The railroad yard was a desolate place, and the fact that it seemed to stretch on forever didn’t help. The impression wasn’t improved when the camera shifted sideways, slowly, and a great expanse of desert filled the screen. Well, a kind of desert. The ground was made of leathery skin, the canyons were wrinkles and the mountains had bone under them. But then, turning facial features into topography was one of Sergio Leone’s trademarks.
So what if it was an elephant this time, instead of some sweaty desperado? This was the lost film of a dead master. Even if it wasn’t excellent (and it was), who was going to argue with it?
Granted, nobody could deny the film had been a weird find. The reels had been shoved in the director’s closet somewhere, half-buried under some spare Civil War costumes and discarded food wrappers. Under the dust, the label read “Maria Grande”. Big Mary.
Like the director’s other films, it was American history treated like mythology, operatic and ugly. No cowboys, though, or even gangsters. This time, it was just the people of Erwin, Tennessee and some traveling circus folk.
Oh, and the elephant. The titular Maria Grande.
This was the same Big/Murderous Mary who had stomped a handler to death for reasons unknown and was subsequently hanged from a crane by the town. It took two tries, mind, but this was 1916 and just about anything was possible in America if you worked hard enough.
Maybe that was the appeal to Leone; he’d always had a sort of crooked romantic fancy for America. That could have been part of it. Some notes crumpled in one of the cans mentioned that the inspiration to do the film was “something to do with Ruggero”. That was Ruggero Deodato, whose doomed cannibal film had impressed/horrified Leone in 1980.
So the “why” could be guessed at, but when he shot it was a mystery. It was suspected he’d done it shortly after shooting “Once Upon a Time in America”, as a little side trip before returning home. So maybe “when” wasn’t such a mystery after all. The how was easy enough: the money could have come out of his own pocket. It was a short film, more exercise than epic.
The only question left was where the hell he’d gotten that elephant.