If you ever wanted to know how the spaghetti western basically Italian-made westerns, shot primarily in Spain, initially with English name actors first started, this Blue Underground production (broadcast on IFC, and co-distributed on DVD by NetFlix) does a nice job in tracing the social and political events that established the temporal window in which a new genre became financially viable, and hugely popular with European audiences.
Three things made the spaghetti western possible: Mussolini's wartime ban on American product yielded a huge hunger for films, particularly the western pics that were devoured by audiences in postwar Italy (as in much of Europe); Italy's peculiar penchant for producing hundreds of imitations inspired by a hit genre film also meant the spaghetti western was perfectly positioned as the new in-thing, after peplum films (like the Hercules series) had died out by the early to mid-sixties; and a movement by Southern Italian filmmakers to produce populist films that formed a kind of rebellion against northern Italian filmmakers, whose arty' and intellectual works were the darlings of international critics, but arguably failed to deliver accessible doses of sex, violence, and humour to mainstream audiences in local, or terza visione, movie houses.
Director David Gregory, a veteran of numerous DVD documentaries and featurettes, draws primarily from new interviews with genre pioneers and icons, plus archival footage of Sergio Leoni and Sergio Corbucci, older interviews with actors such as Clint Eastwood (taped on set during the filming of Unforgiven), and material originally taped for featurettes by Blue Underground for Anchor Bay and the former's own spaghetti western DVDs.
On the plus side, it's the genre's early years and transitional moments that are nicely documented, with letterboxed and subtitled clips, and piquant historical views by Christopher Frayling & filmmaker Alex Cox. Where the doc loses some ground is in the genre's mid- to late years, mostly because they're wrapped up too briskly; directors like Enzo Castellari do get fair time to express themselves, but a good chunk of info and personal recollections on what's considered the genre's last great gasp Keoma kind of flips by, and one gets a sense a lot of material had to be cut down to avoid repetition (an obvious danger), and keep the doc's length to around an hour.
The Blue Underground featurette extracts have also been truncated, so fans wanting more on Ennio Morricone must check out the longer interviews found in Anchor Bay's Once Upon a Time in Italy Collection. The same goes for interviews with actors Tomas Milian and Franco Nero, and director Castellari; the latter's commentary track for Keoma is an affectionate, if not mournful chronicle of how the genre changed and eventually died, but affected and influenced contemporary filmmakers, like Sam Raimi.
Gregory's doc does showcase some of the genre's weird avenues, including the sadistic films by director Sergio Sollima, and the indulgent epics of pioneers like Leone, whose own films became grander & longer drifting from the more compact action-dramas that ignited the genre. More could've been said of the humorous off-shoots (particularly the long series of Bud Spencer-Terence Hill films), some of the lesser-known titles (with stars like Lee Van Cleef, and Klaus Kinski) slowly being unearthed on DVD on labels like Wild East, and some genre aberrations, including filmmaker Lucio Fulci's gory Four of the Apocalypse, and the 3-D idiocy Comin' at Ya! directed by Fernando Baldi (Texas, addio, and Blindman).
With maybe another 20 minutes of wiggle room, The Spaghetti West could've come closer to being a superb chronology of an important genre, but flaws aside, it's still a fun primer, and new fans will certainly be scouring retailers for the classics, the peculiar hybrids, and the weird aberrations that have put the spaghetti western in a deep coma, until someone dares to take a real poke at the genre again.
© 2007 Mark R. Hasan