1966: The Good, the Bad and the Ugly at 50

1966 The Good, the Bad and the Ugly turns 50

“Kicking off with a different loner”

The Good, the Bad and the Ugly was released in Italy 50 years ago today, completing Sergio Leone’s hugely influential trilogy. The Dollars Trilogy? The Man With No Name trilogy? Whatever it completed, however it fits with the other films, Jokerside salutes the 50th anniversary of a classic that created and consolidated a sub-genre…

IT’S 50 YEARS SINCE ENNIO MORRICONE’S FAMOUS THEME FIRST WHISTLED FROM CINEMA LOUDSPEAKERS, MAKING WAY FOR FIVE DECADES, SO FAR, OF COUNTLESS REINTERPRETATIONS, RECYCLING AND PASTICHE. Although, it’s not really 50 years… True, the final and most famous film of what we’ll call the Dollars Trilogy for ease was released in director Sergio Leone’s native Italy 50 years ago today. But it’s not until next year that The Good, The Bad and the Ugly celebrates its golden anniversary in the country that lent the film its fabric if not its landscapes and behind the camera talent. Oh, nor its predecessor For a Few Dollars more. Nor in fact, that film’s predecessor, A Fistful of Dollars. You see, every film of Leone’s Dollars Trilogy was released in the United States in 1967. That may sound like a heady year for the Western, but each release was met with middling disdain on release. 50 years on, it’s a different story…

Leone’s impact on the rich fabric of world cinema stemmed from the film wealth of his upbringing. The son of cinema pioneer Vincenzo Leone and silent film star Edvige Valcarenghi, by the 1950s the young Leone had worked his way into cinematography and screenwriting in the Italian capital he was a native of. Italian cinema that had blossomed over the previous half century and never shied from borrowing elements from international cinema despite the frequent bright sparks of its own auteurs. It was to be a tradition continued in the Dollars Trilogy opener, A Fistful of Dollars. A deliberately fresh take on the established American Western format, it introduced The Man with No Name. A stranger emerging from the nowhere of the desert, entering a new town, and soon extracting money from two rival gangs by playing them off each other. He’d incur a vicious beating on the way to a bloody victory, but for all the enhanced violence and terror, this mysterious antihero was full of quiet sarcasm, prone to the odd trick alongside his evident gun skills and an odd protagonist to root for in the midst of some kinetic camera work.

Unfortunately Fistful’s debt was worn broadly, prompting Akira Kurosawa, the eminent director of the sublime Yojimbo to send Leone a letter telling him it was “… A very fine film. But it is my film”. The fact that Kurosawa’s 1961 film was itself was quite probably indebted to Dashiell Hammett’s first novel Red Harvest didn’t matter as the suits fell in Yojimbo’s favour. The recognition of similarity in intent would have surely gratified Leone, who towards the end of his career said: “From a project like (Kurosawa’s) Ran or Once Upon a Time in America, you come away dry in the mouth, with your head in flames and your soul in shreds.” But for all the costly sacrifice, in terms of distribution and box office, from this first ‘homage’ Leone had set cardinal rules for what would quickly become known as Spaghetti Westerns. He picked apart the Western genre, defied conventions and infused it with an utterly inappropriate yet tremendously fitting context of other times and cultures. Morricone’s scores was a massive aid in that quirky, healthy, disrespect.

The cunning of Fistful‘s anti-hero would grow with the trilogy and become a defining trope. Unexpected actions played out through partnerships riven by betrayal, always circling and sometimes opposing supreme and callous violence. Leone would later describe the “picaresque” aspirations of the trilogy’s final instalment, the third film that truly fuses the Western to that Spanish and southern European narrative form.

Boiling spaghetti

“I had always thought that the ‘good,’ and the ‘bad’ and the ‘violent’ did not exist in any absolute, essential sense. It seemed to me interesting to demystify these adjectives in the setting of a Western. An assassin can display a sublime altruism while a good man can kill with total indifference.” – Sergio Leone

It turned out that predominantly Italian film-makers working in Spain, funded by from Germany, Italy and Spain, made a fine Western through Leone’s lens. And that was the point. Westerns had dominated American film production for many years, but the industry was grinding down by the mid-1960s. And the genre wasn’t alone, the same was true with that other great fuel of Hollywood, the musical. Within a decade, both would be blown out of the water as the sharks of new wave cinema jumped in. But while Hollywood eased off, as if prescient of its collapse, Leone saw potential.

