Christopher Frayling called him 'the first post-modern film maker' and as such Sergio Leone had an underrated and overlooked influence on Star Wars. How a samurai became a cowboy, who became a bounty hunter in a galaxy far, far away.

The films are for grown-ups, but they remain fairy tales and have the impact of fairy tales. For me, cinema is about imagination, and the imagination is best communicated in the form of parables - meaning fairytales. Not in the Walt Disney sense, though. They draw attention to themselves as fairy tales - everything is made up and cleaned up and sugary sweet, and this makes the tale less suggestive. To me, anyway. I think that fairy tales capture the audience’s imagination when the setting is realistic rather than fantastical. The fusion of realistic setting and fantasy story can give film a sense of myth, of legend. Once upon a time…
— Sergio Leone

Of all the eccentric European filmmakers that exploded onto the international film scene in the 50s and 60s, few can compete with the bombastic, larger-than-life character of Sergio Leone. Born to a family deeply entrenched in the Italian film industry, his father Roberto Roberti (real name Vincenzo Leone) a famous silent film director, and his mother, actress Edvige Valcarengi, Leone grew up in the Trastavere neighborhood of Rome at a time when cinemas were as common as coffee shops. Obsessed with westerns from a young age, he soon found himself working in the film industry, doing odd jobs here and there, writing and co-writing various sword-and-sandal movies and worked his way up until he finally found a way to take a swing at directing with The Colossus of Rhodes.

Europe’s film industry was already booming in the 60s, but Leone had little interest in the kind of quirky, eccentric little films Godard, Truffaut and Fellini were putting out. He wanted it big! Explosive! Every frame tinged with excitement and action. Tough guys, mexican standoffs and the dusty, untamed west he had grown up with. Leone lived and breathed westerns, quoting and playacting entire scenes (in broken english) at the drop of a hat, and idolizing his favorite directors, John Ford and Sam Peckinpah, icons from his beloved America. But what had once been the greatest genre of them all, had by 1964 when the first of Leone’s five westerns was released, largely exhausted its tropes and mythology, and the audience had moved on.

Then A Fistful of Dollars was released.

It was a smash hit, earning more money than any other Italian film up until that point, and sweeping across the lands in ways that Star Wars would echo over a decade later. This was exciting cinema; unrelenting in its desire to deliver the kind of spectacle that Leone had always dreamed of. A kind of compressed, heightened version of the movies he grew up with, packed from start to finish with influences, homages and downright ripoffs of other westerns. Bosley Crowther in his New York Times review called it an “egregiously synthetic but engrossingly morbid, violent film,” and Christopher Frayling famously stated that they where like “opera in which the arias aren’t sung. They’re stared.”

Made for a pittance, and shot fast and dirty (and dubbed in much the same manner), it was the starting shot for a new sub-genre that would encompass hundreds of films and influence directors well into today, including as we shall see shortly, Lucas. This new type of western would soon come to be known as horse operas, or the more well known moniker: spaghetti westerns. As with the space opera term, it was initially meant as derogatory towards the melodrama aspects of the genre, but as the genre exploded in popularity, the people working in it, with Leone himself leading the charge to outshine his contemporaries, would become more and more inventive within its genre constraints, culminating in his final western opus, Once Upon a Time in the West.

A few years earlier, Leone had seen Akira Kurosawa’s latest film about a masterless samurai who wanders into a city split in two by warring clans, Yojimbo, and liked it so much that he took it, story, plot and characters, for his own movie. It was the far east, transposed into the wild west through a European viewpoint. Perhaps surprisingly, this wasn’t the first time Kurosawa had seen a film of his translated from medieval Japan to the American west of the 1800s. His 1954 samurai epic, perhaps the most successful film of his career, Seven Samurai (1954), about a rag-tag group of ronin who come together to protect a village of farmers from bandits, had been remade in 1960 as The Magnificent Seven, a film which garnered great success and spawned two sequels and a TV series. Leone undoubtedly knew all of this, as his first draft of what would become A Fistful of Dollars, was titled The Magnificent Stranger.

