Neither the US nor Russia

Sergio Leone’s Fistful of Dollars

Because Sergio Leone didn’t make films set in Europe or ones that obviously dealt with the continent’s problems, he has been excluded from the pantheon of its greatest postwar auteurs: Cocteau, Bergman, Fellini, Godard, Fassbinder, Truffaut, and Antonioni. 

Clint Eastwood as Europe.

No matter how compelling and financially successful his work was, it was usually regarded as entertainment, not worth taking seriously.

Part of the difficulty is that Leone’s breakthrough came so soon. Has any artist developed a distinctive brand more quickly? 

By the time Sergio Leone’s third picture The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly came out in 1967, all of his stylistic flourishes were fully established: the close-ups of men – and sometimes women – with malicious intent; Ennio Morricone’s spare, evocative motifs; violence that drives the narrative instead of being driven by it.

That’s why it is difficult to watch the first film he directed, 1964’s A Fistful of Dollars, on its own terms. This is a shame, though, because, even if the picture is less flashy than its successors – in part because Leone’s budget was smaller – it does a great job of showcasing his talent, as well as that of his collaborators.

More specifically, A Fistful of Dollars does a great job of explaining why his work became so popular in Europe. 

It wasn’t just that the Italian director’s films were fun, though that is certainly the case. They also helped European audiences to make sense of a radically transformed postwar landscape that had left them feeling impotent. 

Clint Eastwood’s iconic The Man With No Name provided a locus for identification that made it easier to imagine intervening meaningfully in a Cold War world in which Europeans felt increasingly manipulated by both Washington and Moscow.

The plot of A Fistful of Dollars is simple. Eastwood’s character rides into a small town, soon realizes that it has been reduced to complete dysfunctionality in a conflict between two powerful families, the Rojos and Baxters, and proceeds to play them against one another for his own benefit.

The similarities between this story and the one told in Akira Kurosawa’s 1961 film Yojimbo are so easy to discern that Kurosawa sued for damages. 

There is one crucial difference, though. Sanjuro, the itinerant ronin who plays the same structural role as The Man With No Name, declares his intention to rid the town of its problem. The Man With No Name, by contrast, does not seem to care what happens to the town, so long as he makes a profit. 

Nevertheless, although he consistently places expediency above morality, both the Rojos and Baxters are so unappealing that we root for him anyway.

Part of this has to do with the impression that The Man With No Name doesn’t simply want to exploit the situation for monetary gain, but instead inserts himself into the story because of its entertainment value. A Fistful of Dollars slyly alludes to this latter investment in an early scene, one of the few which has no equivalent in Kurosawa’s film.

When the Mexican cavalry comes to town, accompanied by a mysterious stagecoach with its curtains drawn, The Man With No Name temporarily sets aside the reticence that otherwise defines him and confesses to the bartender he has befriended how badly he wants to know what’s inside. This is one of several points in the film when the interests of his character converge with those of the audience. 

Like the character of Mookie in Spike Lee’s 1989 film Do The Right Thing – one of the most obvious authors inserts in cinema – Eastwood’s character seems to initiate action on our behalf, making sure that the story keeps moving along instead of being stuck in the static conflict that besets the town before his arrival.

When the bartender notices that the cavalry is pulling out of town quietly the next morning – heading for the “frontier”, he notes, by which he means the Spanish word for border, frontera – The Man With No Name decides to follow them discreetly. 

And the bartender, the film’s most likeable character and the audience’s other locus of identification, goes with him, indicating that he is as curious about the mysterious stranger’s fate as the mysterious stranger is about the contents of the stagecoach.

We soon see the two of them perched on a rise above a wide, shallow river, meant to be the Rio Bravo – or Rio Grande, as it’s called in the United States – where they watch the action taking place below. 

The Mexican cavalry from the town and their stagecoach are stationed on the near bank. American soldiers, in their easily identifiable blue-and-gold uniforms, are crossing from the far side, accompanied by three Conestoga wagons.

At this point, the bartender turns to The Man With No Name and says, “It’s like playing cowboys and Indians.” 

Eastwood barely acknowledges this curious statement, continuing to stare stoically at the proceedings. But the bartender’s words resonate powerfully as things take a dramatic turn.

After the lead American soldier takes delivery of the gold that was apparently the stagecoach’s secret, he offers to show the Mexican leader the weapons that it was meant to purchase. 

Suddenly, someone starts firing a Gatling gun from inside one of the Conestoga wagons. Within minutes, the entire Mexican unit has been gunned down.

While we soon learn that these were not, in fact, American soldiers, but members of the Rojo family in disguise, the contentious relationship between the United States and Mexico lingers in the background. 

In classic Westerns, after all, it was often the American cavalry, in those same blue-and-gold uniforms, who came to the rescue of white Americans being attacked by Indians. Here, though, those uniforms are made to signify murderous treachery.

This isn’t a simple reversal, though. Even if the Mexican cavalry are the victims in this instance, nothing indicates that they are any more upstanding than their American counterparts. They were doing something illegal and paid the price, gunned down by their own countrymen. In other words, there are no good guys on either side.

While the bartender is likeable, he doesn’t fully qualify as a good guy, either, since he repeatedly demonstrates that he enjoys witnessing the brutality that the Rojo and Baxter families inflict upon each other and which The Man With No Name helps push to a new level. 

Like the coffin maker and bell ringer, he is implicated in the town’s corruption, even if he doesn’t harm anybody directly.

But the most important aspect of this scene is what it conveys about the audience, metonymically figured in the two men watching it unfold. Although “It’s like playing cowboys and Indians” is a statement that makes complete sense for American audiences, the more interesting thing about it is that it works just as well for European ones. 

The borderlands dividing Mexico from the United States, the place where so many Westerns were filmed, are a familiar landscape, one perfectly suited as the setting for fantasies that might otherwise be hard to locate.

Because that territory has a tenuous connection to empires of the modern era, it didn’t force Europeans of the 1960s to confront the uncomfortable truths of their colonial past. 

Instead of reprising roles that were well established long before the First World War, they had the freedom to think and feel in new ways. 

The Man With No Name – who would go on to appear in Leone’s next two films as well – was the perfect means for achieving this break with the past, both because he has no backstory himself and because of the ways in which he takes advantage of the situation in the town. 

The Man With No Name doesn’t dominate with brute force, though he can certainly fight with the best of him. Rather, he uses his intellect to turn the conflict between the Rojos and Baxters to his advantage.

The cleverness of Eastwood’s laconic loner, the way he always seems to be several steps ahead of his opponents, resembles the character of Harry Lime in Carol Reed’s 1949 film The Third Man, brilliantly portrayed by Orson Welles. 

But, whereas we are ultimately led to cast judgment on Lime, despite his overwhelming charm, A Fistful of Dollars never stops facilitating audiences’ identification with The Man With No Name. 

Part of the reason that Lime falls short as an anti-hero is that he’s an American. 

If his manipulations had been born from deprivation, instead of what feels like sheer sport, it would be easier to forgive him. Indeed, his eccentric Viennese accomplices are not punished by the narrative the way that he is.

While The Man With No Name is technically an American as well, he is so vehemently opposed to choosing a side that he avoids being corrupted by that privilege. 

In this regard, he is more like Harrison Ford’s Han Solo at the beginning of the first Star Wars film, a mercenary rogue who has no use for loyalty. Whereas Solo eventually has a change of heart, however, The Man With No Name remains pure, but of heartlessness more than heart.

Additionally, because A Fistful of Dollars takes place on the Mexican border, originally being from the United States means something different than it does in the divided Vienna of The Third Man. 

The Man With No Name is repeatedly addressed as “Yankee” by the film’s Mexican characters, reminding us that, whatever his allegiances – or lack of them – he can never be a completely neutral bystander in light of the asymmetrical relationship between the two nations.

Part of what makes A Fistful of Dollars so fascinating is that it invites audiences to identify with this American, regardless of their nationality. 

In 1960s Europe, that meant that the Italians, French, Germans, and Dutch who saw it were living vicariously through The Man With No Name, even though his story bears little superficial relationship to their own.

Europe was a haven for self-important culture; North America was the home of throwaway pop.  

Europeans were constrained by the social order, locked into rigid identity categories; Americans were free to move about as they wished, the bonds of family and community superseded by the drive for complete autonomy. 

When European moviegoers first saw A Fistful of Dollars, however, they didn’t perceive a kinship with the Rojos or Baxters, but with The Man With No Name. This realisation makes the film’s relationship with the Cold War come into focus. 

During the immediate aftermath of World War II, a period of intensive reconstruction for the war-ravaged continent, the Soviet Union and the United States functioned like the Rojos and Baxters. Europeans were caught in the middle, seemingly at the mercy of these two bullies.

Within this context, a trickster figure like The Man With No Name was immensely appealing, because he demonstrated that it was possible to navigate the disputed territory between these two powers without having to commit to either one.

In practice, of course, the vast majority of Europeans ended up begrudgingly accepting the support of either the Americans or the Soviets. But the fantasy of ultimately rejecting both was enormously exciting. 

A Fistful of Dollars presaged the rise of a truly united Europe, imagining a nonaligned “third way” that remains deeply compelling, even if it proved impossible to realise fully.

This is why the bartender’s statement that “it’s like playing cowboys and Indians” is so revealing. Cold War Europeans who lacked the power and money to stand up to the United States or the Soviet Union could take refuge in the compensations of fantasy. 

If Europeans could successfully play the Americans and Soviets off against each other the way The Man With No Name did with the Rojos and Baxters, they would have a greater understanding of their worth in a world defined by economies of scale, when smaller countries seemed increasingly irrelevant.

Screenshot courtesy of Sergio Leone. All rights reserved.