Alex Cox will probably be remembered, whether he likes it or not, as the director of Repo Man. He's a well known fan of spaghetti westerns and wrote a thesis on the subject in college. His new book, "A Director's Take on the Spaghetti Western," is a book of criticism rather than a history of the genre, but it proceeds in chronological order from 1963, when Sergio Corbucci made his first western, Red Pastures, to 1977, when the last great spaghetti (according to Cox), Michele Lupo's California, was released. Along the way he offers detailed reviews of 51 key films. Appropriately, many are good, some are bad, and some are ugly in interesting ways.
Cox has some interesting insights on the genre's evolution. He sees Marlon Brando's One-Eyed Jacks, with its revenge-minded, serape-wearing hero, as just an important precursor of the genre as Kurosawa's Yojimbo, and notes that both 1961 films have in common heroes who waste time going about their business and get their butts kicked badly in mid-story. He traces the idea of the "tardy" avenger back to Hamlet, and sees the spaghettis as a modern version of the 16-17th century English revenge-tragedy genre, which he's adapted into film in Revenger's Tragedy. Cox likes both genres because their violence challenges official mythologies of social order and offer audiences models for rebellion against injustice. They have in common a way of disguising contemporary context by setting stories in alien locations. The English tolerated revenge tragedies as long as they were set in Italy, while Italian moviemakers could invoke social conflicts at home by disguising them as American westerns.
What makes a good spaghetti western for Alex Cox?
1. Social consciousness. This is most obvious in the "tortilla westerns" set during the Mexican revolution, but it's also increasingly apparent in American-set films where the villains are bankers or big landowners. This sets spaghettis apart from the decrepitude of American westerns as of the 1960s, which Cox identifies with patriarchal ranch-based TV shows like Bonanza, where the landowner is the hero. He points out something I hadn't really noticed: when spaghetti heroes are Civil War veterans, they are almost always Union rather than Confederate vets. That's because Europe never romanticized the Confederacy the way Americans did until rather recently, and because Confederates symbolized the highly-publicized racial violence in Sixties America. I was surprised, however, that Cox describes a recurring spaghetti motif of Confederates hoping to restart the Civil War without noting a U.S. film that beat the Italians to the punch: Gordon Douglas's underrated Rio Conchos, a product of the same year as A Fistful of Dollars that is very brutal by American standards of the time and may have set a standard for the Italians to match.
2. "Sadistic" violence. Cox is all for creative ways of making people suffer, up to a point. Violence is cathartic for him, but it shouldn't be sugar-coated or romanticized. It's important to show people suffering (while again avoiding the temptation toward misogyny in rape scenes) and spaghettis start to go wrong for Cox when they start emphasizing creative ways to kill people rather than the raw violence of death or torture. He cites If You Meet Sartana Pray For Your Death as the advent of what he calls the "circus western," which trivializes violence through gimmickry and acrobatics. For Cox, cruelty underscores the injustice of the spaghetti world and should remind viewers that the struggle against injustice will be no tea party. He likes those films like Quien Sabe? that portray revolutionary violence warts and all without idealizing the leaders.
3. Anticlerical violence. Cox is only half-joking, if that, whenever he applauds a film for showing priests being killed. He notes that the original target audience for spaghettis, the poor people of southern Italy, saw the clergy as part of an oppressive social structure. If you see any sentimentality expressed toward priests in an Italian western, Cox suggests, it probably represents a compromise with American distributors. Merely sacrilegious violence (e.g. crucifixions) also counts. On the other hand, Cox is happy to see radical priests take up arms for the revolution (e.g. Klaus Kinski in Quien Sabe?), though I think he'd still like them to end up dead. In any event, pacifism is not an option.
Sergio Corbucci is the hero of this book. Appropriately, he's a flawed and finally defeated hero. Cox shows sympathy for an underdog here, since Corbucci remains overshadowed by Sergio Leone. It's also been long known by spaghetti fans that Cox considers Corbucci's The Great Silence (he prefers The Big Silence) the genre's greatest achievement. He credits Corbucci with raising the bar of sadism and "baroque" violence, but he also sees the title character of Silence as the most genuinely heroic character in the entire genre. That's because he goes to certain death with no real hope of success, but because he knows it's the right thing for him to do. Overall, Corbucci is a more cynical filmmaker than Leone, a fact that almost guaranteed his decline in the Seventies as he grew disgusted with the genre, but Cox sees him as somehow a more authentic figure than the anxiety-ridden Leone. Cox admires Leone's films (For A Few Dollars More most of all) but for him Corbucci gets to the essence that distinguishes spaghettis from their American precursors.
A book like this is supposed to be opinionated, so I shouldn't have been surprised to find some disagreeable opinions inside. Cox has something against Clint Eastwood. It may be director's envy in part (in that role Cox finds him "uniquely uninspired"), but he also indirectly blames Eastwood for The Great Silence never getting released in the U.S. and implies that Joe Kidd is the remnant of what was once meant as an American remake of Corbucci's film. He goes on about Eastwood's supposed obsession with mercy killing, dating back to a scene from Fistful of Dollars, the punchline being a pretty uncharitable description of the climax of Million Dollar Baby. I don't know if Cox's animus toward Eastwood has a political motive, but his own radical beliefs lead him, in an admiring review of The Price of Power, to endorse a hare-brained LBJ-did-it conspiracy theory of the Kennedy assassination. As someone who's read Vincent Bugliosi's Reclaiming History (which Cox dismisses as "parroting" the Warren Commission line), Cox's commentary on a tangential topic insults my intelligence, but now I also digress.
In fairness, I should note my pleasure in his endorsement of two spaghettis I like a lot: Blood at Sundown (a.k.a. $1,000 on the Black, the proto-Sartana movie with Gianni Garko as the villain) and a once-guilty pleasure of mine that Cox deems a late treat, To Kill or Die, i.e. The Fighting Fists of Shanghai Joe. Remind me to review that genre-mix masterpiece sometime.
Most importantly, Cox has pointed me towards numerous spaghettis that I hadn't heard much about but now want to see fairly urgently, like Requiescant, Tepepa, Cemetery Without Crosses and that last-mentioned California. That's what'll define the book's ultimate worth for any given reader. You may not agree with his opinions, whether on the movies themselves or on other topics, but he gives you detailed descriptions of the films and knowledgable commentary on a lot more than the direction. You can accept his recommendations or you can decide from the information he gives you that you want to see something whether he liked it or not. While I wouldn't recommend this as a history of the genre, I think it's a worthwhile supplement to the major English-language studies of Christopher Frayling and Howard Hughes. Maybe the highest recommendation I can give is that 10,000 Ways to Die now has me interested in seeing Walker and Straight to Hell -- Cox's most spaghetti-inspired films -- to see if he lived up to his own ideals.