One of my favorite subcategories of Western is the Spaghetti Western. These are films made in the Sixties and Seventies with Italian or European directors and international crews, shot somewhere in Italy or Spain. Spaghetti Westerns feature innovative filming, dark anti-heroes, an overall bleak feel, and plenty of stylized violence – along with memorable, sweeping soundtracks. As you might expect, some of these films don’t hold up today, but a large number of them do. They put the general clichés of the Wild West in a fantasy world, the vision of America that Italians have after they’ve been raised on countless Hollywood Westerns. They’ve influenced Quentin Tarantino’s entire body of work – particularly his latest, Django Unchained, along with countless other films from around the world. I like them because they’ve got an epic feel, even if they were filmed on the cheap, and always add an operatic flourish to tales of dusty gunslingers and revolvers.
Now, I don’t need to tell you to watch Sergio Leone’s Western movies (The Dollars trilogy, Once Upon a Time in The West). Those films, with their amazing cinematography, unbelievable action, sweeping Ennio Morricone scores, and surprisingly complex messages, are undeniable classics. I don’t need to tell you to see Django, either, since it’s probably the next Spaghetti Western that the general public is familiar with. But here’s some Spaghetti Westerns that are more obscure and well worth checking out. They may not quite reach the heights of Leone’s best, but they’re extremely good nonetheless.
Duck, You Sucker AKA A Fistful of Dynamite AKA Once Upon a Time…The Revolution (1971)
This is Sergio Leone, but it’s probably his most obscure film so I’m happy to recommend it here. Duck, You Sucker is part of the sub-subcategory of Spaghetti Westerns called Zapata Westerns – which are usually set during the Mexican Revolution of 1910, featuring a mismatched buddy comedy pairing, and plenty of action, and political themes. Duck, You Sucker tells the story about a former Irish revolutionary, played by James Coburn, and a gregarious bandit with a large family, played like an Uber-Tuco by Rod Steiger, as they try to make their fortune in the Mexican Revolution. Leone experienced Italian fascism and war in his youth, and this movie is doubtlessly a reaction to that. It’s a flawed, personal, and deeply cynical look at the cruelty of fascism and the horrors of revolution, with a bleak ending and an excellent, sad Morricone score. Watch the other Leone movies first, but don’t neglect this one.
The Big Gundown (1966)
Since Spaghetti Westerns were made in Italy during the heights of the turbulent Sixties, it’s no surprise that a lot of them have very radical ideals behind their gunplay (and probably why Tarantino chose to make Django Unchained a Spaghetti Western). The Big Gundown probably does this most gracefully. It’s a simple manhunt story, about a bounty hunter (played by Lee Van Cleef – Angel Eyes from The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly) tracking down a supposed child murderer, a poor Mexican bandit played by Tomas Milan. The chase takes them across the Wild West, bumping into a variety of odd and violent situations, before a final showdown Mexico where the true culprits – a rich, white railroad tycoon and his family – are revealed. The final duel has the bandit facing off against the man who framed him and it’s seen as a minor revolutionary act, especially when the bandit refuses to take a revolver instead of his simple peasant’s knife. Great action and another incredible Morricone score make The Big Gundown a minor classic.
Another Zapata Western, Companẽros is the work of Sergio Corbucci, the mastermind behind Django and many other classic Spaghetti Westerns (I named a priest toting a coffin full of guns after him El Mosaico, Volume 3: Hellfire). It stars Franco Nero, Django himself, as a refined Swedish mercenary, who teams up with a rough-hewn Mexican bandit turned revolutionary, played by Tomas Milan. They have to travel across war-torn Mexico to enter the US and rescue a kidnapped professor who knows the combination to a safe full of treasure. The professor’s idealistic student revolutionaries get in their way, along with a colorful, wooden-handed mercenary played by Jack Palance and his freakish crew. Companẽros has some good stuff to say about violence and revolutions, but it’s also a damn fun movie. There’s dressing up as priests, whacky villains, and Nero frequently grabs a machine gun and mows down his foes. It’s a perfect mix of revolutionary spirit and rollicking adventure.
The Great Silence (1968)
This one’s also the work of Sergio Corbucci, but it is far from the wild fun of Companẽros. The Great Silence is about a completely mute gunslinger, played by Jean-Louis Trintignant, who is hired to protect a group of Mormon separatists sheltering in a snow-covered mountain. They are under attack by bounty hunters, led by the cruel Loco – played by the wild-eyed Klaus Kinski. The Great Silence breaks with convention all the time. The hero, instead of being a man of few words, is completely mute. Instead of the desert, this movie takes place entirely in the snow. And instead of a happy ending – well, you need to see the conclusion for yourself. The Great Silence is a dark Western Classic and one of the genre’s best.
Well, that’s enough Spaghetti Westerns for now. I’m sure there are plenty that I’m missing and will have to discover later. In the meantime, I can enjoy myself with the twanging sounds that guns make in Spaghetti Westerns – surely one of the best sound effects of all time.