A Fistful of Dollars was an attempt to re-establish the Western for the Italian market, the director realising that the Wild West still generated considerable interest in Europe. Recognising a crossover appeal, the favourable response of Italian audiences to the contemporary work of his peers and the entropy of a genre that he considered stagnant and unrealistic, Leone sought to make an Italian Western. At the centre he put a trickster in the grand Italian tradition of Commedia dell’arte, an enigma of a man who could act as the pivot between comedy with extreme violence and drag the audience into an unfamiliar stylised world. And to seize that mantle he picked an actor best known for small-screen scale cowboy fare, damning his capacity for facial expressions on the way. The rest, as they say, was and is history.

Per un pugno di dollari (A Fistful of Dollars, 1964)

“Welcome to you stranger”

It’s impossible not to see A Fistful of Dollars as an adaptation of Kurosawa’s Yojimbo, but any sacrifice in originality is swamped by the by the celluloid adrenaline it shot into a moribund genre and its overall benefit to a burgeoning sub-genre. A distinctive entry, it remains the most clean-cut of the Dollars Trilogy even as it lays down and explores what would become those oh so crucial crucial Spaghetti tropes. We first meet the Man with No Name, in this film called Joe, as he watches bandits shooting at the feet of a child, shortly after wryly accepting a spurned glance from a woman at a window. That woman is the distracted Marisol and although her story lies at the heart of scuppering Joe’s plans later on, Fistful never threatens a love story. There’s no foreshadowing for that in the considerable, unseen history of this man, nor the masochistic ploys he almost immediately sets in motion. His first, trademark, mono-syllabic greeting of “Hallo” is to Silvanito the innkeeper who tells him as much from the start.

“Eating, drinking and killing, that’s all you can do”

Fistful was shot on a miniscule budget of around $200,000, allowing for a sparse town for The Man to walk into. Often empty, but dominated by the two rival gangs he flits between, there’s no doubt what will unfold in a town where the coffin maker’s so experienced he can measure for a box with a glance. Having felled the gunslingers who humiliated him when he entered the town, crucially proving his prowess to both gangs, the first pang of the Man’s wry humour falls on the coffin maker: “Get three coffins ready… “My mistake, four coffins”. Within minutes Leone’s presented the shape of this character, from skills to hard edge, devilish patience to humour. Read more…

Year of Hell? Star Trek: Voyager – The First Year under the Microscope

Star Trek at 50 Voyager Year One

Star Trek at 50. Having celebrated the 50th anniversary of that incredible first season of Star Trek’s Original Series, Jokerside jumps to the television franchise’s fourth incarnation. In the Golden Age of Star Trek, could USS Voyager propel the franchise on to further success in its first year?

This is an updated version of an article originally published in two parts by those kind folks over at Some Kind of Star Trek.

A THOUGHT THIS GOLDEN ANNIVERSARY. DURING THE GOLDEN AGE OF STAR TREK, 1995 MIGHT JUST HAVE BEEN THE GOLDEN YEAR. Star Trek: The Next Generation (TNG) had ended its hugely successful small screen run, but only to leap to the big screen. I a year’s time that crew would find their finest hour against the Borg on 21st century Earth. Star Trek: Deep Space Nine (DS9)was shrugging off that most common of franchise issues, a couple of weak seasons, and kicking off its seminal Dominion War story arc. And then there was Star Trek: Voyager.

Unlike previous series, Voyager was designed as a flagship that would sit on franchise owner Viacom’s brand new United Paramount Network. Before that channel morphed into The CW in 2006, Voyager stood as the network’s second longest running series, claiming the allotted seven years that the two proceeding series had and would enjoy. In the heady-mix of 1995, Star Trek fans knew that they had something good, but it was impossible to predict the incredible swerves DS9 would take nor the triumphs and failures of The Next Generation on the big screen over the next few years. If anything was certain, it was that Star Trek: Voyager was embarking on a voyage with a specific mission. To replace TNG as the franchise’s premier ship bound series.

