When in doubt as to where to begin, defer to your local online academic database; in this case, William McClain’s essay, “Western, Go Home! Sergio Leone and the ‘Death of the Western’ in American Film Criticism” (Journal of Film and Video, 62:1, Spring 2010). It’s an interesting look at Leone’s Dollars Trilogy through the lens of genre criticism – meta-genre criticism, really. Briefly exposing the Foucault power element behind it all, McClain points out that when critics rejected Leone’s westerns as being bona fide “Westerns,” they were appealing to a standard put in place by powerful forces like studios and their producers. These figures, more than audiences or the film texts themselves, are a priori responsible for the creation of distinct genres for capitalistic purposes. Up until new forms of deconstructed/reconstructed cinema, critics got to define what constituted a “genre,” a process referred to as “genrification.” This contrasts with the “de-genrification” that took place when American critics rejected an Italian director with a production team made up of Italians, Germans, and Spaniards creating a trilogy of films that were to be explicitly “Western” and featuring an American star. The Western, previously thought to be a quintessentially American genre, was at a low point, as many have noted, and was in need of a reboot. One of the great ironies about the “Spaghetti Western” subgenre, of course, is that it was largely inspired by the Far East, most notably Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which formed the narrative backdrop and overall source material for A Fistful of Dollars. At least one critic has noted the further irony that Kurosawa’s film was very well-received by Western (geographically speaking) audiences whereas Leone’s was not. Both were heavy on violence considering the period, but the theory goes that Kurosawa’s film has a subtler and arguably more perfected technique than Leone’s.
As part and parcel of the (de)genrification taking place in the critical reception of these films, the films’ marketing highlighted the similarities between the Dollars Trilogy with the James Bond films that were quite popular at the time through the same studio. In each of these series, you have a very manly (according to popular cinematic stereotypes) male protagonist who’s light on dialogue but heavy on clever physicality. Music figures prominently, with narrative twists built on the ingenuity of the main character. Etc., etc. The critical rejection of Leone’s films, however, becomes odd when considered in light of its conservative prejudices. While one might think of cinema as a necessarily progressive medium, born as it was out of technological novelties, some of its biggest fans seem to hate change. Even the “professionals” in the field seem to lament changes within genre even more than they simply observe them; usually the laments feel arbitrary, based simply on a preference for the way things have always been. On the other hand, while it was popular in the 60s to love so-called art films like those from Antonioni, Bergman, and Kurosawa, anything that pierced into an established genre (like the American western) was often deemed revisionist and therefore inauthentic.
Looking more specifically at the films themselves, there’s yet another irony present in this conservative degenrification. Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, which brought about Leone’s Fistful, features a universe devoid of the strict black-and-white morality of earlier, textbook Westerns. Your John Wayne-hero doesn’t inhabit this universe. Instead, it’s a figure whose namelessness reflects the impossibility of labeling him with simple goodness or badness, notwithstanding the tongue-in-cheek title of The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly. In Kurosawa’s case, Mifune’s character in Yojimbo arguably represents precisely the filmmaker in all of his questionable yet unquestioned authoritativeness. He has absolute power, much like the way Sanjuro sits high atop to two warring clans after pitting them against one another for his own entertainment. This slightly sadistic power-wielding without much purpose aside from selfish introspection is in some ways exactly what filmmakers are doing when they, from a broader perspective, mess with a genre. (It’s certainly what they’re doing when they make a film.) So perhaps what lies behind this attempt at critical degenrification is really critical jealousy; it’s the job of filmmakers to make films and let the critics identify genres, not for filmmakers to take the initiative by doing both. In other words, critics may resent it when those in construction enter into the realm of demolition, previously a field they held in monopoly. While Leone attempts to regenrify, critics respond by degenrifying; Leone tries to move the genre forward and critics turn the tables by rejecting his product.
Of course, as McClain observes, Leone’s films are so chock full of Western cliches that they may be just as much reversionist as revisionist. But by referring so constantly to all that is textbook Western, films like The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly become so self-consciously Western that they revise the genre by referring back to it so heavily. (It’s hard not to think of someone like Tarantino when considering this.) Here is where the critical argument and degenrification of the Leone Western gains some validity. Leone’s brand of the Western appears – at first at least – to be more concerned with form than with content. By featuring a cynical protagonist and positioning the viewing on his side, and not only elevating but apparently glorifying new depictions of violence, the themes that were previously deemed essential to the Western are subjugated to its form. Even still, the argument goes, the new violence masks the traditional Western aesthetic behind a screen of blood. It’s at least possible that Leone belongs to a breed of filmmakers that are grown-up, boyish cinephiles. Many of the great filmmakers cared more about ideas than they did about cinema, so they used the latter to portray the former. This may or may not be true of Leone, but his films and others in his vein at least suggest the possibility.
Or, another possibility: Leone’s films are the logical outcome of the traditional American Western. By always elevating the importance of the individual (usually, more specifically, individual responsibility) and inhabiting a world in which capital (gold, money, what-have-you) is prime, it could be argued that Leone’s nameless, wandering protagonist is the eventual destiny of the gun-wielding Western hero. After saving enough towns from bandits and Indians, he becomes chapped and leathered, finally giving into the pressure and following his own desires instead of giving them up for others. McClain observes that the narratives within the Dollars Trilogy are essentially meaningless; it’s all about the character. In earlier Westerns, the main character existed for the narrative, in order to be a figure of salvation and sometimes redemption. The Man With No Name probably had a name at one point; he was probably known for something heroic. Now he disassociates himself from his past (and the Western from cinema’s past) and uses his skill and prowess to save his own hide and get himself the gold. McClain identifies this (although not as explicitly, perhaps) as the unraveling of the Western myth. Rooted as the Western is in American mythology, Leone dares to follow a moral mythology to its nihilistic ends.
It should be noted here that this is distinctly not what Kurosawa was doing with Yojimbo. Functioning not only as a metaphor for cinema, Yojimbo was directed toward a modernized (1961) Japan. The American occupation was fully over at this point and the Japanese economy’s upward progress now demanded the (re)formation of a national identity, one that struggled to find a moral foundation, just like Kurosawa’s character Sanjuro. Sanjuro’s disdain for his past and playful, amoral exploration of new territories is condemned by Kurosawa as ultimately immature and childish. Whether Leone’s adaptation of Kurosawa’s source material and reappropriation of it to the American Old West similarly condemns such childish violence is questionable. True, Kurosawa’s film also emphasized violence in new ways – Kurosawa himself deeply regretted the effects Yojimbo‘s violence had on subsequent films. Audiences may have largely missed Kurosawa’s point, however, which exposed violence as ineffective and gratuitous, especially when it exists merely for entertainment. One does get the impression watching Leone’s films that the violence is more celebrated than carefully used to undermine itself.