan’s robbery of rich people is done as a joke even though Juan rapes a woman and kills several people–and cruelly humiliates the rest. Sean’s explosion of the bridge, killing perhaps a hundred soldiers, is a grand spectacle. In contrast, the camera sanctimoniously dwells on victims killed by right-wing forces inside the cave. The most horrifying scene is when soldiers gun down hundreds of people trapped in pits. But when Juan robs the bank at Mesa Verde and kills soldiers, it’s just a fun romp. And when the government train is stopped by a hail of rebel bullets, followed by summary executions of the soldiers, the bloodbath is shown only as a backdrop.
But this isn’t really the problem with Duck You Sucker. If Leone’s leanings were genuinely leftist, his bias would only be natural. But there’s the sense of “Won’t Get Fooled Again”, i.e. all sides are really out for power and privilege for themselves, so it doesn’t really matter which side wins, and most people are merely pawns in the game anyway. (On the other hand, most of Leone’s characters, rich or poor, powerful or powerless, are so dishonest and conniving that it’s hard to come off with any sympathy for The People, as one might from a movie by Gillo Pontecorvo or Francesco Rosi.)
If that’s Leone’s point, why tilt our sympathies toward the Left than the Right? Maybe Leone was acknowledging that, though power always corrupts, the Left still fights for the idea of justice whereas the Right fights only for privilege. (The Left is dishonest in its virtue and the Right is honest in its rottenness.) There may be some truth to this, at least in the context of Mexican Revolution of the early 20th century. The Latin American Right tended to be petty, vain, pompous, and corrupt. Its primary justification for power was privilege.
To the extent that the Mexican Revolution was pro-democratic than communist, one can’t help but feel a degree of sympathy, as we do toward Spartacus and T. E. Lawrence and their causes.
Leone’s greater sympathy for–if not agreement with–the Left than the Right probably had something to do with 20th century Italian history. Though Mussolini was mostly popular before WWII, many Italians resented his rule, especially within the censored cultural and intellectual community leaning generally to the Left. When Fascist Italy began losing the war and later came under Nazi occupation(at least in Northern Italy), the reputation of the Right got damaged irreparably. Though a non-intellectual himself, Leone, as a filmmaker, associated mostly with leftist writers, actors, etc. He even invoked Marxism in the interviews he did for Once Upon a Time in the West.
But Leone also probably resented the arrogance, naivete, and dogmatism of the Italian Left. Though Juan learns to hate the Right, he has few illusions about the Left.
In a way, he’s Leone’s political alter ego. The Right is bad but the Left isn’t all that much better. In a way, the Left is better because it has nice sounding ideals; in another way, it’s even worse for its dishonesty or delusions. The Right is unapologetic in fighting for power and privilege whereas the Left disguises its power-lust with talk of ‘justice’ and ‘equality’, thereby dragging people into causes and movements which, in the end, do them little good or get them killed. Or so Juan thinks.
Even so, to the extent that the Left is presented as the underdog in Duck You Sucker–like the Warriors in Walter Hills eponymous film or the retreating German soldiers in Cross of Iron–, it tugs at our sympathies. Also, warm-blooded killers seem to comprise the Left while the commander of the Right is a cold-blooded Teuton-esque colonel. Hot passion for justice vs cold cunning for power. Or so it appears at first.
But, things become complicated by an act of betrayal by one of the key organizers of the Left. After being captured and tortured, Dr. Villega rats on his comrades, who are captured and gunned down by the military. This triggers in Sean a flashback of how his friend, tortured and broken by the British, betrayed his friends, including Sean, who then shot the British soldiers(out of desperation) and his friend(out of rage).
The killings and the flashback are triply distressing to Sean: (1) betrayal (2) execution of comrades (3) his killing of his friend. Though Sean may have felt justified in shooting his friend, his friend had been tortured beyond endurance. Can/should a man who hasn’t been tortured judge one who has been? Even a guy as tough as Tuco in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly cracked under torture and spilled the beans. And Fat Moe, after being beaten to a blood pulp, finally tells his tormentors where Noodles is hiding after he’s threatened with a gun. When Angel Eyes slaps a woman one too many times, she tells him the whereabouts of Bill Carson. And even ‘good guys’ or ‘our guys’ sometimes use torture, physical or psychological, to get what they want. Chaney tortures a fat guy to find out about Frank. The fellas in Once Upon a Time in America mix up babies in a hospital to pressure a police chief to call off the ‘scabs’, a form of mental torture and blackmail. It’s a world where every side uses torture or whatever means to get what they want; there is no Geneva Convention in the Wild West or underworld of Leone’s universe. Naturally, most people crack under pressure. (Interestingly, it’s a woman, Noodles blonde girlfriend, who refuses to say anything and is killed, but then maybe she really didn’t know; and it’s a fat old man, though viciously tortured by Ramon and his brothers, who keeps his mouth shut about where the Eastwood character is being hid.)
