How the west was won

Death. Dust. Dirty looks. The world of Sergio Leone's Spaghetti Westerns was a hot one, in which epic themes played out across desert landscapes to the sound of Stratocasters and no dialogue. The trouble was, no one took it seriously. Then the English academic Christopher Frayling rode into town...Kevin Jackson recounts the strange tale of the professor and the cowboys
Click to follow
The Independent Culture

In the New Year's Honours list for 2000, it was declared that, in recognition of his distinguished services to Arts Education, Professor Christopher John Frayling - historian, critic, broadcaster, Rector of the Royal College of Art and one of the very Greatest and Goodest (yes, goodest: a perfectly cromulent superlative) of our nation's Great and Good - had been granted the title of Knight. Sir Christopher accepted Her Majesty's gracious favour, and duly entered into negotiations with the College of Heralds as to the details of the coat of arms that was now his privilege. It has taken quite a bit of to-ing and fro-ing, but the Frayling acchievement is now complete, and a handsome thing it is, too: a set of wittily arcane emblems surmounting a Latin motto which reads "Perge, Scelus, Mihi Diem Perficias". The gentleman at the College translated this, quite accurately, as "Proceed, varlet, and let the day be rendered perfect for my benefit." But it sounds better in the demotic: Go ahead, punk, make my day.

No one who is familiar with Professor Frayling's work will need to be told why Clint Eastwood's immortal sneer has ended up in such august surroundings. Among his many other callings, Prof. Frayling is an expert on all aspects of world cinema, from Méliès to The Matrix. He is also an authority on the history of design, on Gothic fiction, on Rousseau and Napoleon; he has fronted major television series on Tutankhamun and on the European Middle Ages, and one-offs on luminaries from Francis Ford Coppola to Doris Day. (Despite his many television appearances, taxi drivers continue to say "I know who you are, mate! You're that Robert Winston!" There is indeed a resemblance, though it might be less striking were one of the media academics to shave off his moustache.)

But the greatest obsession of Frayling's intellectual career - not to say his life - has been an unlikely one: the Spaghetti Westerns of Sergio Leone (1929 -1989), and so of the cheroot-chewing, dark-stubbled, grittily existentialist persona of Clint Eastwood that was forged in the trilogy of violent films he made under Leone's direction in the mid-Sixties: A Fistful of Dollars, For A Few Dollars More, and The Good, The Bad and The Ugly.

In its quiet way, the relationship between the British academic and the Italian director has been one of the most curious passages in the cultural history of the last four decades. Plainly, Leone didn't need anyone to make him successful - whopping, whooping audiences in Italy and then around the world did that for him. But, like many popular artists, Leone also wanted to be regarded as a serious artist, and passionately craved the respect of intellectuals. Enter the white knight. In the English-speaking world at least, no one has done more than Christopher Frayling to make Sergio Leone a name to drop in cinephile circles. "I know this may sound vain," Frayling says, "but I honestly think it's quite unusual to have almost single-handedly encouraged the world to take such a disreputable body of work seriously and to have pulled it off. Now it's a great cliché to say that Leone is a major director, but at the time I first made the case for him, everyone thought that I was quite mad, that these were just ersatz, and that Leone was utter crap."

Frayling's love affair with Leone has lasted for almost four decades, and is about to reach its apotheosis this summer. First, he has recorded detailed commentaries for a new set of DVD re-issues of all the key Leone features, drawing not only on his own critical aperçus but on the transcripts of hundreds of hours of interviews he conducted with the director and his associates for his Leone biography, Something To Do With Death. Published five years ago by Faber, this is a huge slab of a book, which runs to well over 500 pages and some 200,000 words - impressive, until you learn that the draft Frayling submitted was more than twice as long, over half-a-million words. There is a plausible rumour that one of the editors at Faber, groaning under the sheer weight of Frayling's research, said "I don't mind all the stuff about Italian cinema history, but do we need to know the blood group of the horses?"

Second, Frayling has curated a comparably oversized exhibition devoted to the director's life and work, which will be opening in Los Angeles at the end of July. The Professor took an hour or so out from his insanely busy timetable - he is now Chairman of the Arts Council, among a couple of dozen other jobs - to meet me at a restaurant not far from his base at the RCA, where he has been teaching since 1972. "Hammer Films used this restaurant as a set for Curse of the Werewolf," he tells me as we sit down - a typically recondite piece of Frayling trivia. (Did you know that Ken Adam, who designed the sets for Dr Strangelove, went to school with the Nazi V2 missile-meister Werner von Braun? Well, you do now. You have Sir Christopher's word on it.)

