I was recently rewatching the three spaghetti western classics, “A Fistful of Dollars,” “For a Few Dollars More,” and “The Good, The Bad and The Ugly” — collectively known as “The Dollars Trilogy” — films that have long resonated in my imagination.
It’s well known that “A Fistful of Dollars” was an unauthorised reworking of Japanese director Akira Kurosawa’s highly regarded 1961 film, “Yojinbo” (“The Bodyguard”). Yet if you think about what director Sergio Leone took most from Kurosawa in the trilogy, then it seems less about just copying the character and plot for his opening film and more about allowing Kurosawa’s conceptual ideas to gradually inspire Leone in uniquely interesting ways.
In “Yojinbo” — a film about a masterless samurai playing off two feuding houses of retainers against each other — Kurosawa was daringly satirising the most important value system of pre-modern Japan: The code of feudal loyalty, the idea that absolute, unquestioning obedience to a feudal lord was the greatest samurai virtue.
Confucian ideals about loyalty underpinned the entire power structure of Edo period (1603-1867) Japan and indeed carried on into the modern age, transferred in the Meiji era (1868-1912) to submission to the nation state, and finally in the post-war era to dedication to the Japanese company.
Yet Kurosawa’s anti-hero, memorably played by Toshiro Mifune, is not a self-sacrificing samurai lifted from the pages of classic plays like “The 47 Loyal Retainers,” but rather a pragmatically self-interested and self-contained man, completely uninterested in “loyalty” and casually flipping his services between rival clans as and when he feels like it.
In “A Fistful of Dollars” (1964), Sergio Leone stayed mostly faithful to the plot of Kurosawa’s original, simply transposing the action from a Japanese village to a Wild West town and retaining the claustrophobic atmosphere. It’s still a story about an enigmatic loner switching loyalty from one scheming clan to another, but in the Wild West — where vigorous individualism reigned supreme — the trampling of the concept of “loyalty” did not carry the same iconoclastic meaning as it did in Japan.
Yet in subsequent films Leone began to explore how his modern take on the Western could be used to subvert specifically European value systems in the same way that Kurosawa had satirised traditional Japanese value systems.
In “For a Few Dollars More” (1965) — while maintaining the same stylized gunfights, cast of degenerate-looking characters, operatic elements and enigmatic lead character as “A Fistful of Dollars” — we have a narrative line which is informed not by Japan but in reaction to the suffocating Catholic moral order of Leone’s own native Italy.
Two competing bounty hunters (played by Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef) join forces to wipe out an entire band of outlaws. What really strikes you though is the painterly way in which the director Sergio Leone frames the assembly of bandits at a derelict church to resemble the structure of Renaissance religious art works, such as Leonardo da Vinci’s famous portrait of “The Last Supper.”
Indio, the bandit leader and his 12 accomplices, are positioned in the centre of the church like Jesus and his twelve disciples, sub-divided into groups of three. Indio, a pathological killer, is a kind of anti-Jesus who assumes the pulpit to speak to his men about the next daring crime they will commit. Into their midst arrives Eastwood’s bounty hunter character, pretending to be a bandit, though actually a Judas in their midst.
If Kurosawa subverted the prized concept of “loyalty” at the heart of Japan’s moral order, then Leone turned the “moral authority” of Catholic Europe on its head. Judas, the ultimate villain of European civilization, is here turned into Leone’s angelic hero, while “Jesus” and his apostles are recast as villains.
Before the bandits rob the bank at El Paso, they enjoy a “Last Supper” together, breaking bread and gustily drinking wine. “For a Few Dollars More” narrates a systematic hit job on the central icons of Christianity, picking off the bandit apostles one by one, until we are left with only the “anti-Jesus” Indio (played by Gian Maria Volonte), shot through the heart by the Bible-reading Colonel Mortimer (Van Cleef).
Can you really get away with wiping out “Jesus” and his whole crew? Won’t you meet your comeuppance and hang from a gibbet like Judas? Entering into the world of “The Good, The Bad and the Ugly,” we discover Blondie (Eastwood) and a new accomplice, Tuco (Eli Wallach) running a scam that involves outlaw Tuco being repeatedly handed over for a reward and brought to the point of being hung for crimes, before having the rope around his neck shot away at the last minute by crack shot Blondie. As if to taunt the immortal Christian legend of remorse and divine retribution, these “Judases” (who soon start betraying each other) keep surviving and tenaciously holding on to life, trying to keep hold of the bounty they share.
If you were to ask, “What is the central message of Catholic Europe, embodied in its timeworn artworks?” then it would be this: Renounce all worldly desires and dreams of gold because the grave gapes for you. The ephemerality of life, the folly of worldly ambition and the need to prepare for the afterlife is the key message which suffuses not just all the religious art of Christendom, but all the secular works, from still lives to portraiture, too.
In Leone’s vision, when at the climax of the film we reach the seemingly infinite metaphysical graveyard, with identical crosses panning out in every direction in which the two “Judases” Blondie and Tuco are encircled, we know we are at the climax. The music soars to new heights of ecstasy as Tuco, mesmerized and uncontainable, feels dizzy with excitement at the thought of claiming the gold that is contained within the key grave.
The entire religiously moral universe has been overthrown and reconfigured as Ennio Morricone’s music — with its paganistic yelps, animalistic beats and choral crescendos — crashes in waves, again and again. In this arena, gold is not being offered up to enter the grave; rather, gold is being dug out of the grave to give luxury and meaning to life itself.
Kurosawa’s genius is widely acknowledged in film circles, but Leone’s lesser appreciation belittles his achievements. Leone took as his starting point two vastly different and alien influences, melded them, reinterpreted them, and then used them as gothic buttresses in a cathedral of ideas that allows him to reimagine the structure and strictures of western religion and how it judges fallible mortal men, pitting them against each other, scrapping over trinkets only to earn holes in their hearts. Leone knows a thing or two about sin, guilt, redemption and the theatre that plays out at the graveside: “The Dollars Trilogy” is his masterful altar piece.
(This is Part 41 of a series)
In this column, Damian Flanagan, a researcher in Japanese literature, ponders about Japanese culture as he travels back and forth between Japan and Britain.
Damian Flanagan is an author and critic born in Britain in 1969. He studied in Tokyo and Kyoto between 1989 and 1990 while a student at Cambridge University. He was engaged in research activities at Kobe University from 1993 through 1999. After taking the master’s and doctoral courses in Japanese literature, he earned a Ph.D. in 2000. He is now based in both Nishinomiya, Hyogo Prefecture, and Manchester. He is the author of “Natsume Soseki: Superstar of World Literature” (Sekai Bungaku no superstar Natsume Soseki).