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Euripides & Sophocles Go to the West:

How Their Work Reflects Une Corde…Un Colt

(A Part of Western Wednesdays)

by Tony Nash

(Warning: Mild spoilers are ahead, so readers may want to familiarize themselves with the basics of the material should they wish)

(Note: This piece goes a little intellectual in a comparison to Ancient Greek literature/plays. Some may find it a little deep, but it should still be enjoyable and fascinating to read)

(All opinions are of the author alone)

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Une Corde, un Colt…(aka Cimitero Senza Croci, The Rope and the Colt, Cemetery Without Crosses) (1968) *****

 Cast:

Michéle Mercier: Maria Caine (as Michele Mercier)

Robert Hossein: Manuel

Guido Lollobrigida: Thomas Caine (as Lee Burton)

Daniele Vargas: Will Rogers (as Daniel Vargas)

Serge Marquand: Larry Rogers

Pierre Hatet: Frank Rogers

Philippe Baronnet: Bud Rogers

Pierre Collet: Sheriff Ben

Michel Lemoine: Eli Caine

Anne-Marie Balin: Diana Rogers

Written by: Robert Hossein, Claude Desailly, & Dario Argento

Directed by: Robert Hossein

Synopsis: When her husband is forced into robbery, then murdered, by the land grabbing Rogers family, widow Maria Caine decides to take revenge on the thuggish father and sons. She seeks the help of her friend and ex-lover Manuel, a gunslinger whose trademark is a black glove on his gun hand. Initially intending to kidnap the Rogers daughter to humiliate the patriarch, things go badly when Maria’s brothers-in-law want in on the scheme.

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The Italian Western sometimes looked to the Bard William Shakespeare and Greek Tragedians like Sophocles, Euripides, and Aeschylus for inspirations. Il Pistolero dell’Ave Maria (The Gunman of Ave Maria/Forgotten Pistolero) was based on Euripides play (with a hint of Aeschylus’s parody version) of Oresteia, Quella Sporca Storia nel West (The Dirtiest Story of the West/Johnny Hamlet) was based on Shakespeare’s classic Tragedy Hamlet, and Il Ritorno di Ringo (The Return of Ringo) was based on the Poet Homer’s The Odyssey. Homer’s original fable of Oresteia served as the starting point for Il Pistolero dell’Ave Maria. These are the primary examples as there’s a far too many to name list of other Italian Westerns took motifs and themes from these famous writers, but not the central story. Granted, not all Italian Westerns took their cues from The Bard or the Greeks, but the few that did stayed true to the context of the originators that gave the films a boost, and allowed characters to come off a bit more dimensioned than the standard.

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Now most people will likely wonder how Greek Tragedy could coincide with the Italian Western, and the answer’s not that complicated. The Greek Tragedy often dealt with characters trying to overcome the greatest of odds and right the wrongs of oppressors or fools, often times paying for these heroics with their own lives, or ruining the lives of those around them; sometimes both instances occur at once. In some stories, characters lose perspective and sometimes become worse than the people who hurt them. The Italian Westerns don’t exactly follow the patterns of the Greeks, but their stories often center on flawed, broken characters looking for revenge, sometimes personal, sometimes for money, and sometimes for something bigger than them that will better entire communities. The hero of the Greeks became the anti-hero of the Italians, individuals who were molded more after disillusioned war veterans, who through their experiences are teetering on losing their humanity, or have become just as cynical, if not more so, than the people they accuse as such. Greek heroes cared about the people and the community, while Italian anti-heroes cared only for themselves in what they viewed as a “dog-eat-dog” world where everyone betrays each other. A glimmer of hope that takes the anti-heroes back to the tradition of the Greeks is that they witness an injustice they just can’t ignore and watch happen, or they meet someone who reignites the fire of the humane they thought died. In the end, both forms come full circle.

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Probably one of the more significant films of the genre that was both overlooked for its beauty and for its use of Greek Tragedy was Robert Hossein’s Une Corde…Un Colt (Cimitero Senza Croci, The Rope and the Colt, Cemetery Without Crosses). Hossein’s film seems to steer primarily toward the work of Sophocles and Euripides, primarily in the case of the characters Maria Caine and Manuel.

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Maria Caine easily harkens back to Sophocles’ Antigone, Euripides’ Medea, and to a lesser extent, Electra. In terms of Antigone, Maria isn’t going to let patriarch Will Rogers of the Rogers clan get away with ruining her husband’s life and reputation, then forcing him into becoming a thief who, in an unusual case of irony in the genre, ends up robbing the Rogers themselves. She knows the Rogers family was the cause of her husband’s demise but the Sheriff of the town is a coward who won’t do a thing, so she must take action herself. She defies social expectations of womanly behavior and hires a professional gunfighter to help in not only avenging her husband, but to put a humiliating dent in the power and prestige of the Rogers, who rule the community with an iron fist. In terms of Medea, it looks as if at times Maria is losing sight of her goal, and is becoming just as tyrannical and ruthless as the Rogers family. She certainly doesn’t go down the grimly dark rabbit hole like Medea, but audiences can’t help but wonder if she’s been hurt too much, or is looking to hurt others too much.