After Fistful was released and made the rounds, Leone even received a letter from Kurosawa himself, in which he congratulated him on the film, which he had enjoyed very much. Unfortunately, he said, it was his film. Leone did everything between pleading ignorance, claiming that he had adapted it from a friend’s play, and counter-attacking Kurosawa by pointing out that Yojimbo itself was an adaptation from Dashiell Hammett’s first novel, the 1929 crime story Red Harvest. Now this is where the rabbit hole deepens. First of all, even amongst Kurosawa scholars there is still some contention as to whether or not this is actually true. Kurosawa himself said that he was inspired by 1942 film The Glass Key (based as it happens on another Hammett novel), and there is some evidence to suggest that that indeed could be the case. And while there are similarities between Red Harvest and Yojimbo, they are not nearly as significant as they’re often made out to be.

Allen Barra digs a bit deeper in his 2005 piece celebratory piece for Red Harvest

Several film critics over the years, beginning with Andrew Sarris, saw the parallels between the great American gangster novel and the great samurai film classic. Manny Farber stated flatly that “Yojimbo” was “a version of ‘Red Harvest’ — a bowdlerized version.” Not everyone was so sure. Donald Richie, perhaps the leading scholar on Kurosawa’s work, said in a 1996 interview, “I think the similarity in themes is just coincidence. Kurosawa has always acknowledged his sources.” Kurosawa was a reader of American crime fiction; his 1960 film “Warui yatsu hodo yoku nemuru,” or “The Bad Sleep Well,” was adapted from an Ed McBain novel. But some feel Kurosawa was not so open in acknowledging his sources; his 1949 film “The Quiet Duel” owes much to Tolstoy’s “The Death of Ivan Ilych.” David Desser, another Kurosawa scholar, in his book “The Samurai Films of Akira Kurosawa,” states categorically that “Yojimbo is an adaptation of Dashiell Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’” and “the basic situation that motivates the plot in Yojimbo is adapted from Hammett’s ‘Red Harvest’.”

Martin Scorsese, whose encyclopedic film knowledge is nothing to sneeze at, thinks that in reality it was based off of Buchanan Rides Alone (1958) (and that Leone’s inspiration was the 1743 play Servant of Two Masters)[p201, 1]. Whatever the case, Leone eventually relented, and Kurosawa won the distribution rights of Fistful in Japan, and it is rumored, made more money from that, than he ever did from Yojimbo.

Almost humorously, many of the films released in the wake of the spaghetti western fever, the likes of Django and The Mercenary, often by friends of Leone, were themselves derived very much from the Fistful template of the mysterious, fast-on-the-trigger stranger caught between warring factions, complete with twists on the bells and whistles that made Fistful so memorable. And to Leone’s credit, he never turned around and pointed fingers at them; rather he worked even harder to make his next film so much bigger, deeper and more extravagant.

Red Harvest may or may not have influenced Yojimbo. It almost certainly didn’t influence Fistful though; Leone probably picked up the Red Harvest/Yojimbo connection from somewhere else, as he was won’t to do (in interviews he would often namedrop swanky books that his friends were reading, in an effort to perhaps compensate for his guilty love of pulp cinema, and to live up to the image the European film journalists were painting of him). Yojimbo would over the years turn out to provide an exceptionally solid foundation for retellings, having been remade in the Roger Corman-produced fantasy film The Warrior and the Sorceress (1984), Mad Max Beyond the Thunderdome (1985) as well as the prohibition era Last Man Standing(1996), bringing it almost full circle, Lucky Number Slevin (2006), Sukiyaki Western Django (2007) and probably several others.

And bringing it back home in a sense, in the early 80s when LucasFilm went into production on the high profile film that would eventually be named Return of the Jedi, it was disguised on hats, t-shirts and signs throughout production as Blue Harvest: Horror Beyond Imagination.

Leone loved America, and it was the subject of most of his films. But he loved not only the mythological west; the country’s entire creation fascinated him. “It is a great shame if ‘America’ is always to be left to the Americans,”[p24, 2] he said, and went on to in many ways redefine American mythology, through his films.

It was a love borne out of the hundreds of westerns he had watched and re-watched, growing up in Trastevere. Westerns he would return to for ideas, scenes, aesthetics and characters for his own films. His extensive reuse of bits and pieces from existing westerns earned him the accolade of the first post-modernist director’ from the french philosopher Jean Beaudrillard[p492, 2], “the first to understand the hall of mirrors within the contemporary ’culture of quotations’”.

The success of Fistful of Dollars in 1964 was followed by For a Few Dollars More in 1965, and rounding off the trilogy of films in 1966, The Good, The Bad and the Ugly, far and away the most ambitious of the trilogy, and a roaring audience success. It initially fared less well with the critics, but has since seen wide recognition as something of a masterpiece, including a tip of the hat from Quentin Tarantino who called it ‘the best directed film of all time’.

Unsurprisingly, since Tarantino himself of course in many ways is a direct product of Leone’s mix-n-match creative direction, pulling entire scenes, characters, actors and whatever else on hand into his films, across genres and time periods, creating in some instances a kind of genre collage that is really quite similar to what Lucas did with Star Wars, only considerably more self-conscious. Whether this is something Tarantino picked up from watching Leone films, or simply a result of his own devout love of film across a wide spectrum of genres, is hard to say. But it’s not unreasonable to guess that it probably had a good deal to say, and that much of the collage-like style Lucas brought to Star Wars probably also has its genesis in Leone’s films. Consider after all that not only was the dollars trilogy released in the US in rapid succession in 1967 — then as The Man With No Name Trilogy, a moniker invented by the american marketing department, Eastwood’s character not only had a name in the original films, he had a new one in each, Joe, Manco and Blondi — and this just as Lucas and his compatriots were at film school, and deeply engrossed in European films. Followed in 1968 by what is often thought of as the best film in Leone’s oeuvre, Once Upon a Time in the West. Christopher Frayling lays it out:

This can be seen as the first truly postmodernist movie, made by a cinéaste for cinéastes. It begins with High Noon and The Iron Horse, and moves on to ShanePursued and The Searchers. The characters in the early sequences include John Ford’s statuesque black actor Woody Strode, the wall-eyed heavy of countless 1950s Westerns, Jack Elam, and a man playing a harmonica - like Silent Tongue in Run of the Arrow or, as Leone put it, ‘Bronson’s harmonica is also Johnny’s guitar’. Once Henry Fonda has appeared on the scene - ’the glacial Fonda in my film is the legitimate son of the intuition which John Ford brought to Ford Apache’ - and Jill has taken her buggy-ride through Monument Valley, the middle sequences refer to Winchester ’73 (the trading post), Shane again (the funeral), Johnny Guitar (the wooden model of the railroad), and Warlock (Cheyenne’s search for a mother). The character of crippled railroad baron Mr Morton is derived from a succession of wheelchair-confined patriarchs who try to run their landholdings with a rod of iron in 1940s and 1950s Westerns. The debate about business and gunplay nods in the direction of The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance, while Jill’s preparation for her role as water-bearer resembles the equivalent scene in Man Without a Star, the auction refers to Liberty Valance and Frank’s cautious walk down the Flagstone street recalls Rio Bravo. Mr Morton’s death is from Western Union, Cheyenne’s conversation about Jill being patted on the behind is from Jubal, Harmonica whittling on a piece of wood is from The Magnificent Seven and the final duel is edited just like the last reel of The Last Sunset. The ending comes from the ‘end of track’ in John Ford’s The Iron Horse. All in all, there were about thirty references to other Hollywood Westerns - confirmed by at least one of the participants in the pre-production meetings. [p266, 2]

Once Upon a Time was again met with resistance from the critics, most of whom found the film long-winded, too self-conscious and at times overly sadistic in its reversals of Hollywood stables. The up and coming generation of filmmakers, Lucas’s peers, however saw it differently. Here was a film that turn the world on its head, confronted the conventional American mythology, and blew it away. John Boorman, director of Deliverance and Excalibur (and Zardoz) said:

