A Fistful of Dollars (1964)

A Fistful of Dollars was produced a long time ago, so that when I mention the movie to someone, it does not surprise me if he says he never heard of it.  If he has heard of it, it does not surprise me if he says he saw it years ago, but that he did not care for it, or that it was too violent, or that it was one of his favorite movies, or any number of other such responses.  But the one thing that never fails to surprise me is when someone says he prefers the movie it was based on, Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo ( 1961).  I am similarly perplexed when someone says he prefers Seven Samurai (1954), again by Kurosawa, to the movie that is based on it, which is The Magnificent Seven (1960).  But I’ll say this much for Yojimbo.  At least it was only 110 minutes long.  Seven Samurai, on the other hand, drags on for 207 minutes.

I suppose the people that prefer Yojimbo to A Fistful of Dollars actually derive greater pleasure from watching the former than they do from the latter, but I sometimes wonder if much of that pleasure is extra-aesthetic, which is the pleasure one derives from not from simply watching a movie, but from the idea that one is watching that movie.

Let me give an example of what I mean.  A friend of mine read The Iliad when he was in high school, and he was fascinated by it, subsequently reading it several more times.  After graduating from college, he decided he would study Greek so that he could read this work in the original language.  After several months, he had advanced to the point that he was able to start working his way through this ancient epic, albeit slowly and with a Greek-English lexicon by his side.  He told me that reading The Iliad this way was exhilarating.  But then he posed the question, “Is it that The Iliad is really that much better when read in Greek, or am I just excited by the idea of myself reading it in its original language?”  From the mere fact that he asked that question, we can guess what the answer was.  He quit studying Greek soon after that.

A similar extra-aesthetic is probably at work in the enjoyment people get from watching an opera.  In the nineteenth century, the typical way to enjoy music was either to have someone in your home play a musical instrument, like a piano, or to go to the theater and listen to a symphony or see a ballet or opera.  Had I been alive in that century, and had I the wherewithal to afford it, I would probably have attended the opera on a regular basis.  But no such effort is required in the twenty-first century.  One can simply listen to the arias in the comfort of one’s own home, owing to modern recording devices, and skip all that in-between stuff, where people sing-talk their way through a simple story that goes on for hours.  However, if one does go to the opera today, one gets the extra-aesthetic experience of dressing up in formal attire and going to the opera house, where one is surrounded by the city’s elite, who are there to see and be seen.  And as one watches the opera, one derives an additional pleasure at thought that one is attending an opera.

Likewise, if I had been alive in sixteenth century England, I would probably have loved plays by Shakespeare, especially since I would have been speaking Elizabethan English myself and thus could understand what was being said and what it meant.  I might even have thought his comedies were funny.  In any event, with no movies or television, what else could I do?  But today, watching a play by Shakespeare is, for me, an unrewarding chore, especially compared to movies.  Nevertheless, going to the theater in this century to watch one of the Bard’s plays can afford one the extra-aesthetic pleasure derived from the thought of one’s being at that theater for a little Shakespeare.

The extra-aesthetic pleasure that comes from going to the theater to watch a play may be more characteristic of women than of men.  When comparing notes with her friends, a woman may indifferently say of the date she had last Saturday that they went to see a movie, but she can take no small amount of pride if she was taken to see a play instead.  As the eponymous doctor said in one episode of House, “Men don’t like plays.  Men go to see plays only when they’re dragged there by women they want to see naked.”

So, perhaps the idea of watching a Kurosawa film at an art house provides some people with enough extra-aesthetic pleasure to prefer such films to their Western versions.  To philistines like me, who don’t get enough mileage out of the extra-aesthetic experience to make it worth the while, the only redeeming value of those two movies by Akira Kurosawa is that they paved the way for A Fistful of Dollars and The Magnificent Seven, which are actually quite good, as opposed to the Japanese originals, which I forced myself to watch and never care to do so again.  Of course, the story in Yojimbo was not original either, for it too has antecedents, such as Dashiell Hammett’s The Glass Key and Red Harvest.  Those who are interested can read a fairly thorough account in Christopher Frayling’s Spaghetti Westerns: Cowboys and Europeans from Karl May to Sergio Leone.

