East is Western: Johnny To's "Exiled" plays SFMOMA's "Nonwestern Westerns" series. (Photo courtesy SFMOMA)

SFMOMA's "Nonwestern Westerns" Series

Dennis Harvey March 26, 2008

Until they started falling out of fashion in the 1960s, Westerns were pretty much the bedrock of the American movie industry. Whole studios had been created to churn ‘em out like “Bronco Billy” Anderson’s in the East Bay. (Fremont’s Niles Essanay Silent Film Museum still shows silent films year-round in his honor.) The Great Train Robbery, considered the first real narrative movie using cross-cuts, close-ups and other then-innovative techniques, was a Western.

Numerous big stars, from William S. Hart to Roy Rogers, never made anything but Westerns. Literally thousands of “oaters” made on “Poverty Row” (studios who made genre films on a shoestring from the ’20s through the ’50s) were staples at the kiddie Saturday matinee—John Wayne made nearly 40 of them in the 1930s before he got promoted to big-studio stardom. On the high end, some of the biggest and most prestigious movies in Hollywood history have been Westerns, including Best Picture Oscar winners from Cimarron (1930) to Unforgiven (1992).

Westerns (also in TV and literary form) have played such an essential role in American culture that one might easily forget how little relevance they have to other cultures. After all, they’re rooted in our particular landscape and history. Viewed in any other context, the Western is downright exotic—which has been a major element in its appeal abroad.

Not only have U.S. Westerns played successfully in many overseas markets, but other countries have often produced their own unique, sometimes curious interpretations of the genre. In Germany, the Western stories of 19th century author Karl May—who never crossed the Atlantic to visit the country where they’re set—are still being turned into movies and miniseries, some forty to date. And in the 1960s American cowboy flicks were challenged, then in turn heavily influenced by a wave of mostly Italian “spaghetti westerns” that retooled the genre in stark, sometimes downright existential terms.

Foreign Westerns can be like watching someone imitate you—it’s weird to see how others perceive image and mannerisms one takes for granted or doesn’t even notice, with the second party’s own personality invariably seeping through too. That funhouse-mirror fascination is a big lure in SFMOMA’s “Non-Western Westerns,” a series of ten features showing in March and April that span the globe, providing glimpses of the Western through eyes from Poland to India to Hong Kong.

Fittingly, it started with two prime examples of the most familiar kind of foreign Western. There were Italian examples of the genre before 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars. But that low-budget film became a slow-building sensation, making icons of hitherto little-known director Sergio Leone and star Clint Eastwood (who’d previously been a TV actor).

They promptly reteamed in the next year’s For a Few Dollars More, which kicked off the SFMOMA series. With their scant dialogue, monumental wide-screen imagery (either vast landscapes or extreme close-ups), distinctive Ennio Morricone music and nihilistic violence, Leone’s Westerns set the template for “spaghettis,” resulting in literally hundreds of imitations.

Most were terrible and are deservedly long-forgotten. But the form also inspired some innovative work, particularly among directors who took exception to the apolitical cynicism and misanthropy of Leone’s vision.

Chief among them was Sergio Corbucci, who had a hit of near-*Dollars* proportions in 1966’s Django. In subsequent films he made more explicit its leftist critique of corrupt authority and oppressed peasantry. Considered by some the greatest spag-western ever, 1968’s The Great Silence stars Jean-Louis Trintignant as a mute loner hired by a widow to kill the sadistic bounty hunter who’d murdered her husband. This bad guy, nicknamed “Loco,” is played by none other than Klaus Kinski in one of his most treasured over-the-top turns.

Where most Westerns are set in the sun-baked prairie and desert, Silence is one of the “whitest” movies ever made: It takes place at high altitude, largely during a blizzard. (Trivia note: Snow in the town sequences was created by truckloads of shaving cream.) Other surprises include a then-shocking interracial love scene between Trintignant and S.F. native/future blaxplolitation star Vonetta McGee. Pus an ending that, well, you would have had to see for yourself. [Ed. note: The film has already screened in the series.]

