Feature: Corbucci vs. Tarantino

When Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight was released earlier this year, many pointed to director Sergio Leone as one of the central influences. Tarantino has often name-checked and sound-checked Leone: Kill Bill: Vol. 2 features a track lifted from The Good, The Bad and the Ugly and the first chapter of Inglorious Basterds is certainly an homage to the Italian maestro, playing as it does on the titles of his film Once Upon a Time in the West and Once Upon a Time in America. But Tarantino is also a huge fan of the Italian director Sergio Corbucci, who made a series of seminal westerns to rival Leone’s mastery.

Although Leone effectively launched the Spaghetti Western genre with A Fistful of Dollars in 1964 and despite the fact that the genre has a tendency to look and sound very similar from film to film – partly due to Ennio Morricone’s ubiquitous soundtracks and a troupe of familiar Italian theater actors who turn up again and again with the odd forgotten or up-and-coming American or German actor thrown in – Corbucci’s films are far from being cheap imitations or knock-offs, although undoubtedly that was how they won their financing. The differences are actually striking. If Leone is the universally popular Beatles, Corbucci is the Rolling Stones – dangerous, jagged and a bit dirtier.

One thing that obviously attracts Tarantino is Corbucci’s radical political use of genre. His villains are land owners (Django); or respectable bankers, as in Navajo Joe; or people working for the authorities, The Mercenary and The Great Silence; whereas his heroes are the disenfranchised, such as the young Burt Reynolds who takes the lead as an avenging Indian in Navajo Joe. If his hero is a man of few words, it isn’t a stylistic choice – Clint Eastwood putting his pencil through Leone’s overly wordy script – it’s because Silence (Jean-Louis Trintignant) has had his throat lit as a child and who now stands up for those who otherwise wouldn’t have a voice. Harmonica in Once Upon a Time in the West is an almost wordless avenger, but his vengeance facilitates the onset of a civilisation he has no real time for; Silence, on the other hand, fights to save the impoverished and against the worst savageries of capitalism.

Leone’s politics are lightly worn – with the exception of A Fistful of Dynamite and its opening quotation from Chairman Mao – civilization is to be scoffed at and there is a distaste for the equation of money and human life, but there is no real anger and his heroes are participants rather than rebels. Instead, Corbucci’s films always have a broader political context, in which the gunfighter is only an element and of limited use. The conclusion of The Great Silence will come as a shock both for its deep pessimism and the break with genre, showing that the gunslinger is not a superhero and will not overcome his obligatory beating. Another difference which might at first appear superficial is the weather. Leone’s westerns are parched, scorched affairs, set on the Mexican border, occasionally drifting into the desert. It rains at the beginning of For a Few Dollars More but nothing like the downpour that drenches Franco Nero’s coffin dragging gunslinger, Django. The mud of the town is grimier than anything in Leone. With its lofty snowscapes, The Great Silence has a striking but frigid beauty, a cold which matches the bleakness of the film’s denouement and a scale which dwarves the protagonists.

Finally, there’s the violence. Leone’s films gained a reputation for bloodshed in contrast to the classic westerns which had largely migrated to the safety of television, but Leone’s violence is quick and contained. The build-ups are long, but the violence itself is almost over before it begins, with the exception of the obligatory beating. Corbucci takes the violence to another level. Where Eastwood’s Man with No Name might be given a sound beating, Silence and Django are beaten and have their hands destroyed. Leone’s villains are bandits and outlaws, his heroes bounty hunters or avengers. In Corbucci’s films, the bounty hunters gun down unarmed prisoners; in Navajo Joe it’s they who scalp the Indians. Even the heroes are soiled by the violence they perpetrate and are challenged on it. Silence plans to collect a bounty on Loco (Klaus Kinski) and cynically provokes gunfights so he can kill the other bounty hunters ‘legally’. When Loco gets the upper hand, the ensuing massacre is all “according to the law”.

Quentin Tarantino’s The Hateful Eight is in UK cinemas nationwide now. Read our review here.

John Bleasdale | @drjonty