The basic idea is that of a man playing two warring factions against each other as he seems to be on one side and then the other as suits his purposes.  As for A Fistful of Dollars in particular, the central character is played by Clint Eastwood.  Eventually, this character, who would also appear in the sequels For a Few Dollars More (1965) and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly (1966), would become known as “the Man with No Name,” but here he is given the nickname “Joe.”  In For a Few Dollars More, he is referred to as Monco, but after the idea of the Man with No Name caught on, a scene where someone refers to Eastwood’s character as Monco was snipped out of most prints.

Joe is a hired gun who drifts around looking for someone to pay him for his services.  Soon after arriving in San Miguel, a small Mexican town, he finds out that there are two rival factions, the Rojos and the Baxters, the former making their living dealing in liquor, the latter in guns.  They periodically load up on and guns and liquor, take them north across the border, and sell them to the Indians.  Both families want complete control of the town, and Joe hires out first to one side and then to the other, making more and more money as he does so.

At that level, he is completely amoral.  However, he forms a friendship with Silvanito, the bartender who tries to get Joe to leave town before he ends up being killed like so many others, and Piripero, the undertaker who makes a good living making coffins for all the men who get killed in the feud between the two families.  And Joe also takes pity on an innocent family, in which the wife is held as a sex slave by Ramón Rojos.  He helps that family escape, but is almost killed as a result.  In the end, the Rojos wipe out the Baxters and then Joe wipes out the Rojos.  Inasmuch as Joe gave all his money to the family he rescued, he leaves San Miguel no better off than he arrived.  But that’s all right, because he will simply move on to another town, where he will find someone willing to pay for his services.  In other words, the business about the family aside, he is still an amoral hired killer.

It was the amoral quality of this movie that was the most problematic for the censors when the movie needed to be edited for television after ABC bought the rights to broadcast it in 1975.  The censors were old hands at bleeping out bad words, snipping out nudity, and reducing or minimizing scenes of violence, but these tried and true techniques were not enough.  No matter how much of the violence was suppressed, the amoral character of the Man with No Name still came through.

Then someone came up with a brilliant idea.  Instead of cutting stuff out, why not add stuff in?  So, they filmed a prologue in which some guy dressed up to look like the Man with No Name is let out of prison on condition that he will work undercover for the Unites States government, with the job of eliminating the two rival gangs of San Miguel.  Legitimate government agents have gone there undercover, but they have all been killed.  It is Joe’s job to pretend to be a hired gun who cares about nothing but money.  If he succeeds in eliminating the Rojos and the Baxters by playing off one side against the other, he will receive a pardon for his crimes.

To those who were familiar with the movie, it was obvious the prologue was not part of the original.  For one thing, Joe’s poncho was too long.  And why would a prisoner be allowed to wear a poncho anyway, along with his boots, cowboy hat, and cigar?  At one point, we see a close up of Clint Eastwood’s face, which is clearly taken from a scene in the movie.  But usually the Eastwood replacement keeps his hand on his cigar while he smokes it so he can conceal his face.  He is told by Harry Dean Stanton, the warden, not to talk, so the censors didn’t have to worry about faking Eastwood’s voice. Finally, when this fake Joe is given his pistol, the barrel is longer than the one used in the movie.

Notwithstanding all these clues, a lot of people thought this was part of the original movie.  Another of Sergio Leone’s movies, Once Upon a Time in the West (1968), had had a lot of footage cut out for theatrical release in the United States, much of which was added back in when it came to television.  As a result, it was thought by many that something similar had happened here.  It even fooled Peter Bondanella, who refers to this prologue as if it were part of the original movie in his book Italian Cinema:  From Neorealism to the Present.  At least, that’s what he wrote in the first edition in 1983.  Whether he has corrected it in subsequent editions, I cannot say.

What really fascinated me about this prologue was that even though I knew it for what it was, it contaminated my viewing of the rest of the movie.  I couldn’t get the thought out of my mind that Joe was really not just a hired gun, but actually an undercover agent.  In fact, some of the dialogue in the movie almost seemed to encourage the idea.  For example, at one point, Ramón says of Joe, “I don’t like that Americano.  He’s too smart just to be a hired fighter.”  When I heard that, I involuntarily thought, “He’s right.  Joe is actually working for the United States government.”  Many years have passed since then, and I have seen the movie many times during those years, but to this day, when I hear Ramón deliver that line, that involuntary thought pops into my head.