Over two decades on, it’s easy to see the perils and promise of 1995. It was inevitable in those early days that Voyager would make its way home from its catapulting to the far side of the Delta Quadrant. Were Voyager made today, or even a few years later as Enterprise soon discovered, that happy ending might not have been so obvious. When that third Star Trek live action sequel series started on 16 January 1995, it wasn’t evident how impressive the gauntlets that each of its forebears had laid down were. From the moment Voyager met her fate in the Badlands, DS9’s stock started rising. While other Star Trek series had achieved success in their own lifetime, even the first incarnation to begin with, let alone on the big screen viewers of the purposefully awkward DS9 are always just that little more partisan.

Post-Deep Space Nine

“Dismissed. That’s a Starfleet expression for ‘get out’.”

So there’s a vested interest there. There are people who don’t like DS9, just as there are those who don’t take to Star Trek. It’s an awkward series, that certainly didn’t help itself the minute young upstart Commander Sisko was immensely rude to Captain Jean-Luc Picard during the pilot. Yeah, that was an awkward jumping off point. But it was a confrontational, slightly odd move that the show made its speciality. It rewarded regular viewing, becoming a crucial player in the rise of American arc-based television revolution. As with TNG, the first two seasons of that second sequel series were hardly classics. In fact, of all the Star Trek shows, only The Original Series has any claim to have hit the ground running. But at Voyager’s launch, while Deep Space Nine was starting to forge forward with genuine originality that would not only lay the path for Battlestar Galactica and all manner of other arc shows but also inadvertently undo the grip of star ship shows on American TV, Voyager was moving in the opposite direction. While DS9 actively cut a path away from the syndication model that had defined the success of previous series, Voyager stuck resolutely with carrying on the mantle of The Original Series (TOS) and TNG. It may have been built on a large and overarching arc, but it saw no reason why that should change the nature of incident, adventure and monster-of-the-week structure that was there from the first season of TOS. Perversely that wilful glance back sat at odds with the format of the long journey home.

So, about that vested interest. Jokerside completed a leisurely retrospective of that DS9 vintage before its 20th anniversary in 2013. A viewing so leisurely that the Federation could have stumbled across the Dominion and kicked off a war in the same three year timeframe it took to complete all seven series. But that retrospective confirmed my suspicions: Deep Space Nine is an incredible achievement. Despite the many early bumps, it seized its position as the younger, difficult brother of TNG, with cynical and audience grabbing stunts and a flash new non-syndicated competitor and melded them with the strengths of its strong cast to produce something really special. It was real end of the century Star Trek. But also so prescient of the formative of the 21st century. And fresh from that retrospective, Jokerside took on the shortened first series of Star Trek’s New Hope. And of course, that means Jokerside accidentally started watching Star Trek: Voyager. Read more…

1966: Star Trek at 50

1966: Star Trek at 50

It’s 50 years to the day that Star Trek first transported onto NBC at 8:30… In celebration of five decades of the intergalactic pop-culture giant that followed, Jokerside takes a look at that classic first year…

Star Trek: The Original Series

IT WAS THE FIRST SERIES OF STAR TREK THAT SET A CRUCIAL LINK BETWEEN THE SHOW AND TIME. Three instances to be specific, and one of those, City on the Edge of Forever, remains a science-fiction classic. Time travel would return to Trek again and again… But it was just one of the staples of the franchise that came ready-made for exploration in the 29-part season that aired between 1966 and 1967. So much of what would become synonymous with Star Trek was set in those early days, but it’s just as well time travel was present and correct. Because pinning an anniversary on Star Trek could take Spock months of slingshot calculations.

