The news of the death of director Sergio Leone came last week while I was at Disney World in Florida on a press tour for three new Disney/Touchstone movies and the opening of the Disney-MGM theme park.
The main attraction at the park is "The Great Movie Ride," where patrons ride in a tram through a series of Disney's renowned audio-animatronics in the form of famous movie stars in classic movie scenes, including the climax of "Casablanca," lifting of the ark in "Raiders of the Lost Ark," Gene Kelly's famous rendition of "Singin' in the Rain" and Sigourney Weaver battling the "Aliens."But one of the very first sets is a Western motif, with John Wayne on one side of the tram in a John Ford/Monument Valley-style setting. On the other side is Clint Eastwood, shown in a darker, dingier setting, obviously inspired by Eastwood's "Dollar" trilogy: The Eastwood figure is seen complete with a cigar stub in his mouth, a stubbly beard on his face and wearing the familiar hat and serape.
There are many Eastwood images available to Disney, of course, including "Dirty Harry" and the "Make my day" line, which would certainly have been appropriate, but for some reason Disney's "Imagineers" decided to use Eastwood's first major movie success to show the contrast in Westerns made in the '40s and '60s.
And the pioneer of that '60s look, the director who gave Eastwood his first break, was Sergio Leone.
Leone's intent with "A Fistful of Dollars" was to rework the classic Japanese film "Yojimbo," the latter a work by Akira Kurosawa about a Samurai warrior for hire who comes between two warring families.
Kurosawa always acknowledged John Ford's work as an influence in his films, but as Leone adapted "Yojimbo" as a Western, he had no intention of following the Ford formula of Old West traditions and heroism.
Leone's hero, the "Man With No Name," as he came to be known, was a pretty selfish character, and though in the end he helped the downtrodden, it was not without his bounty.
Other characters in his films were dirty people living in dirty, poverty-stricken circumstances. Flies buzzed around them as they perspired heavily, women were raped, people were brutally killed and bled profusely - it was a revisionist view of the Old West. Even Leone was caught off guard by its enormous international popularity.
Since Leone and his crew were Italian, "A Fistful of Dollars" was dubbed a "spaghetti Western," a phrase that remained stamped on his next films and the slew of copycat European Westerns that followed.
But Leone's films were by far the best, and they just got better with "For a Few Dollars More," "The Good, the Bad and the Ugly" and the non-Eastwood Western that many consider Leone's masterpiece, "Once Upon a Time in the West."
Leone's Westerns were marked by fine cinematography, sweeping technique and very stylish camera work, and were accompanied, of course, by those great Ennio Morricone musical scores.
Leone went on to direct many other films, including his own personal favorite, a saga of Jewish gangsters called "Once Upon a Time in America," a controversial picture starring Robert De Niro and James Woods.
But Leone was unable to repeat the amazing initial success of his movies with Eastwood, and when he died in Rome last Sunday at the age of 60 he was still remembered as the "pioneer of `spaghetti Westerns,' " a phrase that will doubtless keep his memory alive in film history books of the future. And deservedly so.