“Sergio Leone’s westerns revitalized the form because he consciously reverted to mythic stories, making the texture and detail real, but ruthlessly shearing away the recent accretions of the ‘real’ West and its psychological motivations. Unfortunately this was not understood in Hollywood… In Once Upon a Time in the West, the Western reaches its apotheosis. Leone’s title is a declaration of intent and also his gift to America of its lost fairy stories. This is the kind of masterpiece that can occur outside trends and fashion. Is is both the greatest and the last Western.”[p22–23, 3]

That notion, that it was the greatest and the last western, because it so dissected and decimated the genre; like an explosion blasting the life out of a fire, leaving no ground left for the rest of the spaghetti westerns to cling to, arguably holds even today. Wim Wenders noted in 1969, that “This one is the very end, the end of a craft”[p300, 2]. The Western had one great, brief renaissance, and has gone to grounds and rarely rears its head in any noticeable manner. A kind of role reversal happened when Star Wars came out, when it so dominated the box office and the pop culture image of the time, that it almost instantaneously derailed the revolutionary New Hollywood movement and its personal films, and put the studio system back on track, where it has remained ever since.

Leone brought the Western back from the dead, and then killed the genre; Lucas helped birth New Hollywood, and then killed it.

Meanwhile, if anyone helped Once Upon a Time in the West make out at the box office, it was the student population. It was after all in a sense a film student’s wet dream. At once a sweeping, yet intellectual fairytale, it was also a cinematographic marvel, brimming with great performances and an impeccable attention to detail in everything from set and costume design to the soundtrack, which was at once experimental, yet harking back to the Western roots. And on top of that, it was packed with film references and reversals, recalling the cinema of Leone's youth, in the same way that the films of Lucas, De Palma, Coppola, Scorsese, Spielberg and the rest of the brat pack would go on to do in the years following.

His cinema was also one of nostalgia, of taking films that he had seen, and the whole genre of the western, and reliving it, but transforming it in the process. Scorsese recalls: "And I remember him telling me - well, he said this a number of times - he used to say that the title should really have been There Was Once a Certain Type of Cinema rather than Once Upon a Time in America.” [p205, 1]

Only circumstantial evidence is available to support the argument that Leone’s westerns, Once Upon a Time in the West in particular, inspired the movie brats to approach their works in much the same manner as he had done — with Lucas at the forefront of course, but given the timing and the adoption of this post-modernist approach to film making, it seems not only possible, but most plausible. Aside from the evidence directly related to Star Wars, which we will come to shortly, it’s worth noting that John Milius for instance on several occasions has included Leone in his list of most influential directors (and has appeared on various releases, talking about Leone and his work). He was even slated to write Once Upon a Time in America for Leone, who had been impressed by his 1973 film Dillinger:

[Leone:] “He came to pick us up, to drive us to dinner at his place. We travelled in his open car. As we approached his house, I heard the music from all my films playing in the sky. He had put powerful loudspeakers around his house which overlooked the hill. The sound echoed everywhere.” … Milius enthused about his years at the University of Southern California film school, where he, and classmates like George Lucas, ‘took apart all Leone’s films, shot by shot’. Then, the summit of Milius’s ambition had been to spend his life writing and directing ‘B’ Westerns. The generation of film-makers soon to be dubbed ‘the movie brats’ (Milius, Lucas, Spielberg, Coppola, Carpenter and Scorsese) had all admired Leone’s Westerns, and they shared his admiration for old masters, and his disappointment with the seeming inability of contemporary Hollywood to create magic as it used to. … [They] identified with his use of film language and his unfashionably firm belief in the possibilities of cinema. … They chatted about Ford and Kurosawa (Milius’s favorite directors).[p398, 2]

Leone tried for several years to get the rights for the book The Hoods, which formed the basis of his story for Once Upon a Time in America, and during that time formed quite a friendship with Milius, but ultimately the timing never clicked.