"What I've learned over the years of being around Italian movies is that very few things ever get completely thrown away. Someone, somewhere, will have props, the firearms, the costumes, bits of the sets, all the drawings... So I took a mental note of where all these things from the Leone films were, and I also collected a lot of things myself. And I began to think in a general way, what would a really interesting exhibition about a director look like? It would have to be more than just posters and film extracts. So I eventually went to the Museum of Western Heritage, which was set up in Glendale, California, and is a wonderful collection dedicated to the Wild West. I thought they'd be horrified at the thought of celebrating such an un-American director, but in fact they were delighted to let me stage a Leone show. Thames and Hudson will be publishing the catalogue in this country. It'll run until January, and then it's coming to Rome.

"I don't know that there has ever been such a large-scale show devoted to a single film director ever before. If there has been, I've never seen it. It's huge, fills two large galleries. Claudia Cardinale [one of the rare female stars of a Leone epic: she played a New Orleans prostitute in Once Upon a Time in the West] will be there for the opening, as will Eli Wallach; and - fingers crossed - Clint Eastwood himself will be cutting the ribbon. And the whistling man, Allesandro Allesandroni [who put his lips together and blew Ennio Morricone's catchy themes], will be coming over to do concert versions of the scores. It's going to be great fun!"

Like many another great love affair, Frayling's passion for Leone began on the rebound, when he was a young swain barely out of his teens. "When A Fistful of Dollars was made, because it pinched its story from Kurosawa's Yojimbo, it was held up for a couple of years before it was released in the UK and America, so it didn't actually reach England until summer 1967. I was in my second year at Cambridge, where I read History, and I went to a May Ball that year with my then girlfriend, and we had the most terrible row at about three in the morning - to the point where she refused to be punted to Grantchester in the time-honoured manner. I went off on my own for hours. I was tired, white-faced, wandering around exhausted, feeling very, very blue, and I drifted into a cinema - an Odeon, not there any more - and there was this film, A Fistful of Dollars about which I knew very little except that I had read some very bad reviews.

"And it just blew me away. The look, the strange dusty-yellow Spanish look which was so odd; the style, with the ponchos and cheroots and rhetoric; and the music, with Fender Stratocasters and a sort of Beach Boys-style sound, a twang to it ... I couldn't believe it! I was expecting it to be a John Wayne movie. I'd seen [Clint Eastwood in the television cowboy series] Rawhide, but not with stubble, and not with sunburn, and not as a lead. In Rawhide he was the Pat Boone figure in a nice check shirt, and here was this hard guy with a cheroot.

"So it all started with me trying to persuade my fellow students - Roy Porter [the prolific social historian, who died two years ago], Tony Rayns [the eminent film critic], Jeffrey Richards [now himself a professor of history], all that cinephile crowd - trying to persuade them to take Spaghetti Westerns seriously." Was Frayling a fan of traditional Westerns? "Only sort-of ... I was going off them very seriously. I loved John Ford, and Howard Hawks, but I found that, in the era of the build-up in Vietnam, they seemed to be increasingly out of time. There's a wonderful moment in Michael Herr's book Despatches where they show a John Wayne film to the troops in Vietnam and they roll about laughing. They think it's a comedy, because there's no point of contact with reality. Everything's wrong about it - the heroism, the old-fashioned machismo.

"And I felt much the same way, that the old Western had lost it, whereas the Spaghetti Westerns had a moral complexity that was far more appealing. This guy's on the take, it's very cynical. There are no white hats and black hats: they're all bad, and there's a lot of brutality."

Weren't you on the political Left at this time? "Yes, in some ways ... I didn't belong to any party, but I did take part in some demonstrations. I was actually in Paris in May 1968, researching Rousseau, who became the subject of my doctorate. It's a famous joke among my friends that I was sitting in the Bibliotheque Nationale, getting very irritated with all the rowdiness and saying 'shhh!' to all the noisy people there, 'I'm trying to study revolution here, can't you be quiet?'

"As you can see, my revolutionary tendencies weren't all that deep. Even so, it was a moment at which American popular culture suddenly seemed a bit sick, rather like the early Bush years, where all that Bruce Willis gung-ho stuff didn't seem so much fun any more. And at a time when everyone had a poster of Che Guevara on their wall, and everyone was reading Andrew Sinclair's little Modern Masters book on Che, you couldn't help but think of Cuban revolutionary iconography when you saw Eastwood.

