Spaghetti westerns lose musical icon

Spaghetti westerns lose musical icon

The death of Italian composer Ennio Morricone last week inevitably sparked memories of those old spaghetti westerns, including the so-called "Dollars Trilogy", in which his creative music was a crucial element. Those early Sergio Leone films were not known for extended dialogue -- he let the music do the talking and Morricone's distinctive scores hit the right note.

The breakthrough came with A Fistful of Dollars (1964) featuring Clint Eastwood in his first starring role. Eastwood had been appearing in the western TV series Rawhide, but was fed up with his clean-cut, nice cowboy image, commenting: "I got tired of playing the hero who kissed old ladies and dogs and was kind to everybody."

He was looking for an earthier anti-hero role and certainly found it with Leone's films, playing a mysterious, unshaven stranger, often referred to as "The Man With No Name".

Eastwood loved Morricone's music with its eclectic mix of whistling, flutes, guitars, trumpets, cracking whips and gunshots. As he once commented: "What actor wouldn't want to ride into town with that kind of music playing behind them?" Best of all, he didn't have to kiss old ladies.

The success of Fistful, prompted For A Few Dollars More and The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, all shot in Spain. I enjoyed these films as the cowboys looked so much more realistic than the traditional TV heroes with nice haircuts, who never worked up a sweat. The spaghetti cowboys were mean, nasty, dirty and looked like they hadn't had a bath in months ... and they ate beans in bordellos.

The spaghetti westerns were hugely popular in Thailand and Morricone's music, particularly the distinctive Good, Bad, Ugly theme, could be heard on jukeboxes throughout the kingdom, even in Nakhon Nowhere. In some Isan towns you half expected Eastwood to appear with his trademark squint, riding down the main street on his horse, puffing on a cigar.

Once upon a time

My favourite Leone film, without Eastwood, was Once Upon a Time in the West, which I first saw at a Pratunam cinema in 1969. It has a classic atmospheric opening sequence as three bristly outlaws await Charles Bronson's train at a remote railway station in the desert. The only spoken words come from a terrified stationmaster. The constant squeak of a wind turbine and the buzzing of an irritating fly, eventually captured in a gun barrel, are the only sounds you hear until the distant whistle of a train. When the train eventually chugs off, after the obligatory shootout there is only one person left standing -- Bronson.

Bronson built up a massive following in Thailand during the 1970s. He was not the greatest thespian, but had a certain presence and possessed a superb squint to rival that of Eastwood. He was one of those actors who was at his best when saying nothing.

The Bronson moustache became a symbol of toughness and any self-respecting Thai gangster would be seen sporting something resembling it, although some of the whiskers were decidedly dodgy.

Call me Django

Wandering around rural Thailand in the early days I was regularly subjected to the cry of "Django" from the kids, followed by plenty of giggling as they scampered away through the fields. I was a bit puzzled as to the name's origin.

It turned out there was a hugely popular spaghetti western entitled Django which had shown in the kingdom in the late 1960s, although it was not a Leone film. It starred Italian actor Franco Nero in the title role as a drifter who for some reason dragged a coffin around.

So any dishevelled foreign traveller like me who strayed off the beaten track in those days was an obvious target to be called "Django".

Still it was preferable to being called farang kee nok (cheapskate foreigner).

So long, Scala

Sorry to see the curtain has finally come down on the Scala theatre. It was one of my favourite cinemas in the 1970s along with the adjacent Siam and Lido, now all sadly gone. There were no multiplex cinemas in those days so when a big film came out at the weekend there would be massive queues and the ticket touts had a field day. At the Scala, queues sometimes snaked their way all down those famous steps. The Scala opened in 1969, and I appreciated it partly because it was one of the first Bangkok cinemas to be relatively free of rodents. Please don't replace it with a mall.

Close encounters with a PM

I have a lasting memory of the Scala from 1975. Walking up those steps at the entrance I came face-to-face with the prime minister at the time, MR Kukrit Pramoj. He was walking down alone. MR Kukrit was a film buff and had played an important role in the 1963 Marlon Brando film, The Ugly American, which was partly shot in Bangkok.

I thought it was terrific to be in a country where the premier could go to a cinema and watch a movie by himself without any entourage. He might even have hopped on a bus afterwards. Well, perhaps not.

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Roger Crutchley

Bangkok Post columnist

A long time popular Bangkok Post columnist. In 1994 he won the Ayumongkol Literary Award. For many years he was Sports Editor at the Bangkok Post.

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