In a troubled way, Sean feels remorse for having judged and killed his friend–though perhaps his friend expected and accepted it, at the point of dying, as a kind of penance. Maybe like Max can only accept being killed by Noodles, his friends could only accept being killed by Sean, whom he betrayed.
For this reason, despite his anger, Sean doesn’t expose Villega’s betrayal to other revolutionaries. Instead, when they are alone, Sean tells Villega, man to man, that he witnessed the betrayal and the bloodbath. Even so, Sean withholds judgement because he remembers a similar incident in the past, from which he gained perhaps an ounce of wisdom. Even if Sean doesn’t forgive Villega, he at least understands the risks of politics and the limits of man’s endurance.
Besides, didn’t Sean himself trick Juan into the revolution, thus inadvertently leading to the death of Juan’s entire family?
Of course, the difference between crime and revolution, soaked in blood as both are, lies in their stated motivations: self-gain vs selflessness. A revolutionary claims to fight and die for mankind, not for self-interest. A criminal may risk his life but only to stuff his pockets. This distinction between crime and revolution is muddled in the Italian context because the mafia has been no ordinary criminal enterprise. It’s been a culture and a community with its own codes, values, and honor. If not exactly idealistic, it had its own system of ethics requiring some degree of sacrifice for the communal good. A mafioso would never embrace humanity as an ideal, but he could, at least according to mafia theory, embrace community over individuality and honor over life. So, crime became more politicized and moralized in Italy(as also in Japan with the Yakuza with its codes of honor). If organized crime was more acculturated and legitimized in Italy, politics and ideology became more criminalized or gangster-ized. This was partly due to the Italian national character and the way of doing things where principles and rules took a backseat to opportunism and pragmatism. With crookedness as a hallmark of Italian-ness, it was impossible to get anything done in Italy without some degree of schmoozery.
In a way, it was no accident that Fascism originated in Italy. On the positive side, it was indeed a creative and energized modern Righist ideology and movement seeking to incorporate the ‘best’ ideas from across the intellectual and political spectrum. But in another way, it was an ideology of opportunism and wheeling-and-dealing behind the facade of national pride and honor. Mussolini began his career as a dedicated leftist but then made allies on the Right without truly embracing traditionalism. He tried to be everything to everybody–the bourgeoisie, the rightist radicals, the Catholic Church, the peasantry, the working class, etc. In time, Fascism became a cynical form of gangster politics. Though most communist and National Socialist leaders were many times more ruthless and murderous than Italian Fascists, men like Stalin and Hitler had stronger core beliefs and principles than Mussolini, whose only big idea was himself as the godfather of the Italian Nation. (Ironically, the mafia came closest to being wiped out during the Fascist Era, but then maybe it makes perfect sense; it merely lost out to a bigger gang in the form of Fascists.) And the presidency of Silvio Berlusconi seems very much a continuation of the Italian political tradition.
What about the Italian Left? Though Italy arguably had the most powerful communist party in post-war Europe, it too was known more for its compromises and wheeling-dealing than for principled stand on any issue.
Another complicating factor was that the Catholic Church was a force of leftism and rightism in Italian society and politics. For conservatives, it represented the preservation of sacred rituals and righteous values. For liberals and leftist, it represented the hope for equality, compassion, and ‘social justice’. The Catholic Church, Machiavellian and Mafiavellian in its own way, played to both sides. This complexity or confusion was hardly unique to Italy, but Italians made a more colorful and entertaining show of it.
And so, Dr. Villega, one of the organizers of the revolution, is an ambiguous character all too familiar to Italians. His devotion to the cause seems sincere, but he’s also a political animal through and through. He’ also a man of ideas who’s had limited contact or experience with The People. While operating on a gunshot wound, he’s calm and detached while removing a slug from a comrade writhing and groaning in pain. To him, the revolution is like a laboratory experiment and a game, an application of theories and deviousness on Mankind.
