Magazine article The Spectator

Beating the Yanks at Their Own Game

Magazine article The Spectator

Beating the Yanks at Their Own Game

Article excerpt

SERGIO LEONE

by Christopher Frayling

Faber, L20, pp. 494

Sergio Leone once described his own character as an amalgam of the Good, the Bad and the Ugly. The bearded, rotund Leone may have been flattering himself when he claimed that `on his more careful side' he was nearest to Clint Eastwood's `Blondie', but he confessed that his most profound sympathy was for `Tuco' (`a creature of instinct, a bastard, a tramp'). Reading Christopher Frayling's rigorous study of Leone and his work, it is often easy to confuse the great director with the clownish character played by Eli Wallach. Leone is certainly talked about here almost as if he appeared in the films he created. It is even more surprising, then, that this is the first ever biography of the Italian who beat the Americans at their own game and revitalised the western genre.

Frayling's account tends towards the academic, but among the most compelling sections of his book is the narration of Leone's teenage years. Like many solitary boys, Leone learned to revere friendship and - alongside violence and death later made it a theme of his films. Like many timid boys, he learned to lie himself out of shyness. He was aided in this project by his love of American cinema. Squarejaws aside, Hollywood's heroes came in many shapes and sizes and every boy unsure of his character could find a star with which to identify. An assertive boy could imagine himself Clark Gable while a sensitive soul could dream of conquering his shyness like James Stewart. Possessing a temperament quite unsuited to fascist Italy, Leone found such men infinitely more inspiring than Il Duce.

Leone's adoration of a mythical America was brought to an abrupt end at the age of 14, when he met real-life Americans for the first time in the GIs who liberated his country. Expecting characters from Hemingway and Chandler - or even Flash Gordon - he found them to be soldiers `like any others', who came whooping in jeeps to sell black-market cigarettes and chase after Italian women. Rather than simply turning on his former dream, he instead decided that `America' was something far too important to be left to Americans. Rather as the English might feel they should have a vote in the US presidency, he felt an equal right to work within their culture. Unlike natural-born American artists, however, he resolved he would not dilute the myths of the old West. `I wanted to show the cruelty of that nation,' he said, `I was bored stiff with all those grinning white teeth. …

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