New Article on Spaghetti Westerns

Recently, the journal Romance Notes published “Traumatic Memory and Heroism in the Transnational Spaghetti Western,” by Mary T. Hartson, pp. 27-37 This is an excellent article that seeks to revise prior critical characterization of the Spaghetti Western “hero” and emphasize that this genre is reflective of both Italian and Spanish post-war sociopolitics. Academic papers in spaghetti westerns are few and far between, so when a new paper is published I always have to read it.

She writes, “The significance of the revenge plot in relation to past trauma, the use of violence, and the pursuit of money are unmistakable markers of the genre’s heroes. I propose the shared historical influences in Spain and Italy such as wartime trauma, dictatorships, and consumer transformations in which historical events were repressed and/or glossed over, contributed to the form and popularity of the genre in both countries. Though ostensibly representative of the American West in the late 1800s, many films can be read as manifestations of the latent post-war trauma, as their male protagonists struggle to come to terms with and/or avenge some formative violent event in the past.” (p. 28)[1]

Martson examines three influential Spaghetti Westerns⁠— Django (1966), The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966), and Death Rides a Horse (1967)— and contends that the genre “seem[s] to be about little else than the ‘hero’s’ attempt to overcome some trauma through revenge and/or purchasing ultimate freedom through securing great wealth” (p. 28)

The heroic trauma and struggle to come to terms with violence past is the individualization of the collective post-war experience of the two countries: As both Spain and italy raced toward a consumerist future in which wartime trauma was silenced and repressed, spaghetti westerns may have given form to a latent sense of injustice and brutality that had yet to be assimilated. The concept of violence and orginary trauma are especially relevant given the chronology of these films with the larger context of the 20th century wars in Europe. The fact that many films were shot in southern Spain, and often included Spanish personnel invites reflection on the importance of the Spanish Civil War on the individual psyche and conceptualization of masculinity in these films⁠— as does World War II does on Italy. Their ostensibly Italian identity cannot, in most cases, be separated from the Spanish context and the postwar trauma and silencing experienced by Spaniards, still constrained within the confines of a dictatorship [i.e., the Francoist regime] that lasted thirty-two years beyond the death of Mussolini.” (p. 31).

Later on, she notes: “[the] heroes of many spaghetti western films bear rather striking commonalities which are unproductive and unconnected to the betterment of society. Though some critics seem to want to admire and elevate some sort of superior masculinity of spaghetti western heroes —for their stylishness, their disaffected and calm demeanor, etc.— many of the common characteristics of these films place their masculine representations solidly within [Raya] Morag’s schema for “defeated masculinity” (p. 32)[2]

I find Martson’s argument erudite, persuasive, and informative. I believe this perspective can be fruitful in future critical analysis of a spaghetti western hero’s portrayal and motivations. Also, while I did not dwell much on this aspect of the argument, her proposal of considering the genre as “transnational cinema” (rather than purely Italian) seems, to me, to be correct. If anyone has access to an interlibrary loan service or an academic library, check out this article.

[1] Hartson discusses Giulio Questi’s quote on the connection between Spaghetti Western heroic trauma and the lingering, unresolved post-war traumas of Spain and France: “I had been in the war and had been part of rebellious militant groups, being part of the resistance, so I knew about the horrors of war, about being around armed groups, village assaults, shootings. All kinds of things I experienced so this western brought back to me the memory of things I knew and I tried to convey them with a lot of passion.” (quoted in p. 34). She also quotes critic Lino Micciechè’s, who said the genre “reflects, more or less unconsciously, some of the sociological data, some of the hidden history of those years. it especially betrays the ideological and moral confusion of that period, as well as the difficulty . . . of distinguishing ‘who was guilty?’, ‘who was responsible?’, ‘who were the good guys?’” (quoted in p. 31).

[2] Morag’s schema: “defeated masculinity is positioned on the margins of the symbolic order or outside it; the order is undermined, devoid of the Name of the Father or Law; pre-trauma, the male subject is perceived as the preferred agent for representing the social order, while post-traumatic cinema is unique in constructing this affiliation as replete with tension and exposing the male identity as unstable. (Raya Morag, Defeated Masculinity: Post Traumatic Cinema in the Aftermath of War. New York: Peter Lang, 2009, p. 28).

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I do not understand how a fan of Spaghetti Westerns can take umbrage with an article “written from the quasi-Marxist and extreme left-wing position,”[1] considering some of the filmmakers and themes in this of all genres. I am quite opposed to the ideology, but when I look at the career of, say, Franco Solinas I must call a spade a spade.

[1] A characterization, however, I find unwarranted via my own reading of the text and by the reasons (not) provided in your conventional jeremiad…

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