Children are gunned down in the street and in their homes. Women are forced into slavery, beaten, and raped. Men are slowly, methodically tortured. Lifelong friends casually – and sometimes inexplicably – betray one another. Priests are hypocrites, intellectuals are cowards, and rich capitalists are fat spiders who live off the sweat of the poor. The world that Sergio Leone portrays in his genre films is violent, gritty, and unpredictable, and yet he renders it on screen in a surrealist, operatic style that is truly beautiful. Consequently, Leone seems to have ambivalent feelings for his characters, and for the blood-soaked oeuvres of westerns and gangster films. He expresses this ambivalence not only through the beauty of his films’ visual style and music scores, but through the actions of his criminal protagonists, who are frequently childlike, superstitiously religious, and strangely innocent in the context of the hostile world that they live in.
Leone’s signature directing style has several prominent characteristics that are inevitably cited whenever his work is discussed, whether it is by scholars such as Christopher Frayling or filmmakers such as Quentin Tarantino. The most famous of Leone’s directing choices is his frequent (and visually striking) alternation of shots between extreme close-ups of characters’ faces and extreme far shots of panoramic landscapes. Leone also alternates between a virtually silent, death-like soundtrack and a rousing, orchestral score by Ennio Morricone that emphasizes the grandeur of the events taking place on screen. Oddly, considering their action-movie trappings, Leone’s films are long (frequently more than two hours) and methodically paced. His action segments in particular unfold slowly, with long periods of silence broken by rapid bursts of gunfire and sudden death. As Frayling observed, these poetic directing techniques helped bestow epic sensibilities upon formerly B-movie material, thereby elevating genre films to a more literate status. But why are the people, places, and events in Leone’s films presented in such a melodramatic manner? Leone’s frequent actor-collaborator Clint Eastwood once suggested that the director never outgrew a child’s wide-eyed view of the world, where everything is always larger than life. Eastwood’s theory seems plausible considering that Leone himself admitted that his vision might “sometimes” be seen as “naïve,” but it was “always [as] sincere [as a child’s].”
An Italian raised by parents who worked in the film industry, Leone cultivated a love of film at an early age and felt a particular affinity for American cinema. After an apprenticeship in film that allowed him to make uncredited writing and directing contributions to some of Italy’s epic “sword and sandal” films, Leone eventually earned the opportunity to direct “spaghetti westerns” – Italian-made cowboy films that became international blockbusters when they were exported to America. He teamed with Eastwood during the 1960s to film his most famous westerns, the three installments of “The Man with No Name Trilogy” – A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More, and The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly. Like the classic Western heroes of the John Ford films, Leone’s protagonists act as avenging angels or wrathful Christ-figures, smiting the unjust and delivering the victimized from evil. However, it is important to note that the Leone variant of this western archetype is more ruthless than those from the Ford westerns, and Eastwood’s Stranger is often more interested in personal gratification than mere altruism. Another of Leone’s gunslingers, Colonel Mortimer from For a Few Dollars More, overtly combines religious and gunslinger imagery by dressing as a preacher, publicly reading the Bible, and carrying an array of customized weapons. Arguably more accessible than Eastwood’s Stranger character, Mortimer is cultured, intelligent, polite to women, and charismatic, but he is also an efficient killing machine driven to avenge his raped and murdered sister.
In several of his westerns, Leone pairs his pseudo-supernatural gunslinger characters with a very earthy, broadly comic foil, effectively granting the “Christ-like” protagonist a fallible human companion. This “Sancho Panza” character is frequently a hard-drinking Mexican bandit with a tendency to swear oaths to God, laugh a lot, and kill with a mischievous gleam in his eyes. He appeared in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (in the form Eli Wallach’s character Tuco), Once Upon a Time in the West (as Jason Robard’s Cheyenne), and Duck, You Sucker (as Rod Steiger’s Juan). Each of these characters is humanized with a “back story” and a lovable rogue quality that suggests Leone has some Marxist sympathies, but they collectively offer a provocative perspective on the role of religion in the lives of the poor.
In The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly, the character Tuco represents the “ugly” side of a moral trinity that also includes a trickster character called Blondy as “the good,” and a heartless assassin called “Angel Eyes” as “the bad.” In an American landscape gone mad with the mass slaughter and destruction caused by the Civil War, such labels seem almost meaningless, especially since the three characters are more alike than the designations suggest. While Angel Eyes is certainly the most evil of the central characters, Tuco is the most ambiguously presented of the trinity. For example, even though he is capable of killing without a second thought, Tuco sometimes pauses beside the body of one of his victims to cross himself. This Catholic ritual, associated with righteous practitioners of the faith, is a gesture that may be mere custom, or a sign of Tuco’s genuine awe at bearing witness to the passing of a soul into the afterlife. Also, as cynical and treacherous as he himself can be, Tuco appears genuinely shocked when Blondy betrays him. Cursing Blondy as a “Judas,” Tuco hopes to see Blondy die as Judas did, with a rope around his neck. (This Judas theme returns later in Once Upon a Time in the West when Tuco’s counterpart in the film, Cheyenne, is seemingly betrayed by his gunslinger friend and similarly curses his betrayer as a “Judas.”)
