A lot or a little?
The parents' guide to what's in this movie.
What parents need to know
Parents need to know that this is more violent than many of the Hollywood Westerns that preceded it -- though ones that came after were worse. Lots of men (and one woman) die, even if we don't see bullets leaving exit woods. A little boy is tormented by being fired at (but not hit) by bullies, and the hero suffers an excruciating beating. One character uses a plate of metal under his poncho as an effective bulletproof vest -- a real don't-try-this-at-home detail.
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What's the story?
A FISTFUL OF DOLLARS is set in a grim Mexican border town called San Miguel. Into its dusty streets rides an American who would become known as The Man With No Name (Clint Eastwood). After getting bullied by some gunmen (who also harass a little boy by shooting at him), TMWNN learns from a friendly saloon-keeper that San Miguel makes its money buying guns and ammunition cheaply, then selling it to the Indians up north. Moreover, there are two factions involved, frequently killing each other: the corrupt sheriff/mayor Baxter and his family, and a rival gang led by the Rojo brothers. TMWNN hires on with the Baxter gang, then with the Rojo gang, studying their methods and informing each criminal boss about the other's movements, turning them against each other.
Is it any good?
There's no shortage of violence and guns here. In the 1960s, Italians, Spanish, Germans, and even Israelis started making their own Westerns, sticking to the classic iconography of gun duels, saloons, and desperadoes on horseback, but without the censorship codes of Hollywood. In the case of Italian director Sergio Leone, there was not just an elevated level of violence, but also a then-groundbreaking filmmaking style, with an emphasis on long, tense close-ups of the actors' faces, widescreen camera compositions, and hauntingly unusual music by Ennio Morricone. Westerns had been jokingly called "horse operas" before. Leone made them something close to real opera, and his style was much imitated.
It also helped that Leone was recommended the lean, little-regarded young actor Eastwood to play his recurring unnamed hero (Morricone originally wanted Henry Fonda or James Coburn), triggering another illustrious career. Though he doesn't come across as all that horrible these days, The Man With No Name was so disturbing to American tastes that when A Fistful of Dollars first aired on U.S. television, the studio hastily shot a prologue (with an Eastwood stand-in with his back to the camera) to explain that he's got a higher purpose than profit -- he's really an undercover lawman being sent on a mission to clean up the town, by guile and stealth. That little addition is missing from the home-video release versions of A Fistful of Dollars. Instead there's just a scrap of incidental dialogue to indicate that the gunslinger empathizes deeply with the victims in San Miguel, not the victimizers.
Talk to your kids about ...
Families can talk about why the nameless Clint Eastwood character caused such a ruckus in the 1960s. Is the Man With No Name truly "amoral," as many commentators have called him? What are his motives? Is it a clue when he tells a family he's rescuing that he knew someone who needed help once, when no help came? You can use this movie to get kids interested in the Japanese classic it remakes, Yojimbo.
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