Another of the movie brats who ended up a great proponent of Leone’s was Martin Scorsese, about whom Leone would later tell Cahiers du Cinema, “I’m good friends with him. He said he sees Once Upon A Time In The West once per week”[4]. Initially however, Scorsese was turned off by Leone’s slow pace and differences from the traditional Westerns, and it took him into the early 70s to rediscover the films on TV.

“There’s no doubt that Once Upon a Time in the West influenced the 1970s generation of filmmakers — Spielberg, Lucas, Milius, particularly John Carpenter with Assault on Precinct 13 — but speaking for myself, I relate most to the playing out of the choreography of the shots synchronized to the music, and the time he took to play up certain moments — the intercutting back and forth between a face and a fly, and the hat and the water dripping on the hat, and all these images in the precredits sequence on Once Upon a Time in the West. And the extraordinary shootout at the end — between Henry Fonda and Charles Bronson — the choreography of the camera as they circle each other. This became something that found its way into Raging Bulland Color of Money and pictures like that — there’s no doubt about it.”[p203, 1]

Lucas himself never mentioned Leone in particular, but it stands to reason that as Scorsese, who was and is a friend of Lucas’s, says, he hugely influenced him. Where the cinéaste European filmmakers of the 50s drew on generalizations and a few specific references here and there, after Leone, the cinéaste film students became even more aware of cinema as a language of its own, and above all, as we shall see many cases of later, Lucas was his perhaps greatest student. 

This course change wasn’t lost on the critics and film enthusiasts of the time, as Roger Copeland wrote for The New York Times in When Films ‘Quote’ Films, They Create A New Mythology, on September 25th, 1977:

What happens when the movie maven—the sort of buff who was nursed on old films rather than mother’s milk—becomes a movie-maker? The result is often a film about other films, a film which doesn’t deal directly with ‘the world.’ But rather gives us a world ‘mediated’ through other movies. Consider for example, George Lucas’s ‘Star Wars’—a film that makes so many references to earlier films and styles of filmmaking that it could just as easily—and perhaps more accurately—have been called ‘genre wars’.

Copeland runs through a few examples, The Searchers, WWII flying pictures, CasablancaThe Wizard of Oz and Forbidden Planet, before landing on a salient point:

Note, too, that unlike most science-fiction films which are set in the future or the present, “Star Wars” opens with a series of printed titles telling us that the film takes place “a long time ago, in a galaxy far, far away.” Could that far-away galaxy Lucas dreams of really be another name for old Hollywood?

Could part of it be a film, the title of which too started with the fairytale-like Once Upon a Time…?

Peter Bogdanovich (TargetsThe Last Picture Show), who was brought over by Leone to work on Duck, You Sucker! was less enthused, both by Leone as a person, as well as the direction he felt film making had taken:

I’m not a big Leone fan, although I think he’s a very good director. I think … he’s as big a jerk-off as Spielberg or Lucas or any of them — all of whom are simply making movies they grew up with, over again.

Continuing about Once Upon a Time in the West:

That’s the one I really didn’t like at all … I just hate “references” like that … it’s completely arid. It’s like critics talking to each other. And the film buffs don’t make much of an audience.[p321, 2]

Despite Bogdanovich’s scorching remarks, Leone’s cinema has far outlived its creator, with Once Upon a Time in the West often listed in amongst the best films of all time. Whether this is a result of an increasingly cinéaste audience, willing and capable of facing the film at its level — after all, in the years since, beyond Lucas, Tarantino has adopted this approach to a large degree — or if its simply a matter of the genre and the film over time having become almost household in the same manner as so many once ‘outrageous’ films, who’s to tell? What holds true for Once Upon a Time in the West to this day, is that it remains a work of a master at the top of his particular game — the Italian western — and at his most fluent in the language of Western cinema. It’s a sensitive balance, easily skewed, or as Umberto Eco so eloquently put it, “Two cliches make us laugh. A hundred cliches move us. For we sense dimly that the cliches are talking among themselves, and celebrating a reunion.”[5]

