Wild Westerns – part 1

Wild WesternsThis article, written by William Price Fox, originally appeared in The Saturday Evening Post on April 6th, 1968. It’s reproduced here entirely out of historical interest. The writer has a rather condescending attitude towards the films he’s discussing (not unusual for the time), but it does include a lot of background information that helps paint what – by all accounts – is a not inaccurate picture of the crazy film industry of Italy in the 1960s.

Outside Rome, an Arriflex camera dollies in for a tight two-shot of an Indian scalping a cavalry officer. The grinning Apache makes the incision and rips back the flesh-covered polyethylene hairpiece. Holding up a piece of fresh horsemeat with the blood running down his arm, he shouts out the Italian equivalent of a Great Plains war whoop. Two miles away, two horses are literally run over a cliff while cameras at top and bottom catch the panic, the bounce, the skid and every last ripple of life. And back at the studio lot, mercifully screened off from the blistering sun and an army of extras, grips and handymen, a heavy-breathing villain is closing in for his big rape scene with the leading lady. The rape will be shot twice-once with her blouse off, for the continental market; a second time with it on, for a sale to America.

Italian-produced-directed-and-acted, American-inspired Westerns are very big business. More than 200 have been made. With American movies houses and television as the target, James Bond smash-cuts are in; lingering sunset dissolves are out. Action is in; long dialogues and flashbacks are out. The emphasis is on more of everything- more melodrama, more blood, more shock, more sex.

My assignment from The Saturday Evening Post: go to Rome and do a story on the Italian Western in production. If possible, go on location with it.

Visions of a good, fast, funny story. Dark lasagna-raised Florentine will play a Sioux warrior sliding through the buffalo-grass in one scene; in the next he will be General Custer at Little Big Horn. Vino instead of red-eye; spaghetti and meatballs instead of jerky and beans. “Va bene straniero, come ti chiaman?” instead of, “All right, stranger, what do they call you?”

I arranged a lunch meeting in New York with Clint Eastwood, the tall cowboy star of the Italian-made Fistful of Dollars, who was scheduled to go to Rome to do another Western. Clint and I had played golf in Tijuana, Mexico, a few months before, and when I had last seen him he was frowning down a long dogleg under a fireball sun and looking like a weary high-school end who has just run the wrong 40-yard buttonhook pattern. We talked movies, television, California politics, golf. As I chewed on the ice from my drink, wondering how the Roman courses would play, I liked the assignment more and more.

A week later, the Post editorial offices. Bad news. Clint Eastwood now too big for Italian Westerns; he had signed to do a film in Hollywood . Editor was calm. Had an even better plan. Producer Guido Di Renzo was taking a company from Rome to the mountains of Yugoslavia for a big cast-of-thousands Western. I was to meet Di Renzo in Rome and go along. No golf, but still good deal.

Got typhoid shot, passport and a set of drip-dry everything. Over the North Atlantic peeled back the Pan American cellophane from the Pan American knife, the Pan American fork, and the Pan American spoon. Wondered what kind of food there would be in Yugoslavia . Thought of Belgrade. Of going into a Serbo-Croatian restaurant set against the Transylvania Alps and asking for their local wine, their native dish. Of my guide, who would be heavy and hairy, an Akim Tamiroff who would shout out for more gypsies, more violins, more tambourines.

Hotel in Rome. Room with terrace overlooking orange and rose roofs and the sun that set on Nero. With my shoes off and my feet propped up on the rail, I was watching the pigeons circling around the chimney pots while the hotel operator tried to get hold of Guido Di Renzo. I’d overtipped the concierge and bellboy, hoping word would spread that I was a big spender and I would get top service. The operator rang. Said she was having trouble locating Di Renzo. Was I sure I had the name right? Told her yes. She suggested it might be Di Renzo Guido. I said I doubted it, but try anyway. She called back a few minutes later saying no one had heard of either name. As I wrote out a cable to the Post, I saw the article going up in smoke.

Next morning, Post wired back: “Di Renzo in Yugoslavia off temporarily. Go find another Western and do story.” I recalled Dylan Thomas’s line about complicated instructions for a child’s erector set: “Oh, easy for Leonardo!”

Told the concierge my problem. After five phone calls, he announced he had not only found a Western, he had located an American producer. I took the phone and explained my assignment from the Post . The producer came on selling hard. “Look, chief, we’re not exactly shooting a Western. But it’s close. A crusade movie-12 th century, $750,000 budget, a big one. Lots of horses, trick riding, burning arrows, everything.”

“I’m afraid not. I’ve got to have a Western.”

“But it’s the same plot. Only difference is we have infidels instead of Indians. Listen, if we put loincloths on them and gave them tomahawks, you wouldn’t know the difference.”

Decided to try an American contact of my own. Called Bob Silverstein, an old friend doing publicity for a Carlo Ponti production starring Sophia Loren and Vittorio Gassman; made date to meet Silverstein at the Café Doney on Via Veneto.

To the Roman moviemaker, director, actor and script man the Veneto is the center of the world. Unlike its American counterpart, the Sunset Strip in Hollywood-where the hot-rodders can drag a half-mile stretch from Schwab’s drugstore all the way to the International House of Pancakes with no tight turns-the Veneto winds and dips among the hills of Rome like a thirsty snake looking for water. Facing each other across lanes of bumper-to-bumper Fiats that screech like geese are the most popular sidewalk cafes, the Café de Paris and the Doney.

[continues here]

About Matt Blake 890 Articles
The WildEye is a blog dedicated to the wild world of Italian cinema (and, ok, sometimes I digress into discussing films from other countries as well). Peplums, comedies, dramas, spaghetti westerns... they're all covered here.

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