Later films in the series often take a more impish or downright surreal approach to upending genre conventions. Billed as “the first Polish Western,” conceptual artist Piotr Uklanski’s directorial bow 2006 Summer Love—the title being first of its many deadpan non sequiturs—hews closely to Spaghetti Western conventions in outline. Once again, a piercingly blue-eyed, poker-faced stranger (Czech actor Karl Roden) turns up in town, and almost instantly everyone starts trying to kill him.

But this blood-drenched comic allegory has idiosyncrasies that encompass shots from the viewpoint of a horse and a corpse; a cast speaking phonetic English dialogue, as well as several bizarre monologues; vintage songs by late Bonanza star Lorne Greene (!) and 70s talk-show staple John Davidson (!!); the least appropriate use of the sentence “You remind me of my mother” in cinematic history; and Val Kilmer as a dead man. Seriously—he lies there, eyes blankly open, through the whole movie. Either this is a sign of laudable quirkiness, or the most bizarre career turn for a onetime Hollywood A-list star ever. Or both.

Summer Love might be kinda trippy, but it’s got nothing against two “acid Westerns” from the original era when everybody was droppin’ cube. The famous one is Alejandro Jodorowsky’s classic El Topo, in which the director himself played the titular avenging gunman. Part Leone, part Bunuel, part grand guignol, this 1971 psychedelic relic was a rep house and midnight-movie staple for years. No doubt many a viewer dosed before watching—and surely than a few freaked out, because this is one striking but very grotesque, even nightmarish vision.

I had my own drug-free yet out-of-body El Topo experience in the late 80s at Market St.‘s late, lamented Strand Theatre. Going to the bathroom (always kinda scary—you had to have been there), I found myself at the urinal next to a guy dressed head-to-foot as El Topo—wide leather hat, ankle—length leather duster, leather boots, all black. He must’ve spent a fortune replicating the character’s garb. Now that’s fandom.

More obscure (but baby, you KNOW I’m be there) is Luc Moullet’s A Girl Is a Gun from the same year. It’s got Truffaut’s screen alter-ego Jean-Pierre Leaud as Billy the Kid, amidst reported tons of dislocative imagery and psychedelic music.

Other films in the series don’t just toy with Western conventions, they transport them into entirely different contexts. Ramesh Sippy’s all-star 1975 Indian classic Sholay is a lawman-vs.-murderous-bandit tale. True to Bollywood norm, this “Curry Western” is long (though the 162-minute version being shown is over half an hour shorter than a recently reconstructed “director’s cut”) and has original songs. After a slow commercial start, it became the country’s biggest film hit to date, playing ten uninterrupted years (!) at one Mumbai theatre.

More recently, Hong Kong maverick Johnny To’s 2006 Exiled recalls classic Western storytelling as four childhood pals (and hitmen) defend themselves against all of Macau gangland.

After a sojourn into pure levity (with Oldrich Lipsky’s 1964 Czech spoof Lemonade Joe) and pure poetry (Brazilian Glauber Rocha’s 1969 Cannes prizewinner Antonio das Mortes) the series ends by coming full-circle. Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 Yojimbo stars Toshiro Mifune as a wandering samurai who arrives in a 19th-century village and plays two feuding factions against each other. This world-cinema classic was cited by Sergio Leone as the direct inspiration for A Fistful of Dollars—though that blatant remake didn’t credit its source on-screen.

Be warned: SFMOMA bills the movie as being 75 minutes long. This could mean they’re screening the U.S. release version that’s 35 minutes shorter than the Japanese original. Or it could mean that museum staff simply used standard reference sources in citing its runtime. Even at shorn length, however, Yojimbo is still arresting—and holds a curious place in film history as the samurai movie that most impacted the future of Westerns.