By Maurizio Colombo
SERGIO BONELLI AND I MET IN A MOVIE THEATER, THANKS TO A MUTUAL FRIEND, STEFANO MARZORATI. The film we saw was Wes Craven’s The Serpent and the Rainbow (1988), adapted from the book of an anthropologist, Wade Davis, who gave scientific answers to some of the wonders of voodoo, and especially about the zombification of human beings. We liked it a lot, especially for some almost documentary-like scenes about “magic” ceremonies, that Bonelli, a true expert in the matter, respected for their verisimilitude.
Since that time, between Sergio and I began a friendly and professional connection that took me to write reviews and features for Collana Almanacchi, as well as scripts and plots for many comic series (his Mister No and Zagor included). Every time we met in the corridors of the publishing house, the topic of our conversation was always the same: cinema and its genres.
Movie poster for "The Serpent and the Rainbow".
Above all, when he was just coming back from one of his trips in England or France, Sergio would maliciously enjoy talking to me about movies that still hadn’t premiered in our Country, provoking my envy and my embarrassment since I wasn’t able to take an active part to the conversation.
WHAT KIND OV VIEWER WAS BONELLI, THEN? AN OMNIVOROUS CINEPHILE, THE WORST (OR BEST) SORT OF THE FILM “DEVOURERS”, WITH AN UNCANNY VISUAL MEMORY. His taste spanned all the genres, with a partiality for the Western and adventurous war movies. Even before they were rediscovered as “Authors” by the French critics, Sergio loved some of the Hollywood directors that at the time were considered second-rate filmmakers.
The names? Well, I’m talking about unappreciated geniuses like Samuel Fuller (the director of the pacifist western Run of the Arrow, the war movie without heroism The Steel Helmet, and the spy-hard boiled Pickup on South Street), André De Toth (Springfield Rifle and The Indian Fighter, two excellent Western movies, respectively interpreted by two of Sergio’s “icons”, Gary Cooper and Kirk Douglas), Budd Boetticher (with his unforgettable “revenge” movies, starring Randolph Scott).
Movie poster for "Springfield Rifle".
Bonelli’s early years were nourished, along with his deep and irreplaceable love of comics (that he used to call "the poor man’s cinema"), by endless visits to the dark seats of first-, second- and even third-run cinemas, the so-called "pidocchietti" (flea theaters). During a large part of the 1940s and all of the 1950s, in a big city like Milan, you could find a movie theater on every corner. And every week you could choose from at least a half-dozen new movies of every kind of genres, representing the best of the huge Hollywood production—a real way of daydreaming, that fed the imagination of the comics’ writer-to-be. In the pages of this section, we’ll try to offer you a small guide to the Bonellian cinema, even though we’ll miss some title, for sure.
"WHAT ARE YOUR FAVORITE MOVIES?": THAT’S THE QUESTION YOU DON’T WANT TO ASK, TALKING WITH A FULL-BLOODED CINEPHILE. The risk, for the afore-mentioned film buff is to share with you a title list that, at the moment, appears to be perfectly apt to answer that question; then, in a matter of seconds, they will unfailingly regret forgetting one movie or another, and they will curse themselves for failing to think of it.
In one of his columns, after a reader asked him to name his five favorite American Western-themed movies and books, Sergio Bonelli returned this verdict: 3:10 to Yuma (1957, Delmer Daves), Red River (1948, Howard Hawks), Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid (1973, Sam Peckinpah), Ulzana's Raid (1972, Robert Aldrich), The Searchers (1956, John Ford). We’ll also mention some of the books that Sergio prized, since the majority of them had a first class filmic adaptation: Shane by Jack Schaefer (George Stevens took it to the silver screen in 1953, with the same title), Hondo by Louis L'Amour (one of John Wayne’s best performances, in the movie directed in 1953 by John Farrow and John Ford, though the latter wasn’t in the credits), Northwest Passage by Kenneth Roberts (adapted in 1940 into a movie with the same name by King Vidor).
Movie poster for "Ulzana's Raid".
This choice immediately strikes us for the lacking of movies centered around an “all-around” tough guy, favoring instead characters full of doubts and contradictions, forced by the events to don the garments of the reluctant hero. In 3:10 to Yuma, Glenn Ford is a poor farmer that, to feed his family, accepts to escort a dangerous criminal to the Yuma Jail; Red River and The Searchers star John Wayne in two negative roles (in the first one, “The Duke” is a head cowhand ready to trample on everyone, just to take his cattle to its destination; in the second movie, he’s an inveterate, Indian-killing racist).
THE SERIES OF THE BONELLIAN ANTI-HEROES GOES ON WITH ULZANA'S RAID, WHERE BURT LANCASTER IS AN OLD SCOUT who unwillingly joins the military expedition trying to catch an untouchable rebel Apache chief; while in Pat Garrett & Billy the Kid, the two legendary heroes are forced to clash in the name of the upcoming progress, though they’d like to stay friends forever. Shane and Hondo, respectively played by Alan Ladd and John Wayne, are lonely riders with no past and no roots, led by the events to handle a gun to protect some defenseless settlers (a family the first, a widow and her son the latter); this way, though, they lose any right to a family life of their own and, in the end, they’re forced to leave without turning back.
No wonder, then, after the sample of “heroes with problems” we saw here, that Sergio Bonelli created a true, full-blooded anti-hero, Mister No, a likable scoundrel with a penchant for idleness and the bottle, who is reluctantly dragged in some incredible adventures.
But what surprised me about Sergio, besides his beloved American West, was his unrestricted passion for three unconventional movies: Frank Perry’s The Swimmer (1968), that Graziano Frediani talks about in the section about Sergio’s books;
Movie poster for "L'uomo di paglia".
L'uomo di paglia, a rough and ruthless cronicle – directed by Pietro Germi, a great filmmaker, now almost forgotten, in 1958 – of an adultery doomed to a tragic ending, that involves an upright family man, played by Germi himself, and a far younger woman; Save the Tiger (1973) by John G. Avildsen, where we witness the downfall of Harry Stoner (Jack Lemmon), a businessman who sees his company slowly die, swallowed up by his many creditors. In these three films, the main character is a middle-aged man forced to reckon with his life; the result is always an utter failure. Yet another assertion of the love Sergio had for the losers and the defeated.
BEFORE THE END OF THIS CINEMATIC RÉSUMÉ, ALLOW ME TO SHARE ANOTHER MEMORY OF MY FRIENDSHIP WITH SERGIO. In time, I had become his trusted “dealer”, a specialist in recovering unobtainable and rare DVDs. The last one I got for him was Un angelo per Satana, a Gothic-horror directed by Camillo Mastrocinque in 1966, starring our beloved Barbara Steele. He loved it. I also had found three rare titles, good adaptations of Howard Phillips Lovecraft’s tales (The Shattered Room by David Greene, Die, Monster, Die!, with the great Boris Karloff, and The Dunwich Horror, both directed by Daniel Haller). Sadly, I wasn’t able to give the DVDs to Sergio early enough. I still have these movies at home, untouched and wrapped up in their plastic covers. I think I’ll leave them like that.