We first meet Villega as a passenger on a train, looking nice and neat as a member of the respectable class. Juan sits in the same compartment and kills a policeman who suspects him of being a bandit. Then, Juan eyes and moves toward Villega, perhaps to rob, kill, or threaten him. (The opening scene made it amply clear that Juan loves to rob, humiliate, and even kill rich people. The doctor looks like rich bastard to rob and get rid of, especially since he witnessed Juan’s murder of the policeman.) But, another police man enters the compartment and points his gun at Juan. Then something unexpected happens. The doctor stick his gun in the back of the officer and saves Juan. Juan throws the officer out of the train, and there’s a kind of mutual understanding between Juan and the doctor. Sometime later, Juan bumps into the doctor again and discovers his true identity–a revolutionary leader.
Villega isn’t what one might call a ‘geek’. He seems committed and capable of ruthless action–much like Leon Trotsky, who was instrumental in the creation of the Red Army. Even so, Villega prefers to give orders while keeping his own hands clean. And as a doctor, Villega certainly doesn’t flinch from the sight of pain and death, but he seems not to have experienced much in the way of real pain himself, that is until he’s tortured by the military and turns into a scared mouse. And, one wonders why he saved Juan in the train when they first met. Villega seems to be under a delusion, a conceit of being for The People. To him, the face-off between Juan and the police man may have appeared an example of the uniformed oppressor abusing a poor person. In other words, Villega is less concerned with individual humans than with social categories. Though Juan is a bandit, Villega sees him as a member of the oppressed who needs saving from the official machinery of oppression represented by figure of the police man. Thus, the revolutionary and the criminal become one.
The dramatic irony is pretty outrageous. In the opening scene, we watched Juan robbing privileged people like Dr. Villega, and had it not been for the cop, Juan might have robbed or killed Villega too. But Villega sees Bad Police and a common man worth saving.
On the other hand, Villega must have noticed that Juan is no helpless victim or salt of the earth. After all, Juan coldly killed the first policeman and tossed his body off the train. Juan is clearly a beast. So, why did should Villega side with him?
It could be a case of intellectual romanticization of the outlaw rebel. Many ‘progressives’ and leftists in the 20th century tended to elevate the criminal into a political hero. Harvard educated writers of Rolling Stone magazine gush about gangsta rappers. Amnesty International cares more about Mumia Abu Jamal than about millions of faceless victims of crime and leftist/Third World oppression. There’s the famous reggae song ‘I Shot the Sheriff’. There was the Arthur Penn film Bonnie and Clyde. Privileged people who grew up in safe and protected environment feel kinda inadequate and seek to gain the aura of hip dangerousness by associating with radical or criminal elements, if only indirectly through the arts & culture and/or by supporting certain causes. But, there’s some of this on the Right too. Some conservatives who want an element of excitement in their otherwise dull lives find it through association, real or imagined, with fringe or extreme figures such as Yockey, white nationalist groups, or skinhead bands. Deep down inside, we still have predatory instincts, and so we don’t just want to be considered as good, correct, or righteous but as dangerous, badass, and not-to-mess-with. And so, everyone, both on the left and right, love gangster movies where the conflict is about power. Indeed, communism was appealing for not only its ideas but its promise of violence.
Many Jews, who felt cowardly and unmanly, found through communism their path to manhood. Prior to the rise of Bolshevism, the image of the Russian Jew was one of bookish twerps or craven/cowering moneylenders. But once communists gained power in Russia, the image of the Jew became that of the badass mofo not-to-mess-with. Jews were suddenly wrapped in black leathercoats and shooting people left-and-right. And of course, Jews love to be associated with blacks in America for much the same reason. In relation to white goyim–big dumb Polacks and drunken lunkhead Irish–, Jews often felt like geeks who got their lunch money stolen by Moose. By associating themselves with(and even gaining control over)blacks–who whupped the ‘white boy’–, Jews felt a certain badass power themselves. If the Jewish geek couldn’t beat up a big Polack or a nasty Greaseball, then the Negro, as the Jew’s surrogate in sports and music, could not only beat the ‘white boy’ but take the white girl. Through Muhammad Ali, Will Smith, Obama, and other Negroes–in sports, entertainment, and politics controlled by the Cabal–, Jews now feel mastery over the white race. Jews outwitted the white goy on their own, but Jews needed the big and strong Negro to kick the white boy/goy’s ass. It’s not surprising that the author of THE WHITE NEGRO–which really should have been called THE JEWISH NEGRO–was Norman Mailer, a truly crazy Jew if there was ever one.
Many affluent white radicals of the sixties got a kick out of apologizing for black crime as a form of social rebellion. And when the South lost the war, many white Southerners regarded the Jesse James gang as heroes resisting the oppression of Yanks(and ‘niggers’). There is a ‘purity’ and simplicity in criminal violence that’s appealing and has a purging effect on intellectuals whose minds are cluttered with ‘too many ideas’. Sartre, the wall-eyed egghead who did nothing but read and write books all his life, championed violent rebels and criminals partly because it made him feel authentic and real, as opposed to merely academic and conceited. If thugs like to justify/elevate their violence by prattling about Machiavelli, Mafia code of honor, or Robin Hoodism–there’s been no shortage of gangster thugs with airs of Don Corleonesque wisdom–, theorists like to pretend that their ideals and conceits are relevant by romanticizing or even taking part in real-world violence. Oliver Stone, Yukio Mishima, and Norman Mailer are interesting cases of the intellectual/man-of-action combination, or the thug-theorist.
Humans evolved from hunter-predators, and therefore, even intellectuals are possessed of an instinct to justify their worth through violence. Since criminals are social predators, we hate them–for preying on us–, but we also (not so)secretly admire theirs predatory balls to break ‘lame and square’ social rules and take what they want. To the extent that revolutions and wars are violent, everyone becomes something of a ‘criminal’. They must kill, they must destroy, they must be cruel and ruthless. Revolutionaries are, to some extent, criminals with causes, or idealists who rob and kill. Stalin, so instrumental in the early days of Bolshevism, robbed banks and helped fund the cause. And both the Chinese Communists and German National Socialists had their share of criminal elements useful for their penchant for violence.
Doctor Villega, on the one hand, looks very much like a stuffy bourgeois intellectual, but on the other, he has this self-image of a ruthless revolutionary leader. He is playing a very dangerous game. And he plays it because he doesn’t get hurt; he gives the orders to others who get hurt. And when he operates on their wounds, they feel the pain, not he.
But he is arrested and tortured. He too feels the pain, and despite his ideals and commitment to the cause, he names names and his comrades are executed. But it is through this treachery that he becomes more human. When Sean forces the issue, Villega realizes the true limitations and failings of man, himself included. We like to think that the mind controls the body, but the reverse is as true, if not truer. Most people can’t be like Jesus who, as Mel Gibson demonstrated in his one-dimensionally ultra-violent film, could take all the pain in the world and still not break. (Part of the appeal of Christianity is the Narrative of Torture–though technically it was punishment than torture since Roman tormentors were not trying to extract any secret from Him.
Nobody likes pain–even masochists prefer pain they have control over–, and the prospect of torture is especially horrifying. Thus, all the highest ideals become putty in the face of torture; almost no one can bear the pain that Jesus was purported to have done so. No matter how noble, beautiful, cool, idealistic, and high-minded a person, he’s reduced to a pitiful heap of flesh under torture. Torture has generally been associated with evil or pagan barbarism but also with higher spirituality. During the Middle Ages, people suspected of satanic possession were tortured–for the good of their souls. And in Christian, Islamic, and Hindu faiths, holy men and fanatical devotees have long practiced a kind of self-torture, to cleanse their spirits of fleshly temptations. One could argue that the forbidding of Catholic Priests to marry–or even whank off–is a kind of sexual torture with potentially toxic psychological consequences. Torture–in entertainment–is a way for people to feel more powerful, to be punished, or to look evil in the face. This is especially true of the Horror genre where unspeakable things are done to the human flesh. For those who watch horror without flinching, there is a sense of power, as if one can take anything. For others, horror is appealing precisely for frightening, or punishing, aspect–a sense of sinful humans paying the price for their trespasses. And there are yet others fascinated with the horror genre as a kind of psychological seance or a clinical session with Satan; the highest example of this would be Ingmar Bergman’s Seventh Seal where a knight duels with Death through a game of chess. Finally, there are real sickos–essentially vicarious serial killers–who get a kick out of watching screaming people get butchered. At any rate, Leone’s obsession with crime, violence, and torture is very much in the Italian and Catholic tradition where notions of the good and bad, honor and ignobleness, and sadism and compassion are closely bound together.)
Most people are like Winston Smith(of Orwell’s 1984) than Jesus Christ; when push comes to shove, they will talk. If Sean can understand–if not forgive–Villega, it’s because his is also a checkered past. In an extreme situation, he did the unthinkable–he killed his best friend. Ideologies tell us what is right and what is wrong, what we must do in order to be angels or heroes; but life is strewn with situations and accidents that turn people into thugs, cheats, and beasts.
There is something of Dr. Villega in Max. Remember how Villega disappears(is caught by the military), betrays his comrades, later reappears, faces up to the truth(with Sean), and then redeems himself through suicide. Max too disappears and betrays his friends(though, unlike Dr. Villega, out of greed than fear), then resurfaces as Mr. Bailey, admits his wrongs to Noodles, and then possibly commits suicide. Leone’s nihilism doesn’t make for fertile soil of redemption, but Villega and Max do pay the highest price–blood–to clear the debt.
Even so, the redemption in either case is personal than moral. Max’s debt is to Noodles, not to society. Villega chooses to end his life alone than openly atone. It’s about personal shame than public confession.
And even if some Leone’s characters don’t necessarily seek redemption–a kind of self-directed vengeance or conscientious self-revenge–, they seek the ‘moment of truth’ crystallizing the past and future into a single magic moment in the present. Frank of Once Upon a Time in the West doesn’t apologize for his killings, but he finally gives Chaney the opportunity to settle all accounts. And in a way, Noodles accepts his loneliness and exile because as a kind of penance for his sins. He raped Debra and feels responsible for the death of Max and his friends.
If political idealists tend to romanticize criminality–as necessary and justified violence aimed at the powers-that-be–, criminals hanker for respectability and legitimacy. Frank is tired of hanging with hoodlums and wants to be a businessman. Max wants something other than money: he wants respect and power, to be part of the inner circle of the American elite. This wedding of politics and crime was probably a bigger phenomenon in Italy than in any other Western nation, and Leone’s films about America reflect a very Italian or Machiavellian view of things. In a way, the Western and Gangster genres may have appealed to Leone precisely because they take place in realms without a clear demarcation between law & order AND crime & violence. If the Western tells the story of Anglo-American criminality in the Wild West, the gangster genre was essentially about organized crime around immigrant communities such as Italians and Jews(and more recently Russians and Hispanics). The Irish had less need of organized crime since they ran many big city machines as a kind of gangster clan network.
Of course, the influence/pressures of Protestant moralism and the Catholic League on Hollywood tended to clarify the good vs evil in Westerns and ensure that gangster films ended up with a message that CRIME DOES NOT PAY!!!! (Though Jewish-controlled, Hollywood–at least prior to drastic cultural/political changes in the 1960s–was defined by moguls and directors eager for wasp respectability, and that entailed making movies attuned to values and expectations of traditional wasp or wasp-ized majority. Max Berkowitz’s remaking himself into Christopher Bailey reflects the ambition and subterfuge of Jews in this regard.) But Leone’s Westerns take a different view. His West is defined and defiled by cutthroat killers like Tuco, Blondie, Angel Eyes, Indio, Morton, Frank, Cheyenne, etc. They are all essentially gangsters with six-shooters or money. Even Leone’s westerns are about gangster vs gangster than about good vs bad.
Anglo-America, seen through Leone’s viewfinder, was built by Wasp gangsterism. Blacks(Woody Strode in Once Upon a Time in the West) and Mexicans(Ramon among others)are also gangsters. Accordingly, Western morality was no less a myth than the narrative formula and genre rituals.
Leone’s westerns both magnified and subverted the Western myth, becoming, at once, less real and more real. The style gained visionary intensity while the morality lost the illusion of innocence. They are also more adult and more childlike than the traditional western. The violence is bloodier and more graphic, yet everything is like a game. We generally think in terms of children playing games while adults grow up by putting away ‘childish things’, but if power and money are the ultimate prizes in life, aren’t the means of getting them a kind of game? Paradoxically, adults who never lose the child’s love of play tend to climb highest in society. Sobriety and seriousness are essential to maturity, but they can also stifle the wit and creativity necessary to rise higher. Stuff-shirts make good citizens but poor innovators and path-finders. (Perhaps, the penchant for zaniness and trouble-making, other than higher intelligence, is what gave the Jews an advantage over the stuffy Wasps in the game of power. It’s like the straight Anglos are no match for the playful Jews in Marx Brothers movies. This is especially true in arts & entertainment but also in academia, high-tech, business, law, and politics, where seriousness and intelligence aren’t enough to break through to the next level; one needs a passion for playfulness and creativity, a sense of fun, and reckless childlike abandon to make it to the next level in Donkey Kong. Could Jews have gained so much power, created Hollywood, taken over the GOP with neocon tricks, and pulled a grand stunt like the Obama presidency without a sense of game-playing? And Einstein’s astounding genius cannot be divorced from his childlike fascination with the cosmos. Even his profound statements have an element of fun: ‘God doesn’t play with dice’. Perhaps, there was an element of play in all of Jewish history, or maybe Jews took to playing with such great passion because they’d been under the weight of stultifying Rabbinical orthodoxy for so long. Similarly, Russian Jews who’d grown weary of Soviet communist repression/conformity took to the game of neo-capitalism and gangsterism with greater intensity than most other peoples. Even so, Jewish play is balanced and tempered by culture of discipline, dedication, and facade of respectability, all of which prevent Jewish playfulness from becoming overly stupid, as with the Negroes, who sure love to play but in a manner that’s often literally than merely metaphorically childlike.) So, it’s not surprising that Leone’s characters, going for big stakes, seem both more adult(tough and ruthless) and more childlike(even childish in the case of Tuco and Juan)than do most adults in traditional westerns. The hero of High Noon tries to do the honorable thing but otherwise wants to settle down and blend in with the rest of the community. He wants to be ‘serious’. To a ‘serious’ adult, a child may appear to play silly little games. However, to a ‘superior’ man of power, conventional ‘seriousness’ may be just another form of childishness, a security blanket for dull people without special talent or insight. It’s no wonder that creativity, a kind of playfulness, was central to Nietzsche’s idea of the ‘superior man’. The ‘serious man’ ostensibly rejects play in the name of ‘putting away childish things’, but it could be a sign that he’s only good for conforming and fitting into a pre-fabricated order with its ready formula of what’s respectable and what’s not. Their rejection of play–innovation, competition, experimentation, vision, and risk–is not only to ‘put away childish things’ but to suppress and prevent the creative/productive forces that may usurp the established order. People may indeed be aware of the stasis and even stagnation of their community, but at least each person has a certain place in the social order defined by agreed upon notions of good and bad, honorable and dishonorable, respectable and shameful. Elitist or populist, a conservative social order prefers the assurance of stability–even mediocrity–to the risks of eccentricity. Though White Rightists often invoke Nietzsche and other ‘superiorist’ thinkers, they generally cling to ‘traditionalism’ because the fear the superiority of the Jews.
White Right prefers a collective sense of ‘superiority’–white race is superior–because on an individual basis, most whites are intellectually no match for the Jew and physically no match for the Negro. Given that individual ‘superiority’ is central to Nietzscheanism, the White Right is full of contradictions, and their views tend to be closer to Hitlerism than Nietzsche-ism. Hitlerism simplified the idea of Nietzsche into “Hitler and Aryans are the best, and that’s that.”
Anyway, the problem for the White Right is not only that Jews are bad for society but that Jews are good for society. After all, if Jews keep producing stuff that’s good for mankind, they’ll gain even more wealth, power, and influence over us. Jews have been at the forefront of computer, medical, and internet sciences, and we’ve all become dependent, even slavish, to Jewish power. Jews give us a lot of good stuff, but is it a good idea to become servile/addicted to the rule byan alien/hostile elite? Devil that only does bad isn’t as dangerous as the devil that does much good with the bad; former can be identified as evil and wholly rejected whereas the latter enchants and blesses us with the good while shrouding us with the bad. Jews will give us better computers medicine AND turn every white female into a mudshark and every white male into a pussyboy. Other than whatever the grand Jewish design may be, there’s a sense of lost pride among white rightists who remember America as a time and place when the reins of power were in white hands. White conservatives look to the past not because things were objectively better but because their sense of power and place in US had been more assured. The issue is the psychology of power, and the world saw it playing out in China when Hong Kong reverted back to the Mainland. Though Hong Kong objectively and materially benefitted greatly from British imperialist rule, there was resentment among the Chinese of being ruled by an alien elite. Thus, even though many people in Hong Kong feared reunification with the authoritarian mainland, there was a sense of the Chinese regaining every inch of their territory back from the alien imperialists who’d conquered and divided up China during the 19th and 20th centuries. The White Right feels toward Jews as the Chinese once felt toward the British and other foreign imperialists. But if resurgent Chinese nationalism was felt by all Chinese and eventually expelled the foreign elites, most white Americans don’t think and feel like white rightists but like dumb morons on the Jerry Springer Show who are psychologically, spiritually, politically, and culturally owned by the Jews who outplay them at every turn.
In the Middle East, part of the reason why the locals fail to make progress is that they prefer the certainty of ‘seriousness’ to the creativity of ‘superiority’. Notwithstanding the overabundance of wily political animals in the Middle East, the general culture favors stodgy mediocrity and worn-out truisms over freedom and fresh ideas. The iron rule of mediocrity holds back the rise of ‘superior’ men with a Promethean role to play in society; but it may be preferred for providing everyone an assured place in society. Part of the reason why Japan was ill-suited to become a global power–as some predicted in the 80s–is that most Japanese, though committed to excellence and hard work, are uncomfortable with the notion of individual superiority. ‘Nail the sticks up gets hammered’ is the favorite saying in Japan. This may be a good way to deal with stupid social deviants–like juvenile delinquents and punkers–, but it also has a way of dampening the spirit of anyone who has a genuinely superior idea or vision. The bigger problem is that the Japanese don’t just fear the worthless deviant but also the worthy individualist. In a society where everyone’s defined within a strict hierarchy, even the good nail that sticks up upsets the communal harmony. If everyone is used to gradually moving up the system, bowing down to social higher-ups while being bowed down to social lower-downs, even the sight of a worthy superior individual may leave people flustered and confused. The superior man is also likely to make many people feel cowardly and worthless even if he’s on their side. Suppose a group of people bow down to a nasty higher-up and have been doing so for as long as they can remember. Though the higher-up is a jerk, he is above them and that’s that, just like the Earth revolves around the Sun. But suppose someone joins the community and, in the name of justice for all, stands up to the cruel and nasty higher-up. He may be disliked by his peers not only for upsetting the social order but for making them look like cowards. They’ve been acting like sheep all these yrs, yet the newcomer had the guts to say it like it is.
The ‘superior man’ understands that life is about power and that power is won by playing the game. If Machiavelli was more about the cold/venal science of power, Nietzsche was about the creative/visionary art of power. At any rate, both science and art are games of sorts, with problems, challenges, and solutions which pose yet more problems, challenges, and solutions ad infinitum. Children like to play games over and over, and likewise, there is no end to the game of power, wealth, and influence. If one loses the knack to play, if one becomes stuffy, respectable, and comes to rest on one’s highfaluting laurels–like the Wasp bluebloods–, he’s sure to lose out to those tirelessly committed to playing the game. Also, one has to know the nature of the game. If one side plays by the rules but the other side does not, one is sure to lose. Wasps, holding themselves to the highest ideals of Fair Play when pressed by liberal Jews in the 60s, were bound to lose to Jew who will use every dirty trick in the book. For latter-day Wasps, there is only one rulebook which exposes them to accusations of hypocrisy. In contrast, for Jews there are several rulebooks, which means Jews can say red is green and green is red. For example, the very Jews who bitch about the bad old days of McCarthyism push political correctness on all of us. The very Jews who say we must stick to the letter of the Constitution in ensuring the Separation of Church and State insist that we must bend the rules of the Constitution to uphold Affirmative Action that institutes a policy of racial preference. The Wasp Rule of Law is no match for the Jewish Rule of Lawyers.
The diligent ‘serious man’ may defeat the lazy ‘superior man’, as in the story of the Tortoise and the Hare, but the energized ‘superior man’ beats all. Jews are like the fast rabbit with the iron determination of the tortoise. The ‘superior man’ understands that all of life is a kind of play. Play for power, for money, for influence, for beauty(to create in art and/or to possess in body). Thus, the crucial dichotomy between childhood and adulthood isn’t necessarily ‘playing’ vs ‘working’ but a matter of different modes of playing. Children play with toy blocks, architects play with models. Children play with crayons, artists play with oil paint. And there’s a difference between working to work and working to play, with the latter kind leading to riches and power. On the other hand, it’s true enough that most adults are not good at playing the game. Having to pay the rent and put food on their table, they aim for a steady niche in society than play to win, that is to win big. An average person who thinks he’s made of ‘superior’ stuff and risks the little that he has may be the dumbest clod of all.