On the subject of censorship, real or imagined, Eastwood is reported to have said that prior to A Fistful of Dollars, the Production Code did not allow the man shooting a gun and the man being shot to be in the same frame.  And indeed, when we do see such scenes in Leone’s movies, the impact is much greater than when they are filmed separately, as is the case in most movies.  But if Eastwood did say this, he was wrong.  Perhaps he was thinking of Rawhide (1959-1965), a television show he worked on where such a restriction may well have been in force.  But not so with the movies.  There are numerous examples of earlier Hollywood movies in which killer and victim are in the same frame, but here are just a few:  This Gun for Hire (1942), The Big Sleep (1956), Shane (1953), Rio Bravo (1959), The Man Who Shot Liberty Valence (1962), and The Manchurian Candidate (1962).

Speaking of the impact of seeing a man firing his pistol and another man getting shot in the same frame, Leone managed to make these scenes seem realistic, even though Joe’s skill with a gun seems unbelievable when we think about it later.  Early in the movie, he beats four men to the draw, while in the final showdown at the end of the movie, he beats five men to the draw.  Of course, Joe is a professional gunfighter, who probably spends several hours every day working with his gun, much in the way that a musician spends several hours a day on his instrument.  As a friend of mine remarked, the men he kills are “just a bunch of North Side punks that strapped on a gun.”

In any event, the scenes seem realistic at the moment we watch them.  By the 1970s, however, there began a trend toward silliness.  Terence Hill’s Trinity character did stuff with his pistol that we didn’t believe for a minute.  Leone himself, much to my chagrin, even contributed to this trend in My Name Is Nobody (1973).

Nor was this limited to Westerns.  A similar phenomenon occurred in martial arts movies.  Before the 1970s, if a protagonist in a mainstream movie had training in the martial arts, the scenes which displayed that skill were believable.  Examples of such are the Mr. Moto movies, Bad Day at Black Rock (1955), The Manchurian Candidate (1962), and the James Bond movies.  But then came the kung-fu craze, where realism was no longer a consideration.  Or rather, it was deliberately avoided.  They could be fun at times.  Some of my favorites were Duel of the Iron Fist (1971), Queen Boxer (1972), and Triple Irons (1973).  But to say they were not realistic would be an understatement.  And after a while, the novelty wore off.

Nevertheless, this trend continued and has culminated in the comic-book movies of today.  But I liked the realism of movies past, even if it was only apparent realism, as in A Fistful of Dollars.

Starting a War Sure Makes People Feel Good

I watched Morning Joe yesterday, expecting at least a modicum of skepticism and cynicism, but for the most part, I get the impression that everybody’s animal spirits are up.  I heard them talking about how we are showing the world that America is back, that a new sheriff is in town, that we are resolved to act with our military might, and that we have asserted our moral authority.

Has there ever been a war that didn’t feel good when it started?  I remember how good it felt to retaliate in 1964 after the Gulf of Tonkin incident.  And then, somehow, things never felt quite that good again, until ten years later, people were asking how we ever got involved in Vietnam.  It felt so good when Baghdad fell that even Chris Matthews said, “We’re all Republicans now.” (Yes, he really said that!)  And now most people wish we had never gone in there.

We expect young men to feel good when a war starts, otherwise we would never be able to get them to fight one. But I expected a little more from the people I heard on the set of Morning Joe, figuring, naively I suppose, that a little wisdom might have been acquired over the years, enough to temper their exuberance.

Kissing feels good too, in the beginning.  And then people wake up ten years later wondering why they ever got married.  But if kissing felt as good after ten years as it did at the onset, no one would ever get divorced.  And if wars felt as good at the end as they do in the beginning, no one would ever want peace.

On the Distinction between Civilians and the Military

The men and women who serve in the armed forces of the United States fight for our rights and freedoms, risking life and limb as they do.  At least, that’s the ideal.  Sometimes we begin to wonder if they are actually fighting for something else instead, for reasons less worthy, such as access to oil.  But even then, the people who do the fighting may be assumed to have joined the military for noble purposes, even if in the end ignoble motives lie behind some of the wars they end up fighting.

