The Salvation has everything you expect from a western: guns, horses, vengeance, Ennio Morricone-esque music, squinty close-ups and untamed landscape with Monument Valley just visible in the distance. But wait. Those prairies are so familiar – yet there’s something slightly odd about them… Are they not just a shade dustier and redder than usual?
Because The Salvation was filmed in South Africa (with discreet CGI additions) by a Danish director – Kristian Levring – and a multi-national cast including Mads Mikkelsen, Eva Green and Eric Cantona. It’s a Danish-British-South African co-production, and the only major Hollywood name is that of Jeffrey Dean Morgan as the hardboiled heavy. Yet the film is unmistakably a Western. It’s also a sign of the genre’s rebirth, not as mainstream blockbuster cinema but as a representative of the indie, the arty, the hip and the anti-Hollywood.
While the Western used to be viewed as the quintessentially American genre, the “New World” was a land whose occupants and native culture were increasingly displaced by the proponents of Manifest Destiny and an incoming tide of immigrants. The Old West was populated by a babel of different nationalities, so perhaps it’s not so surprising that countries other than the United States feel they have a stake in Western storytelling.
The most celebrated variation is the Spaghetti Western – primarily Italian, though often in collaboration with Spain, France or Germany. The best known are Sergio Leone’s Dollar Trilogy (A Fistful of Dollars, For a Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad and the Ugly) and Sergio Corbucci’s Django, so violent it was refused a BBFC certificate until 1993, and which spawned at least 100 (official and unofficial) sequels, including the certifiably demented Django Kill… If You Live, Shoot! (1967). Corbucci’s masterpiece is The Great Silence, which pits Jean-Louis Trintignant against Klaus Kinski in a snow-covered landscape (filmed in the Pyrenees), with the no-less-welcome-for-being-inevitable Morricone score, and an ending that can still leave the viewer shellshocked.
Crueller and more cynical than the traditional Hollywood variant, Spaghetti Westerns nevertheless gave that fading genre a much-needed shot in the arm in the 1960s with its anti-heroes, innovative scores, and an operatic approach that reached its apogee in Leone’s Once Upon a Time in the West, some of which was actually shot in Utah as well as in the usual spaghetti locations in the Spanish province of Almeria.
But even A Fistful of Dollars was twice-removed from Hollywood. It was a sneaky remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (itself a reworking of Dashiell Hammett’s Red Harvest – or The Glass Key, depending on who you’re talking to), in which Toshiro Mifune’s scruffy Man with No Name character is a ronin (an itinerant masterless samurai) in 19th century Japan.
Kurosawa had already shown his affinity for Western-style action in The Seven Samurai, later remade by Hollywood as The Magnificent Seven. Samurai, with their moral codes, martial prowess and outsider status, have much in common with classic Western gunslingers, who arrive, like Shane, out of nowhere to solve (or cause) problems for regular folk before drifting on.
Takashi Miike’s Sukiyaki Django Western , is a knowing Japanese (English-language) pastiche of the genre, prefaced by an introduction from Mr Pastiche himself, Quentin Tarantino, though its jokey stylisation is nothing like as much fun as the action-packed The Good, The Bad, The Weird from Korean director Kim Jee-woon, starring Lee Byung-hun as the handsomest Western villain of all time. In terms of OTT stylisation, however, neither of these can hold a candle to Tears of the Black Tiger, a one-of-a-kind Thai Western resembling a feature-length compilation of those campy photo montages by kitsch Gallic artists Pierre et Gilles, or to Sholay, a “Curry Western” filmed in the rocky Ramanagara region of the Indian subcontinent, in which the action is interspersed with Bollywood-style musical numbers.
The possibilities were limitless. In his cult acid classic El Topo (1970), Alejandro Jodorowsky mixed Western iconography with Kung-Fu (the TV show) mysticism and a fat streak of symbolism, but didn’t stray far from the genre’s topographic origins since it was filmed in Mexico. In South America, Glauber Rocha exploited the inhospitable landscape of Brazil’s hinterland to explore class conflict in Black God, White Devil (1964) and its sequel Antonio das Mortes (1969), which won him a Best Director award at Cannes.