Needless to say, Leone’s main characters are never satisfied with mere respectability. Enough is never enough. They want big money, big power, fun and adventure, revenge–often a childlike emotion–, or fantasy(the flashback dreams of Noodles and Sean.)
To the extent that Anglo frontiersmen created America through crime and violence(at least according to the cinema of Leone), one could argue that the western has more in common with the gangster film than is generally assumed. From the traditional Protestant perspective, the Western narrative represents the victory of virtue in the savage wilderness whereas the gangster tale represents the surrender of civilization to decay and barbarism. But Leone’s westerns are about gangsters too. Blondie the Good is also something of a gangster. Thus, Once Upon a Time in America is a continuation of than a departure from the (a)moral concerns of Leone’s westerns. Jewish immigrant gangsters, far from despoiling a virtuous America, are merely partaking of the gangster enterprise that was America from the beginning. Though the rule of law may count for something, everyone needs something extra–clout, muscle, and/or connections–to make it to the top in America–or so says Leone. Jimmy O’Donnell(Treat Williams) the union activist is introduced as an idealist, but he learns to play the game. He’s not getting anywhere all by himself. Against muscle, he needs muscle… even if it means it working with organized crime. Later, he even thanks Max and his gang for having done more for the cause in one day than he could accomplish in so many years. And there seems to be bad blood, a battle of egos between Jimmy and another union leader. Even among idealists, it’s a game of egos and power.
Leone’s movies can be maddening for their lack of fixed sympathies. Consider that For a Few Dollars More sides with Mortimer(of privileged background)whose sister was raped by the bandit Indio, yet Duck You Sucker sides with the bandit Juan who murders privileged people and even rapes a wealthy woman. (Of course, considering Leone worked with various screenwriters, it’s not clear who was responsible for what. Sergio Donati, for example, had a hand in For a Few Dollars More, Once Upon a Time in the West, and Duck You Sucker. The Marxist Bernado Bertolucci and Italian horror director Dario Argento contributed to the story of Once Upon a Time in the West.)
The Dollars Trilogy is more nihilistic than the Time Trilogy, yet ‘good guys’ prevail more decisively in the former than in the latter. The Time trilogy is more seriously engaged with moral themes, but the ‘good guys’ are less good than in the earlier trilogy and the outcomes are less clear. Whatever their motives, the Eastwood character more or less ends up doing the right thing in A Fistful of Dollars and For a Few Dollars More. The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly is more anarchic, but Blondie, the best of the bunch, does come out on top. Though the ‘good guy’ wins in Once Upon a Time in the West, the tone is elegiac than electrifying; and it’s a lonely victory for Chaney, and Cheyenne, part bandit/part hero, dies. And Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America have no one who can be said to be ‘good’(even on the compromised level of Manco or Mortimer), and in the end, it ends badly for everyone–Noodles even says as much to Mr. Bailey(Max). Perhaps, it’s the tragedy of good intentions. In the Dollars Trilogy, good deeds happen almost by accident–Manco, out for money, inadvertently ends up helping Mortimer to avenge his sister–whereas the characters of Duck You Sucker and Once Upon a Time in America, at some key moment, try to do the ‘good’ thing, only to make things worse for everyone and themselves. Cheyenne too gets killed as a result of trying to do what’s right. And Frank is finally killed for doing the honorable thing by Chaney. It’s as if crime pays, virtue doesn’t. On the other hand, if redemption counts for something, Cheyenne couldn’t have asked for a better end than for dying for Jill.
In a world of naked power and ruthless gamesmanship, the only respite may be a kind of inward escapism. Indio finds solace in marijuana, Noodles finds inner peace through opium, and Sean finds it through alcohol. Though the Man with No Name is clear eyed, he chain-smokes cigarillos. And the harmonica is like a drug for Chaney(as the pan flute is to Cockeye), its eerie sounds an invocation of the past. And there is an opiate quality to Morricone’s music, and there are passages in Leone’s films that are near hallucinogenic, dreamlike, rapturous. The weaving of imagery and music produces a kind of high, as when Jill’s coach passes through Monument Valley or when Sean’s memory drifts like dandelion seeds. Precious things must be stored as dreams because they’ll be destroyed or stolen in the real world. Noodles escapes from reality by dreaming. Max and Debra ruthlessly turn dreams into commodities. It can be said of Leone films that they are among the most shallow and crass AND among the most meaningful and beautiful.
A gamer and a dreamer.