“When I was young, I believed in three things: Marxism, the redemptive power of cinema, and dynamite. Now I just believe in dynamite.” – Sergio Leone
Popularly known as the most influential director ever to grace the Western genre, Sergio Leone was an Italian film director, producer and screenwriter, credited as the creator of the spaghetti western genre. Simply defined as a film that tackled typical themes of the western genre whilst being filmed and produced in Europe, the spaghetti western emerged in the mid-1960s during Sergio Leone’s dominance in the genre, citing A Fistful of Dollars as being the first film to spark the movement.
The director’s influence reaches far and wide, with American filmmaker Quentin Tarantino a particular admirer of Leone’s work. “When it comes to the filmmakers of the 1960s that mean the most to filmmakers of the 1990s and 2000s, I believe that Leone is pointing the way towards modern filmmaking,” Tarantino stated. Continuing, the cult filmmaker noted, “There is the excitement and the action scenes…It’s the use of music, the use of the set piece, the ironic sense of humour. They appreciate the surrealism, the craziness, and they appreciate the cutting to music. So it is the true beginning of what filmmaking had evolved to by the 1990s. You don’t go past Leone, you start with Leone”.
So when it comes to what films inspire Sergio Leone it’s no surprise that each of his five favourites is a western, or at the very least a film that dabbles in the basic themes of the genre. A case in point being Akira Kurosawa’s iconic samurai film Yojimbo, a film inspired by the tales of the wild west, and which would go on to influence various other films of the genre. The story follows a crafty samurai who comes to a town divided by two criminal gangs and decides to play them both against each other for the benefit of the town. Leone seemed to love the film so much that he became entangled in a lawsuit with Kurosawa who insisted A Fistful of Dollars was “a fine movie, but it was my movie”.
His second choice is an altogether more traditional Western film, John Ford’s 1962 film The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, starring James Stewart and John Ford. Shot in black and white despite the prevalence of colour in the industry, Ford stated: “In black and white, you’ve got to be very careful. You’ve got to know your job, lay your shadows in properly, get your perspective right, but in colour, there it is,” going on to note that “black and white is real photography”. The story tracks Stewart as a senator who returns to a western town for the funeral of an old friend and tells the story of his origins.
An iconic film of the Western genre, Ford’s film joins Fred Zinnemann’s High Noon released in 1953 as a true classic. The third film on Leone’s list of favourites, High Noon follows a town marshal who must come up against a gang of deadly killers when the gang leader arrives on the noon train. Cited as not only a favourite of Leone but U.S. presidents Dwight Eisenhower and Bill Clinton too, the latter commented: “It’s no accident that politicians see themselves as Gary Cooper in High Noon…Not just politicians, but anyone who’s forced to go against the popular will. Any time you’re alone and you feel you’re not getting the support you need, Cooper’s Will Kane becomes the perfect metaphor”.
The fourth film on Sergio Leone’s list of favourites continues in his fondness of the Western genre with George Stevens’ 1953 film, Shane. Wishing to demonstrate “the horrors of violence” to the audience, Stevens’ film follows a weary gunfighter who tries to settle down on a family homestead, only for violent ranchers to come and force him to act. Stevens’ film would create technical innovations using hidden wires to make scenes seem more explosively violent, having a knock-on effect on the rest of the genre. As Sam Peckinpah, the director behind The Wild Bunch and Straw Dogs states, “When Jack Palance shot Elisha Cook Jr. in Shane, things started to change”.
Take a look at the full list of Sergio Leone’s top five favourite films below.
Sergio Leone five favourite films:
- Yojimbo (Akira Kurosawa, 1961)
- The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance (John Ford, 1962)
- High Noon (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
- Shane (George Stevens, 1953)
- Vera Cruz (Robert Aldrich, 1954)
Robert Aldrich’s Vera Cruz ends Serio Leone’s list of his top five favourite films, a film set during the Mexican Rebellion of 1866 where a group of suspect American adventurers are hired to escort a countess to Vera Cruz. Though Aldrich and lead actor Burt Lancaster had previously collaborated on the film Apache, the director admits, “Aldrich and Lancaster got along well on Apache but on Vera Cruz the director says “we probably had a less amicable relationship than we anticipated”.
Continuing, he explains, “This was because Burt, until he directed The Kentuckian, thought he was going to be a director and when you’re directing your first great big picture you don’t welcome somebody else on hand with directorial notions. There were a few differences of opinion about concepts and about action”.