The past

“To boldly go…”

A key date was April 1964 when creator Gene Roddenberry pitched his draft for Star Trek draft to Desilu Productions, run by Lucile Ball and producer of her shows including I love Lucy and at that time The Lucy Show. The concept developed from the adventures of Robert April Captain of the S.S. Yorktown to the first pilot The Cage, centred around Captain Christopher Pike in the form of Jeffrey Hunter. The Cage was commissioned in May 1964, filmed later that year and promptly passed on by NBC. Famously dismissed as “too cerebral” they did see a glimmer of something in the premise. And so, against all expectation they commissioned a second pilot, Where No Man Has Gone Before, which switched control of the Enterprise to William Shatner’s Captain James T. Kirk. Accepted, series production commenced and Where No Man Has Gone before aired on 22 September 1966. But wait, that’s not right…

Star Trek had a tortuous genesis. The kind Khan Noonien Singh would happily defrost to detonate. In February 1966, four months before production on that second pilot started, when that script was emerging from its own difficult selection process, Desilu almost called time on the embryonic show. Used to half hour productions, they were financially overburdened by their risky new space venture and their other hour-long production, Mission Impossible. It was Head of production Herb Solow who managed to calm things down. Then, when it came to transmission, the running order threw up all sorts of issues for the show’s uncertain network. So, in the event Where No Man Has Gone Before was screened third in the running order, the premiere falling to on 8 September. To make matters slightly more confusing, Star Trek was properly first broadcast on 6 September, 1966 on Canada’s CTV network.

But then, from difficult beginnings… For all its triumph on the big screen, grossing $2.3 billion over 13 films so far, television is the real berth of the good ship Enterprise. And that’s why 8 September is the date. When Star Trek hit its home nation network and began a classic and influential year. All the more idiosyncratic that it couldn’t shake off its unusual production history.

Hitting the ground running

“Out here we’re the only policemen around”

It wasn’t simply that Where No Man Has Gone Before stepped back in the running order. Just about the first third of that first year is jumbled around thanks to the network’s desperate juggling of themes and stories. Looking at the produced episodes, many of which were spilling over schedule thanks to on-set rewrites, they felt their toes chill. There are some dynamic effects from the transmission order as it emerged that Fall. It’s strange to see Uhura’s role reduce then grow again, just as it is for old pal Gary Mitchell to pop up three episodes in, about the same time as the ship’s complement decides to change uniform for a week (a switch back to the heavy crew necks of The Cage uniforms). But it’s not insurmountable. And while that running order makes watching the first series a little more difficult than it should be, as the network’s decisions knock the balance of that first year off, it immediately highlights the rugged survivalism built into the concept. The strength of the conceit and the core characters was there almost instantly, and from its formative days Star Trek was girded for the future.

The show would burn brightly and quickly. Cancelled after a reduced third year, it would be years spent in syndication that developed its true following and proved its enduring appeal, leading to its mild television resurgence in the 1970s, shift to the big screen and proliferation in the 1980s and 1990s. Those glorious days before story arcs, where running order was irrelevant to broadcast. Star Trek took the test with its first episode and proved that optimism is everything. And so it was that when The Man Trap aired on 8 September it easily won its time slot with a 40.6 share of the audience.

What unfolded until 13 April 1967 was a quite incredible 29-part run. There’s barely a dud among the bunch, quite the opposite of the reputation that subsequent Star Trek series would earn for their weak opening years. What’s particularly astonishing is how easily Star Trek managed to reflect contemporary culture, for good and bad, establish a template for talented creators to comment on that contemporary culture and also set so many of the themes, facets and recurring elements that have remained with the show and film series for 50 years. No doubt those will be present and correct when Star Trek Discovery hits in 2017.

What better way to celebrate the show than look at those crucial ingredients. Read more…

1966: Invasion Earth 2150 – Movie Daleks at 50

1966 Dalek Invasion Earth 2150 at 50

It’s 50 years since the Dalek’s last big screen outing. The 1960s were packed with science-fiction invasions, but this was something else. Riding on the unexpected wave of Dalekmania, the fiendish pepper pots of hate were ascending through pop-culture awareness to immortality. Daleks – Invasion Earth: 2150 A.D. released 50 years ago this month.

