Shakespeare at the OK Corral

I know from comments posted to some of my earlier posts that not all of you in Morlock-land are fans of Spaghetti Westerns.  Fair enough.  They were designed as a European alternative to American Westerns–and like European football or European pizza, they defy American tastes to some extent.  I’ve argued here before that Europeans have as legitimate a claim to Westerns as Americans do–I mean, one of the very first horse operas was literally an opera!  Giacomo Puccini first saw his Western opera La fanciulla del West (“The Girl of the Golden West”) performed in 1910.

Nevertheless, I don’t dispute that these European Westerns differ substantially in tenor and texture from the homegrown kind.  That’s why Americans first started using that “Spaghetti Western” epithet–it was intended as an insult.  Even though the insult has now been embraced by fans and lost its sting, there are still those who would argue that like real spaghetti, Italian Westerns are just empty calories.

This may be true of some–but the vast majority of Italian Westerns weren’t even distributed in the US and many have never been covered significantly by the critical press, and the irony is that some of the best Spaghettis remain the most obscure.  I’d like this week to introduce you to two films that have never been made available in the US, but which you will nevertheless find more than a little familiar.  We’ve already talked about the influence of pulp novelist Karl May on the Western genre–now it’s time to look at another, even bigger, author–William Shakespeare!Death

Actually, before we get to Will, we need to meet Sergio Corbucci.  His name isn’t as well known as Shakespeare’s, but he plays a major role in what is to follow.

Corbucci was an Italian director of exploitation fare.  For years, he toiled in that industry without achieving much in the way of recognition.  He’d even made Westerns—three of them—which failed to light any fires.  And then in 1966 he struck gold.  I mean that figuratively (the Wild West was about a gold rush, get it?): actually Corbucci just made a movie, but that movie went through the roof.

Django

It’s sometimes hard for American Western fans to get a handle on how influential DJANGO was.  Sergio Leone’s films made a bigger impact here because he cast American stars like Clint Eastwood in them, making them more palatable for American audiences.  Meanwhile, DJANGO didn’t even get distributed in the US until 2000.  In Europe, though, DJANGO led immediately to knock-offs, hangers-on, dubious sequels, copycats, wanna-bes, and the like.  Some of this flood of DJANGO-derived movies actually made common cause with Corbucci’s style, some just slapped a DJANGO name onto the end product and hoped nobody looked too closely.

OK, now I’m assuming that you’re following along at home by charting these lines of influence on a piece of graph paper.  You’ve got the vectors zooming off of Corbucci’s name onto his successors—but we need to show the vectors pointing to Corbucci from others, like Sergio Leone and Akira Kurosawa.  Actually, in a way, these were the same thing.  Leone had reinvented the Western with A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS by remaking one of Kurosawa’s samurai pictures in a Western setting.

Naturally, Corbucci started paying very close attention to Kurosawa’s work.  And Kurosawa was in turn taking inspiration from William Shakespeare (mark that down on your chart).  THRONE OF BLOOD adapted Macbeth into a samurai setting, but 1960’s THE BAD SLEEP WELL was the more intriguing example, for the way it turned Hamlet into a contemporary Japanese setting.  Corbucci started talking about turning Hamlet into a Spaghetti Western…

Johnny Hamlet

The busy Corbucci didn’t have time to carry out his idea, and handed the project over to Enzo Castellari, another Italian exploitation filmmaker with a penchant for extreme violence (one of his creations was the original INGLORIOUS BASTARDS, remade and respelled by Quentin Taranatino).  Castellari was an inveterate fan of movie Westerns—which suited the Italian film industry well in those days, since (and this is Enzo speaking here) “they made 300-400 Westerns every year, and didn’t have that many filmmakers to cover them all.”

Let’s pause here to settle this issue: in fact, about 300 Westerns were made in Italy total between the years of 1963 and 1969.  The most in any single year was 66, which were made in 1966 (I love the numerical symmetry of that.)  But, Castellari’s exaggeration points to something significant–the highest numbers of Westerns ever made in the US in a single year was 90, in 1953.  By 1963, the year that Italian Westerns took off like a rocket, Hollywood barely made 11 Westerns.

By sheer numbers, the Italian version of the genre absolutely overtook the American iteration in the 1960s.  Even if only a fraction of these came across the ocean to American screens, they still represented a flood–and they filled up European theaters to the extent that they strangled foreign interest in Hollywood Westerns.

To fuel the manufacture of that many Westerns in so short a time, filmmakers had to be creative about where to find stories–so, Hamlet Goes West?  Why not?

