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The Dollars Trilogy: How Three Films Changed Modern Westerns

Updated on July 3, 2020

The 1960s were a very turbulent time in the world, social justice and war were the forefront topics. Lyndon Johnson was the President of a nation that was coming to terms with its foundations. The war in Vietnam was on everyone’s mind as the United States was sending troops into yet another Asian conflict. In recent years, like social and political change their was also a change coming to cinema. In the early 1960s, the space race was happening and the Soviet Union was winning the race. America needed something to redefine cinema. So, instead of progressing, Hollywood returned to its routes and focused on what would become one of the greatest eras in cinema. “The Age of Epics” as it came to be known had dozens of films that lasted roughly 2-3 hours a piece and sometimes longer. Films like Lawrence of Arabia (1962), The Great Escape (1963), and Cleopatra (1963) all played a role in this age, each films earned Academy Award nominations and are among some of the greatest films ever made. However, this inspired someone elsewhere to redefine a genre and create a new one elsewhere.

Italian cinema was not particularly popular amongst the world and needed something to pick up more viewers. Well, enter Sergio Leone. Leone was a filmmaker from Rome who had worked on several major productions including Bicycle Thieves (1948), and Ben-Hur (1959). Leone got his first shot at greatness during the filming of The Last Days of Pompeii (1959) when the director fell ill and Leone was asked to finish the film on his own. Two-years later, Leone was directing his own films and thirsted for a new vision. Leone himself was a fan of Western’s and deeply inspired by John Wayne films to create his own Western. Leone noticed that epics were wearing down Hollywood so he decided to be more creative by creating an American-Style film for Italian audiences. With their being a fascination about American cinema around the world Leone wanted to show something that the world had never seen before. He hired actors who were known in other facets of filmmaking and for the most part the actors in these films never became stars except for in these films. However, one actor on the production would become one of Hollywood’s greatest actors and directors. Leone needed someone who could portray a rough and tough westerner and provide the audience with a feeling of a gunslinger. The actor that Leone hired for the role of “The Man with No Name” had a previous role on the Western show Rawhide and played a Cattle-Driver named Rowdy Yates. We now know this actor as Clint Eastwood. Eastwood was not at the time considered a success in Hollywood as he was popular for his role in Rawhide but looked for other avenues. Leone hired Eastwood to play the protagonist in his trilogy and he would play the role that in some cases would arguably define the remainder of his career. Leone was impressed by Eastwood’s acting ability and hired him immediately. Eastwood signed a contract for all three films for a total of $15,000 dollars which in modern finances amounted to $115,000. The films were all shot in Italy in regions that resembled the old west with mountainous regions and wide-open canyons. In 1964, Leone released the first of the three films titled A Fistful of Dollars (1964). Critics wrote wonders of the film and described it as a “Spaghetti Western.” The term became synonymous with these types of films permanently , as they were low budget but provided how Italy viewed Westerns.

Each of the three films is completely different in that Clint Eastwood being “The Man with No Name” appears to play a different character in each film. Furthermore, the films are out of order as it has been argued that the final film of the Trilogy, The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) has widely been considered a prequel of the previous two. This questions the three films being a trilogy because after all, each film takes place in a different timeline. In Cinematic terms it would seem that The Dollars Trilogy elements of other genres and played them into the series. For instance, the films are reminiscent of Japanese films that dealt with swordplay instead of guns. It also dealt with action/adventure stories of America because after all it did what all great adventure stories do and traveled to many areas of the world. Furthermore, it explored the human condition in the western society. A land of lawlessness where everyone needed to figure out how to make their own way. Leone’s films stand the test of time along with his many other films. However, his focus was primarily on Westerns and even inspired a modern Spaghetti Western remake, Django Unchained (2012). These films are considered in the top 250 films ever made. Along with this the films that came out as a result of the trilogy provided a modern filmmaking style for all Westerns. The films themselves are all extremely long including The Good, The Bad, and The Ugly (1966) so watch carefully should you decide to view them.

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