In one of the most memorable scenes Leone ever filmed, the bandit Tuco is reunited with his brother Pablo for the first time in nine years. Now a Franciscan who tends to the wounded soldiers on both sides of the Civil War, Pablo greets Tuco with stony silence and a disapproving glare. He responds to Tuco’s attempts at friendliness by admonishing Tuco for living a life of crime and debauchery, and for missing their parents’ funerals. Tuco replies angrily with a passionate and unforgettable monologue:
“Go on, preach me a sermon … You think you’re better than I am? Where we came from if one did not want to die of poverty one became a priest or a bandit. You chose your way, I chose mine. Mine was harder. You talk of our mother and father. You remember when I left to become a priest I stayed behind. I must have been ten, twelve – I don’t remember which – but I stayed. I tried, but it was no good. Now I’m going to tell you something. You became a priest because you were too much of a coward to do what I do!”
The two exchange blows and Tuco leaves in disgust. Pablo stares after his brother sadly and says, “Please forgive me, brother.”
In Leone’s 1971 film, Duck, You Sucker, a poor bandit character not unlike Tuco encounters a priest traveling in the lap of luxury on a train as part of a party of bourgeoisie snobs. The cross-wearing bandit Juan passes himself off as a simple peasant and listens on as the priest discusses him with the other travelers as if he wasn’t in the compartment with them. Less sympathetically presented than Pablo, this priest calls Mexican peasants “unfortunate brutes” that, like animals, can be “tame and made harmless.” He adds, “I hate saying it, but you should hear them in the confessional. You can’t imagine it.” When Juan’s wrath is awakened shortly afterwards and he robs the party, strips them naked, and drives them off into the desert, the audience is expected to applaud his revolutionary actions.
As the film unfolds, it suggests that Juan’s personal faith is more sincere and heartfelt than the middle-class spirituality of the priest on the train. Therefore, when enemy soldiers slaughter Juan’s six children later in the movie, it is a significant moment when Juan tears the cross from around his neck and discards it. Juan’s friend John Mallory feels guilty for the children’s deaths, and for Juan’s loss of faith, because he was the one who recruited Juan to join the Mexican revolution, thereby endangering the children in the first place. By the end of the film, John avenges his friend by killing the soldiers who shot the children, but he himself is mortally wounded. In the closing scenes, the dying John gives Juan his cross back and says, “I gave you a right screwing.” The implication is that John was really the one responsible for the children’s deaths, not God, so Juan should no longer bear a grudge against the Lord.
Ostensibly less melodramatic in look and feel than Leone’s Westerns, Once Upon a Time in America offers a similarly symbolic narrative about the significance of violence, religion, and personal values in the lives of poor American immigrants. The story follows two childhood friends, Max (James Woods) and Noodles (Robert DeNiro), as they grow up and apart struggling to survive as part of a Brooklyn Jewish community in Christian America. By the time they reach young adulthood, Max has grown wealthy from bootlegging during Prohibition and entertains ambitions to “go straight” and become a respectable member of the political elite. His hopes amount to a disavowal of his Jewish heritage and a desire to “convert” into a Kennedy-style Catholic royal. Although he keeps these intentions secret from his friends, he symbolically announces them to the world by purchasing the throne of a seventeenth-century Pope for his office. Noodles, meanwhile, is too nostalgic for his past and too wary of businessmen and politicians to follow Max on a similar path. Instead, Noodles wishes to win over his childhood love, a young Jewish dancer named Debra. As an adult, he fixates on their secret meetings as teenagers, when she would read him the Song of Songs and archly observe that he was a lot dirtier and smellier than the lover Solomon described. Unfortunately for Noodles, Debra shares Max’s desire to leave her humble past behind, as she hopes to become a famous actress. In his attempts to keep Max and Debra at his side, and keep them Jewish, Noodles winds up scarring and betraying them both, and loses their friendship forever.
The story is told from Noodles’ perspective, and he is a regular indulger in opium, so it isn’t clear how reliable the narrative is, or whether certain events in the film are literally, or metaphorically, a pipe dream. However, the story flashes forward to periods when all three central characters are old and each seem cursed by the career paths they have chosen. Max ultimately succeeds in killing off his gangster identity, changing his name to Mr. Bailey (an Irish Catholic moniker), and getting appointed the government’s Secretary of Commerce. Unfortunately, his attempts at upward mobility have brought him to a point in life where political scandals have ruined him and his only remaining options seem to be suicide, prison, or public disgrace. Debra has married Max (or Mr. Bailey) and become a successful actress, but she seems tragically lonely in her success. Noodles, who has strove to live the rest of his life in the same vein as his childhood, has returned penniless to the Brooklyn neighborhood of his youth to see Jewish cemeteries being torn up and synagogues falling into disrepair. As in the case of Tuco and his brother Pablo, Max and Noodles chose two different paths out of a life of poverty, and neither path is ultimately correct or fulfilling.
Even though Sergio Leone’s films are not religious in the traditional sense, they offer an intriguing, somewhat Marxist, commentary on religion as a cultural force. Their sweeping, epic scopes grant a mythic significance to the lives of the criminal and disenfranchised, thereby transforming bandits into saints and unmasking clergymen as pious hypocrites. In that respect, the films are very religious, and act as a hymn to the beleaguered, privately devout, working class man.