Movie Westerns had of course existed since the very beginning of motion pictures, going back at least to 1903's The Great Train Robbery; but by the mid-1960's the old cowboys were barely limping along. Certainly, they still appeared in abundance on television - Rawhide, Big Valley, High Chapparal, etc. - but it was often recognized that the television screen acted as the old Western heroes' last roundup. When the genre stopped appearing there, it would be dead.
Of course, it still lived on in the hearts of its fans. One such fan, to our great advantage, was the Italian Sergio Leone. Leone was a fantastically talented director who was especially adept at squeezing every bit he could out of the widescreen format; he was also enamored of America's Old West, and had an encyclopedic knowledge of the period's history, its prominent figures, even the firearms used then. He had only directed one film so far, The Colossus of Rhodes, one of the last in a seemingly endless strongman/sword-and-sandal pictures that featured characters like Hercules, Samson, or the homegrown Maciste.
When Leone got the go-ahead to do his Western project il Magnifico Stragnero (aka The Magnificent Stranger), he naturally wanted one of the older Western stars he admired so much - somebody like Henry Fonda, or maybe Lee Marvin. He was turned down by every big name he considered, however - the script read terribly, and the salary was kind of low. What Leone needed was an actor, even a young one, with the requisite gravitas, but who was willing to work cheaply. Fortunately for him, Clint Eastwood had always wanted to visit Europe on somebody else's nickel, and was available over the summer between seasons of Rawhide. Although Eastwood was young, he was able to carry himself onscreen as an older, deadlier, craftier man; and, perhaps most importantly, he was willing to do the part for only $15,000. Hey, free trip, some folding money, a few weeks' shooting - how bad could it be? Besides, no one ever saw these Italian pictures except the movie-crazy Italian public.
Eastwood spoke maybe three words of the local language when he arrived - but that was okay, because as on many such co-productions (Fistful was an Italian-German coproduction, a common economic arrangement at the time) the cast and crew were often an unusually multi-cultural group. Starring alongside the young American was Gian Maria Volonte, a handsome stage actor who would appear in further genre films (including this one's immediate sequel, For A Few Dollars More); here he played the main villain, the dangerous and charismatic Ramon Rojo. Marianne Koch, who portrayed the beautiful Marisol whom Ramon stole away from her family, was included at the insistence of the film's financiers; she was a big name in German cinema and would provide a small boost to the film's chances there.
The story had been written in three weeks; it was clearly a redoing of Kurosawa's Yojimbo. Not only does it take that film's basic plot, but many scenes are reproduced, updated to the Western locale and setting. (This had happened previously when Kurosawa's Seven Samurai was remade as Hollywood's The Magnificent Seven.) A lone gunman pits himself between two rival gangs, hoping to profit by first hiring himself out to one group, then the other, always playing both sides against the middle. Eastwood's character is known simply as The Man With No Name, and indeed the character is meant to be a sort of cipher, a lone gunman without a past or, perhaps, a future. Since the Italian writers and director felt no need to carry the baggage of American standards and practices (much less our Puritan heritage), their cowboy picture could be bloodier, darker, more nihilistic. It was said that in an American Western, the cowboy could shoot the badguy, but the two must never be seen onscreen together while he's doing it. The first dramatic gunfight in Fistful, of course, shows exactly that as TMWNN blows away four Baxter henchmen with style and ease.
Fistful proved to be a box office smash hit within a short time, capturing the imaginations of audiences across Europe. Rarely had a genre Italian film (unlike the more artsy exports such as Fellini's offerings) moved beyond that country's borders with such success. Back in America, Clint Eastwood was completely oblivious to the fact that he had become a European superstar virtually overnight. He had heard about the success of another Italian Western, but not his own - until he was told that The Magnificent Stranger had been retitled, and was astonished that his little summer project had grown so in his absence. By the time the film debuted in America in 1967 (Kurosawa having introduced legal complications over its copyright), Eastwood had gone back to do two more films with Leone, For A Few Dollars More and The Good, The Bad, And The Ugly.
Thus was a genre born. Italian audiences tended to follow a movie trand until they had wrung the last drop of interest from it, and so after the fade of the strongman films, the Western took over. Over the next ten years over 500 'spaghetti Westerns' (as their critics referred to them, with a sniff of dismissal) would appear. Many of them would, truthfully, be rather poor, but most would be enjoyable, and a small handful would be absolutely masterful. The Man With No Name became an iconic figure, not only inspiring such spaghetti Western protagonists as Django and Sartana, but also referenced in numerous films and television shows.