"Because of the delay in releasing A Fistful of Dollars, the first three great Leone films - what seemed to be a trilogy, though it wasn't originally planned that way - came out in a rush. Just a few months after Fistful you had For A Few Dollars More, and then the following year The Good, The Bad and The Ugly. And that film was absolutely seminal, because in my view it's the Catch-22 of the American Civil War, doing for that war what Joseph Heller had done for World War Two. Leone is taking this absolutely hallowed North versus South theme, which the old Hollywood had taken as kind of a moral touchstone. Are you the good old South of magnolia, cotton and lost chivalry, as in the opening titles of Gone With the Wind, or are you the progressive North of democratic institutions and Lincoln? No Hollywood director before Leone could have made a film which said, it doesn't matter which uniform you wear, you're all shits."

Fair, if coarse, comment: most people who have seen a Leone western will recognise the cynicism you're talking about. Is it enough, though, for an artist just to be an iconoclast, a wrecker of conventions? Doesn't a major artist have to innovate as well as destroy? "Well, there's this moment in the 1960s where European film-makers of the post-Cahiers du Cinema [the hugely influential critical journal which launched the careers of Truffaut, Godard, Rivette and others] generation start taking on American genres. So you've got Chabrol doing Hitchcock, having written a book about him; there's Jean-Pierre Melville doing his gangster films; and I kind of intuitively slotted Leone into that pattern, as doing to John Ford what those people were doing to the other great Hollywood gods - bringing European sensiblities to American themes."

But isn't there a huge difference between Leone and all the other European directors you mention: crudely put, that they were all well read, superlatively articulate intellectuals, where Leone was the sort of burly, bullying, street-wise bruiser who'd skipped higher education and hardly ever opened a book?

"But I quite liked that too, because even then I was starting to specialise in what you might call guilty pleasures - enjoying junkie films a little bit more than I should, and then trying to persuade the rest of the world that it was they who were out of step. It happened with Hammer Films, for example, which I wrote about as a modern-day carrier of the Gothic tradition, one of Britain's greatest contributions to world culture.

"Here you had all these people of my generation paying lip service to 'taking cinema seriously', but what they meant by cinema was Bergman and Resnais and Renoir - literary cinema. Whereas I liked movies with blood in their veins, precisely the ones that weren't shown at international festivals but were on at the Odeon. Not that I was undiscriminating. After discovering Leone, I went to see lots of other Italian westerns, and there really aren't many that are any good, so I picked a winner first time."

How did you think about what you were doing? There you were, as a serious intellectual historian, working on Rousseau and then sneaking off to flea-pits every night. Did you think of it as a sort of hobby? "In a way, yes. Partly, too, it was a crusade. I felt that the materials that we were being presented as undergraduates at Cambridge had very little to do with contemporary culture, particular when it was a matter of the visual arts. Then, in the late Sixties, 'contemporary art' was pretty much confined to the legacy of Jim Ede [the biographer of Gaudier-Brzeska, and founder of Kettle's Yard gallery], which was 1920s and 1930s.

"And I was starting to read the Frankfurt School [Marcuse, Adorno and others]. I read Walter Benjamin's The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction, which I still think is one of the best things ever written about popular culture ... the earliest statement of what it means to live in an age where no one goes to see the Mona Lisa to find out what it looks like, but everyone goes to compare it with what they've already seen. Of course, there was a lot about the Frankfurt School that I didn't buy even at the time - there's a tremendous snobbery to much of it. The idea of 'dumbing down' really begins with the Frankfurt School. This idea that 'Mass Culture' is something like a hypodermic, that you pump into the arms of people who are supine and brainwashed. I always thought, there are great movies and terrible movies, great pop music and terrible pop music..."

Frayling's early academic career included a fascinating period working in the film archives of the Imperial War Museum, where he discovered a cache of forgotten productions that Alfred Hitchcock had made for and with the Free French in London. He also discovered some hitherto unknown works of fiction by the young Napoleon Bonaparte: when he published them under the title Napoleon Wrote Fiction, at least one reviewer smugly dismissed the volume as a hoax, and a poorly executed one at that. Such archival trufflings ran in parallel with his campaign to win Leone a place in the pantheon. He wrote articles on the director for Time Out and in 1981 published the first ever scholarly text on Spaghetti Westerns: a work which had a number of unexpected consequences. Out of the blue, he was commissioned to write a Spaghetti Western of his own - commissioned by a Dutch conman who was next heard of languishing in prison after attempting to pull off a scam reminiscent of the one in Mel Brooks' The Producers.

