A lone wanderer with hard-won fighting skills drifts into a town. There he finds two factions vying for power and devises a way to play one off of the other while keeping his own skin intact through his wits and his otherworldly prowess with weapons, but few words. Lots of stares and squints, more than a few bullets flying, but very few words.
If that simple plot sounds familiar it’s because it powers three titanic tentpoles in pop culture spanning the last 60 years, right up to the present, and launched one of the most iconic careers in film. It first turned up in Akira Kurosawa’s Yojimbo (1961). Sergio Leone melted it down from Kurosawa and turned the lone samurai into The Man With No Name, who is neither a vintage cowboy nor a classic Western lawman, played by a young TV star named Clint Eastwood.
A Fistful of Dollars (1964) should not have worked, not with that budget (about $200,000), not with a TV actor Hollywood didn’t want (Eastwood), and not by moving the Western epic popularized by the likes of Roy Rogers and John Wayne out of the United States. The film was moved to Italy and Spain for production, where local crews argued over who was paying for what and local actors played townspeople and villains without speaking a word of English. The two actors American audiences would have most recognized, young Eastwood and veteran actor Lee Van Cleef, spoke perhaps the fewest lines of any major movie duo. To top all of that off, Ennio Morricone came up with a spare, flickery, twangy theme that resembled very little of the music that had powered the Western genre to date. It sounded more medieval Japanese with Spanish and Italian notes than any of the grand, sweeping epic themes John Ford or John Wayne used.
The third major pop-culture engine powered by the lone wanderer storyline is The Mandalorian, which knowingly takes more than just that story from Kurosawa, Leone, and Eastwood. It borrows sonic notes from Morricone and the spare-speaking hero from Fistful and its sequels, For a Few Dollars More (1965), and the masterpiece of the trio, The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly (1966). Mando’s nickname even sounds a bit like Manco, the Man With No Name’s stated name in For a Few Dollars More. The Man With No Name actually had three names: Joe (Fistful), Manco (More), and Blondie (Ugly). The latter name makes no sense, given the fact that Eastwood has brown hair.
As noted, none of this should work. There’s no movie magic formula that says it will. Eastwood wasn’t proven bankable talent. The budget for the films was so small he brought his own wardrobe from the TV show that he had been playing on, Rawhide. That’s where his boots came from. He bought the jeans and the hat. The blanket he wore, he seems to have picked up in Spain. Eastwood had one hat on the set of Fistful, which he bought and brought himself. “If I lost that hat,” he told an interviewer years later, “I was a goner.”
The director lacked a track record and had been fired after just one day on a previous film in 1962. Morricone’s soundtrack is haunting but was also a major risk at the time. Who uses a whistler as a key motif for the soundtrack of a dark, violent Western? And they shot the films in Europe despite the Western being the most iconic American film genre of the time, because European crews and actors were cheaper than their American counterparts. The heroless storylines in the Eastwood/Leone trilogy turned the Western epic on its head. Eastwood didn’t speak Italian, and Leone didn’t speak English. Audiences had numerous reasons to reject the films. They also had big, successful Westerns still fresh in their minds: John Wayne had spent millions shooting his Alamo epic in Texas just a few years earlier. Leone spent a lot less filming all three of his films including the epic Civil War battle scene in The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly.