This was the first time that Sergio Leone and composer Ennio Morricone worked together. Initially Leone was not keen on using Morricone for this film. Lacerenza's initial trumpet performance of the score made Leone quickly set aside any reservations. Leone and Morricone, who had known each other since 3rd grade, would develop a close working relationship that would last through all of Leone's future films.
This has been described as the first "spaghetti western", but when this film was made, there had already been about 25 such westerns produced in Italy. This was, however, the first to receive a major international release.
Originally called "The Magnificent Stranger", the title wasn't changed to "A Fistful of Dollars" until almost three days before the movie premiered in theaters. In fact, nobody had bothered to inform its main star, Clint Eastwood, of the change, and as a result Eastwood remained virtually unaware of the positive buzz surrounding the movie until an agent pointed it out to him in a Variety Magazine article three weeks later.
According to "Once Upon a Time in the Italian West" by Howard Hughes, Leone spotted a tree, while on location, that he thought would be perfect for the hanging tree at the beginning of the film, so the tree was dug up and relocated.
Clint Eastwood helped in creating his character's distinctive visual style. He bought the black jeans from a sport shop on Hollywood Boulevard, the hat came from a Santa Monica wardrobe firm and the trademark black cigars came from a Beverly Hills store. Eastwood himself cut the cigars into three pieces to make them shorter. Eastwood himself is a non-smoker.
Because this was an Italian/West German/Spanish co-production, there was a significant language barrier on the set. Clint Eastwood communicated with Sergio Leone and the Italian crew mostly through stuntman Benito Stefanelli, who also acted as an unofficial interpreter for the production.
When the film made its U.S. network television debut on "The ABC Sunday Night Movie" in February 1975, a new prologue was added in which an unidentified lawman or politician (played by Harry Dean Stanton) orders "Joe" to get rid of the gangs of San Miguel in return for a pardon. Neither Eastwood nor Leone were involved in the shooting of this additional footage. A double with his face hidden and stock footage of Eastwood were used. Monte Hellman directed the new footage. This prologue is now available on the Special Edition released in 2005.
The theme song was originally composed by Ennio Morricone as a lullaby. Sergio Leone insisted that he wanted the "deguello" trumpet dirge - played by Mexican troops before a battle to signify to the enemy that there will be no quarter given - that was used in Rio Bravo, believing it was a "public domain" piece. Finally, he settled for a "Mexican trumpet" arrangement of the original Morricone piece.
A remake of Yojimbo, which itself was based on the as yet unadapted 1929 novel "Red Harvest" by Dashiell Hammett. In fact, the film's US release was delayed when "Yojimbo" screenwriters Akira Kurosawa and Ryûzô Kikushima sued the filmmakers for breach of copyright. Kurosawa and Kikushima won, and as a result received 15% of the film's worldwide gross and exclusive distribution rights for Japan, Taiwan and South Korea. Kurosawa said later he made more money off of this project than he did on Yojimbo.
After considering Henry Fonda, director Sergio Leone offered the role of the Man With No Name to James Coburn, who proved too expensive. Charles Bronson then turned it down after describing it as the "worst script I have ever seen". Third choice Richard Harrison also declined the role but pointed Leone in the direction of Rawhide. Leone then offered the part to "Rawhide" star Eric Fleming, who turned it down but suggested his co-star Clint Eastwood for the part. The rest, as they say, is history.
Prior to this picture, in American films, whenever a person was shot, one camera was focused on the shooter, who fired his weapon, and a split second later, the director quickly cut to the victim who could be seen being hit and falling to the ground or whatever. Clint Eastwood knew this had always been the way such scenes were shot in the States, but didn't bother to tell Sergio Leone. Leone shot the first scene involving any kind of major violence in this picture, with the camera shooting from over Eastwood's shoulder, as though the viewer was right there watching.
When Clint Eastwood arrived on the set, he was struck by how little the Italian crew and writers knew about the American West they were filming about. For example, he had to point out that coonskin caps were worn by frontiersmen and trappers in the Davy Crockett era, circa the 1820s, not by gunfighters and townsmen in the American West and Mexico of the 1870s, as the scriptwriters had written.
'Gian Maria Volonte' reportedly did not get along with 'Sergio Leone', who found Volonte's theatrical acting style and arrogant on-set manner tiresome. Volonte tried to become friendly with Clint Eastwood, but the language barrier and political differences (Eastwood was a conservative Republican, while Volonte was a committed leftist) prevented their striking up a rapport.
The trivia item below may give away important plot points.
Mario Brega appears in all 3 of the Dollars Trilogy movies, and in all 3 movies, his character meets an unfortunate demise. In this movie, his character of Chico is crushed by a runaway large barrel pushed by Joe (Clint Eastwood). This is the only movie in the Dollars Trilogy where Eastwood's character was directly involved with Brega's character's demise.