It’s generally recognized that Leone was something of a gasbag, and that as his reputation as an intellectual filmmaker grew — thanks to high falutin’ articles in trendsetting magazines such as the french film magazine Cahiers du Cinema — so did his ego and his stories. But while he would go on to take credit for many things that were patently untrue, and many which were certainly embellished, he did from the outset treat them as fairytales set in the mythological west as portrayed by Ford and his followers. And as such, they stand out as some of the first films deliberately portraying their subject matter in this manner, with archetypes in characters, settings and situations. It exchanges psychological realism and to some extent historical or geographical accuracy for its archetypical portrayal of, for instance, vengeance at the hands of the single-minded survivor, bounty hunter or bad guy. Or three men’s hunt for a golden treasure in a land torn apart by civil war.

“A major part of Leone as far as I was concerned was his interest in mythology, in the old myths. Even before he completed The Last Days of Pompeii, the 1959 film, or made The Colossus of Rhodes, he had worked as an assistant director on a number of American epics in Rome, and he said that his ultimate inspiration was Homer. And he transferred his interest in myth to his interest in America; I think he was interested in myth, and interested in the myth of America. For him, as for a lot of us actually, American history was history told by John Ford or D.W. Griffith. And their films, for him, were like textbooks of American history. Leone possible saw the recurrence of classical mythology in John Ford’s films.”[p204, 1]

Again, much like the use of ‘A long time ago’ versus ‘once upon a time’, Lucas’s initial use of mythology and fairytales was arguably as much, if not more, anchored in cinema than it was in Joseph Campbell and The Golden Bough. A casual glance around the Mos Eisley cantina alone reveals references to movies as diverse as CasablancaYojimboThe Good, The Bad and The UglyHigh Noon and The Magnificent Seven. It’s a hive of scum and villainy, imported from around the world, and throughout history. A melting pot of cinema’s greatest, a place which, not unlike Rick’s, is home to every cliché ever to pass through the lens, and then some. Compressed and layered like this, as Umberto Eco observed, they go from being cliché or even parody, to resonating with each other, and in turn creating something new. Something interesting.

The cantina, while largely a Casablanca setting, nonetheless brings to mind the posada where Cheyenne first encounters Harmonica, a dangerous place for dangerous people, or indeed one of several of Leone’s production designer Giancarlo Simi’s distinct interiors. Han Solo by the way, in his iconic black west and white shirt, with his low hanging belt, gun at the ready, is also the spitting image of Gary Cooper’s Frank from High Noon (a character referenced as Frank in Once Upon a Time in the West).

When Han is cornered by the unsympathetic Greedo, it echoes strongly of Tuco cornered in his bath in the bombed out city, by the crippled gunman seeking his vengeance. And just as Tuco teaches him a lesson about shooting instead of talking (“If you’re gonna shoot, shoot, don’t talk”), so does Han — depending on which version you happen to be watching. A scene similar to the one in which Tuco defends his naked self, sees Angel Eyes, The Ugly, kill a family in cold blood. The Italian west was a violent one. And here also is a point to be made about the grittiness of particularly the first Star Wars film, in relation to the kinds of films Lucas had drawn his inspiration from. Many of the samurai films, the likes of Yojimbo, in which dogs are running around with hands, and arms are leisurely chopped off, were violent. The Italian westerns certainly didn’t hold back on the squibs and the ever-present settling of accounts either. These were violent films, and their influence on Star Wars was considerable. In the cantina a guy first loses his arm (originally he was meant to lose his head as well, as behind the scenes photos show), and then a few minutes later a guy is shot dead across the room, not to mention Darth Vader who strangles a rebel and discards his body like a rag-doll. Spend a day in this place and the bodies start piling up. In later films, Lucas would dial down the violence, and switch the tone from the violent jidai-geki and Italian westerns to something more akin to cartoons and comic books (with the exception of Revenge of the Sith, which overcompensates the opposite way).