Castellari wasn’t sure exactly how to adapt Shakespeare’s talky drama into an action thriller, but with the help of screenwriters Tito Carpi and Francesco Scardamaglia he crafted a 1968 film called QUELLA SPORCA STORIA NEL WEST, which BabelFish tells me translates to “That Dirty Story in the West,” and which maybe means something closer to “Strange Story From the West.”  Maybe the title was meant to evoke ONCE UPON A TIME IN THE WEST (“C’era una volta il West”).  In any event, the English title JOHNNY HAMLET is more to the point—and Castellari was irked that the producers didn’t use that more obvious title for the Itlian release.  Meanwhile the German release followed Spaghetti Western Promotional Strategy #1 and retitled the thing DJANGO: DIE TOTENGRÄBER WARTEN SCHON (“Django—the Grim Reaper is waiting”).  That German monniker gets in the requisite Django reference, and it also hints at the Gothic horror atmosphere that dominates JOHNNY HAMLET.

Gothic atmosphere

This is more than just a restaging of Hamlet in a Western setting—it is a freeform adaptation that takes liberties with the source in the same way that THE BAD SLEEP WELL tinkered with the text.

“Johnny Hamilton,” haunted by supernatural visions, returns to avenge his father’s apparent murder by Claudio.  This much seems familiar, but the plot also mixes in novelties like Santana, the bandit who faked his own death to steal a fortune in Confederate gold.

Hamlet in the West

Below is a shot of Johnny Hamilton and his pal, sharpshooter Horace (Horatio), beating the living daylights out of hired guns Guild and Ross (Guildenstern and Rosencrantz).  It is moments like these that ensure that any schoolchild who tries to use this movie to get out of reading Shakespeare’s text will certainly flunk the test.

Fight!

The funny thing is that mid-twentieth-century filmmakers were being even more daring with Shakespeare than some of the most prestigious and authoritative theater companies.  Modern dress Shakespeare had been fitfully tried since 1923, but it remained controversial (and, ahem, still is).  Perhaps it helped that these were foreigners, for whom the concept of the Greatest Writer of the English Language held less mythical allure.  Perhaps it made a difference that they were filmmakers, rather than theater folk.  One inescapable consequence of their having been filmmakers is that what they created is a lasting document, enjoyable in its original form by subsequent generations, while those theater directors who flirt with modern-dress stagings of Shakespeare play to isolated moments of time.

Consider this wonderfully “meta” bit from JOHNNY HAMLET: there is a traveling theater troupe that blows into town at roughly the same time that Johnny does–so far, just like Shakespeare.  But the play they are rehearsing is… Hamlet!

A similarly bizarre self-reference occurs in Gianni Puccini’s version of Romeo and Juliet.  At one point, the characters in the story openly remark on how similar their situation is to Shakespeare’s famous play!  Well… duh!

DOVE SI SPARA DI PIU it was called in Italian (“Where it is Hotter,” presumably a catchier idiom relating to Hell when you know Italian), and GLUT DER SONNE in German (“Fire of the Sun”).  In English it was shown alternately as THE FURY OF JOHNNY KIDD and ULTIMATE GUNFIGHTER.  That’s another tangle of titles, but since FURY OF JOHNNY KIDD was also one of the Italian re-issue titles (La Furia de Johnny Kidd), I’ll take that as my handle.  Plus, I like the symmetry of JOHNNY HAMLET and JOHNNY KIDD as the two Spaghetti Shakespeares.

Johnny Kidd

To my knowledge, Gianni Puccini was not related to Giacomo (mentioned above).  Nor was his a name much heralded among Spaghetti fans—this was his sole contribution to the genre.  He was more into making comedies, and some reports have suggested he was squeamish about the level of over-the-top violence expected from Westerns.  If his attitude shifted, he didn’t get much chance to act on it—he passed away in 1968.

Romeo and Juliet in the West

THE FURY OF JOHNNY KIDD necessarily embellishes its source, like JOHNNY HAMLET did, to provide the requisite level of crazy action.  The basic setup follows Shakespeare, with the Campos clan locked in perpetual war against the Mounters–and, like WEST SIDE STORY, this rivalry has a racial component to it as well.  Shakespeare, however, never wrote anything about the Sheriff being bound to the Campos clan thanks to a magic bullet: year earlier, when the lawman came to arrest Rodrigo Campos, the two men fired simultaneously,  and the bullets collided mid-air, fusing into a permanent symbol of their intertwined fates:

one

two

three

But despite such changes, what remains irreducible are Shakespeare’s stories–recognizable even when gussied up in strange new clothes.  Hamlet stays Hamlet even when transformed into JOHNNY HAMLET or THE BAD SLEEP WELL or STRANGE BREW or STRANGE ILLUSION.  (Shakespeare even had a famous quote to this effect, which I will not repeat here because it’s become a cliche.  But I bet it’s running around in your head right this instant.  You feel the urge to say it aloud…)

Watching stories migrate across genres is one way of admiring the enduring power of Shakespeare’s storytelling–but there’s something else here as well.  Westerns are a remarkably flexible genre.  You could take anything–a story that originated as an English play at the dawn of the 17th century, a story that originated as a samurai movie from Japan, a story rooted in historical fact of the American West–it doesn’t much matter.  Any of these can be a Western, and a good one.  The extraordinary ability of Westerns to fit to any story means that whatever has led to a dwindling of Westerns on screens today cannot be attributed to any dearth of appropriate stories.It is more likely that something about the superficial trappings of the genre–the landscapes, the horses, the male-centric casts–has lost its lustre somehow.

