The cowboy movie is one of the oldest and most durable of movie genres. Every Wednesday night on MGM HD, watch “Frontier Features,” a weekly marathon of westerns, selected from the legendary MGM library. The characters are archetypal: forthright lawmen face off against trigger-happy outlaws with guns on rocky outcroppings or with fists in seedy saloons. Trains cut across majestic landscapes and horses trot down dusty main streets. Steeped in American mythology as they are, the western movie has captivated filmmakers from well beyond the United States borders.
This month, along with movies from great American directors like William Wyler, “Big Country,” (1958); John Sturges, “Hour of the Gun” (1967); and Walter Hill “Wild Bill” (1995) are offerings from some of the Italian masters, including the two Sergios: Leone with “A Fistful of Dynamite,” (1972) and Corbucci with “Navajo Joe” (1966).
In the 1960’s, Italian film makers beat a stampede to stories of the wild west. American movie stars like James Coburn, appearing this month in “A Fistful of Dynamite” (aka: “Duck You Sucker) and with Telly Savalas in “A Reason to Live, A Reason To Die,” (1972); Henry Silva, Dan Duryea (both of whom appear in Carlo Lizziano’s “The Hills Run Red” (1967), also showing this month), and Burt Reynolds (“Navajo Joe”) joined these productions to give them some American authenticity – and box office appeal.
For these productions, traveling to the “west” didn’t mean the Arizona desert or Southern California back lots. Instead, the Italians traveled one country over to Spain. The Tabernas Desert in Almería, with its dry climate easily stood in for the American West in countless “Spaghetti Westerns.” As film production descended on Europe’s only desert, sets for frontier towns and US Cavalry forts sprung up all over the landscape. The locations were remote and initially lacked the amenities to which the stars had grown accustomed. Legend has it that when shooting was delayed on “Navajo Joe,” director Sergio Corbucci suggested that Burt Reynolds take a walk. When he returned to set, the crew had already left for town, miles away. Stuck in the middle of nowhere and still in Native American wardrobe, Mr. Reynolds talked his way into spending the night with a family in a nearby village. “Navajo Joe” was Mr. Reynolds only Spaghetti Western. Later, when he starred in this month’s “Sam Whiskey” (1969), with Angie Dickenson and Ossie Davis, they filmed on backlots in Burbank, where home was just a short car ride away.
Today, many of these sets still stand and double as tourist attractions and theme parks. Visitors to Almería, Spain can visit places with names like “Western Leone,” “Oasys, Mini Hollywood,” and “Fort Bravo Texas Hollywood” to relive the cinematic Old West in the middle of the Old World. Visitors to these towns can walk down western streets adorned with signs in English, watch gunfights and stunt shows, and stop in saloons to quench their thirst.
While the characters and settings of the Western are undeniably American in origin, this month’s Frontier Features shows that the “West” can be wherever you find it.
Watch “Frontier Features: MGM Western Marathons” every Wednesday night at 6p Eastern, 3p Pacific on MGM HD.