Print the neg-a-tive!

“I didn’t want any bug-eyed monsters and the Dalek is what made Doctor Who” – Sydney Newman

AFTER BEATLEMANIA, THERE WAS DALEKMANIA. THEY ARRIVED ON SCREEN AT THE VERY TAIL OF 1963, FAMOUSLY THOSE BEMS SNEAKING PAST PRODUCER SYDNEY NEWMAN’S BLANKET BAN. And classic, early production issues with their resulting risky decisions by a producer, in this case the inimitable Verity Lambert, is what phenomenon is made of. True enough, by the end of their first serial in February 1964, the Daleks were a hit, and Doctor Who with them. Come the end of that year the pepper pot tyrants had seeped into popular consciousness, happily employed in newspaper cartoons and headlines. They would return the following year, for not one but two seven part serials. None of the other early Who monsters earned a repeat, let alone triggered a cultural shock. Those quick returns, all penned by their creator Terry Nation, remain the perfect comebacks against which all of the Doctor’s foes must be measured. Perfect  escalation.

After the travails of that first story on their home planet of Skaro, the show’s first alien world with its distinctive petrified forest, deadly whirlpools and gleaming city, they then made it to Earth. It was an planet, a country, very familiar to the one we knew, but set in the exotic reaches of the 22nd century. An utterly alien and yet a terribly familiar environment where the monsters had… Won. And everyone, after years of occupation looked like they were from the 1960s. That Wyndham-styled sequel was followed by a third story in the show’s second year that saw the Daleks build on their mastery of space to tackle time, pursuing the TARDIS crew through various points of history and future.

Simply named, The Chase was the Doctor’s first odyssey, a lightweight but spectacular blockbuster tale completing a set and thrilling the viewing public. It’s a miracle of the show, but testament to the power of the Daleks, that each of those first three serials survive in their entirety. Sadly, the same is not true of their fourth and most extravagant story. The 12-part Daleks’ Masterplan sought to tie up winter for the third year in a row. Now almost entirely missing, it was an epic journey of galactic politics and suitably imposing McGuffin, the Time Destructor: a devastating weapon that could do just that. Combining intrigue and invasion with the multi-location approach of The Chase, that adventure would conclude the monster’s first age. Credited with half the episodes, something rather scoffed at by then script editor Donald Tosh, it would be Terry Nation’s television swansong to his creations during the 1960s. He had other plans for his deadly creations.

Gliding evil

The  Daleks barely changed…

No one mind produced the Daleks full-formed and ready to exterminate like Victory of the Daleks’ Progenator. Their design was typically fortuitous. Nation’s script directions had been light, really only specifying that they should not have legs, apparently inspired by dancers Nation had seen glide across a dance floor. When young BBC designer Ridley Scott wasn’t available, the job fell to Raymond Cusick who had mere hours to formulate their look. The classic anecdote that the distinctive design came from the designer sliding a pepper pot across a canteen table is apparently apocryphal. That happened, but only when Cusick demonstrated the movement of his design, already based around the idea of a man encased in a sitting position.

The final design would become a 1960s classic, and it had staying power. Cybermen came to be defined by upgrading and change, other monsters would return during the classic run with vastly different designs (Sontarans) or when they arrived in the 21st century New Series new budgets and design allowed them to update (Ice Warriors, Zygons)… But the Daleks barely changed. That’s not to say there haven’t been considerable attempts to do so. But the spider modification that would have met brought the Daleks to the mid-90s American series were ultimately pushed into expanded universe fiction. The poorly thought through New Paradigms of 2010, while not as huge a change as they first appeared, were quickly dissolved in the in-continuity spats of renegade factions and racial purity that dogged Dalek culture since the 1960s.

It’s of crucial importance that the Daleks have retained the same, undeniably distinctive shape and design for over 50 years. With most Doctor Who monsters, any lay man would struggle to identify one from its shadow. Not so a Dalek. Everyone knows that.

And soon to become science fiction’s premier recurring fascists, it’s fitting they looked ridiculous from the start. Read more…

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