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The Greatest Sergio

(This article was originally published in REBELLER.)

From here on out, we will not be referring to the other two Sergios by name.

A fancy rhetorical flourish—hardly . A little bratty? Perhaps. But to succumb to the traditional (and lazy) film scholarship that traffics in established “truths” like a congested LA freeway, we would first have to acknowledge the usual Triumvirate of Sergios who typically dominate the Spaghetti Western conversation, thereby immediately reducing the great Sergio Corbucci to the Second Sergio.

And that’s bullshit.

Part of the problem is that many mainstream critics think of Spaghetti Westerns as just another exploitation genre trafficking in sensationalism over art. And for the films that do break through, like the ones of He Who Shall Not Be Named, they are art that rises above sensationalism. The rest are simply fodder for the grindhouse crowd.

The other issue is that most Pastas did not come to the United States for theatrical distribution, especially Corbucci’s, which were made with a more Italian audience in mind. His best work, The Great Silence, actually was picked up by 20th Century Fox for American distribution. The deal, though, turned out to be mere Hollywood rat-fucking, as the studio shelved the film and shittily remade it with Clint Eastwood as Joe Kidd.

Thus, with no American distribution and even less appreciation from critics, Corbucci has been relegated to the dusty, desolate Limbo of his films. Long ignored for any kind of critical reappraisal outside of us freaks who buy Blue Underground Blu-rays, it’s time we put a stake in the ground: Sergio Corbucci was one of the most singular and brilliant voices in all of Italian cinema.

Corbucci chose raw, tactile shots over perfect compositions, extreme politics over aesthetics, and bleak pessimism over invincible anti-heroes. Yet, just like The Director with No Name had Clint Eastwood, The Bucc also had a stable actor, a charismatic leading man he would tap three times for a trio of western cinema’s most violent, mean-spirited, and exceptional films.

Django (1965)

Franco Nero was not the director’s first choice for the eponymous role of Django. Corbucci had used Mark Damon previously that same year in the derisible Johnny Oro and was hellbent on casting him as the coffin-dragging, machine gun-toting badass — and Jesus Fuck, it’s terrifying to think of the parallel universe where that film actually got made. Luckily, Nero was hot after a small role in John Huston’s The Bible...In the Beginning, and Corbucci came to his senses.

Because there is no one else on earth I can imagine as the original Django. It was the role Nero was born to play. The film is not dialogue-heavy (and thank God, because what’s there is pretty lousy), so the onus is put on the look and physicality of its star. And Nero exudes a coolness that is equal parts charming and mysterious, while not sacrificing the menacing qualities required of the typical Spaghetti anti-hero. The actor was 23 at the time, but he looks ageless, like a listless phantom descending upon a nowhere town.

Corbucci had directed three westerns before Django: Minnesota Clay (parodied in Once Upon A Time … in Hollywood as Nebraska Jim), Red Pastures, and Johnny Oro, all to varying degrees of mediocrity. This is where he comes into his own, not only crafting a masterpiece, but establishing all the hallmarks we now associate with a Corbucci Film, such as brutal violence, anti-clericalism, leftist politics, and mud.

And Django has lots and lots of mud. Corbucci’s world is claustrophobic, forgoing the wide tapestries familiar to the genre, and instead throwing us into an isolated town in disrepair and inhabited with the slimiest of locals. Hookers wrestle in mud, priests collect bribes for the local boss, and the Ku Klux Klan runs the show.

But we all know why we’re here. We buy Blue Underground Blu-rays after all, and we want our ultra-violence, for which The Bucc Man delivers in spades. Django literally guns down 40 Klansmen in the street with a machine gun. Mexican peasants are shot in cold blood. Women are whipped mercilessly. And in the most memorable scene, a priest’s ear is cut off, and he is forced to eat it at gunpoint (before then getting shot) — a radical statement of anti-clericalism that Corbucci would later flesh out in …

The Mercenary (1968)

Corbucci famously had a huge sense of humor. That totally shines through in The Mercenary, his second teaming with Nero and a film that gleefully relishes in its meanness and sardonic, twisted humor.

In the interim between this and Django, Corbucci pumped out two low-budget classics, The Great Silence and The Hellbenders, both small-scale character-driven pieces, while also directing the young Burt Reynolds vehicle, Navajo Joe. Here, Corbucci utilizes a much bigger budget, painting a large canvas of characters against the backdrop of the Mexican Civil War.

Nero plays an amoral gun-for-hire, Sergei Kowalski, hilariously referred to in the film as “The Polack.” In the tradition of For a Few Dollars More, Death Rides a Horse, and Tepepa, it’s an unlikely alias film between Kowalski and Paco Román, a Mexican revolutionary, played by Tony Musante, the poor man’s Tomas Milian. Paco hires Kowalski for his military expertise to battle the Mexican army that is in league with the flamboyantly gay assassin, Curly (Jack Palance).

Corbucci uses the relationship between Kowalski and Paco’s army to create his most anti-religious screed yet. Kowalski is developed as a kind of Christ-like savior, a stand-in for the Church. Throughout the revolutionary army’s many hardships, he ruthlessly takes advantage of them, stealing most of their money, property, and food — even forcing them to empty out their canteens in the desert so he can have a cold shower. The point seems to be that no country will truly be free until they free themselves from the oppression of religion.

While Corbucci probably made better films, The Mercenary is his best directed. It perfectly juggles the many tones and character arcs, rips furious ass in the pacing department, and has one of Ennio Morricone’s most famous scores. This is Corbucci just having fun.

‍Compañeros (1970)

The original script for The Mercenary had the Franco Nero character as the traditional American gringo. However, since Nero (with his formidable Italian accent) was such an international star at that point and doing his own dubbing, Corbucci decided to make him Polish to avoid some really awkward sound mixing.

Afterward, Nero demanded that all his western characters be foreigners, so in Compañeros, a pretentious remake of The Mercenary via Face to Face, Nero takes up the reigns as Yodlaf Peterson, a Swedish mercenary caught up in the Mexican Civil War. He’s basically the same character as before, just of the Scandinavian variety. And instead of Tony Musante, it’s the rich man’s Tony Musante. It’s all the same movie except … for the best Jack Palance role ever.

Palance picks up where he left off in 1968, but in lieu of playing a gay assassin, he’s a stoner hippie assassin with a wooden hand and a hawk that hunts men. Hell, tell me your favorite Jack Palance scene ever, and I’ll raise you the part in Compañeros where he tortures Tomas Milian by trapping a starved Guinea pig on his bare stomach.

Compañeros is Corbucci swinging for the fences in an effort to be taken seriously as a director. The result is a pretty good film, though perhaps a little plodding since all the humor and pacing from The Mercenary has been omitted for the sake of artistic earnestness. Though, to be fair, compared to the similarly themed Zapata western, Duck, You Sucker! by You Know Who! a year later, it moves at lightning speed and is 1,000 times more focused and honed in its politics.

Unfortunately, audiences and critics would never take to that film or Sergio Corbucci as seriously they did that other director. I mean, like some alien archeologists, we see remnants of this forgotten past: Franco Nero in Die Hard 2 and The Hellbenders score in Django Unchained (plus a Nero cameo himself!). But there are no late-night screenings of The Great Silence or The Mercenary or Django at your local repertory; your community college film professor won’t shut up about the first 10 minutes of that other film …

Corbucci got screwed. But it doesn’t always have to stay that way.

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