And on a more overall level, it seems likely that the ‘used world’-look of Star Wars, which so defines it in relation to the science fiction films of previous decades, could also have come out of Leone’s west. There everything was dirty, dusty, torn, broken, bloody and beaten up. In Leone’s extreme closeups the stubble, cuts, grime and sweat stood in stark contrast to the often clean-cut, freshly washed, water-combed white shirts of the traditional Hollywood Western. Similarly in Star Wars, what would in previous sci-fi films have been presented as shiny and new was in Lucas’s world beat up and mangled. 3PO’s leg is mis-colored and the Falcon is referred to by Leia as a bucket of bolts. It’s a style that could easily have come out of the Western genre — it noteworthily wasn’t present to any large extent in most of the concept artwork, which owed more to 2001than Leone — and since Leone’s were the most dirty and banged up worlds, it seems even more likely that they in particular were the source of inspiration for that particular look.

When Lucas was putting together Star Wars II, he followed up the Greedo encounter by having the empire sick a band of bounty hunters on the rebels. The vilest of which of course being the taciturn Boba Fett, was modeled off of Clint Eastwood’s The Man With No Name, down to the poncho.

Morricone, who was arguably as integral to spaghetti westerns as Leone was, also made use of leitmotifs — that is recurring music cues that are symbolic of pieces of the story, be it characters, places or anything else — something John Williams brought to Star Wars in a big way. In february of 1982, during the shooting of Return of the Jedi at Elstree Studios in England, Leone visited Lucas on set, later telling Christopher Frayling that “George Lucas has told me how he kept referring to the music and the images of Once Upon a Time in the West when he cut Star Wars, which was really a western — series B — set in space.” [p490, 2].

As Leone grew in popularity and his films caught on with the public, Frayling writes: “The critics wanted to believe in ‘Leone’ as a single, all-encompassing intelligence, and so he began to become that mythical person.”[p301, 2] Something that in many ways could be said for George Lucas as well. When Star Wars first came out, Lucas talked mostly of his intention of it being a fun thrill ride for kids. But as history and theology scholars and even child psychologists like Bruno Bettelheim began praising the film as a shining example to follow for their respective causes, Lucas quickly shifted his angle, and played up the academic aspects of it; irregardless of whether they were intentional.

Lucas, much as Leone, and indeed the whole of the New Hollywood movement quickly learned that there was a lot of value in promoting themselves as auteurs, and it was a lesson Lucas mastered particularly well.

Some time in the wake of Star Wars, when asked by Cahiers du Cinema if he was interested in science fiction films, Leone remarked “As a spectator, a little, as director, no. I do not like things that I do not dominate, and having to wait for images constructed by a bunch of people.”[4]. He grew up as a manic reader of Alex Raymond’s Flash Gordon comicstrip, helping cultivate his love of America from an early age. And at some point during his so-called ‘wilderness years’, probably in the wake of Star Wars, he was even offered to direct it.

[There was] an offer from De Laurentiis to direct Flash Gordon (‘I turned it down when I discovered that the project had nothing to do with Alex Raymond’s original drawings’).[p377, 2]

Sergio Leone’s Flash Gordon. Now there’s a what-if.

  1. Once Upon a Time in Italy, by Christopher Frayling. Harry N. Abrams, Inc., Publishers in association with the Autry National Center. 2005.

  2. Sergio Leone: Something to Do with Death. Christopher Frayling. University of Minnesota Press; Reprint edition (January 26, 2012).

  3. Money Into Light — A Diary. John Boorman. Faber and Faber, London, 1985).

  4. Leone interviewed on April 13th, 1984 by Michael Chion, Serge Le Peron and Serge Toubiana. Published in Cahiers du Cinema number 359, May 1984.

  5. Casablanca, or, The Clichés Are Having a Ball. Umberto Eco. Printed in Signs of Life in the U.S.A.: Readings on Popular Culture for Writers*, Sonia Maasik and Jack Solomon, eds. (Boston: Bedford Books, 1994) p260 - 264. Available online



Michael Heilemann

A Tale of Two Pods

Michael Heilemann