And since that’s a potentially sad thought, I’ll brighten the mood by leaving you with the theme tune from JOHNNY HAMLET, because it absolutely rocks: song

8 Responses Shakespeare at the OK Corral
Posted By Tom S : February 5, 2011 5:12 pm

I often wonder if one of the primary things that caused (and still causes) a kneejerk negative reaction to Italian Westerns is the dubbing- there’s something about post-synced dialog, even when well done, that seems to distract American audiences and convince them whatever they’re watching is cheap, campy, and probably a foreign product masquerading as a domestic one.

It’s funny, because as I understand it, Italian productions were almost always post-synced, even within Italy. It’s a shame we have that kneejerk reaction, especially when it comes to later Welles stuff- I’ve seen people refuse to watch his Othello because “It sounds like something from Mystery Science Theater”.

Posted By Tom S : February 5, 2011 5:12 pm

I often wonder if one of the primary things that caused (and still causes) a kneejerk negative reaction to Italian Westerns is the dubbing- there’s something about post-synced dialog, even when well done, that seems to distract American audiences and convince them whatever they’re watching is cheap, campy, and probably a foreign product masquerading as a domestic one.

It’s funny, because as I understand it, Italian productions were almost always post-synced, even within Italy. It’s a shame we have that kneejerk reaction, especially when it comes to later Welles stuff- I’ve seen people refuse to watch his Othello because “It sounds like something from Mystery Science Theater”.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 5, 2011 7:57 pm

I was actually going to blog about Johnny Hamlet at some point so I’m glad to see someone else recognize its uniqueness. I found out about it from Alex Cox’s fun survey of the spaghetti genre – 10,000 WAYS TO DIE (highly recommended if you like Italian westerns). You can still find DVD copies of this from Koch Media but have to own an all region player. The print is fine and the movie has the look of a Gothic horror film at times. I’d say it was inspired by William Shakespeare AND Edgar Allan Poe.

Posted By morlockjeff : February 5, 2011 7:57 pm

I was actually going to blog about Johnny Hamlet at some point so I’m glad to see someone else recognize its uniqueness. I found out about it from Alex Cox’s fun survey of the spaghetti genre – 10,000 WAYS TO DIE (highly recommended if you like Italian westerns). You can still find DVD copies of this from Koch Media but have to own an all region player. The print is fine and the movie has the look of a Gothic horror film at times. I’d say it was inspired by William Shakespeare AND Edgar Allan Poe.

Posted By Jenni : February 5, 2011 10:25 pm

That Shakespeare can inspire a Japanese, or an Italian, or American filmmakers(Forbidden Planet, anyone?), just proves the addage that there is nothing new under the sun. And one tiny criticism, spaghetti, as a meal, isn’t full of empty calories, but a cannoli is!

Posted By Jenni : February 5, 2011 10:25 pm

That Shakespeare can inspire a Japanese, or an Italian, or American filmmakers(Forbidden Planet, anyone?), just proves the addage that there is nothing new under the sun. And one tiny criticism, spaghetti, as a meal, isn’t full of empty calories, but a cannoli is!

Posted By Juana Maria : February 27, 2011 7:53 pm

Shakespeare’s Influence on the Western:
“Comedy of Errors”: “Bonanza”-”The Gunmen”;”Taming of the Shrew”:”Bonanza”-”Woman of Fire”;”Romeo & Juliet”:”Bonanza”-”The Truckee Strip”;”King Lear”:”The Man from Laramie” and “King of Texas”. I love Westerns! Keep up the excellent writing. Thanks!

Posted By Juana Maria : February 27, 2011 7:53 pm

Shakespeare’s Influence on the Western:
“Comedy of Errors”: “Bonanza”-”The Gunmen”;”Taming of the Shrew”:”Bonanza”-”Woman of Fire”;”Romeo & Juliet”:”Bonanza”-”The Truckee Strip”;”King Lear”:”The Man from Laramie” and “King of Texas”. I love Westerns! Keep up the excellent writing. Thanks!

Leave a Reply

Current ye@r *

We regret to inform you that FilmStruck is now closed.  Our last day of service was November 29, 2018.

Please visit tcm.com/help for more information.

We would like to thank our many fans and loyal customers who supported us.  FilmStruck was truly a labor of love, and in a world with an abundance of entertainment options – THANK YOU for choosing us.