Australia’s untamed terrain and history of legendary lawbreakers such as Ned Kelly make it an obvious setting for Antipodean horse operas, sometimes known as “Meat Pie Westerns”. For example, John Hillcoat seems to be channelling Sam Peckinpah in The Proposition , set in an unforgiving landscape populated by Irish psychos, English racists and pragmatic Aborigines, where everyone except fragrant Emily Watson is drenched in sweat and covered in flies.
Spaghetti Westerns weren’t the first Euro Westerns. Karl May (1842-1912) wrote novels about Winnetou the Apache that became so popular with German readers that, despite their non-Aryan hero, they weren’t banned by the Nazis, perhaps because the idea of noble savages in natural settings chimed with a certain Teutonic romanticism. Starting with Der Schatz in Silbersee (Treasure of Silver Lake), eleven Winnetou films were made between 1962 and 1968, filmed in Yugoslavia and starring French actor Pierre Brice. For an anglophone, hearing traditional-looking Cowboys and Indians speaking German is a truly “unheimlich” (uncanny) experience.
Meanwhile, East Germany’s state-owned studio DEFA had its own “Indianerfilme” genre, revisionist “Sauerkraut Westerns” in which the villains were white and the Native Americans heroic, often played by strapping Yugoslav actor Gojko Mitic in films such as The Sons of Great Bear (1966) and the gloriously titled Chingachgook, die Große Schlange (1967), with Saxony-Anhalt providing suitable plains and mountains.
During the Cold War, Soviet Russia developed its own “Ostern” (Eastern) genre, also known, inevitably, as “Borscht Westerns”, usually set during the Revolution or the Civil War and filmed in the Urals, but featuring themes and action akin to those of their Hollywood counterparts. Czech director Oldrich Lipsky parodied Hollywood silents and satirised capitalism in his cult musical comedy Western Lemonade Joe (1964), set in Stetson City, where the clean-living hero prefers the soft drink “Kolaloka” to whisky.
The Finns got in on the act with Western comedies Speedy Gonzales Noin seitzemän veljeksen poika (1970) and its sequel Hirttämättömät (1971). But the nearest French film-makers have come to exploring the genre was Claude Lelouch’s transposition of his epic romantic style to the Arizona setting of Another Man, Another Chance, starring James Caan and Geneviève Bujold. More recently, live-action adaptations of popular French comic-strips Blueberry and Lucky Luke offered skin-deep Western pastiche.
The weirdest European oater is probably Rainer Werner Fassbinder’s Whity (1970), a Gothic Western exquisitely photographed by Michael Ballhaus in the first of 16 films he filmed for the German director. Unusually for the genre, it unfolds mostly in interiors, though there’s some horse-riding and a few glimpses of Spanish desert. The weirdness is only exacerbated by histrionic performances, make-up that makes the white characters look like vampires, Hanna Schygulla as a saloon chanteuse singing Berlin-style cabaret, and a provocative attitude to race relations (blackface alert!) which makes Tarantino’s Django Unchained look positively restrained.
Conspicuous by their absence from the non-American Western roster are British examples, which would surely have been called “Roast Beef Westerns”, had there been enough of them. Odd examples include The Singer Not the Song (1961), a J. Arthur Rank peculiarity filmed in Torremolinos with a screenplay by Nigel Balchin, which features Dirk Bogarde as a leather-trousered Mexican bandit learning to respect John Mills as a Catholic priest. There is also, of course, Carry on Cowboy (1965), starring Sid James as the Rumpo Kid and Charles Hawtrey as Chief Big Heap. Shalako (1968) is an Anglo-German western directed by Canadian-born Edward Dmytryk and filmed in the spaghetti stomping grounds of Andalucía; Sean Connery and Brigitte Bardot are the stars, but this is chiefly remembered (by me, anyway) for a scene in which Native Americans force Honor Blackman to eat her own necklace.
For more recent examples, we must console ourselves with the 1995 pre-Spaced no-budget feature debut of Edgar Wright – A Fistful of Fingers, filmed in Somerset.
This article was first posted on the Telegraph website in September 2014. It has since been edited and revised.