The other fruit of Spaghetti Westerns was that it finally brought the Dante and the Beatrice of this love story together. "I'd done a lot of research on Leone's dad, finding out all about his silent films and his work in the early Mussolini era. Anyway, one day I was giving a seminar on Umberto Eco and semiotics, and the secretary called me through, and it was Leone and his American interpreter on the phone, calling from his hotel in Park Lane. Leone said ''Ello Professore!' And then handed me over to this interpreter, who said that 'Sergio really wanted to talk to you about how you found out so much about his father, because you discovered all sorts of things he never knew, and he is very, very touched.' So we spent a long, long evening together talking while he smoked Havana cigars.

"He was a tough man, a hard man, with a bluff exterior, beard, big hands - I remember that he had a whole bowl of cashew nuts, and he went whoomph! with them into one big paw and swallowed the lot in one. Quite impressive. I think at some level he identified with Orson Welles, and having made himself by then into a celebrity director, this was the part that he played to the hilt. But he was also genuinely moved that someone was taking his films so seriously. He had a terrible time in Italy, because they couldn't forgive him for not making films about Italy. The only people they respected were those who made films on Italian themes, and to make films about the Wild West, shot in Spain, was letting the side down - you can't be a serious film-maker, because you haven't made The Leopard [Visconti] or The Conformist [Bertolucci]. So he was a prophet without honour, no doubt about that."

Thanks to Frayling, English-speaking cinephiles see matters differently. But then our whole cultural climate has changed dramatically in 40 years since that heartbroken undergraduate wandered into the Cambridge Odeon and saw the Spanish light. Courses in Film Studies - and the then-unknown thing called Media Studies - proliferate on all sides. Bright young people routinely write theses on Charles Hawtrey's role in the Carry On films. Posh newspapers treat pop and movies as respectfully as opera and ballet. And the disreputable films which were once only shown at flea-pits are now readily available on DVD with scholarly commentary. So how does he feel about Leone now? Has the victory been in any way pyrrhic?

"No, I still think that he's magnificent. Leone was an astonishing visualiser, and though he wasn't what you'd call a lettered man, his visual education was incredible - he collected furniture and beautiful objects and paintings. In the front room of his flat in Rome were two De Chiricos, a Miro... and De Chirico is a key reference for Leone. If you look at The Good, The Bad and The Ugly, that shot where Eli Wallach puts up a pink parasol in the desert, in the midday sun with no shadows, is exactly like the incongruities you see in those lonely noonday De Chiricos.

"And then there's the music and the sounds. Instead of the lush, rather naff orchestral music you get in Hollywood movies, here is something that stood on its own. It's the time of Pet Sounds by the Beach Boys, Sgt Pepper by the Beatles, concrete music was in the air. And here are all these bells and chimes and whipcracks and Jew's harps. Leone once said that sound was at least 40 per cent of his movies. Take the opening 10 minutes of Once Upon a Time in the West, where you have the windmill that needs oiling, and the fly buzzing. Ennio Morricone told me that there was originally music for that scene - you know, it's three bad guys waiting at the station, it's High Noon at Rabelaisian length - and one day Morricone went to see this performance artist in Florence, who was performing a sort of post-John Cage piece, 'Symphony for Metal Ladder'. So this guy's standing on the stage with a microphone cranked up full, getting all these noises out of the ladder squeaking ... and Morricone went home and thought 'That's the way to do the scene. Make the whole thing a symphony of natural sounds which are amplified and layered one on top of the other.'

"And then there's design, the costumes, the Leone towns, these pumped-up wooden villages which are twice as large as life - it was very, very stylish and operatic. The dialogue really didn't matter that much, and I've since read the shooting scripts, which will have three pages of intricate directions - cut, whirring noise on sound-track, extreme close-up on eyes - at the end of which somebody says 'yup' or 'my mule don't like you laughing.' Most of my critical contemporaries approached film by way of literature, and when they wrote about film they were writing about the script, but these Leone films were almost entirely a visual experience."

Enough, however, is enough, even for the grandest of obsessions. "I think that by the end of this year I'm finally going to be Leoned out ... unless some publisher is willing to do the 'Director's Cut' of the biography." The next two books that will be swelling Professor Frayling's already hypertrophied CV are a collection of interviews with the above-mentioned set designer Ken Adam, and The Scarecrow's Brain, a history of the way that scientists have been represented in the cinema. After that, there will probably be a "very big book on the history of film design". And maybe one day he will decide finally to publish his long-awaited masterwork on Jack the Ripper, a subject to which he has devoted almost as many years of research as he has lavished on Leone. An unseemly subject for a scholar, a Rector and a Knight, do you think? Go ahead, punk: make his day. *

'For A Few Dollars More', 'A Fistful of Dollars' and 'A Fistful of Dynamite' will each be released as a double-disc special addition DVD, with commentary by Sir Christopher Frayling, rrp £19.99, on 18 April

Comments