We honor these brave men and women with medals for a few and parades for the rest.  Politicians regularly praise their sacrifice in speeches, and we listen to those speeches with approval.  We regret the loss of life that is incurred on the battlefield, and we are heartbroken to see the ones who return physically maimed and crippled, mentally shattered and traumatized.  We are angered when we find that these veterans are not receiving the care that they deserve, and we all agree that more should be done.  Yet through it all, we never question the rightness of the ideal.  Without question we support the notion that fighting for our rights and freedoms, even at the cost of life or physical or mental well-being, is a good thing.  Only when we suspect that they are not fighting for our rights and freedoms do we question the war, do we say their sacrifice was in vain, do we say that they were betrayed, as was the case in Vietnam and in the Iraq War.  But as long as the war is actually being fought for our rights and freedoms, we do not question the rightness of their sacrifice.

It has been observed that only a very small percentage of our population actually makes that sacrifice.  Even if we include the immediate families of those in the military, the percentage of the population directly involved in these wars is small.  For this reason, a few have suggested that we bring back the draft.  Instead of forcing the men and women in the military to serve multiple tours of duty in combat, we could use the draft the spread the sacrifice over a larger section of the population.

Officially, the reason the military opposes the draft is that conscription is not suited to the twenty-first century, where a lot more technological expertise is required, requiring a greater investment in training.  The draftee compelled to serve for a couple of years will be gone before he has learned enough to be truly useful.  More cynically, we suspect that the real reason is political.  It is easier to fight wars with a volunteer army.  There are fewer complaints from the civilian population, fewer and smaller marches protesting the war, and less chance that politicians supporting the war will be voted out of office.  But even if we returned to the draft, most of us would remain unaffected.  It would only directly affect those between the ages of eighteen and twenty-six, leaving a substantial portion of the population immune to the horrors of war.

With the recent terrorist attacks, the one in France and now the one in San Bernardino, a majority of the American people want to send ground troops to fight ISIS.  Moreover, as often happens in such cases, there is a tendency for people to be willing to give up some of their rights and freedoms in exchange for more security.  Donald Trump, who is the leading contender for the Republican nomination for president, has called for a return of waterboarding “and worse,” and has refused to rule out warrantless searches or the identification of people based on their religion.  Since he made those remarks, his popularity in the polls has increased.

It is precisely here that we see that profound difference between civilians and those in the military.  While it is held to be perfectly appropriate for the men and women in the armed forces to risk life and limb fighting for our rights and freedoms, it is not thought appropriate to ask the civilian population to take the same risks for the same reasons.  What is the justification for this distinction?

We sometimes hear the expression “innocent civilians.”  As opposed to what?  Guilty soldiers?  Presumably the idea is that civilians are not combatants and therefore should not be the victims of military action.  Soldiers should kill other soldiers only, the thinking goes.  Of course, there have been many times where we took action we knew would result in the death of many civilians, as in the firebombing attacks in World War II, not to mention the dropping of two atom bombs.  But it is generally agreed that civilian deaths are to be avoided as much as possible.

While that distinction is still worth observing when it comes to how we treat the enemy, is it really a distinction we should be making with respect to ourselves?  When it comes to the sacrifices that are to be made in defense of our rights and freedoms, should we not demand the same from our civilian population as we expect from our soldiers?  Instead of a literal return to the draft, I advocate a figurative return to a draft in which the entire population of the United States is enlisted in the fight for our rights and freedoms.

As we ask our soldiers to risk being blasted to pieces by IEDs, we civilians should risk being blasted by a pipe bomb in a terrorist attack.  As the men and women risk taking a bullet to preserve our way of life, so too should we risk taking a bullet for the same reason.  Those in the military did not put their security first when they signed up, so why should we think our security is more important than theirs?

We should no more give up our rights and freedoms to prevent future terrorist attacks than a soldier should throw down his rifle and flee the battlefield to avoid being killed.  If the men and women of the armed forces have the courage to face down death for our rights and freedoms, we should not act like cowards, giving up those very rights and freedoms they are willing to die for.

Even were we to do as I suggest, the risk we civilians take would still be less than that taken by those who engage in combat.  But it is the least we can do.  We can best honor the men and women in uniform by proving that we are worthy of the sacrifice they are making.