Giuliano Gemma on what separates American and Italian westerns

During an interview (which can be found on the Arrow release of “A Pistol for Ringo”), Giuliano Gemma states that what fundamentally separated American from Italian Westerns is that “Filming a Western, for Americans, was about recounting their history. We concentrated more on the choreography of the film”. I found this to be a very interesting comment that seems to make sense in that, with the Italians unconcerned about historical boundaries, they were free to focus more on the action and push against the edges of the genre.

Do you agree with Gemma, or do you feel this is too narrow of a dilution?


Well, what I like about Italian westerns is that they do not have a romantic vision of the Old West, hence why they allowed for less traditional western styles with more unique characters and stories. Plus they were more gritty and violent.


… the Italians also used the genre as a canvas to process other contemporary or historical socio-political themes. And some filmmakers also plainly just tried to immitate their American role models, screen wise…


Hmm, but that’s not really true. Not completely wrong either, in a general way, but a romantic view was long gone in the US western of the 60s,and generally they were more pessimistic than optimistic. Especially the so called twilight westerns starting with Ride the High Country.

Well, if one wants to compare Italian and US westerns, one should only take those which were made at the same time. It doesn’t make sense to compare films from the late 60s directly with films from the late 40s, cause too much had changed in between, the limits of what was possible to show on the screen had changed dramatically, especially during the 60s. There is already a great difference between US westerns from 1960 and those from 1966/67, and there was another big step to the early 70s.

The violence shown in SWs is pretty different from those in US westerns, but the directing of screen violence had already changed a lot since the 50s before Leone’s films were shown in the USA. If you take the important US westerns from the 60s, many of them are very different from typical 50s westerns, they are not less dirty than most Spags, there is more cynicism, and the heroes are also not that good anymore, and there is a general pessimism in the portrait of the West. But actually many older westerns are also far away from simple good guy/ bad guy stories.

The real simple westerns in the 60s, with incredibly nice and brave heroes, were made not in the USA but in Germany.

The SW was in many respects very different from 60s and 70s US westerns, but it was not the amount of violence or grittyness that separated them, it was the general look at the genre, a different way to develop the genre cliches, a very different way to direct typical genre images, especially the shoot-outs.
And what Gemma says above points in the right direction. Especially his remark about the concentration "on the choreography of the film”.

What Leone said about the differences of his western to John Ford ("when in a western by Ford someone looks out of the window, he has a great future, when in my films someone looks out of a window, he gets shot), is only true in connection to Ford, very true actually, but totally untrue in connection to the then contemporary US westerns made by Peckinpah, Penn, Altman, Ritt, Brooks and others. And even Ford’s later westerns showed a more pessimistic view on the West.


Of course, the US westerns, particularly the mid-to-late sixties ones were generally violent and pessimistic, but what I meant was that the Italians did not have a romantic view of the Old West, but rather of the Wild West films made in the US. Leone, Corbucci, Tessari, etc loved the American westerns, but not really the historical time period, more so the playground for an abundance of different stories to be told. That being said, I do think you bring up some very good points.


Oh yes, very well said, that is exactly the essence of SW film making.
The Italians copied certain aspects of the US westerns they liked, but even of those not everything. They skipped the mythological background, they skipped the moral, they skipped (mostly) the romances, they kept the dirt, they kept the duels, they kept (and intensified) the violence and the shoot-outs. And they mixed all these ingredients with a different way of scoring, and looked at the genre elements from a more South-European, actually an Italian and Catholic background. They were less interested in character development, instead more in action.