How could it be that one of the greatest directors known for directing films about the American west was not an American himself?

Sergio Leone was born in 1929 in Rome, Italy to parents already working in the silent film industry—his father was a director and his mother was an actress. He became inspired to start a career in film himself after visiting his father’s film shoots. He met his frequent collaborator, Ennio Moriconne, at a young age while they were classmates in school.

At 18 years old, he got his first job in the industry as Vittorio de Sica’s assistant during the classic film ‘The Bicycle Thief.’ After a period of writing screenplays, he went on to work as an assistant director for more than 30 films including the 1959 William Wyler epic ‘Ben Hur.’ He worked on many epics similar to ‘Ben Hur’ as an assistant director, but when he worked on a film titled ‘The Last Days of Pompeii,’ he took over the job as director when the original director got sick during the beginning of production. He continued working as an assistant director after this, but soon these “sword and sandal” epics (as they were called) started flopping at the box office. Because of this, the Italian film industry decided to switch to making westerns, after the westerns coming over from Hollywood started to gain popularity. So, the Italian film industry started to produce films in Italy about the American west and had their directors use more American sounding names to try and trick Italian audiences into thinking that they were authentic Hollywood westerns—and thus began the era of the “Spaghetti Western.”

His first “Spaghetti Western” was titled ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ which was only produced as a way to earn back money spent on a larger film titled ‘Guns Don’t Talk.’ ‘A Fistful of Dollars’ would cost much less money to make because it would use all the same sets, costumes, and other materials made for ‘Guns Don’t Talk.’ However, A ‘Fistful of Dollars’ was significantly more successful than ‘Guns Don’t Talk’ and it ended up becoming the first “Spaghetti Western” to make it to America. Because of this, Leone was able to use his real name.

‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ which would become the first in a trilogy that also contained ‘For a Few Dollars More’ and ‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly,’ was more or less a reimagining of an earlier Akira Kurosawa samurai film titled ‘Yojimbo.’ Clint Eastwood, who played the protagonist of ‘A Fistful of Dollars,’ was relatively unknown at this time ,and Leone actually discovered him as a cast member of a television show called ‘Rawhide.’

Directly after the ‘Dollars Trilogy,’ Leone started another trilogy—the first installment, an epic titled ‘Once Upon a Time in the West,’ shocked audiences with Hollywood ‘good guy’ Henry Fonda cast as a brutal child murderer. The next installment, titled ‘Duck, You Sucker’ (also known as ‘A Fistful of Dynamite’ or ‘Once Upon a Time… the Revolution’) takes place during the Mexican Revolution. It would be Leone’s last western film.

The third installment (and Leone’s last film) was released 13 years later and is set in New York City during the prohibition era. This would be the first and only time that Leone would work with Robert De Niro who played the lead character, Noodles. What binds these three films together is the greed and corruption in the shaping of America from the turn of the century up to the 1960s. Each takes Leone’s personality and style to an even grander scale and reveals the breadth of his artistry. Even though ‘Once Upon a Time in America’ is not a western as many of his iconic films were, it was a beautiful and fitting end to a remarkable career.

Clips used:

‘The Bicycle Thief’ (1949 dir. Vittorio De Sica)
‘Ben Hur’ (1959 dir. William Wyler)
‘The Last Days of Pompeii’ (1959 dir. Mario Bonnard, Sergio Leone)
‘The Searchers’ (1956 dir. John Ford)
‘A Fistful of Dollars’ (1964 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Guns Don’t Talk’ (1964 dir. Mario Caiano)
‘For a Few Dollars More’ (1965 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly’ (1966 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Yojimbo’ (1961 dir. Akira Kurosawa)
‘Once Upon a Time in the West’ (1968 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Duck, You Sucker!’ (1971 dir. Sergio Leone)
‘Once Upon a Time in America’ (1984 dir. Sergio Leone)