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Her aim isn’t to kill anyone, as Medea does, but outside elements even she couldn’t predict change all of that. Maria also doesn’t lose her mind like Medea does, though it could be argued a little piece of her has died in the process, replaced by something cold and calculating. In terms of Electra, Maria is shown as someone pushed to the brink, a woman harassed and abused to the point she couldn’t take it anymore. Her actions aren’t necessarily the right ones, but both the audience and even some of the other characters can’t really blame her for what she did. It’s only when her greedy brothers-in-law start making trouble that her downfall really ensues. When some more information is revealed about her toward the end, the audience can’t help but think she’ll be tried fairly in the next world. Maria Caine certainly leans more toward Antigone than towards Medea and Electra, but only because she doesn’t go to a point in the story to where she’ll be damned to torment when her time comes. All she ever wanted was justice for her husband and for the town to dethrone the Rogers who had become the Old West equivalent of despots. Like any good Greek Tragedy, outside forces brought about her misfortune and demise, but the audience can sympathize with her still because she never truly veered from her course.

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Manuel is a little harder to pinpoint, mostly because his character traits and personality don’t fully reflect any known character of the Tragedies. He’s certainly not Oedipus, because there’s no forbidden romance or curse to destroy him, though his being a gunfighter with a dark and shady past certainly bears resemblance to it. He’s not Creon either, because he hasn’t declared himself above anyone, nor is he pompous and arrogant. In a way he’s a combination of Sophocles’ Haemon and Tiresias and Euripides’ Jason. Initially in the film, Manuel tries to dissuade Maria from taking revenge on the Rogers clan for he knows only misery can result from it. He even mentions going away together and start all over. When he realizes she can’t be talked out of it, he attempts to formulate a plan that hopefully won’t lead to needless violence and death. As the film progresses, the audience sees what Manuel is willing to look away from in order to help Maria, which shows his callousness. He also shows great compassion which offers a nice juxtaposition and conflict, as he feels uncertain of what he’s doing.

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In the end, when he finally regains his senses, all hope is lost, and he has nothing more to lose. There is a little bit of Oedipus at play as the finale draws near, as the audience sees Manuel is willing to pay the price in order to restore his personal sense of worth, as it seems unlikely his honor can be repaired. When all is said and done, Manuel is a flawed, but unique character that offers nearly all the facets of human behavior, emotion, and character. He is ruthless and gentle, sympathetic and cruel, intelligent and irrational. He’s in constant conflict with himself because he knows the difference between justice and revenge, but the love and affection he had for Maria and her husband make it hard for him not to become involved. When things start to turn ugly, he tries every way to protect Maria, but other forces have different plans. In the end, like any hero, he faces destiny head on, even though it may cost him his life.

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Now all of this certainly isn’t to say that this is what Hossein had in mind when he wrote the script and made the film, but it does offer a unique interpretation of the material. All of this could simply be what some viewers (including this author), and some keen studiers of the Greek Tragedies might see when taking a closer look, but it’s also hard to deny that elements of those classic plays are seen in the film. The majority of the characters could very much be seen in the plays, as the stories are timeless and can work in any era, as they relate, much like Shakespeare, to every subsequent generation who looks at them. The script/story and idea are completely Hossein and his writing partner Claude Desailly’s own creation, with no initial leanings toward any source material. Hossein certainly had Tragedy in mind, but whether he truly intended for it to be a nod to the Greeks or Shakespeare is open to interpretation as films can have many meanings, besides what the screenwriters and director initially aspire them to be. This all open-ended of course, with no real concrete substantiation, but it’s certainly interesting to think about and explore.

All images courtesy of Google.com/Google Images (including DVDTalk.com, BluRay.com, and Mondo-Esoterica.com)

(For those who found this a little intellectual and deep, I apologize if it’s not the usual flair you enjoy. I repeat I don’t claim this to have been Hossein’s intention when he made the film, though I admit there were similarities to Greek Tragedy I couldn’t ignore were there when I first saw the film. This was all a fun exercise in seeing if a parallel could be drawn and I believe I did well with it. It’s not everybody’s cup of tea or taste, but I’m sure a lot of you out there will find/have found something enjoyable with it.)

(I highly recommend the Arrow Video Blu Ray release as well. Sporting a fine transfer and crisp Italian soundtrack with translated English subtitles, it’s an experience viewers won’t forget. It’s Region A & B so either the US or UK release will play fine on any player)

https://www.amazon.com/Cemetery-Without-Crosses-Special-Blu-ray/dp/B00VMFS28E/ref=sr_1_11?ie=UTF8&qid=1533751950&sr=8-11&keywords=arrow+video+western

https://www.amazon.co.uk/Cemetery-Without-Crosses-Format-Blu-ray/dp/B00VKRUKYS/ref=sr_1_7?ie=UTF8&qid=1533752070&sr=8-7&keywords=arrow+video+westerns

(For anyone interested in exploring Euripides and Sophocles, you can Google information on them. If you’d like to check out their plays, here’s some links)

https://www.amazon.com/Sophocles-Complete-Plays-Signet-Classics/dp/0451531531/ref=sr_1_3?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533752585&sr=1-3&keywords=complete+plays+of+sophocles&dpID=51HXVZQAi2L&preST=_SY291_BO1,204,203,200_QL40_&dpSrc=srch

https://www.amazon.com/Dramas-Euripides-Complete-Surviving-Forgotten/dp/1605063398/ref=sr_1_11?s=books&ie=UTF8&qid=1533752634&sr=1-11&keywords=complete+plays+of+Euripides

(There are also several volume series of Euripides’ work for anyone not interested in all the plays)

 

 

 

 

Filed under: Film: Analysis/Overview, Film: Special Topics

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